blinding luminescence, seductive blue, and rubble
The fog was a heavy blanket as we drove out of Great Falls and turned onto King’s Hill highway. We had to either believe in the road or get out and walk. On-coming cars emerged from the brilliant white veil, first with the faint yellow glow of headlights and then immediately the whole vehicle rolling past. Everyone trusted in the rules of the road and drove on. Eventually we dropped below the cloud layer into a luminescent undersea where the fog above us and the snow around us seemed nearly the same. Weather is not a garnish in Montana. It ever-changes and surprises. While we are not 100% dependent on the weather as our ranching friends and family, the weather affects our everyday.
We left the fog on the North side of King’s Hill. Driving into the Musselshell valley, high white clouds dappled the blue sky. We’d only been gone a day, but the snow melt was visible. Patches of parchment colored grass blotching the white. The edges of Lake Sutherlin were rimmed by blue melt - a color that evades description. Baby blue, sky blue, tiffany blue, powder blue, ice blue - perhaps Celeste Pallido. But not even pale heavenly blue accurately describe the blue of fresh ice melt, a color that defies its undoubted frosty temperature. I want to venture into its celestial depths just to be surrounded by that shade. At the very least, I want to paint my car, my eye lids, my fingernails this magic color. I imagine I might be able to find it in my paint box, at the same time knowing it cannot be captured.
Robert MacFarlane spent years collecting terms to describe landscape, in the belief that what we don’t describe in detail, we haven’t really seen. In the introduction to his collection he describes the Northhamptonshire dialect meaning of ‘to thaw” as “to un-give.” Montana is in a state of thaw. It is typical to the time of year, but something I haven’t experienced before. I have tried to see the “un-giving” of the process. Surely the whiteness, the thickness of drifts, the hiding of features is being taken away by melt. But there is also a quality of giving to the thaw as the resulting water saturates the ground either in a nourishing way or as a destructive flood. Giving? Ungiving? Sustaining? Destroying?
When we turned off the highway for home, I hoped that the river would still be ice covered at the bridge. I wanted the picture, that I had not yet taken. But I suspected the ice would have already melted. Nothing prepared me for what we saw. I have never seen an ice run. And now I am stuck with MacFarlane’s charge to find the words to describe it. The ice lay in chunks piled across the river creating an ice jam. It was an architectural ruin, remnants of something that had been constructed, but failed. I snapped photos on my iPhone. Made inarticulate pronouncements, like “oh wow” to our neighbors who also gathered at the bridge. The ice was still, having found a place of stasis between the acting force of water and the resisting force of the bank as I have now learned from reading about the process. Our neighbors, who have experienced this many times before, pointed upstream to a raft of broken ice plates coming toward the bridge where we stood. Before the first piece of ice hit the jam at the bridge, the increase in current that comes with approaching ice, flowed under the jam and dislodged it. All of the ruin, the accumulation of ice rubble, was suddenly free. And then the new slabs hit. The entire channel was in motion, ice blocks sucked under the water or rising up out of the current. The current rushed and splashed while the blocks cracked into each other. I was sure the river would be clear of ice in just a few minutes, but just as quickly as the breakup began, it found a new configuration and stopped, leaving ice slabs tilted and piled up as high as four feet above water level. All seemed to be in stasis again. If the weather held, the ice would continue to degrade, the flow would accelerate, more ice rafts would come downstream and something would break loose again.
It was hard to leave the bridge. Was it a fascination for wreckage? Or more likely, a pull of baring witness to natural forces, things that are not in our control and remind us of our place in the system. I know our neighbors are moving their cows today. The river is too volatile for the animals to remain in the adjoining pasture. While they work to protect their livelihood, I am wrestling with words to describe a shade of blue and the sound of ice hitting ice.