Mar 15, 2013

Drilling through 29 inches of instinct and ice

1 - Across the snow and ice I walk, listening to the lake, imagining the depth contours below, how the fish will swim along this shoreline. Down there lives a beast I seek. Often I look for animal tracks on the surface. Where are you going, wild things? But really I wonder: Where I am going?

2 - There is something invisible in this world that reveals the perfect place for a fishing hole. This force gives my instincts mass. I read an article about a similar mysterious force, the Higgs boson, "an elusive, missing snowflake in our theory of falling snow."*

3 - Looking at a frozen lake blanketed you cannot see a single particular snowflake, or a single molecule of ice. This is impossible for the human eye. But there they are, millions and millions, together a soft quilt across a hard sheet of ice, a barrier between me and them.

4 - My skin perceives the snowfield as it fluctuates and breaks back into singular flakes, shimmering between the sky above and the water below. Eventually I am satisfied and stop my feet, drop the drill from my shoulder, right hand on top pressing down, left hand the engine, driving the blades round and round. This is something I've done thousands of times before.

5 - However: This is the end of February on a big lake. Two feet of snow on top, twenty feet of water below, the ice membrane a deep and strong field in between.

6 - The blades of the drill must be sharp at the perfect angle, creating the perfect friction. It would be a mistake pushing too hard or turning too fast. Great force in short bursts works better. One violent turn of the handle at a time, a steady rhythm, and for each turn I am one inch closer to the fish.

7 - The first few spins are effortless, the blades of the drill just getting teeth into the ice field. The arms whir with youthful electricity.

8 - Five inches down, life is easy. Ten inches down, the hands are still lively. Fifteen inches down, ice particles start grabbing at the blades... And then they grab at the arms, and then the shoulders, and the feet. Friction spreads quickly through the body, soon the lungs and guts start burning, then they howl. It's odd, to a person watching on shore this must seem like nothing at all. Such a stationary and simple thing shouldn't be so hard, but it is. Vision narrows with primal determination: Keep going, keep going. Sixteen inches, seventeen inches...

9 - The muscles become looser, but heavier. The mind must be quiet, but aggressive. Energies increasing against resistance. All of these competing forces pushing towards a breaking point. How much further to liquid water? Can I turn the handle one more time? Three more times? A thousand more times? What is my limit?

10 - When I was 18 I got my first job in the boundary waters. I had never been up here before that. I've been wondering ever since why I sought that job, how it all came to be, that first step in the right direction. Some invisible force, perhaps, something I will never really understand. On my nineteenth birthday I got drunk and watched the northern lights at the end of an old dock. And after you've seen that, what is there to understand?

11 - Then a few weeks later I moved back south.

12 - It seems to me that everyone is just looking for their place in this world. Part of me is upset I didn't see mine right away. Maybe I just couldn't comprehend it. I guess I was stuck in an in-between, I wasn't air anymore but I wasn't quite water.

13 - Twenty inches and the top of the auger blades begin disappearing into the lake's frozen skin, the teeth so far away... At this point each turn of the handle requires a steep increase in energy. A reckoning. The ice and snow fight back now, but I get meaner.

14 - Twenty-one inches, twenty three, twenty five... Managing a small newspaper in the city, married, bought a cute house with hardwood floors. We adopted two kittens, planted lilacs and tomatoes in the yard.

15 - Drilling a hole through deep ice requires great energy but so often that energy is wasted, it seems. Nothing substantial is caught there. It was not the right place. Or maybe, the right time.

16 - Thing is: I'm stubborn. Twenty six, twenty seven... I get what I want. I won't ever stop looking, twenty eight...

17 - The reason I'm always yearning, why I'm grinding ice to slush, is that I'm demanding of myself. I can't take naps. I never get sick. But there is a sickness, this constant cold desire, never satisfied. And I try so hard for optimism, but this world makes it so difficult.

18 - Is the lake even down there anymore? Has it frozen solid? How many turns of the handle has it been now?

19 - My teeth grind and jawbones clench, twenty eight, twenty eight, I'm seeing red... 

20 - As has happened so often in this life the doubt creeps in. Maybe the whole world is an icy heart. Maybe I'll never catch another beast.

21 - My arms are dead, my lungs are empty, my mind goes blank, twenty eight, twenty eight... The last grinding punch is the most difficult as the bottom gives out, but then everything breaks free and the blades taste the lake again, the barrier between us has been obliterated. Every single cell in my body howls with happiness. And there is excitement in this new possibility. Maybe, just maybe, this is the place.

22 - Seeing wild liquid water in the winter always electrifies me. I place my bare hand in the lake and splash it on my forehead, and instantly feel better. I snap back into myself.

23 - Then I realized something I already knew: No energy is ever wasted.

24 - Energy is mass.**

25  - All the hard work, the mistakes and successes, the tired muscles and happiness, each and every infintismal moment big and small, snowflakes falling on a frozen lake, piling up, there is the origin of instinct. What happened drives us to what will happen. These are the animal tracks in the snow.

26 - In my twenty-ninth year I said goodbye to the city and the girl I loved and I moved up north again, to the Gunflint Trail. Some invisible force brought me back here, something I will never understand.

27 - I breathe deeply and bait the hook, always hopeful. Watching the minnow drift down through the ice field into the vast darkness, I know something it does not, but I still know very little.

28 - Farewell, little one, bring me back a big one. It's an old trick, knocking a hole in the ice for water and meat.

29 - And I want that meat badly, I'm so thirsty for cold water, but I want nothing more than this: A permanent life in these boundary waters that have given me everything and energy and mass.

* - "Chasing the Higgs," New York Times, March 5, 2013

** - E=MC2