Ice and Lightning
Ice purifies and it scalds like lightning.
When I think of nature, or writing about nature, I find I feel like Alice in the Lewis Carroll stories, stretching at the neck, falling down holes, or asking directions from a cagey cat, who travels in a different frequency than the rest of us. Carroll is a great teacher of children. He throws their knowledge of the world into the air and has it come down topsy-turvy, thus insuring their curiosity and interest in both fact and theory. Carroll strikes at adult pretensions and sparks the imagination. The adult poking his nose down the rabbit’s hole will discover his watch is a hindrance to his progress. That big is not always better, that numbers don’t have to scare you any more than a deck of cards, and that there exist many more worlds than we can see. Alice is one of the first transcendental navigators, mushroom-assisted or not.
Like the great outdoors, the great unknown leads the nature writer down a path, which rewards her changing point of view. With or without the help of technology it is the nature writer’s job to bring into focus nature’s hierarchies, casualties, victories and hidden truths.
In the end, the truth we discover unfolds within us, eventually forming patterns. The vista broadens, becomes a way of life, and we are able to seize some part of it as our own.
The ocean soothes me because its rhythms overtake mine. The forest disturbs me because I lose my bearings, and the stars glistening in a darkened dome are somehow more familiar to me than my own face. My heart quickens as I look up, as if I have caught myself unexpectedly in a mirror.
In The Snow Leopard by Peter Mattheisen he writes from a ridge high in the Himalayas on a crystal clear day, My eyes would see straight to the heart of the chaos... the gore and pain that is seen darkly in the bright eye of the lizard. Then lunacy is gone, leaving an echo. The lizard is still there, one with the rock, flanks pulsing in the star heat that brings warmth to our common skin, eternity is not remote, it is here beside me.
It is my own sense of recognition, which lends itself to me, the very early tuning of the archaic mind. All that nature has packed into the cells and nerves at the base of my skull. I am the wolf, the ox, the whale, the raven flying a straight course between destinations, etching out the cardiogram of the dead in a territory far north of north.
Natural phenomena inherit our personal struggles, and ice and lightning have taken on distinct meanings over time, especially when viewed as extreme opposites of each other, opposites seeming to be a large part of our natural and internal makeup.
During the Great Ice Age, better known as the Pleistocene Epoch, the earth began cooling after billions of years, producing glaciers as thick as13,000 feet which grew and retreated four times, and may as yet come again. (Lightning had long since been a force in the Earth’s atmosphere.) Several adaptations took place during the long cold spells. Mammals grew large and woolly, Homo erectus learned to use fire (probably by traveling to the site of a lightning hit to collect burning underbrush), Homo Sapiens populated Europe, and in the warm interim’s the saber-toothed cats developed along with cattle and wolves, and finally glaciers connected Asia and North America, allowing humans to cross The Bering Strait.
Respectful of The Ice Age, I begin to understand a far deeper inertia in me than the one that sits me down in front of the TV. And I comprehend the jolt - a brilliant bolt of lightning gives, even if it only gets me off the couch. Ice and lightning appear to be a part of the infra-structure, if not of the traffic lights, of the human stress map. In them we can read the primal code.
Mary Shelley (summer 1816) invented the monster Frankenstein so that I might make these opposing ideas clearer. Like a stiff from a gothic ice-capade, Frankenstein is both speechless clown and the snowman from hell. Two-thirds of this iceberg is hidden in his ancient past. Brought out of the deep freeze during a romantic lightning storm, Frankenstein is born, as any self-respecting Byronic hero must be, in a state of self-exile linked to his murky past.
The psychologist James Hillman writes about the ice of death and reunification. He celebrates the non-negotiable pre-figuring of natural history. The icecaps represent age old time. The monster is carnivorous, murderous, with a dinosaur for a brain, picked and thawed, and out of sync. With a woolly tongue, he remains unalterably dead, antisocial, hopelessly out of fashion, and dislocated. Such hell-branded figures, like Ahab in Moby Dick, and Dracula, Orpheus, Hamlet, Dorian Gray, the Wolf-man, Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz, and Milton’s Lucifer, hold the key to the underworld we inhabit in our dreams, Hillman hypothesizes. This is the ninth circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, an icy netherworld, like the one hinted at in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude about the tropics. The world-weary gypsy exacts money for a look in a trunk from across the ocean. In it is a block of ice, vaporous, hand-burning, measured as the seasons of the north, shallow as the arc of the tundra’s sun, systemically aglow like a Cyclops’s eye and old as the Cyclops’s rage. Old as ice in the veins of the cold blooded killer, and in the earsplitting screeches of the baby in the next booth at the restaurant where you chose to take your date; and again in the resolve of every B actor who ever made it to the screen and then to the White House. I am speaking here of the ice of unforgettable longing, imprint, determination, and drive.
Ice defers decay, it preserves, and purifies and it scalds like lightning, its opposite.
At temperatures ranging from 50 to 70 thousand degrees, actually hotter than the sun’s surface, lightning strikes all over the Earth at a rate of 6000 strokes a minute. A region in the South of France has been discovered to have more incidents of lightning per year than any other on the Earth. But lightning’s peculiarities have prevented scientists from forming a coherent theory about its behavior. (They can create lightning under laboratory conditions, but they still don’t know how it works.) It isn’t so farfetched that home insurance companies still refer in their contracts to a lightning strike as “an act of God.” Others refer to it as “the arrow of fortune and misfortune,” and even as proof of “cosmic energy.”
In ancient Greece, it was Zeus who ruled lightning. He alone hurled big bolts at wrong doers. Frankenstein is jolted to life, rather automated. This (EverReady) bunny has a criminal brain, and when he goes on a rampage it is over fire, mainly, and a lack of shelter, a wish to feel tenderly, and to be left alone. He fears the pack turning against the one. Like Ahab he roams about, searching for the death he had coming to him, for the complete stillness of ice, the body and spirit undivided by scars.
Leaning at once toward the hidden drama spied upon through the looking glass of time, we understand what transforms the darkness. Just as ice burns the flesh, lightning scorches it. Like ice, it can split rock, scar the body, and expose interiors. The current opens an artery between earth and sky, and with blinding light, dispels our notions of superiority.
This is the reminder of all reminders. As Melville writes in the story The Lightning Rod Man, “You mere man who come here to put you and your pipe-stem between clay and sky, do you think that because you can strike a bit of green light from the Leydan jar that you can thoroughly avert the supernal bolt? The hairs of our heads are numbered, and the days of our lives. In thunder as in sunshine I stand at ease in the hands of God.”
We are approaching the unknown, signaling the crocodiles into the water. What had appeared to us to be a random event is on closer inspection not lightning, but the tip of an ordinary iceberg, glinting diamond-like, and far south of its usual latitude, the one in thousands soon to escort in the fifth glacial encroachment. Or what next? The nature writer can’t tell how big the crocodile is by looking at what it shows above the murky water. Could be a frog? Or a hippo, or leftovers?
Human beings merely discover the laws of the universe, we don’t make them. The climate of the self exists within nature’s mandate. My writing places me, not merely in my natural surroundings, but in the frame. I log in with my homages, improve the tool, and satisfy myself with higher resonance and greater magnitude, only to face the fact that I am merely taking measurements. Like the rabbit in the Alice stories, constantly reading his pocket watch, it comforts me to explain myself and then the universe.
Constance Christopher’s work has been in Fence, Bomb, Northwest Review, & Ginosko. A novel Dead Man's Flower was published in the Bogie's Mystery series. She has published reviews for Publisher’s Weekly and worked in film & television. She is painting a large oil based on Robert Graves’ White Goddess.
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