Home > Essays > Glaciology
Published: Fri Oct 15 2004
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 60 Nature Home Relationships


When the snow began to melt, the drifts left behind a surprising collection of junk—paper cups, socks, Matchbox trucks, a snarl of CAUTION–POLICE–CAUTION tape, pinkly wrapped tampons, oil-rag-T-shirts, banana peels: intimacies of toy box, bathroom, and garage amid the lumps of sand and salt we threw down for traction. It was as if after the big event of snowfall we’d forgotten there was more, still, to be said. A cache of loose details below to attend. A trove poised. A stealth gathering.

Deposition below the singular-seeming white cover.

I shall make my own study of snow and time. I will learn from that which has built the very ground I’m now slipping around on: glaciers. Their formative act: deposition, for example: fine-grained rock debris, rock flour, and coarse rock fragments picked up or entrained within the base of a glacier and then transported and deposited from either active or stagnant ice. This product of glacial deposition, known as till, consists of particles that follow complicated routes, being deposited on the top or along the sides of the glacier bed, entrained again, and finally dropped. As a sediment, till has certain distinctive features: it exhibits poor sorting, is usually massive, and consists of large stones in a fine matrix of minerals and rock types.

Poor sorting: I like that: that it all gets dropped, the big stuff enmeshed with the grainy soft stuff. The indiscriminate mess. That it forms a long train, so that seeing it all, one can trail events back. Guess at them. View time. And by way of the whole scattered and shifting pattern, by the gathering eye, make something of these loose details, collecting.

Deposition on Thaw

I will note, though its impetus was warmth, the sharpness of the thaw. During the thaw we were given to see the way snow melted into vertebrae, whole bodies of bone inclined toward one another. Bones stacked and bent in the attitude of prayer, the edges honed and precarious. Forms arced over the sewer grates and curbs as the gutter streamed with bubbly melt. What remained were not yet remains. It was clear how the warmth would eat everything down, but where some parts were colder than the rest, that core kept the figure upright. The shapes were knife-edged, hunched, easing a pain; they grayed and were everywhere pocked with dirt, and unlikely in their strength.

A few days later, just sheering, frayed patches covered the ground, and the elbows of everything poked through. White remained where the ground must have been colder, or wind blew and packed the snow hard.

How to read a land?

There were thicknesses, white places layered in smears that others were trained to read. Densities amid the rivulets of veins. Occlusions. Artifacts.

I remember, about the X-ray, thinking Artifacts? That sounds harmless. Evidence of some action past—a little shard, small bit taken out of my body and sent off for further study. Vase, mirror, tile. Lip of a cup. A thing that remained to be found and told. An image that sings about time.

Deposition on the Shapes of Tasks

Waiting all that long week—for test results, the snow to stop, dough to rise, nightfall—small tasks turned into days. Days unfolded into tasks. The inside-out arms of clothes pulled right, made whole and unwrinkled, took lovely hours. Tasks filled like balloons and rounded with breath; they floated and bumped around the day: some popcorn, some dishes, some mending. And though dressing for sledding, undressing and draping everything wet over radiators was deliberate, a stitch ran through, jagged and taut, cinching the gestures tight with uncertainty. Everything coming down—snow, sleet, threat, delicacy—twined through like a rivulet (the cut water makes in its persistence, its pressure carving) so the bank grows a dangerous, fragile lip. The work of glaciers changes a landscape: old stream valleys are gouged and deepened, filled with till and outwash. Filled, of course, over millions of years. In sand-grain, fist-sized increments.

This kind of time illuminated tasks that one would hardly be given to see otherwise. Titled them, even: the scraping of old wax from candlesticks, the tightening of loosened doorknobs. Oil-soaping the piano keys.

Deposition on Fevers and Still Lifes

That week time was ample, broad as a boulevard, a stroll, a meander. Not a tour. Not a map or a path to be found. School was canceled. Scents fully unfolded: coffee, chocolate, and milk marbling together on the stove, thinnest skin across to touch and lift and eat. And like a concentrate of heat itself, my bounded sight burned holes in the things most fixed upon: the ceiling’s old butterfly water stain. One rough, gritty chip in the rim of a favorite cup.

It was in this way that joy and severity flared everywhere: along the banks of steep places I went to quickly, glanced, then ran from. They burned together in cornmeal in a pour, the yellow dust that rose and stuck to my hands as I folded in the unbeaten eggs, cold suns to poke and dim with flour—as outside, too, the cold sun dimmed, and the sky sifted and shushed down.

Yes, that week passed with a fever’s disheveled clarity. That time, its atmosphere, moved the way fevers by turn dilute and intensify moments, so by evening one cannot reconstitute the day and calls it “lost,” calls it “flown,” says after a night’s sleep “what happened to the day?” Things that week were touched in sweaty uncertainty and weakly released. There were intimacies akin to falling back to a pillow after water, soup, and tea were brought, gratitude unspoken; the night table’s terrain, the book, the book’s binding, glue at the binding and the word for each sewn section, folio, surfacing from far off. The sheet’s silk piping to idly slip a finger under for coolness.

In its riotous stillness, that week was a study: Dutch, seventeenth century, with its controlled and ordered high flare and shine. Days held the light and feverish presence of a bowl of lemons in pocked disarray. Always one lemon pared in a spiral of undress, its inner skin gone a flushed, sweet-cream rose. Always the starry, cut sections browning, and the darkness, just beyond the laden table, held almost successfully off. I, with my props—mixing bowl, dough—tilted toward, soaked in late afternoon light, while time raged all around in shadow, the dark stroking cup, quartered fig, plate of brilliant silver sardines left on the counter from lunch.

Deposition on Millennia/Effluvia

To say “a glacier formed this land” sanctifies the blink of an eye.

To see, from the air, glacial streams and think like a snake or ribboning, and of the land on either side accordion or fan colludes against awe. Neatens up the work of time. Makes of time a graven thing, handsculpted, carved, and held. Time should seize, should haul us back, then let go, wind-sheared into now, breathlessly into the moment’s hard strata. Each morning in Rome, my old friend runs in a park along the aqueduct, which breaks and restarts in yellowed fields, its arches sprouting wild grasses, its arches collapsing, the houses, apartments, roads of his neighborhood visible through it, as they have been for nearly 2,000 years. You can sit on rocks in Central Park, soft outcrops undulant as sleeping bodies, formed tens of thousands of years ago, and look up at the city skyline knowing the North American ice sheet flowed exactly that far south. Or hold in your hand a striated stone from Mauritania, abraded at the base of a glacier 650 million years ago, and touch the markings, those simple scratches so easily picked up and put down again on the touch-me table at the museum. Kick any stone beneath your foot, here, in Baltimore, and you’re scuffing 300 million, even a billion years of work.

I cast back for any one thing I did on any one day that week: how unencumbered the brushing of my hair, the perfect scrolls of carrot peel I lowered like a proclamation into the hamsters’ cage; careless grace of understatement, luxury of simple gesture after gesture (fork to mouth, mouth to glass, fork and glass rinsed in the sink, and—linger here, see the heat pulling fog up the glass, atilt and cooling in the drainboard). I’m calling up the tongue-and-groove gestures, the hook-and-eye moments of the day, so they might again spend themselves freely, mark the layers of events en route, classify the waiting. Cajoled from somewhere back in the morning, the peeling of that tangerine (cut thumb plunged into the yielding core, stinging and wet and red) comes forth.

I am recalling such occasions for attention offered in a day I was free to ignore. And now, am not free at all (for this is a deposition): cutting burnt crust away; snagging a sock on a rough stair plank; digging a sliver of dirt from a nail under running water. I am tied to the sight of the world, to things burnished and scoured by use, and by their diminution loved—as I so loved and saved my grandmother’s wooden cooking spoon, older than me, smooth as driftwood, when to relieve her boredom, her aide used it to plant and prop a geranium on the balcony. The spoon has folded into its profile, has tucked within it, englaciated, the rim of the aluminum roasting pan (why that of all the nicked sauce pans and ceramic bowls of creamy batters tapped and tapped and tapped against?). I took and washed (as my grandmother no longer can wash) its singed rack burns, its smooth neck, thinned from lifting huge roasts by their taut white lacings.

One idly picks up pinecones, rocks, shells to mark a moment, to commemorate time. One picks them up because they shine out from their mud, or water lapping brightens their veins and shorn faces, or there they are, wedged inexplicably whole in a jetty, and a spiral tip beckons, though the center be partial and broken.

Deposition on Watches

That week my watch broke, so I borrowed my son’s digital Monsters, Inc. strap-on. But I missed the clean, white face of my old one, its celestial circular sweep. The digital time that came to replace it dosed its minutes, shifted its numbers too economically one into the next, the angular 2 and angular 5 simple mirror images, a single bar across the middle making the 0 an 8. Then, as the days without schooltime unwound and were lashed together instead by flares of fear, spots of love, solemn noon bell at the cathedral, all the morning’s held breath, all the whites piling, like suds, their calm expanse up, it was easy to wear no watch at all. But I have not become a person divested of watches. I miss the circle’s perpetuity, dawn and dusk sharing the same space, if only for minutes. The hour pinning itself to the changing light of seasons.

The watch I want now—I saw a picture of it yesterday—posits a looker at the center, who to properly see the numbers would have to turn and face each one: already by 2 the numbers start to tilt so that the 6 is a 9 if you’re outside looking in. But a 6 if you’re in the middle. I like to think of standing in the center, arms reaching out and brushing all the minutes and hours.

I like the idea of turning to face the hour, having the hours arrayed around me. From a still point, having to face the increments of a day.

Deposition on Failure

Last May, I remember, on this very sidewalk: a fly’s soap-bubble, gasoline colors; taut grimace on the face of a baby bird, that hatched and unliving, ancient, pimpled bud on the grass; corms of daylilies, and “corm” itself that most perfect union of “corn” and “worm,” meaning exactly the thick, stubborn grub I hacked to separate. I remember the ripe, raw, shivery scents.

But during this thaw, come on so fast now—just for a day, just for caprice, it was 60 degrees.

And when I went out walking and the sun was so soft—an assertion, bravura. Where warmth thawed the planes of bone like a high bank, my face was a running stream again. I took off my mittens and left them in the crook of a tree; it always takes a few days to believe the warmth.

The snow receded, the warmth returned, and I was fine. I was negative. Negative, negative, I was thinking, buoyant. The hard winter lifted all at once, the sun came, dewy and beading, the air was sweet and I was fine—oh burgeoning cliché I entertained, cannot believe I entertained: spring bearing its blood-tide and life all abloom, all’s well ending well in a spate, a thrall of undulant weather, et cetera. Rising, on cue, such music as dripping icicles conduct, such shine and promise, oh window of light on the nibbled Red Delicious little Sam just dropped. And the neighbors’ voices carrying, the out-of-doors voices lofting, reconfiguring again the space between our houses: it was New World Symphony, English horn-solo-fresh. I was a turning season, a spit of land at low tide, a window thrown open. Would you believe it if I told you (told unto you, lo! for real) I saw a butterfly—and it was corn-yellow? I resisted the easy convergence—spring, warmth, I’m fine—not a bit, and I knew that to be an indulgence, a failure, partial sight. As if I had come to the brightness of that day wholly—wholly—from dark.

But I cannot forget, for this is a deposition, that all that dark week there was this, too: the diamond-blue light at each drift’s core. My husband’s abundant embrace. Sanctum of my child under quilts. In candlelight, sewing the ghost. Folding a swan. With books, in the folds of a story. Our son, himself, that most beloved unfolding.

And the color of the sky: workshirt-turned-inside-out, and the gray of our house against it, a darker inner seam, revealed. Our house an object that light chose for lavishing, a river stone eddied into calm. The tender crack in a baking loaf, its creamy rift rough at the edges and going gold. Of all the names for snow considered, of all the shifts in tone it made, I found clamshell, bone, and pearl. That week I found lead in the white, mouse in it, and refracted granite. Talc with pepper. Layers of dried mud, zinc, and iron. Blown milkweed and ashy cinder. Silvered cornfield. Uncooked biscuit. Mummy, oatmeal, sand, and linen. Some morning glory. Some roadside aster.

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Lia Purpura is the author of nine books of essays, poems, and translations, including the essay collections On Looking (Sarabande Books, 2006), finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and All the Fierce Tethers (Sarabande Books, 2019), and the poetry collection It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin, 2015). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, AGNI, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She’s received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fulbright Program, as well as five Pushcart Prizes and the Associated Writing Programs Award in Nonfiction. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She is a contributing editor of AGNI. (updated 4/2024)

Purpura’s AGNI essay “Glaciology” won a Pushcart Prize and is reprinted in the 2006 anthology.


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