Saturday, July 21, 2007

Intimations of Immortality

Tracy Arm, Alaska: a narrow inlet created by a glacier and filled by the sea, only a mile and a half wide. The sun is up, but not yet out. Even so, it's very bright. The sky is huge and arched; the thick blanket of clouds appears convex, like folds of heavy fabric draped over a wide, upside-down bowl. The fabric is rent in places, allowing beams of light to fall through. In other places, the fabric itself thins and falls, sometimes filling up the valleys and plateaus between the tree-lined mountains with massed cottony puffs, sometimes rising as steam from the sea, sometimes mantled like a cobweb over the dense ranks of trees, their tops piercing through. The mountain curves are the rounded curves that distinguish fjords carved by retreating glaciers and the water is dotted with hunks of ice in a cluttered variety of sizes and shapes. There are small, fanciful chunks shaped like rabbits, whales, airplanes. Larger chunks look like mini-mountain ranges or conferences of bears. There are a few ice slabs, some bare, some bedecked with hundreds of perching birds.

It's glacial ice - identifiable as such because it's blue. Oddly, unusually blue, ranging from the silvery bluish white color that old ladies sometimes dye their hair to aqua to the marine blue of the southern Pacific on a sunny day to practically cobalt. Glacial ice is blue because it's had all the air pressed out of it by successive layers of snow falling. The accumulating weight of the new layers compresses the lower layers into progressively denser ice and eventually the ice absorbs all the colors of the spectrum but blue. Beautiful - and evocative, too, of long time horizons, the true nature of beauty and accomplishment, and the limits of human vision.

Again, I'm startled by the way such a narrow palette of colors can glow so richly. Silver, white, blue, evergreen and the deep gray-green of the rippling water. Steep-sided cliffs of granite add a gray-black to the mix and mark the places from which the glacier retreated so
recently (in glacial terms) that trees have not yet had a chance to take root. The color palette is restful, cool, and majestic. There is no sound.

As the cliffs heighten and steepen, rivulets, then falls of glacial water flow down narrow gullies, weaving in and out of the surrounding trees and occasional banks of wispy fog in what looks from afar like fits and starts. The mountain tops graze the sky, the tallest of them craggy escarpments high enough to have stood above the smoothing tide of ice. Some of the mountains seem to have holes in their tops, like irregular suitcase handles, but that's an optical illusion created by patches of snow the exact silver-gray color of the sky. On closer examination, the snow is denser and more opaque than the sky, but neither it nor the clouds seem moist or even misty. The mountains have a rolling, mound-y quality, despite the occasional steep vertical drop from a peak straight down to the sea. No shorelines here; just a narrow vertical strip of granite between the bottom rank of tree trunks and the water. As we sail away, the mountains behind us assume the shapes of giant sleeping animals, their paws resting on the soft surface of the sea.

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