Listening to the language of water


By Martin Achatz

“… is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless all-color of atheism from which we shrink?”

—Herman Melville


I sit down to write these lines the morning following the first major snowstorm of winter. One week after All Souls’ Day, a comma of arctic air swooped across Lake Superior, gathered the wet shrapnel of wave crash and foam and baptized my little portion of the Upper Peninsula with dunes of white. It happens every year, and yet I still stand on my front porch, stunned by those first blind crests and tidals, a Winslow Homer seascape of ice and snow.

In the 1880s, anthropologist Franz Boas traveled through the tundra of northern Canada, noting an ocean of terms used by the indigenous people to describe the whiteness. Scientists and researchers have debated his claim ever since, but recent studies of Inuit, Yupik and Icelandic dialects have identified some 163 terms for snow and ice, made up of root words and suffixes. Linguist Willem LeReuse said, “These people need to know whether ice is fit to walk on or whether you will sink through. [This language is] a matter of life and death.”

A frozen lake is not frozen. Beneath the white lid of winter, it continues to breathe and groan, strain and stretch. I sat in a friend’s shanty on Lake Independence one January night. Cold stars Swiss-cheesed the heavens, and a fuse of wind sizzled across the whiteness, driving pellets of snow against the shanty walls. Slush skimmed the fishing hole, coughed and shrugged over the lip of ice. Below me, my hook dangled in the black Jell-O of the lake as I listened. The snow and ice and water were singing…


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