After a day of fine, dry snow and the horrendous wind gusts that blow it around, the park was empty of walkers as I stood on the banks of the Mississippi and observed the texture of its frozen waters. Any slightly raised surface had captured a tuft of snow as the wind carved across the ice. With the light coming from the side, each tiny snowy hillock was illuminated as a white dot or curve marking the surface topography against the gray of the ice. I stood silently taking it in before I realized that today I had remembered to bring my camera with me. I went to work trying capture the scene.
A tripod would be best. Any serious photographer would use one in this circumstance. I even had one in the car. "Be prepared" was the motto. I decided against being "a serious photographer" and instead made my way down the snow-covered riprap to the icy surface of one of the natural wonders of the world. We don't often think of the river in those terms. Indeed, most of us don't think of the river period unless it is either in our way or up to our back door. Still, we live within a stone's throw of one of the great rivers of the world. It is a rare pleasure (for me, at least) to be able to stand on its surface. I'm literally walking on water. Gingerly.
I examined the ice beneath my feet, noting the trapped air bubbles, patterns of lines and cracks. I take a photo, again missing the tripod and softly cursing my unwillingness to grab another cold piece of metal. I muse that no matter what sounds and noises are in the air, a vast expanse of solid ice seems to symbolize silence. The wind howls past my ears, but the ice regards me with its frigid silence—waiting perhaps for a misplaced step or a moment of inattention. I imagine the sound my head might make crashing into the ice, a sickening meeting of the biological and the elemental. I mind my step.
My mind begins dialectic on the qualities of ice, while my eyes scan the seemingly uniform surface that extends toward the main channel. I venture further out, considering, as I go, the similarities between ice, water, sand, and soil. They can all protect and preserve or utterly destroy the same item. Ice can entomb. Mammoths, man, or mullets, it makes no difference. All movements cease and the particular silence that is ice predominates. However well preserved the specimen is once freed from its frosty crystalline tomb, the silence has forever altered things.
Standing on the river, my perspective is altered. I'm seeing a familiar world in a new way. I'm still perfectly safe, but I feel less safe. Is that it? Perhaps I feel "new" and am reading it as "less safe." I like it. I'm dressed for the weather, although still cold, and am eyeing the ice longingly. I look around to check for people who might be alarmed at the sight of a body stretched out on the Mississippi river ice. Seeing none, I lower myself carefully onto the ice, hindered by the camera around my neck. The difference in perspective is immediate and dramatic. While keeping the exposed skin of my face away from the surface, I release the rest of my body to the frozen river. My mind explodes with imagery.
My new perspective puts me into a series of bodies. My view of the bank is exactly the same as the gulls I've photographed from land. I see myself through the gull’s eyes, my camera lens centered in the dark window of my car. Other gulls, some throwing their heads back and shrieking surround me. My mind transports me through a series of creatures I've seen or photographed and who saw me from roughly this same perspective—ring-neck ducks, Canada geese, muskrats, pelicans, carp, catfish, and northern water snakes. The cold is starting to sink into the bones of my legs.
The shore looks different from down here. From this vantage point I understand why the river cat liked to hunt the riprap. I named her the river cat because that is where I always saw her. She knew this stretch of rocks like the back of her paw. She hunted deliberately, with no wasted motion. The last time I saw the river cat she had a single kitten in tow. Tired of holding my head up, I rest it on my folded arm. Feeling my body pressing against the ice, I inhabit the body of a leopard seal, having hauled myself onto an ice floe to hunt juvenile penguins. I search the ice for bears but seeing none, I close my eyes and "bask" in the winter sun. My shivering body pulls me back to reality and I slowly work my way to my feet. I cross the ice and scramble up the snow-covered rocks and fall gratefully into my car. I start the engine and crank up the heater. As I warm up, I contemplate what just happened.
Altering perspective alters thinking. It is a good habit, one that is sorely needed and at the same time usually studiously avoided. That's why it is so notable when someone tries to actually do it. New Jersey Senator, Cory Booker, and a few other prominent politicians tried to live for a time on the amount of food they could purchase on food stamps. Those who actually went through this experience came out the other side with a far greater appreciation for just how difficult it can be, particularly if you don't have transportation. When the friends and relatives of cancer patients shave their heads in solidarity, they are not only expressing empathy, but also altering their perspective. In doing so they gain a deeper appreciation for what these patients are going through. Some people can't seem to grasp what others are going through until they go through it themselves. I'm not one of them, but I understand the value of the exercise. Booker and the other politicians could end their experiment at any point in time. Not so with the people who reply on food stamps to feed their family, or with cancer patients, or even the wild creatures that don't have an "inside" to get to.
Nature is pretty good at providing a number of ways for creatures to cope with the cold. Gulls, ducks and many other birds have a counter-current heat exchange system between the arteries and veins in their legs. Warm arterial blood flowing down to the feet exchanges heat with cold venous blood coming back into the body, thus conserving heat in the body while providing the feet just enough warmth to avoid frostbite. Muskrat fur is warm, becoming prime at the beginning of December in northern North America. Their fur flattens against the body when wet, providing the animal with essentially a "wetsuit." Nature can be both kind and harsh, sometimes changing from one minute to the next. Again, "be prepared."
It is amazing to me (an artist / scientist) to encounter folk who absolutely will not alter their perspective or try anything new, be it food, hobbies, friends, clothes or hairstyle. I certainly appreciate diversity, but I do worry about a certain rigidity of thinking that seems to manifest itself in some segments of our society. I know that as an artist, flexibility of thinking and the investigation of different perspectives are particularly valued in my vocation. I guess I want to say to the rest of you that "it doesn't hurt" to look at things from a different angle or point of view. You won't lose your sense of self in the process. It is "okay" to try something you can't master in a couple of hours. The risk is low and the rewards can be great. True, someone may look at you from time to time and ask, "What is that idiot doing crawling out there on the ice?" Let 'em talk.
They'll never know what they're missing. Go into the wild with your senses wide open. Breathe. Be. Belong.