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An essay by Dallas Lore Sharp

The Ice Crop

Title:     The Ice Crop
Author: Dallas Lore Sharp [More Titles by Sharp]

The ice-cart with its weighty tongs never climbs our Hill, yet the icechest does not lack its clear blue cake of frozen February. We gather our own ice as we gather our own hay and apples. The small ice-house under the trees has just been packed with eighteen tons of "black" ice, sawed and split into even blocks, tier on tier, the harvest of the curing cold, as loft and cellar are still filled with crops made in the summer's curing heat. So do the seasons overlap and run together! So do they complement and multiply each other! Like the star-dust of Saturn they belt our fourteen-acre planet, not with three rings, nor four, but with twelve, a ring for every month, a girdle of twelve shining circles running round the year--the tinkling ice of February in the goblet of October!--the apples of October red and ripe on what might have been April's empty platter!

He who sows the seasons and gathers the months into ice-house and barn lives not from sunup to sundown, revolving with the hands of the clock, but, heliocentric, makes a daily circuit clear around the sun--the smell of mint in the hay-mow, a reminder of noontime passed; the prospect of winter in the growing garden, a gentle warning of night coming on. Twelve times one are twelve--by so many times are months and meanings and values multiplied for him whose fourteen acres bring forth abundantly--provided that the barns on the place be kept safely small.

Big barns are an abomination unto the Lord, and without place on a wise man's estate. As birds have nests, and foxes dens, so may any man have a place to lay his head, with a _mansion_ prepared in the sky for his soul.

Big barns are as foolish for the ice-man as for others. The barns of an ice-man must needs be large, yet they are over-large if he can say to his soul: "Soul, thou hast much ice laid up for many days; eat, drink, and be merry among the cakes"--and when the autumn comes he still has a barn full of solid cemented cakes that must be sawed out! No soul can be merry long on ice--nor on sugar, nor shoes, nor stocks, nor hay, nor anything of that sort in great quantities. He who builds great barns for ice, builds a refrigerator for his soul. Ice must never become a man's only crop; for then winter means nothing but ice; and the year nothing but winter; for the year's never at the spring for him, but always at February or when the ice is making and the mercury is down to zero.

As I have already intimated, a safe kind of ice-house is one like mine, that cannot hold more than eighteen tons--a year's supply (shrinkage and Sunday ice-cream and other extras provided for). Such an ice-house is not only an ice-house, it is also an act of faith, an avowal of confidence in the stability of the frame of things, and in their orderly continuance. Another winter will come, it proclaims, when the ponds will be pretty sure to freeze. If they don't freeze, and never do again--well, who has an ice-house big enough in that event?

My ice-house is one of life's satisfactions; not architecturally, of course, for there has been no great development yet in ice-house lines, and this one was home-done; it is a satisfaction morally, being one thing I have done that is neither more nor less. I have the big-barn weakness--the desire for ice--for ice to melt--as if I were no wiser than the ice-man! I builded bigger than I knew when I put the stone porches about the dwelling-house, consulting in my pride the architect first instead of the town assessors. I took no counsel of pride in building the ice-house, nor of fear, nor of my love of ice. I said: "I will build me a house to carry a year's supply of ice and no more, however the price of ice may rise, and even with the risk of facing seven hot and iceless years. I have laid up enough things among the moths and rust. Ice against the rainy day I will provide, but ice for my children and my children's children, ice for a possible cosmic reversal that might twist the equator over the poles, I will not provide for. Nor will I go into the ice business."

Nor did I! And I say the building of that ice-house has been an immense satisfaction to me. I entertain my due share of

"Gorgons, and hydras and chimaeras dire";

but a cataclysm of the proportions mentioned above would as likely as not bring on another Ice Age, or indeed--

". . . run back and fetch the Age of Gold."

To have an ice-house, and yourself escape cold storage--that seems to me the thing.

I can fill the house in a single day, and so trade a day for a year; or is it not rather that I crowd a year into a day? Such days are possible. It is not any day that I can fill the ice-house. Ice-day is a chosen, dedicated day, one of the year's high festivals, the Day of First Fruits, the ice crop being the year's earliest harvest. Hay is made when the sun shines, a condition sometimes slow in coming; but ice of the right quality and thickness, with roads right, and sky right for harvesting, requires a conjunction of right conditions so difficult as to make a good ice-day as rare as a day in June. June! why, June knows no such glorious weather as that attending the harvest of the ice.

This year it fell early in February--rather late in the season; so late, in fact, that, in spite of my faith in winter, I began to grow anxious--something no one on a hill in Hingham need ever do. Since New Year's Day unseasonable weather had prevailed: shifty winds, uncertain skies, rain and snow and sleet--that soft, spongy weather when the ice soaks and grows soggy. By the middle of January what little ice there had been in the pond was gone, and the ice-house was still empty.

Toward the end of the month, however, the skies cleared, the wind settled steadily into the north, and a great quiet began to deepen over the fields, a quiet that at night grew so tense you seemed to hear the close-glittering heavens snapping with the light of the stars. Everything seemed charged with electric cold; the rich soil of the garden struck fire like flint beneath your feet; the tall hillside pines, as stiff as masts of steel, would suddenly crack in the brittle silence, with a sharp report; and at intervals throughout the taut boreal night you could hear a hollow rumbling running down the length of the pond--the ice being split with the wide iron wedge of the cold.

Down and down for three days slipped the silver column in the thermometer until at eight o'clock on the fourth day it stood just above zero. Cold? It was splendid weather! with four inches of ice on the little pond behind the ridge, glare ice, black as you looked across it, but like a pane of plate glass as you peered into it at the stirless bottom below; smooth glare ice untouched by the wing of the wind or by even the circling runner of the skater-snow. Another day and night like this and the solid square-edged blocks could come in.

I looked at the glass late that night and found it still falling. I went on out beneath the stars. It may have been the tightened telephone wires overhead, or the frozen ground beneath me ringing with the distant tread of the coming north wind, yet over these, and with them, I heard the singing of a voiceless song, no louder than the winging hum of bees, but vaster--the earth and air responding to a starry lyre as some Aeolian harper, sweeping through the silvery spaces of the night, brushed the strings with her robes of jeweled cold.

The mercury stood at zero by one o'clock. A biting wind had risen and blew all the next day. Eight inches of ice by this time. One night more and the crop would be ripe. And it was ripe.

I was out before the sun, tramping down to the pond with pike and saw, the team not likely to be along for half an hour yet, the breaking of the marvelous day all mine. Like apples of gold in baskets of silver were the snow-covered ridges in the light of the slow-coming dawn. The wind had fallen, but the chill seemed the more intense, so silently it took hold. My breath hung about me in little gray clouds, covering my face, and even my coat, with rime. As the hurt passed from my fingers, my eyebrows seemed to become detached, my cheeks shrunk, my flesh suddenly free of cumbering clothes. But in half a minute the rapid red blood would come beating back, spreading over me and out from me, with the pain, and then the glow, of life, of perfect life that seemed itself to feed upon the consuming cold.

No other living thing was yet abroad, no stir or sound except the tinkling of tiny bells all about me that were set to swinging as I moved along. The crusted snow was strewn with them; every twig was hung, and every pearl-bent grass blade. Then off through the woods rang the chime of louder bells, sleigh bells; then the shrill squeal of iron runners over dry snow; then the broken voices of men; and soon through the winding wood road came the horses, their bay coats white, as all things were, with the glittering dust of the hoar frost.

It was beautiful work. The mid-afternoon found us in the thick of a whirling storm, the grip of the cold relaxed, the woods abloom with the clinging snow. But the crop was nearly in. High and higher rose the cold blue cakes within the ice-house doors until they touched the rafter plate.

It was hard work. The horses pulled hard; the men swore hard, now and again, and worked harder than they swore. They were rough, simple men, crude and elemental like their labor. It was elemental work--filling a house with ice, three hundred-pound cakes of clean, clear ice, cut from the pond, skidded into the pungs, and hauled through the woods all white, and under a sky all gray, with softly-falling snow. They earned their penny; and I earned my penny, and I got it, though I asked only the wages of going on from dawn to dark, down the crystal hours of the day.

[The end]
Dallas Lore Sharp's essay: The Ice Crop