The Lump of Water
Built up from drips, sculpted by the thoughtless hands of temperature and wind, a small ice sculpture sits at the back corner of our home, squatting beneath the rain gutter drain pipe. It is the natural result of the combination of physics and human activity. Evaporation, condensation, freezing, melting, running, falling, separating, coming together, slushing, and oozing play out within a built environment where a hilltop was flattened, soil was paved, and a house—built to shelter against those processes—redirects water to a particular place. I come along, observe the gleaming, clear ice stalagmiting up in a smooth surfaced but jagged form, and think, “what a unique shape.”
The thing before me, towering from the ground to the side of my ankle, is one of thousands in my neighborhood. They rest beneath down spouts, exhaust pipes, spigots for garden hoses, garage eaves, and everywhere water drips. There is nothing special about this small lump of ice. No lump of ice is identical with it, though. The forces brought to bear on its creation, in their character and timing, cannot be recreated, and this lump is in constant flux as those forces continue to flow, eddying around this particular place. This lump exists, dynamically itself, as drip follows drip, and changes from itself into itself as the locus of energies flowing around and through it.
This lump sits, resting, attached to the poured concrete walk from our garage to our back door. I cannot lift it. The rough texture of the human compound is gripped by thousands of tiny coils of ice. Curls of ice clasp wherever an opening permitted the smallest traces of water to ooze. Each descending twist of ice tightens the clinch between lump and ground. Every curve of the lump, from the spires pointed toward the downspout lip (or slightly away, depending on how the wind blows), down to the subsurface grasp holding the lump in place is an expression of a particular drip of water, called into existence by the demands of place and time.
Every drip fallen from the final edge of the downspout vanishes when it touches the ice that formed before. Some, as they follow the surface ground-ward, leave traces I can see, looking like veins on the back of my hand. Most of these will smooth over time, covered over by later accretions, or worn and pressed into the slick surface by thaw/freeze cycles, wind, and gravity. Every drop of water exists when it must, and joins when it must. No drop ever returns.
An average snowflake contains one hundred ice crystals. An average ice crystal contains trillions of trillions of water molecules. The number is something like ten followed by eighteen more zeros worth of water molecules. The molecules come together, form a droplet, crystalize in the hexagon of snow, join other hex crystals in a snowflake, and fall. The snowflake lands on the roof of our home. Others land on it, next to it, a little bit away from it. A blanket.
These snowflakes merge into ice crystals and vanish in plain sight. They melt, some in the sun, some because I toss snowmelt pucks up there to keep icicles from forming. New drops form, roll down the roof, and vanish, again in plain sight, when they join the flow of water in the eavestrough. More freezing and thawing, and eventually running water flows down the pipe. Turbulence separates drops from the downward flux, and turbulence brings these drops back into the flow, and gravity pulls it all down. A rushing stream of braided water runs out the end of the downspout.
Then the run slows, and a trickle of water clinging to the inside of the aluminum pipe makes its way out. In liquid form, water molecules continuously trade their hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a slippery soup of electrons and nuclei. Water is water in its relationship to itself. Surface tension holds droplets in place for a time, they merge into drips, which reach the downspout mouth. New drips form from pools formed of past drips. When the surface tension can no longer hold, the potential drip escapes into the present, and falls.