Monday, February 09, 2009


     So one day I looked at the newspaper first thing to see what was new (and bad) in the world, and then out the widow to see what was new under the sun; during that second glance I noticed in surprise that there were twelve icicles lined up in a neat row in my garret window. The largest and prettiest at the ell was as big and strong as an arm; the others were all smaller and weaker, perhaps to show that there was no parity even among icicles. I don’t mean to claim that my twelve icicles were an unusual or rare phenomenon; the only strange thing about them was the horrible joy I experienced out of the blue. And while I wondered why I was grinning and rubbing my hands together I realized: that like many other things (snow, caterpillars, mussels, rabbits, and marbles, for example) that icicles too were inseparably linked with childhood memories.

     I swear, only a small child can properly appreciate an object so interesting as an icicle, for as soon as a child encounters their first, they discover to their pleasant surprise:

     1. That an icicle can be broken off, the process of which produces a pleasant glassy tinkle.

     2. That an icicle can be licked, and though it is horribly cold and children’s wet little hands numb easily, it is an exquisite delight as a seasonal treat.

     3. That they make excellent targets to throw snowballs at, especially when there are no nearby windows. Knocking down a good-sized icicle which shatters dryly on the ground into crystalline fragments, that is undoubtedly one of life’s greatest delights and greatest successes, and whoever has not gotten their icicle does not know what youth is, nor winter nor the beauty of the world, and above all, does not know what a proper icicle is.

     Yes, that is it: the icicle has much to do with childhood; you see, sir, don’t you still look at things in enchantment, smile excitedly, and get the impression that the whole day is somehow prettier and happier when it is framed by twelve icy stalactites? And you see that you could reach out with your hand and see what a pleasant glassy sound it would make to break one off, but you don’t; it seems to you that it would be a waste of an icicle. You could break off a piece and suck on it, but even that desire seems vastly remote. How on earth has your childhood curiosity weakened to try and find out what an icicle is good for, or for that matter anything in the world you come across? No, perhaps it has not weakened, for I now notice something I hadn’t noticed before—how icicles grow. They are composed ring by ring, layer by layer being laid down until a great big stalactite is formed. It looks just like the icicle were flowing down from the roof: truly it is an act of patient arithmetic. When one looks properly one can see the horizontal segments, and that isn’t all—for example, which way the wind was blowing as the icicle grew. That makes a little ball on the other side of the icicle where freezing droplets of water are blown; the whole icicle is articulated by these little layers like the little spindle on a spinning wheel. And before I had thought this all through, my biggest icicle had grown by a whole new layer; now I can say I have seen an icicle grow.

     And perhaps it is so with all aspects of human knowledge; perhaps in all cases humans are first interested in whether or not something can be broken or licked or used for something else; only hundreds or thousands of years later does anyone start to be interested in how these things are and what laws they follow. It’s possible that humanity is very young, and still only trying to see how things can be used—to eat or to wage war with. When we grow up, we may look more lingeringly, more closely at how things are, how they arise, and what morphological or genetic laws constrain them. We may as yet only be at the stage of licking or curiously breaking a great many things.



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