Leaving a meeting in Stillwater around lunchtime, heading north toward home, I decided to take a mid-day break and have a look at the river. I slipped and slid down a steep bank to where clear water trickles out of rock and gravel, spilling down a broad beach of pebbles toward the frozen river, where an open channel kept warm by the spring flow provides a refuge for swans and geese all winter.
I thought I would see what the ice cover looks like after the recent stretch of warm weather. (We even tapped our maple trees already, at least a couple weeks earlier than usual around here. Four of six are running slow.) See what was going on with the St. Croix. See if there was anything to photograph.
The day was gray and the light was flat, making for difficult conditions to capture the river’s magic. But an island full of willows across the river, with a heron rookery in it, was turning yellow already. Fresh growth showing hope. A friend and I recently decided on March 13th as ice-out, but it depends on where you’re talking about. The big nests in the treetops were still empty.
It slowly occurred to me that the day’s beauty was not the sky, water, nor bluffs, but the universe of stones on the ground. They had been dumped there by floods mightier than anything a human has ever seen, or a glacier scraping and advancing and melting. The trickling spring water washes the rocks constantly, and they were smooth and clean and every shape and color such cobbles can be. It seemed like a spot where you might find agates mixed in, the unicorn of rocks, boldly beautiful yet perfectly colored to disappear into the chaotic pattern of river rock.
I hadn’t been there long when another guy showed up and started pacing across the pebbles, eyes glued to the ground. He had a cup of coffee in one hand and a little hoe in the other, which he used for turning over rocks. Our routes brought us near each other and he said he was here to pick up garbage and see what he sees.
Soon it was time for me to go, with no agate in my pocket. Geese on the ice across the open channel paced back and forth, honking occasionally, the other guy, wearing rubber boots, was walking through the shallows now, eyes on the bottom.
The sparkling spring water flowing over the pebbles and gravel and stones had put me in a peaceful, patient mood. The sky puts on a grand show, but we live down here, on the ground.