Non-FictionWinter 2021-2022

Skating Through the Ages — Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

Natural ice is a magnet, dull-gray and powerful. It calls to me, an amateur ice enthusiast and a recreational ice skater. I was born in 1967, a colder time. In place of marrow, I have ice.

Ice—not just the ice of the backyard ponds I skated on in my youth but glaciers, permafrost, and sea ice around the world—has been melting since the 1990s. Its loss is accelerating.

A 2021 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that in 2011–2020, annual average Arctic Sea ice area reached its lowest level since 1850. Late summer ice area was smaller than at any time in the past 1,000 years.

 

I don’t want to live during the Holocene, our current geologic epoch. I don’t want to write: “All the world’s ice melted, and ice skating came to an end.”

I hunger for terroir: for the climate and water that conceived the ice I skated on as a child; for the textures and vibrations of their ice under my skates; and for childhood, a child’s concerns.

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Picturing the three frozen ponds of my childhood, behind the Duane’s house, the Mason’s house, and the nursing home, loosens recollection, the way a cut-down tree releases the carbon dioxide it’s gathered and held at the rate of forty-eight pounds per year. The way I extracted my foot, stiff with cold, from a tightly laced skate as the winter dusk fell.

At age three, my skates stuttered their first tracks into the seal-colored ice on the pond behind the Duanes’. My four-year-old brother skated near me, his cheeks rosy. His face protruded from the cinched oval of his snowsuit, a nineteenth-century cameo pin. His towhead bangs lifted in the breeze he generated with his forward motion.

My first strokes looked nothing like the elegant S-curves of schoonrijden,  or the “Dutch Roll,” a form of skating popular in the nineteenth century from which modern figure- and speed-skating originated.

The curving, stately style conserved energy during long tours over frozen Dutch canals. According to Dutch News, the first schoonrijden competition took place in 1879 on Amsterdam’s Keizersgracht, or Emperor’s Canal, the widest canal in the city. At first, only women were allowed to skate.

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When I was ten, a bully tripped me with his long black hockey skate and sent me sprawling. I found myself cheek down on the swamp ice in the woods behind the Duanes’.

There were no parents to tell. This ragged ice was the territory of children.

I turned my head a little to taste fetid moss. Oak and maple trees surrounded the pond, felling their leaves and sticks onto its surface. Salt leached from the nearby dirt road, ruinously over-salted in winter. Underneath me, byproducts of the human and natural worlds hung suspended in the black ice.

I got up and glided, bulky in my snow pants. A tang of smoke lingered in the air from the Duanes’ mammoth fireplace in their nearby house.

I maneuvered through childhood on white figure skates with toe picks—jagged little teeth.

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Two blocks from my adult home in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, and 16,000 years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet left me Jamaica Pond.

The glacier once covered Massachusetts with ice nearly three-miles deep in places.

Eventually, the climate warmed, and a “serac,” or block of ice, broke from the sheet. It tumbled to the ground and stamped a depression, fifty-three feet at its deepest. Ancient ice shaped the inverted landscape we see today.

I imagine the fragment made a thunderous sound as it separated––the crack, magnified many times, that two rows of ice cubes make when an ice tray is twisted.

When the serac landed, I imagine it caused a splash that generated a tidal wave. Mammoths lifted their heads from the grass, curious about the sound, and sniffed fresh ozone. A Brobdingnagian chunk of ice coated in silty grit made the divot. More docile at a lower temperature, the serac melted, along with the ice sheet, and the hole filled with groundwater.

A kettle pond was born. Its sides were steep, and its bottom was rounded, a battered cast iron pot of soup simmering over a cookfire.

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“Jamaica Pond was covered with ice today for the first time this season,” reported the Boston Globe on December 15, 1898. “It was not very thick, however, and in consequence nobody was allowed on it. The park superintendent probably will allow skating there this afternoon, provided the ice is safe.”

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Boston, where I have lived most of my adult life, is two degrees warmer than it was a century ago. Because evaporation increases as the atmosphere warms, it’s also more humid. I remember the precise moment, when I was thirty-eight, that I first experienced the air’s elevated moisture. One fall day, I stood on the sidewalk. The air was sodden, and I was breathless, as if scuba diving without an oxygen tank. I feared suffocation.

This wasn’t my first epoch of existential worry. When I was six, during the 1973 energy crisis, I fretted that the world may run out of fossil fuel. I didn’t know, then, how fossil fuel was made: that enormous quantities of dead algae and zooplankton were trapped under multiple layers of sand and mud. Over millennia, pressure and heat transformed their energy into carbon. Natural gas and oil resulted. Burning the substances released warming carbon dioxide. Since the late 1700s, humans have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the air by 40 percent, reports the Environmental Protection Agency.

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In 1913, when the City of Boston established the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, officials called one broad, tree-lined avenue Moraine Street. Nestled between Centre Street and the Jamaicaway, it’s a rung of Pondside, a ladder of streets that border Jamaica Pond.

City records don’t reveal the reason for the street’s name, but I assume it’s named for the geological feature “moraine”—the debris a glacier leaves behind.

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I found fellow skating enthusiast Elizabeth Mason—or at least part of her diary—on the Jamaica Plain Historical Society’s website (no relation to the Masons of Mason’s pond). She skated on Jamaica Pond during the Victorian era. When I read her journal entries, I envied her experience of the solidity of antique ice.

“Good skating again. I was glad to arrive at the omnibus [a horse-drawn bus],” wrote Elizabeth on January 30, 1855. “The pond was covered with people amounting to 500 or 600. The afternoon was brilliant, and I enjoyed it excessively.”

I imagine I reach back in time and grip Elizabeth’s hand in mine. My hand is bare and cool. My skin thrills to the cold air, whereas Elizabeth wears long leather gloves. We watch a horse-drawn sleigh glide over Jamaica Pond and steer around a pile of dung with a shriek. The wind blows on my upturned face as I glide through time with Elizabeth.

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One day while skating, the boy I liked kissed me on the cheek. Overcome, I ran home crying, full of unbridled emotions. The Mason’s ice tasted of salty tears.

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“There was ice skating on Jamaica Pond every winter. First, they tested the ice by running a loaded sand truck over it. If it didn’t fall through, they figured the ice was safe enough for skating. They plowed it off and covered it with fresh water to make a real smooth skating area,” said a Jamaica Plain resident born in 1930.

“In the 1970s, I sometimes walked across Jamaica Pond on ice. It’s not possible now,” said a member of Friends of Jamaica Pond.

I long to skate on Jamaica Pond as Elizabeth did. It’s doubtful I will. Today, winter temperatures are too warm for the ice to freeze safely.

When I pass Jamaica Pond in my car, blue tugs at my peripheral vision. If I squint, I can see a receding tongue of ice, brown-bottomed, lapping up pebbles like cream as it retreats.

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“I enjoyed the afternoon more than ever before,” wrote Elizabeth on February 1, 1855. “The sun had checked the wind; it was mild and good skating. I crossed the pond several times. We were pushed in a sleigh belonging to the Bacons. Altogether it was splendid. I never felt a sensation of cold even in my feet and was in high spirit. I came suddenly to very rough ice without perceiving it: I had my first real fall. I measured my length without injury except to my bonnet and in getting very wet from the snow.”

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When I was eleven, to skate on the pond in the woods behind the nursing home meant to risk an encounter with the child-snatching clown rumored to lurk there. The threat of meeting the clown made me hurry down the brambly path that led from a neighbor’s backyard through wetlands to the skating spot. My feet slid inside the red, yellow, and blue polka-dotted Wonder Bread bags inserted in my boots to keep my feet dry. I was relieved to draw close and hear the shouts of my brothers, to know I was safe.

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Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost an average of 286 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016. Since 1992, Antarctica has lost more than 3.3 trillion tons of ice. Glacier retreat since the 1950s is unprecedented in the last 2,000 years in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska, and Africa.

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On December 20, 1909, hundreds of young men and women, carrying their skates, went to Jamaica Pond. They were surprised to find that the swans and ducks were still enjoying themselves in clear water over most of the surface. “It takes a long, hard cold spell to seal Jamaica Pond, for it is about the last body of water about Greater Boston to freeze sufficiently to make a safe skating surface,” reported the Boston Globe.

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Once, when we visited my maternal cousins in a nearby town, we skated on Lake Holbrook two blocks from their house. I didn’t venture far from the shore. The ice was vast compared to the surface area of the three ponds I skated on near my home.

I was 12. The neighborhood girls were so tough. And the laws were different from those on the ponds in my more sedate town. I fled the frozen lake at least once to avoid a beating, having violated an arcane rule of turf. My cousins protected me from harm.

As an adult, I learned about a lawsuit that was brought against the pesticide manufacturer rumored to have used the lake as a dumping ground. Perhaps exposure to lead and arsenic affected my cousins’ health; only a few of them bore children. I imagine Lake Holbrook ice tasted bitter.

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“Went out to Jamaica Pond today, but the skating was poor excepting a little patch twenty-feet long,” wrote Elizabeth on March 4, 1855.

I idealize antique ice, but from her entry, I see that Elizabeth and I both contended with melting—that our lives melt together in their sameness. We fret about the environment. We debate whether to bear children and try to find the funds to advance our education. A fondness for fresh air drives us outside, even in the coldest temperatures.

What would Elizabeth do in our Melting Age?

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My lone offspring, Lily, was born in 2009. When she was six months old, I took her for swim lessons at the gym. After the lesson, I held her carefully to my chest in the shower, as if she were made of sikuaq, the Inuit word for a fragile skim of ice. We are bound forever by my love and worry for her survival. I hope her swim lessons will prove useful in our Melting Age..

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In 1855, Jamaica Pond spawned a profitable ice industry, the Jamaica Plain Historical Society’s website reveals.

A friend sent me a black-and-white photo of a canvas-topped delivery wagon with “Jamaica Pond Ice Co., 2389 Washington Street,” printed on its side. The company preserved ice year-round by storing it in double-walled wood buildings insulated with straw or sawdust. I imagine the cool fifteen-inch blocks stacked out of sight in its dim interior, the fresh scent of the sawdust that preserved them for delivery to Jamaica Plain.

Delivery buggy in historical Jamaica PlainInset left: Ice delivery men circa 1890s in Jamaica Plain. Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The road is dirt, the wagon wooden. The two workers wear bowlers, hold pieces of precut ice with large curved tongs. One drove the wagon, and the other, the “striker,” carried the ice blocks into customers’ homes and placed them in their iceboxes, wooden chests lined with zinc. Before doing so, the striker ensured that the blocks were cleaned and dressed. He removed the outer layer of ice to rid it of any detritus (they used horses for harvesting, after all), and trimmed or “dressed” it using hand tools so the blocks were neat and uniform.

In the photo, the two horses’ ribs protrude. Maybe the striker let the thirsty horses lick the ice once in a while. I imagine the flavor of bullfrogs lingered on their tongues.

It must be spring or summer, because the leaves on the trees in the photo are a uniform shade, and the men wear neither overcoats nor gloves. In the shadow of the wagon’s wheels, I imagine I see crystalline drips. A dark patch of dampness spreads on the dirt road.

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Despite the reality of global warming, some people revel in the warmer weather without considering its impact, like children welcoming the prospect of an endless summer.

On a warm day in January when I was forty-five, I stood with my aunt on the front steps of my home.

“Well,” she said. “I know one thing. This day couldn’t be any nicer.” I didn’t consider a seventy-degree January day “nice.” Its warmth felt sinister and misplaced. Historically, the first month of the year had been cold, and I knew warmer winter temperatures lead to the loss of more ice. She smiled and gazed at our Japanese cedar trees. I was silent. A warm breeze ruffled my hair.

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Lily was five when I first took her skating. As soon as I fastened her skates at Larz Anderson Park, an artificial outdoor rink, she shot forward. She hardly ever fell. Occasionally, she stumbled, but mostly, she skated with a fearless and focused forward momentum around the ice. As we coasted, we passed trees, snowbanks, sky, and the park’s elegant Beaux-Arts architecture. We glided through the Gilded Age. Perhaps she has ice instead of marrow, too.

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A dog needed to be rescued from Jamaica Pond after she broke through the ice on February 23, 2017, reported the Jamaica Plain News. A Boston firefighter crawled out on the ice wearing a suit designed to protect him from the frigid water. At one point, he also fell through the ice. Both dog and the firefighter were rescued.

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The art of schoonrijden, according to the virtual Ice Skates Museum, consists of placing curved strokes on the ice by skating alternately on the outer and inner edges of the runner blades. To draw its signature “S” curve, the skater must move precisely, each stroke’s length matching the next to create an even rhythm. The arms must remain still. The goal is for the movement to appear effortless.

“It looks beautiful and serene. It is a discipline, which nowadays is still mastered by a small number of connoisseurs who practice their art mainly in clubs and who perform folkloristic demonstrations,” writes the museum’s curator.

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In 1855, the ice company E.M. Stoddard owned a row of icehouses near the rotary at Jamaicaway and Prince Street, according to the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.

In 1874, 350 employees harvested the frozen water, packed it into the icehouses, and delivered it. By 1880, twenty-two icehouses stored 30,000 tons. During peak season, more than 600 workers toiled there.

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In the 1920s, the ice on Jamaica Pond seemed to be in good shape. However, on February 9, 1923 at the Park Department’s annual skating carnival, there were cries of “Ice breaking!” The crowd of thousands fell back. The cries were false alarms, said the Boston Globe. “Before leaving, I wish to extend to all an invitation to enjoy the skating on Jamaica Pond as long as Mother Nature allows the ice to remain,” said Mayor Curley.

But the carnival held on January 8, 1925 marked the beginning of the gradual end of skating there. During the first skating race, sounds of cracking ice were heard, and water flowed over the track near the starting point.

Mayor Curley, who had just arrived to give out the prizes to contest winners, noticed that large, black patches of water had appeared on the pond’s surface. Fearing that the ice, softened by the warmth of the previous few days, was about to collapse under the weight of 50,000 people and “precipitate the merry thousands to their deaths,” he ordered police to clear the surface.

Nearly fifty policemen ordered everyone off the ice. I imagine the mayor went home to his fine brick house, which everybody recognized from the shamrock cutouts on its wooden shutters, to his wife, after whom the Mary E. Curley school, which Lily attended at age five, is named.

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The January I was forty-eight, I strolled around Jamaica Pond. I noticed a willow tree on the tiny island in its middle. Its coat of ice was melting. Like a pig roasting over a fire, the tree crackled, popped, and dripped.

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By 1913, home refrigerators became popular. Through the end of World War II, Jamaica Pond ice was delivered to iceboxes set in nooks near back doors or stairs, where ice-delivery people were able to easily access them. Some older homes in Jamaica Plain still have these spaces shaped by earlier ice technology.

The wagon creaked down the block in Jamaica Plain. The striker did his job, the horses dreamed of an icy drink.

After World War II, refrigerators displaced the icebox in most homes. Quietly, the ice-harvesting industry came to an end.

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“Skating on natural ice makes the heart of many Dutch people beat faster,” said Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte. By his standard, I may be part Dutch. A slew of recent ice accidents has led Rutte to caution his citizens against skating. Despite his warning, in February 2021, a man wearing only tight black bike shorts skated on Amsterdam’s Keizersgracht canal, where the first schoonrijden competition was held in 1879. The ice cracked, and he tilted forward into the water. Another skater threw him a line and pulled him to safety. The man in the shorts bowed to the crowd of onlookers that had gathered. He laughed.

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Climate change has not only warmed the weather, it has also made it more volatile. Some days, both fall and summer temperatures pass between breakfast and lunch. Once crisply delineated, the seasons have bled together—summer into fall into winter into spring.

I’ve lived my life in New England, and the region’s natural quadrant of seasons are deeply imprinted in my body. The summerfallwinterspring of recent years disorients and unsettles me. Although I imagine I’m alone with my concerns, I’m not.

My neighbor called to me over the fence on a warm December day in 2019. “Global warming is terrible. I feel bad for the children,” he said.

“Me too,” I told him, happy he’d shared more than our usual perfunctory wave. “But there are things we can do.” I glanced past him to his cobblestone driveway. Two jet skis, a motorcycle, a Humvee, a spotless white Mercedes, and an SUV were parked there. Every morning, he ran his gas-powered leaf blower, sometimes twice a day, no matter the season. It didn’t take long for my anger to dissolve; every winter, he used his snow blower to help us clear the bottom of our driveway.

“We planned to move to Florida, but with all the hurricanes, I think we’ll stay here,” he said. I nodded. I understood his assumption about the relative safety of Massachusetts compared to other parts of the country where forest fires, hurricanes, mudslides, and floods had become regular occurrences.

A few weeks later, a bulldozer rumbled past our kitchen window. It scooped out a patch of his backyard to make room for a gigantic pool. He cut down his shade trees to make space for it. Later, he complained he was hot without the trees’ shade.

Since there seemed little chance he’d reduce his massive carbon footprint, I thought I’d might as well join him in his pool.

If only it froze in the winter and formed a rink. I imagine walking through the gap he’d accidently bashed in our fence with his new car. I picture my neighbor and I skating together, back and forth, his two dogs sliding on their paws and barking.

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At 3 p.m. on February 2, 1952, a Cambridge cab driver saved an eight-year-old Brookline boy from almost certain death by drowning in the deep waters of Jamaica Pond. He heard the boy’s screams for aid, reported the Boston Globe. The boy had been playing on the thin ice near the boathouse when he suddenly dropped into the water, about ten feet from shore. The cab driver found the boy clinging to broken ice. He pushed a broken branch out to him. The boy grabbed the branch, and the cab driver pulled him to safety. A police detective wrapped a blanket around the boy and rushed him home.

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On Halloween, when she was eight, Lily put on her Grim Reaper costume and went trick-or-treating with her plastic scythe on the road I grew up on, where my mother and brother live, where the homes huddle close together. Lily rang doorbells. Porch lights illuminated, and the parents of the children with whom I grew up, now grandparents, opened their doors. Foil-wrapped Hershey’s Kisses and Three Musketeers bars plunked into bucket bottoms, gold nuggets sluiced into prospecting pans.

It’s not hot this year, but it’s not freezing, either. I remember Halloweens so cold I wore gloves, when the air was crisp, not soggy, when I had to avoid slippery patches, when my breath made fog, when I layered clothing under my Sabrina the Teenage Witch costume in case of a chill. I remember frost-covered fall leaves that crunched underfoot like saltine crackers.

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Sometimes, I fantasize about the next ice age creeping slowly over the world during my lifetime, a cooling blanket. There have been many ice ages on Earth, most long before humans showed up, according to “The History of Ice on Earth” (2010). Some were so extreme that the entire Earth froze over for hundreds of millions of years. I take pleasure in the long view. When I’m long gone, it is predicted, the ice will return.

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Once the Greenland Ice Sheet has vanished, some surmise, the Earth will become so warm that palm trees will grow in Alaska. Crocodiles will glide in the Arctic Ocean.

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I dreamed of the ways Jamaica Pond ice and I disappeared. I ran, jumped, and slid across the present-day pewter plain of the pond. I slogged through fuzzy slush before I fell through the weak ice, and an ancient butterscotch carp rose up and swallowed me like a crumb.

In another dream, I sank to the depth of the pond’s beginnings, rolled back the icy carpet of time. Down I went. I passed flashing metal skate blades. Then a pair of Victorian Fen Runners skates with shiny brass heel screws, then bone skates, then earlier pairs created from the ribs and hides of deer and horses. I landed softly next to a curved mammoth’s tusk.

There was a crack, muffled by the weight of water. I settled into the soft silt.

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It remains to be seen whether humans will be able to adapt to the change we’ve wrought. It’s unlikely, as many seem to think, that the climate will simply “correct” itself and revert to its former temperature patterns. President Biden’s climate plan, detailed on the White House website, is the most aggressive in history. He aims to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2035 and across the economy by 2050. Biden also rejoined the Paris Agreement, whose goal is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees and achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century. At the 2021 COP 26 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Biden promised to work with 197 nations to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

It’s unclear whether this will preserve natural ice.

“We are past the point in many systems where we are able to just let nature take its course,” said ecologist Stephen Smith, who studies kettle ponds, in a 2017 WBUR interview.

“Mom,” Lily said as we crossed the street to her school bus stop. She was seven then. “I smell the smoke.” “What smoke?” I asked.

“The smoke from the cars.”

“It’s called exhaust, my love,” I told her. Her brown eyes widened.

We stood in the cold, watched gray plumes emerge from the tailpipes of passing vehicles.

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For a week in February, on the way to school, Lily and I pass an icy hump the size of a single bed in our driveway. She likes to climb over it in her sneakers.

“Don’t fall,” I call as I walk behind her. My steps are slow and deliberate to her light bounding. The ice softens and flattens. Soon, it’s a four-foot rink she skates across.

Lily may never have the opportunity to skate on natural ice. I want her concerns to be those of a child, too––skating, hot cocoa, cold ice. Just to be alive. Just to meet the air. Just to skate, every circle an eternity of light, and shadow. Not to worry, not to think about the future. Not to be part of the digital age, where every fact is known instantly, everywhere. There are forces more powerful than her mother, the original source of the water in which she once floated for a fraction of the Laurentide Glacier’s lifespan.

By the end of the week, the hump has dwindled to the size of a dinner plate. I pass the minuscule glacier on my walk to the bus stop to meet her. In the afternoon sun, I see it has shrunk to the size of a saucer. It gleams.


Kristen Paulson-Nguyen grew up wandering the fields and forests of her small Massachusetts town and hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, and the Boston Globe. You can find her at persistencepersonified.com or on Twitter @kpnwriter.

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