diamonds are forever
In the lung-chilling darkness of Alaskan midwinter, an ice sculptor raises a chainsaw at the feet of a reclining goddess. He moves lumpily, weighed down with bulky clothing and slowed by the frozen sheet of ground underfoot. Even in the perpetual Alaskan night, the goddess shines. Her belly, her fine strands of wind-caught hair, a scissor-tailed bird defying gravity at the tip of her outstretched arm—all these catch and scatter the sparkle of streetlights. The sculptor and his team have spent six marathon days carving her out of dense blocks of ice lifted from a groomed pond near Fairbanks. The ice from the pond is so clear that a newspaper can be read through it as through glass; it’s so pure that ice carvers around the world call Fairbanks ice the “Arctic Diamond.” It is, they say, the best ice in the world.
It is astounding how the carving balances on its pedestal of ice, how the details and fine sculpting lift up and outward and disobey the rules we’ve written about breakable things. Thin sheets of ice ripple like fabric from the goddess’ arm. Her feet stretch with individual toes. It reminds me of one of those plastic eagles you could win as a child at the arcade with wings uplifted, able to balance on a single fingertip with just the point of a beak.
Junichi Nakamura is preparing to remove the temporary supports that have held the blocks of ice in place as his team meticulously shaped the body of the goddess. Nakamura shuffles across the ice in front of a group of spectators. “Are you guys ready?” he asks. “Drumroll!” an observer calls out. The chainsaw buzzes to life. The moment of truth.
Nakamura and a teammate cut away one support, leaving the goddess’ legs suspended in open air. They cut away the next. With a crack, the front half of the sculpture’s body breaks off and booms to the ground. The legs break loose, then the hips. A multi-part crash thuds and splinters and pulls shrieks from the bystanders. The bird on the goddess’ hand snaps free and for a brilliant moment stays suspended, as if in flight, before nesting among the splinters of the torso.
There are cries of dismay in the crowd, some diagnostic solutionizing (“There was more weight on that side!”) and then, after a pause, applause. Chainsaw still in hand, Nakamura trudges through the wreckage and waves with one hand, then walks off into the dark.
In the places where I work, ice forms on its own, without our handiwork. Whole rivers freeze up in the winter. I learned to drive on ice when a lover took me out onto a frozen lake, warned me where the thin places were, and put the wheel in my hands. In the ice fields of Southeast Alaska, snowpack collects, compacts, recrystallizes into “firn,” and then into glacial ice, which, dense and plastic under its own weight, bends slowly downhill, cheese-grating mountains apart as it moves. Glacial ice is sometimes the bluest blue you’ll ever see—swallowing all the other colors in the light spectrum and scattering back blue like turquoise stones, blue like sapphires, blue like evening sky. But mostly, it is filthy. It carries mountain dust, boulders. Standing in the crackle and drip of an ice cave feels like standing in a galaxy. Suspended rocks spread out behind the slick walls of ice like so many suspended stars. It is remarkable, and unmarketable.
Ice snaps on its own, too, like the Fairbanks goddess. Spring breakup shatters slabs of ice across river surfaces. They stack up like spilled decks of cards, they tumble and rage downriver. Where glaciers meet the sea, skyscraper-sized sheets of ice break shear off and fall in slow motion, into spray and shrapnel. The tidal waves they create are swallowed by the depth of the fjords into which they fall.
At its purest, wild-harvested ice is nearly as valuable as the sapphires it resembles. In ancient Greece and China, ice was harvested in the winter and stored for the wealthy to cool their beverages in summer. Icebergs from the La Conte Glacier in Alaska allowed the fishing town of Petersburg to chill salmon and halibut and ship fresh fish as far away as San Francisco, gaining the tiny town a place on the world map. For a time during a peak period in the commercial fishing industry, Petersburg had the highest per capita income for a working town in the U.S.
Slabs were cut from Walden Pond and other New England waterways in the mid-19th century and shipped to Martinique, to India, to South America, Australia and to England to cool the gun turrets of the British Royal Navy. Thoreau stood by and watched his pond subdivided for shipment across oceans, grumping while also admiring the strangeness of its future: “The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”
Winter makes drift ice, feather ice, glitter, hoarfrost, penitent ice, candle ice, brine flowers, fast ice, broken belt, breccia, film crust, firn, flaw, floe, frazil. In machines, we manufacture cube ice, crescent ice, pearls, cubes, flakes.
We funnel refrigerant fluid through copper coils. Water runs across cooled divots—runs and runs until any mineral content has flowed through, leaving it purified, sterile. Large-batch ice making machines can clatter out 75 tons of ice in a day. At-home machines can create ice in 15 minutes.
A glacier might take two years to compress ice out of packed snow, yet the frozen water we make in minutes is chemically identical to the ice we harvest. Lay an iceberg and an ice cube sheared off, side by side, and you’ll find their chemical structure to be the same. They hover at the same temperatures, they share the same physical and electrical properties, the same viscosity and heat of fusion, even the same density. Ice crystals from glaciers are slightly larger than ice-box crystals, and so a chunk of wild-harvested ice might last a little longer in your drink, but beyond that? We have manufactured frozen perfection. Our freezers may as well be microcosmic ice ages; our cocktails adrift with sea ice, to scale.
Still, a sculptor might argue that not all ice is made alike, nor can it be contained neatly in a freezer box. Where does object end and element begin? “A pencil-thin piece of ice can hold an astounding amount of weight, even in shear,” says a friend of mine who carves ice in the winters on the banks of the Nizina River. “But the slightest tap or vibration (or even just a rapid change in temperature) can cause it to fail.” He admires how ice breaks mountains in half, how it serves as the single most erosive force on our planet, and how, with just a slight rise in temperature, it can disappear entirely. It is mighty and ephemeral, resilient and breakable, just like the ice goddess that is no more. He describes the “atomic energy” ice holds, the way it serves as a vessel for light. The way, when carved, it gives off a “ghostly hum,” or a “shhhhhhhhhhavig” as chisels set it purring, or the “glassy tinkling” of chips falling away. The ice, he confides, “feels truly alive.”
In conditions below -40°F, “diamond dust” forms: drifts of airborne ice powder that whorl like storm systems across the landscape. When we admire a person’s diamond jewelry, we call it “ice.” One of the oldest terms for “grading” diamonds serves as a reference to ice: a diamond of the highest quality is a “diamond of the first water.” The matchless “Arctic Diamond” ice from Fairbanks shines like a clear gem. Diamonds and ice both share similar cubic crystalline structure. They are both strong enough to carve through rock. At their most beautiful, they are the product of outrageous time and pressure. They are translucent, chiseled cages for light. Both are shipped across oceans, marketed at extraordinary prices, served glittering in the bottoms of effervescent cocktails, sliced from their resting places and carted across continents.
Ice, though, can break between our fingers, can ghost like a trapped animal set free. There is a rabbit hole of YouTube videos of news reporters accidentally smashing the ice sculptures that they are describing:
“Reporter accidentally drops ice sculpture at the O. C. Fair 2010”
“TV reporter destroys ice sculpture”
“News reporter crashes ice carving”
“Phoenix Weatherman ‘Accidentally’ Destroys Ice”
“Embracing impermanence,” says my ice-carving friend, “is obviously implicit.”
Diamonds are forever. Ice melts. For the first time in human history, ships are successfully transiting the Northwest Passage, which Francisco de Eliza and Franklin and Cook and Vancouver all sought so hard to find and travel. Where the Arctic ice pack has diminished, cargo vessels ply the waters, and bigger and bigger cruise ships are offloading tourists among the sea birds and Inuit of the far north. Extinction tourism in action.
On the far side of the world, a Norwegian startup is preparing to chunk ice off of a receding glacier (the nice, clean blue kind) to airmail to clients in Dubai, Los Angeles and Tokyo, carbon footprint be damned. “Our product is 100 percent natural, more than a thousand years old, and very luxurious.”
For a little while in a factory two hours outside of Tokyo, dusky bouquets of flowers bloom inside of tall towers of ice. In the photos, some meltwater pools across the concrete floor, but the blocks stand neatly, angular. The flowers inside almost glow. Burgundy, periwinkle, autumn orange. The sculptor, Azuma Shibata, hopes to capture the flowers’ beauty as well as their time and moment. Gradually, as the blocks shrink, the flowers will be caught again in the gears of time and decay.
Without that coolness on the tongue, that chipped treasure to be shipped across seas, that stacked winterscape at our poles to keep sea levels at a civilized measure, what will happen to the hot flowers of our own bodies?
Last week, I drove with friends through the night desert to an ice bar in Phoenix. We were given parkas (extra charge to upgrade to faux fur) and plastic cups full of beer and were shuttled through an airlock painted with supersized penguins. Inside, dual projectors cast approximations of the aurora borealis across thick walls of ice chiseled to look like mountains. Benches and shuffleboard tables made of ice glittered under the blue lighting in the room. An ice luge shaped like a seal perched on a bar carved entirely out of ice. Walruses, bears and penguins sparkled at the edges of the bar, blockier and more primitive than the grand ice carvings of Fairbanks, but this was the desert, after all.
I spoke with a manager who wore an orange puffy coat and waxed wistful about bigger ice bars in places like Las Vegas, where “you’re not even allowed to take pictures. You’ve got to pay $50 to see the inside for yourself. But I hear it’s really stunning, those ice sculptures.” I learned from her that a single wall in the room here cost about $10,000 to carve. “We keep it cold, so it usually lasts around five months,” she said, and then: “Sir! Sir! You’re going to have to leave,” as a man on the other side of the room attempted to climb atop a polar bear made of very expensive-looking ice.
As ice becomes rarer, we fetishize it. Witness the disappearing Arctic. Taste time in your glass. Ride a polar bear. When it melts, we can always make more.
Hannah Hindley is a nonfiction essayist and Alaskan wilderness guide. She has been embedded in Wrangell St. Elias National Park as a Carson Scholar, where she researched ice melt and community at the edge of Alaska’s glaciers. An earlier version of her essay was published in River Teeth. She is the recipient of the Thomas Wood Award in Journalism and the former writer-in-residence at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. She has published in newspapers, anthologies and literary journals including Alaska Magazine, The Harvard Review and Terrain.org.