By Jamie Anderluh
We think of glacial water as iridescent, turquoise, glassy. In reality, it’s often thick and cloudy and filled with sediment. They call it glacial milk. It carves. It unfolds into rivers and lakes. It carries the weight of its age–all of the stories, the afterthoughts, the warming.
Glaciers are translucent, with breathing blue edges. Glacial meltwater is all-encompassing. When I felt it in August everything went still. I was an eighth submerged and still its frozen closeness plunged up and into my fingertips, my collarbone, my skull. The pads of my feet, tough from a summer of farming, numbed instantly. I felt it in my heart, my ears…that thing was happening again, so I flung myself out.
When I was thirteen, all I knew of water was freedom. Then I went swimming in the Atlantic. I dove under, lept up, swaying between waves. I tasted salt and felt boundless. I swam away from my family, into the blue. Then I started to feel it.
At first, it was only a numbness in my fingers. Then I felt it seep up my arms. It swirled in my ears. Then I lost feeling in my forehead.
My ears were ringing incessantly. Gushing water lost sound. My heartbeat restricted–its bumps lagged, each one labored, heavy, thundering.
Where is my sister? I thought.
Where is she?
I found her between the ringing and my dragging heartbeat. I went to her as my vision faded. She carried me out and onto the sand, and I couldn’t see or hear her.
She held me instinctively, and the warmth trickled back in pieces. When I felt it in my cheeks, the colors came back. When I looked at it, the ocean was more blue than it had ever been.
When I was fifteen, I was certain that it wouldn’t happen again. I was brave, and I wanted to be in the water. I ran into Lake Michigan not knowing that my friends would later have to help me out of it. They enfolded me in towels, and we waited. I was fixed on the sand for an hour until I could sit up and see them.
When I was seventeen, I started timing it. How long until my fingers went numb? The water became a clock marked by jagged, unfeeling phases–the numbness, the ringing, the fading of color. I began to know myself in it, to understand what each sensation meant. I learned to leave when I felt it in my fingers.
Spaces of blue became my mental map, my charted ventures, each marked by a different time and space. They taught me to be intimately aware of the danger, the capacity, of cold water.
I imagine that when many people swim, there is that vague, distant fear of the unknown–riptides or fierce waves or darkness below. When I swim, I feel immediately connected to the way the water feels, to that strange reaction my body has when it is just cold enough, to the urgent and confusing possibility that it could cause me to lose consciousness.
This understanding has made me feel a kind of closeness with water, as if I know it better because it has the ability to change the way my body functions. Somehow, I feel capable and empowered by it–by my unwillingness to run away from something that scares me, and by the subsequent desire I have to face it head-on. Water reminds me that I am vulnerable, and that this makes me whole and strong and alive.
The first time I saw a glacier was in Alaska, and it reminded me that I am not uniquely vulnerable. It felt bigger than anything I’d ever experienced. It felt alive. It was dazzling, mighty, and dominating.
I had been working on a farm nearby for part of that summer, and each day was like glitter. We zipped open our tent every morning to stark blue sky that left us without anything to say and, instead, with those quiet moments of mutual understanding, of stunning, speechless togetherness. It didn’t rain–it was all solid sunshine. Vivid fireweed, distinctive wildflowers wispy and pink, made up the only color fracturing the still blue horizon. Our host, who’d lived in Alaska her whole life, was heartbroken by each new day of sun. “It doesn’t rain anymore,” she’d say. “It should be so much cooler than this.” We zipped our tent closed each night to the relentless sun still gleaming.
I felt guilty and confused. How could I so selfishly enjoy the extreme Alaskan warmth? I felt as if I was just taking from this fragile, sublime place. Reaping its warmth without facing the consequences. Using the land for my own personal gain. Observing the wilderness from a distance. Adoring the wildness of it all without actually being a piece of the puzzle. I flew in a plane to Alaska, after all. In stealing glimpses of its magnificence, I contributed to the changing climate that is threatening that very same thing.
Glaciers appear invincible–a slow, moving mass of ice outside the human realm. Instead, we’ve made them delicate and disintegrating.
I felt so affected by glacial meltwater because it made me realize that its piercing cold–that thing I’ve always feared–is what makes it alive. As it warms, it slips away, and some part of it dies. When I felt it on my feet and ankles, I felt it everywhere. And, in that way, my closeness with water made me immediately aware of its power, and how that power can be so easily taken away.
In that moment, I was not separate from the wildness of it all. I was in it. All of the loss, the frailty, the glory–all of the pieces of the puzzle, the life and death and spaces in between that make us irrevocably linked–each an essential part of the very same story. I was air, water, and earth.
I want to feel small when I swim–I want to feel aware of what is wild, what is freezing and raw. I want the spirit and freedom of water to persist, to dominate. I want it to be bigger than me or anyone. I want it to stay: to be frigid and whole and beautiful. And in that way, I will be one small part of its story. The story of scarred, and somehow astonishingly resilient, life.