just stop already

I declare. It’s no wonder folks fret so much about Ebola. In the last couple of hours I’ve seen three or four magazine and newspaper articles with variations of this deeply stupid headline:

Ebola ‘could become airborne’: United Nations warns of ‘nightmare scenario’ as virus spreads to the US

Anthony Banbury, chief of the UN’s Ebola mission, says there is a chance the deadly virus could mutate to become infectious through the air

I’m not including any links to those articles (I’ll explain why in a bit). Here’s the quote from which the headline above was taken:

The longer it moves around in human hosts in the virulent melting pot that is West Africa, the more chances increase that it could mutate. It is a nightmare scenario [that it could become airborne], and unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out.

Sure. There’s also a chance we could resurrect a T-Rex from DNA extracted from a mosquito trapped in amber 66 million years ago. Unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out. I could be bitten by a radioactive spider and develop superhuman strength, perfect balance and a spider-sense that would alert me to great danger. Adam Sandler could win an Oscar in the Best Actor category. Unlikely, to be sure — but it can’t be completely ruled out.

Also, Adam Sandler gives emotional acceptance speech at Academy Awards ceremony

Also, Adam Sandler gives emotional acceptance speech at Academy Awards ceremony

Here’s a true thing: there have been exactly the same number of viruses that have mutated from transmission through contact (like Ebola) into airborne respiratory viruses as there have been T-Rexs cloned from DNA obtained from amber-trapped mosquito guts.

In the entire history of epidemiology, it’s never happened. Not once. Ever. And there are a LOT of viruses that can be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids. HIV, for example, or Hepatitis B. Have those viruses mutated? Sure. Have any of them suddenly become airborne? Nope. Will Ebola become airborne? Nope.

Will we see more headlines like this? Absolutely, because scary headlines draw readers and readers draw advertisers and advertising keeps newspapers and magazines alive. It may make them sick, but it keeps them from dying.

Adam Sandler in his Oscar-winning role of an Ebola-infected T-Rex

Adam Sandler in his Oscar-winning role of an Ebola-infected T-Rex

And you know what? That’s exactly what an effective virus does. It infects a host, replicates itself, and finds a way to infect other hosts in order to perpetuate itself. But an effective virus does NOT kill the host; it just keeps it sick. A dead host is of no use to a virus; a sick host allows it to continue to replicate and spread itself, infecting as many new hosts as possible.

If you’ve read any of the articles I mentioned at the beginning, you could have been infected with advert-borne stupidity. That’s why I didn’t include links. Think of the absence of links as a form of prophylaxis — a measure to prevent infection, as opposed to treatment after being infected. But happily, there IS treatment available if you happen to become infected. The treatment isn’t always easy, but it’s widely available.

All you have to do is learn some facts. Facts won’t make you immune to advert-borne stupidity, but it’ll decrease the odds of infection and any long-term effects.

Oh, and wash your hands too. Can’t hurt. And avoid contact with Adam Sandler.

Advertisements

omg the ebolas are here

Okay, just chill the fuck out. We’ve got one guy — one guy — with Ebola in the United States. One guy. It’s not a big deal (unless you’re that one guy, of course).

Here’s the thing about Ebola: it’s only transmissible when the patient is exhibiting symptoms. Also, the only way you can be infected is if you come into contact with the patient’s bodily fluids.

This Ebola guy, he wasn’t exhibiting any symptoms when he flew in from Liberia. How many symptoms was he exhibiting when he flew in? None. He didn’t begin to display any symptoms until four days after he arrived. And what did he do then? He went to the hospital. Which is exactly what he should have done. The hospital checked him out and sent him back home. Which is a perfectly fine thing to do if a guy has the flu. It’s exactly the wrong thing to do if the guy has Ebola.

Couple days later, the guy returned to the hospital, still sick. Still the right thing to do. This time, though, the staff apparently learned he’d recently arrived from Liberia, and they isolated his ass. And they identified and checked on all the people he’d had close contact with.

This is the wicked little bastard that's causing all the trouble

This is the wicked little bastard that’s causing all the trouble

But there’s three pieces of good news: First, Ebola isn’t that transmissilbe, despite what you may have seen in the movies or on television. Popular entertainment media are NOT reliable sources of epidemiological information. Unless somebody — his family, the nurses, the doctors — happened to dip their fingers into the Ebola guy’s bodily fluids, they’re not going to contract the disease. Second, you can bet your ass that from now on when somebody arrives in the E.R. with a fever and other symptoms that might indicate Ebola, somebody is going to be asking the patient if he’s recently been in western Africa. Third, right now researchers and epidemiologists are swarming all over that hospital in Texas with all the fervor of spawning salmon. It won’t take long before they know every detail of that poor bastard’s life.

There’s also bad news: Ebola might not be as transmissible as once thought, but it appears to be more infectious. Even minimal contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids may be enough to pass on the infection. Still, no need to wet your pants. Why? Because First World folks generally tend to be relatively fussy about touching other people’s bodily fluids.

Here’s a simple test to determine if you might have Ebola:

Question 1: Have you touched anybody’s saliva, sweat, vomit, urine, feces, or blood?
If the answer is No — you don’t have Ebola. If the answer is Yes, go to Question 2

Question 2: Did that person have Ebola?
If the answer is No — you don’t have Ebola. If the answer is Yes, go to Question 3.

Question 3: Why are you taking this test instead of checking your ignorant ass into the hospital?

So there it is. Yes, we have an Ebola patient in the U.S. No, it’s not a threat to national security. No, you’re almost certainly not going to catch Ebola. No, it’s exceedingly unlikely that it’ll spread here like it has in parts of western Africa.

This is why doctors and nurses have become infected

This is why doctors and nurses have become infected – inadequate protection

Don’t get me wrong — Ebola is some wicked bad shit. But it’s only a serious threat in nations with really lousy public health systems. Every time Ebola has shoved its nose into some country with decent basic health care — and I mean basic, we’re talking about stuff like trained health care professionals, access to gloves and masks, maybe some isolation wards — it got dough-popped on its ass.

You know how you can tell if a nation has a shitty public health system? When the people dying of Ebola include doctors and nurses. Because that usually means they don’t have enough gloves and masks. They don’t have enough gloves and masks. Weeping Jeebus, what fucking tragedy. Regular folks in those nations get Ebola because they care for their sick. I don’t just mean they take care of their sick; they care for their sick. They hold their hands, they lave their fevered brows, and they personally wash the bodies of their dead. It’s wonderfully intimate. And if the sick guy has Ebola, it’ll kill you.

Gloves and boots drying out after being disinfected with bleach so they can be re-used

Gloves and boots drying out after being disinfected with chlorine so they can be re-used

There’ll be other Ebola cases in the United States in the future. Count on it. And there’ll be cases in Europe, and other places with decent public health systems. That’s just the way the world is now; viruses have no respect for borders and they love air travel.

But we can keep it in check; there won’t be any bodies in the street. In the U.S. you’re safer from Ebola than you are from getting tagged by some camo-wearing mall shooter. That’s a complete different fucking tragedy.

aimless, but not pointless

It’s probably got something to do with the transitional seasons — spring and autumn. Summer and winter are seasons of certainties and absolutes; you know what you can expect: heat and cold. Spring and autumn, though, are seasons of flux and movement; they’re about the passage from one absolute to another.

Maybe that’s why I feel a greater need to explore the countryside in spring and autumn. That’s where you witness the change.

DSCF4161b

Saturday began as a dark, cloudy, stormy day with no real promise of improvement. I had good reasons to stay inside — a book doctoring gig that was overdue, household chores I’d put off for too long, photographs I’d taken the week before but hadn’t yet uploaded. Valid reasons to stay home. But I felt restless…and here’s a true thing: I almost never feel restless. When I do, I usually give in to it.

So I went to a nearby lake, with no purpose in mind other than to noodle around and see what there was to see. It was raw outside, miserably damp, and the light looked infirm. But there’s always something to see at the water’s edge. Lake, brook, ocean, river, doesn’t matter — there’s always something to see.

DSCF4196b

Then the clouds began to fail. The sun took a shufti, and started to wriggle and squirm through the cloud cover. And soon the day had become lovely. It didn’t get warm or anything, but it became comfortable. And the light…lawdy.

I’m sort of stingy when it comes to photography — maybe because I learned to shoot using film. I’ll lift the camera to my eye fairly often, but I don’t always press the shutter release. I’m not particularly conscious of my reasons for shooting or not shooting. All I know is sometimes it feels right and sometimes it doesn’t.

I was out at the lake for about an hour and a half — ninety minutes — and I took about ninety photographs. For me, that’s a LOT of photos.

DSCF4183c

They call it a lake, but in fact it’s a reservoir built in the late 1960s and 70s as part of a flood control program. It’s hard to believe these days, but it wasn’t that long ago when the U.S. government spent big money on big projects that benefited regular people in a big way. Not only did the massive construction project itself provide a lot of jobs, but the finished lake supports a large community of small businesses.

The lake is a major local recreational area. It’s popular with recreational boaters, with hunters, with anglers, with hikers, with bicyclists (there are bike trails all through the area), with picnickers, with photographers (I saw one guy with a 4×5 view camera), with campers. All of those people spend money on their hobbies. They buy boats and jet-skis (and have them repaired and moored at marinas in the summer and stored in the winter), they buy fishing and hunting gear, they buy bikes and cameras, they eat at local diners and buy gas at local filling stations, they buy camping gear and rent camping sites at the many campgrounds, they buy sunscreen and mosquito repellent, they buy beer and soda, they spend a metric buttload of money every year. All because the government built a 26,000 acre flood protection reservoir. (All of which is to say ‘Fuck you, Tea Party Asshats!’)

DSCF4220bIn the summer, this lake is busy. It slows down quite a bit in the autumn, and on a day that began so cold and unwelcoming it wasn’t surprising that there were so few people to be seen. There were a few people bundled up but still zooming around in boats, there were a few folks fishing, there was a guy with a dog, and another guy wrestling with a large format camera. Lots of gulls, a few deer, some dead fish, a different hawk every few yards, no obvious raccoons or weasels (though a lot of tracks), finches so tiny you could fit two in a teacup.

It seems so quiet when you first arrive — but soon you realize how much sound there is. The waves, of course, and the wind through the grasses. Distant drone of boat motors. That ridiculous but somehow still moving plaintive cry of the gulls. Soft rattling of dead leaves. It seems absurd that the world could be so quiet and still so full of noise.

DSCF4207c

At one of the many official recreation spots there’s a bath house for swimmers — an open air place to shower and change in and out of swim suits. It’s a purely functional building made of formed concrete. It looks rather like a failed student project from the Soviet School of Architecture and Design. It ain’t pretty.

But, again, the light. Light has the capacity to turn even a butt-ugly bath-house into something interesting. For a moment, anyway.

DSCF4214b

Here’s an odd thing. When I first arrived at the lake, I spent most of my time looking out at everything. Looking out at the horizon, out at the trees and out over the water, out at the buildings and the shifting clouds. But the longer I was there, the more I began to look down.

Looking out, you tend to see the larger world and the things you notice are large things. Looking down, you notice the smaller world. A world of small stones and tiny plants and odd-looking insects and sand and dry broken bits of wood and dead grasses and clusters of cockleburs. Along the lakeside, it’s a universe of cockleburs.

DSCF4230b

Cockleburs are really rather fascinating. The seeds, of course, are hard ovals covered in spines. The spines are actually wonderfully-formed hooks, though the tiny hooks are difficult to see without close study. But c’mon, who really looks at a cocklebur? Nobody. You just want to get the wee bastards off. Off your shirt, and off your pants, and off your socks, and your shoes, and Jeebus on toast I’ll bet the damned things could stick to tank treads.

That’s the point, of course. The spiny hooks are an incredibly efficient and effective mode of seed dispersal. But what’s really cool about these remarkably annoying plants is that they’re classic examples of photoperiodism. They’re what’s called short-day plants, plants that only bloom when the days begin to get shorter. Short-day plants have a protein that actually serves as a photo-receptor, which is incredibly cool. What’s even more cool (if you like this sort of thing) is that the photo-receptor isn’t triggered by the amount of light during the day, but by the amount of dark during the night. Short-day plants should actually be called long-night plants.

DSCF4235b

But wait — there’s still more cool but weird cocklebur stuff. That infuriating egg-shaped seed pod generally holds two seeds — one seed grows the next year, the other seed waits and grows during the second year. It’s a marvelously effective way to insure the perpetuation of the species. If you were to pick a few of those irritating burrs off your socks and boil them, you could make a tea that’s moderately effective at relieving nasal and sinus congestion. Or, you could use the plant itself to make a yellow dye. Seriously. The cocklebur belongs to the genus Xanthium, which means ‘yellow’ in Greek. It got that scientific name from a 17th century French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, who was aware that the plant had been used for centuries by the Greeks to create a yellow hair dye.

So the next time you have to pick cockleburs off your shoestring, remember to give a moment of thought to what a truly remarkable plant it is. Then throw the irksome little bastard away (which, of course, is exactly what the irksome little bastard wants).

DSCF4241b

An hour and a half, that’s all the longer I was out there. An hour and a half, and the clouds began to move back in, the wind picked up, and the air took on a dampness that made it seem colder than it was. An hour and a half, and if I believed in the soul I’d say mine was replenished in that time. Ninety minutes of mostly aimless walking and looking and shooting photos.

And another ten minutes picking the damned cockleburs off my clothes.

jackassery

I’m a big believer in academic freedom. I’ve managed to acquire a handful of degrees from various colleges and universities, and for a brief time I was actually an academic my ownself. When I heard the State of Oklahoma was considering legislation promoting academic freedom, I was understandably pleased.

I said to myself, “Yay Oklahoma!” I started to read HR1674, the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act, with a song in my heart. The legislation begins like this:

[A]n important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills they need in order to become intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens.

Who could argue against that? We totally want our students to develop mad critical thinking skillz. Yay Oklahoma! Yay critical thinking skills! The proposed legislation acknowledges that encouraging the development of those critical thinking skills can lead to controversy.

[T]he teaching of some scientific concepts including but not limited to premises in the areas of biology, chemistry, meteorology, bioethics and physics can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on some subjects such as, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

So far, so good, right? Yay Oklahoma! Yay critical thinking skills! Yay controversy! Controversy is good. Controversy makes you think. Controversy requires you to…wait. Wait a minute. Wait just one fucking minute here, buddy. Biological evolution? The chemical origins of life? Global warming?

Are you crazy? There’s no scientific controversy about evolution. There’s no scientific controversy about the origin of life or anthropogenic climate change. Those are established scientific facts. What jackass wrote this proposed legislation?

This jackass.

gus blackwell and a mallet

Gus Blackwell (Jackass – Oklahoma)

This is Oklahoma state legislator Gus Blackwell. Would you be surprised to discover Blackwell is a Republican? Or that he’s a Baptist minister? Or that he’s spent the last two decades employed by the Oklahoma Baptist General Convention?

I’m not suggesting Blackwell is a jackass because he’s a Republican or a Baptist. There are lots of Republicans and Baptists who go through life without engaging in jackassery. No, Blackwell is a jackass because he’s introduced legislation that would give his Baptist theology the same credibility as science. Blackwell is a jackass because his proposed legislation goes on to say this:

[N]o student in any public school or institution shall be penalized in any way because the student may subscribe to a particular position on scientific theories.

What does that mean? In effect, it means if students were to write a report claiming climate change is a hoax or arguing that the Earth is only 6000 years old and women were created from the rib of Adam, they couldn’t be ‘penalized’ with a bad grade. In an interview, Blackwell said,

“I proposed this bill because there are teachers and students who may be afraid of going against what they see in their textbooks. A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations.”

Blackburn is a jackass, but he’s right about that. A certainly student does have the freedom to write a paper arguing against evolution. But if that paper was written for a science class, then the student should expect a failing grade. Not because the teacher may disagree with the student’s belief system, but because that student would be what we academics call ‘wrong.’

Blackwell and his ilk (yes, there is an entire ilk of jackasses like Gus Blackwell) propose this sort of legislation under the guise of promoting ‘academic freedom.’ I’m sorry to say they know as much about academic freedom as they know about science.

Academic freedom, like evolution or gravity or anthropomorphic climate change, is an actual thing. It has an actual meaning. It’s not a matter of opinion. And it’s got nothing to do with students having the freedom to write papers about humans cavorting with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden.

creation museum

Academic freedom doesn’t apply to students representing a personal point of view. Legally, it doesn’t even apply to teachers or college professors. In the United States, the courts have ruled that academic freedom resides in the university. Academic freedom gives the university the power to appoint faculty and set standards for their behavior.

All major universities in the U.S. abide by the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which insures that:

  • Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties.
  • Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
  • College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

It was academic freedom that enabled Blackwell to attend Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theology Seminary and study Baptist theology. Yay academic freedom! But academic freedom doesn’t mean he can legislate that his theology be given equal credibility as science. Boo jackassery!

Happily for Gus Blackwell, though, nobody has proposed legislation limiting his freedom to be a jackass.

a trick of fog and mist

Fog. The weather forecast said — promised — there would be fog in the morning. So I arranged my schedule (okay, I don’t actually have anything even remotely resembling a schedule — but if I did, I’d have arranged it) so I could be downtown early in the morning. Because fog, right?

Here’s a meteorologically true thing: the only difference between fog and mist is their density as measured by the degree of visibility. They’re both just localized collections of water droplets suspended in the air. They’re essentially stratus clouds — flat, lazy, featureless clouds — hanging on at or just above ground level. Here’s the difference between fog and mist: if you can see for more than a kilometer, you’re in mist; if you can see less than a kilometer, you’re in fog.

waiting for the bus

waiting for the bus

I had both. Fog and mist. Most of the time there was a layer of fog about 10 to 20 meters above the ground, beneath which was mist. Sometimes the cloud would dip down and I was in fog; sometimes it lifted a wee bit and I was in mist.

It was very odd and strange, and even if it made photography confusing as hell, it made for an interesting walk. One moment visibility would be only a few hundred feet, the next you could see for a couple of block; one moment it was chilly and damp, and the next moment if was…well, it stayed chilly and damp, but the degree of chilliness and dampness shifted radically.

chill breeze by the river

chill breeze by the river

I was on the street by around 6:30 in the morning. At that hour, there weren’t a lot of people about. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve held a straight job, and I’d forgotten the simple fact that most folks go to work by themselves. Aside from car-poolers and folks who take public transportation, people don’t generally go to work in groups. Almost everybody I saw that morning was alone. One solitary person, moving purposefully through the fog/mist. It made them all seem isolated.

heading for the diner

heading for the diner

Isolated, but not unfriendly. I photographed several people as they walked toward me, and as they reached me I usually smiled and showed them their photo. Most of them paused long enough to admire themselves, make a joke, ask a question. The guy in the photograph below looked at his picture and said “That’s pretty good. But why did you take my picture?” I guess it was a good question because a very attractive young woman had been walking in front of him, and I didn’t shoot her photo. I said “Because you’re so purty.” He laughed, punched me gently in the arm, said “Fuck you,” and wandered off still laughing.

because you're so purty

because you’re so purty

I know that right now you’re almost certainly wondering about the etymology of fog and mist, because that’s just the sort of person you are. And aren’t you in luck, because I can tell you there’s some uncertainty about the etymology of ‘fog’ but not about ‘mist.’ Most linguists suggest fog is related to the Dutch vocht and German feucht (which, if there is any justice in the world, has to be pronounced fucked). The origins of ‘mist,’ on the other hand, are pretty clear. It comes from the Old English term mist (what a shock), which apparently referred to a ‘dimness of eyesight.’ That Old English term is believed to derive from the Proto-Indo-European meigh which meant ‘to urinate’ (and no, I’m not making this up).

In photographic terms, this means if you’re shooting in fog or mist your autofocus is fucked, which could leave you pissed.

on court street

on court street

Here’s a photographically true thing: as atmospheric conditions, both fog and mist can be dense enough to bitch-slap most autofocus systems. One of the things I’ve come to rely on with my little Fujifilm X10 is its quick and accurate autofocus, and even though it tried valiantly, the X10 wasn’t always successful.

At first it was a tad frustrating when I chimped a photo and saw it wasn’t in focus. Then I reminded myself that sharpness is a bourgeois concept. It’s also a relative notion. If the photo shows what you want it to show, that’s all that counts. Besides, black-and-white photography is more about form and line and shape and geometry than about clarity. Fog and mist are made for b&w work.

old woman

old woman

At one point I saw this stooped figure approach, moving in a slow rolling sort of gait that was oddly gorilla-like. I shot the photo above and another, and waited for the person to walk into the patch of light at the corner. It turned out to be an old Slavic-looking woman, which left me in sort of a moral quandary. Not in regard to shooting her photo; that seemed immediately inappropriate. The quandary was whether or not I should offer to carry her bag. It didn’t look particularly heavy, but that wasn’t the issue. However, it seemed a rather impertinent offer; I know how my own mother would have reacted to that offer. “What…do I look too old to carry my own bags?”

So I lowered my camera and stood there, waiting and trying to decide what to do. She shuffled on by without even looking up. And I continued on my way.

outside the bail bond office

outside the bail bond office

The fog started to lift pretty quickly after that. The X10’s autofocus breathed a sigh of relief and went back to work. There were more people on the street — some still making their way to work, some already working, some making deliveries, some just hanging out, some taking their dogs for their morning ‘walkies.’

The people with dogs were always willing to stop a moment and allow their dogs to be praised and admired. Here’s an odd thing: all of the dog-walkers I met that morning were happy to have their dogs photographed, but every single one of the people were reluctant to be photographed themselves.

in a hurry

in a hurry

Near the end of my walk I saw this woman in the photograph below standing along the promenade overlooking the riverwalk. I shot a couple frames of her standing there. She looked so sad and forlorn I felt I should speak to her. So I said “Excuse me?” and when she turned I told her I’d just taken her photograph and asked if she’d like to see it.

She smiled and said yes. When she saw it she laughed and said, “Oh good, you got the old lights on the bridge. I was just standing here admiring them.”

on the promenade

on the promenade

We chatted for maybe five minutes. She was just out taking a walk in the fog, and was as happy and cheerful as anybody I saw all morning. There was nothing the least bit sad or forlorn about her.

It was just another trick of the fog and mist.

ice ice baby

I like people. I really do. But sometimes I despair of their lack of interest in the world around them. A few days ago I was downtown, crossing a bridge over the river, and I was overtaken by a couple of guys walking in the same direction. I heard one of them say “River’s iced over.” The other guy glanced over the side of the bridge and said “Yep.” And that was it.

One of the most intriguing winter phenomena was taking place below them, and they didn’t see it. Rivers and streams freeze every year, yes. It’s nothing new. But it’s a fascinating process. It’s a radically different process than what takes place on a lake or pond because…well, river water moves, and that makes the freezing process significantly more complex.

On a moving body of fresh water, ice almost always begins to form along the banks. There are a couple reasons for that. First, the temperature in the shallow water along the shore drops faster on a cold night. Second, there are quiescent areas along the banks where the water is more still. Ice that forms along the bank is appropriately known as border ice. If the river or stream or brook is narrow enough — or if the weather stays cold enough — border ice will gradually expand toward the center of the stream until the entire surface freezes over.

Border ice

Border ice

But that’s not so very different from what happens on lakes and ponds — or in your birdbath, for that matter. The really interesting stuff takes place away from the banks, where the water is more turbulent. That’s when the freezing process gets weird and wonderful.

As the temperature drops, the surface of the water begins to lose heat rapidly. The turbulence of the river flow sort of roils that super-cooled surface water with a less cold layer of water just below the surface. This causes tiny crystals of ice to form. Those crystals gather in loose, randomly-oriented discoid or needle-shapes. This is called frazil ice.

Frazil often looks like slush in the water. There are a couple of things that make frazil interesting. First, like most ice, frazil floats — so it travels downstream. Second it has an extreme capacity to adhere to any object it comes in contact with. In other words, frazil clumps easily.

frazil ice

Frazil ice

As it floats downstream, frazil bumps into stuff and sticks. In the photograph above, you can see frazil in its slushy form at the top of the frame. You can also see the line where frazil is clumping to more frazil, which will form the border of an ice pan. That raised line of ice is actually caused by the repeated collision of frazil against frazil.

A later stage of freezing occurs when frazil crystals coagulate to form a sort of soupy layer on the surface of the water. This is called grease ice because it looks slick. It doesn’t reflect light very well, which gives the water surface a matte appearance.

Grease ice

Grease ice

As the ice crystals become more compacted and solid they release more heat, creating surface slabs of ice known as ice pans. This is more like the ice we’re most familiar with. Ice pans often break free and float away downstream, banging and colliding with other ice pans, given them a softly rounded edges.

When these surface slabs of ice form in the bend of a river, they sometimes get caught in the rotational shear of the current and the ice pan spins around and around. As it rotates, the outer edge is gradually ground away until if forms an almost perfect circle. I’ve only seen this phenomenon once; sadly, I don’t have a photograph of it.

The photograph below, however, shows several different facets of the river freezing process. You can see the border ice; you can see where frazil has formed and clumped together causing a slushy barrier; you can see where that barrier has coalesced into grease ice; and you can see where ice pans have broken away and been refrozen in mid-stream.

Ice pans

Ice pans

This astonishing collection of various freezing processes is precisely what those guys were looking at when they said “River’s iced over.”

Now, I understand that other folks might not find these details as intriguing as I do. I understand that for a lot of folks — most folks, probably — the only ice that matters is the ice in their drinks. I understand that, I really do. But I can’t help feeling that those two guys who hurried by me on the bridge have missed out on something. I can’t help thinking that if they stopped for just a moment and really looked at the river, if they’d  asked themselves what was happening — even if they never bothered to seek out the answers — that their lives would be somewhat richer.