Iowa Writes

BARBARA HAAS
Glacier-ito


Glaciers lend themselves to metaphor especially well, because they are dramatic, mysterious, and unfailingly rich with hidden power.  They're romantic in a Pleistocene destructive way and capture one's imagination, particularly if you like ice-carved wreckage.  Here in Iowa, people speak of the Des Moines Lobe glacier in the cozy comfy way we speak of a long-gone lap dog we remember fondly.  If the Lobe were still around today, we'd give it a nickname, perhaps even affix a diminutive:  glacier-ito.  We anatomize the thing:  its snout extended as far south as the capital building of Des Moines. (Its snout!)  Even if it charged forth at a rate of three kilometers a year, leveling buildings and crushing forests in its path, we'd find some endearing way to excuse this noxious behavior—oh, that big clumsy glacier-ito—just like we do when the dog knocks over the trash.  We're all trash in the path of surging glaciers.  And though they may be majestic, they're usually not in the way icebergs are, those diamond-cut and faceted gemstones from the frozen north that seem to lie fixed atop a glassine sea like jewelry upon a mirror.  Glaciers are unglamorous, workmanlike, and gritty.  They're composed of dirty plodding ice, old ice, ice so systematic and massive it has its own sewage system, ice the size of the federal government—unwieldy, untwinkling, unfaceted.

Glaciers possess extraordinary power.  In Iowa, we know floods are bad, the destructive force of water . . . . But let's think about ice.  The Des Moines Lobe flattened entire forests of spruce, larch, hemlock, fir, and tamarack into the soft loess-covered terrain it overran.  Fueled on its own melt-water lubrication, it slipped and slid forth, like the luge of Titans.  We know the thing stagnated in various places because of the series of ridge-like minor moraines left behind: they impart a corrugated, textured pattern to the landscape.  The glacier surged in other places, because of the frequent evidence of crevasses.  When it ebbed a millennium later, dense sub-glacial till deposits concealed the land's real contours.  This compact gray pebbly material, several hundred feet thick in some spots, created a topography so altered that we have few glimpses of the actual limestone bedrock profile below, all of it hidden under drift and deposits of wind-borne loess, covered up, as if with an earth-science disguise.

Glaciers lend themselves to metaphor especially well, because they are dramatic, mysterious, and unfailingly rich with hidden power.  They're romantic in a Pleistocene destructive way and capture one's imagination, particularly if you like ice-carved wreckage.  Here in Iowa, people speak of the Des Moines Lobe glacier in the cozy comfy way we speak of a long-gone lap dog we remember fondly.  If the Lobe were still around today, we'd give it a nickname, perhaps even affix a diminutive:  glacier-ito.  We anatomize the thing:  its snout extended as far south as the capital building of Des Moines. (Its snout!)  Even if it charged forth at a rate of three kilometers a year, leveling buildings and crushing forests in its path, we'd find some endearing way to excuse this noxious behavior—oh, that big clumsy glacier-ito—just like we do when the dog knocks over the trash.  We're all trash in the path of surging glaciers.  And though they may be majestic, they're usually not in the way icebergs are, those diamond-cut and faceted gemstones from the frozen north that seem to lie fixed atop a glassine sea like jewelry upon a mirror.  Glaciers are unglamorous, workmanlike, and gritty.  They're composed of dirty plodding ice, old ice, ice so systematic and massive it has its own sewage system, ice the size of the federal government—unwieldy, untwinkling, unfaceted.

Glaciers possess extraordinary power.  In Iowa, we know floods are bad, the destructive force of water . . . . But let's think about ice.  The Des Moines Lobe flattened entire forests of spruce, larch, hemlock, fir, and tamarack into the soft loess-covered terrain it overran.  Fueled on its own melt-water lubrication, it slipped and slid forth, like the luge of Titans.  We know the thing stagnated in various places because of the series of ridge-like minor moraines left behind: they impart a corrugated, textured pattern to the landscape.  The glacier surged in other places, because of the frequent evidence of crevasses.  When it ebbed a millennium later, dense sub-glacial till deposits concealed the land's real contours.  This compact gray pebbly material, several hundred feet thick in some spots, created a topography so altered that we have few glimpses of the actual limestone bedrock profile below, all of it hidden under drift and deposits of wind-borne loess, covered up, as if with an earth-science disguise.

Now, even 12,000 years after deglaciation, little in the central Iowa landscape has changed from the day of the Des Moines Lobe's retreat.  Geologists call this a young landscape.  Wind and water have not eroded it yet, unlike, for instance, northeast Iowa, the area named "Little Switzerland" for its dramatically dissected landforms.  No. As you drive through central Iowa, the extreme level flatness strikes you.  You think less of ice than you do a billiard table for the gods.

Shakespeare never wrote about glaciers.  In fact, scientists of his time suspected little about the glaciated era of the earth.  Until 1840 the prevailing theory was that a universal and massive Flood, on the scale of Noah and his ark, had covered the earth and scattered widely over northern Europe the large erratics—granite boulders—that could not have occurred naturally in those places.  The mysterious boulders were thought to have drifted in on icebergs and then been deposited when the icebergs melted.  After 1840, geologists embraced glaciology; and by 1950, W.H. Auden mentioned glaciers in his poem, "As I Walked Out One Evening":

In the burrows of the Nightmare. . .
. . . Drifts the appalling snow.

. . . Plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them. . . to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

The ice sheet that we in Iowa romanticize and familiarize, as if it were a beloved old dog, spoke to Auden in something of a wicked, haunted way, with anxious desperation tossed in.  He saw nightmares, appalling snow, a necropolis.  But we nonetheless embrace it, get all sappy and sentimental about it, even glorify the landforms our snouty fellow left behind, like a pet we might willingly welcome back someday.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


BARBARA HAAS

Here in the midst of climate change, Barbara Haas finds it necessary to focus on the Iowa Ice Age, especially the Des Moines Lobe, not only its effects on the land but also its romantic aspects.  Her most recent glacier-related work appears in the latest issue of The Wapsipinicon Almanac.  Haas teaches in the Creative Writing and Environment MFA program at Iowa State University.

This page was first displayed
on March 05, 2010

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