Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His writing appears in Aldus Journal of Translation, Atticus Review, Bangalore Review, Conclave, Construction, Digital Americana, Gravel, Grey Sparrow Journal, IthacaLit, JMWW, Lowestoft Chronicle, Milo Review, Montreal Review, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Origami Journal, Outside In Literary & Travel, Poydras Review, The Rusty Nail, Short Fiction, and Slippage.
After the gray skies of winter, dim days of snow sifting down, long nights of freezing rain that hardens to a glassy carapace, after this dreary waste of time, a day arrives when the sun blazes, the air warms, and the world stirs to life. It is the hour of deliverance, the first day of spring, the season of snowmelt.
I pull on rubber boots, clomp out the door, and splash through the neighborhood streets. Snowbanks like mountain ranges subside to soft hills, with jagged gorges on the southern slope, eroded under a filigree of ice. The fragile lace crumbles at a touch. Asphalt pavement lies wet and black, as though freshly rolled by an invisible road crew. It steams in the sun. Bare patches appear in the blanket of snow. They reveal the grass that lay underneath, tousled and matted, hidden so long that I almost forgot it was there. A flock of robins swoops in from nowhere to feed, or simply to touch ground.
Birds sing to the gurgle of running water. Rills and rivulets gush from a hundred springs. The water is cold and perfectly clear, a pure element unlocked from crystal. It gleams in the sun. It pools here and there, blocked by masses of snow. It races in channels in the old snowpack. It vanishes abruptly under a snowbank, to reappear down the street from a hidden streambed, one carved in secret minutes ago.
The scene is geological, but on the scale of a toy and speeded-up. It repeats in miniature the story of the Appalachian Mountains, the Blue Ridge that forms my western horizon. On the farther side, the Shenandoah Valley has a limestone floor that teems with springs, sinkholes, caves, and underground rivers. The porous limestone is like snow, both materials laid in layers and compressed over time. Limestone, mainly calcium carbonate, dissolves in water. Where the mineral-laden water drips and evaporates, it deposits the stone in weird formations, the stalactites and stalagmites of caverns: Luray, Endless, Grand and Massanutten. Whitish, glossy, catching the light of torches, the stone resembles ice. In any case, the caverns remain at a constant temperature that chills bare skin and creeps into the bones.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge may have been thinking of cold limestone caverns when he wrote his poem “Kubla Khan.”
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea. . . .
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
Xanadu, or Shangdu, was a real place, the capital city of the Mongol Empire. Kublai Khan founded the city, and the Chinese architect Liu Bingzhong designed it in 1256. It lies about 220 miles north of Beijing. Later the summer capital of the Yuan dynasty, Xanadu was abandoned in 1430. Its ruins became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012.
Marco Polo described Xanadu, apparently from a visit in1275, especially the two imperial palaces, their parks and menageries. In the marble palace, “the rooms are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.” The other palace, built of cane and lashed together with cords of silk, was “so devised that it can be taken down and put up again with great celerity.” Samuel Purchas rewrote the description, published in 1625 in Purchas his Pilgrimes. By his own account, Coleridge was reading the Purchas version in the summer of 1797 when he fell asleep in a chair. He then had an opium-inspired dream, during which:
he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.
Marco Polo makes no mention of “caves of ice,” and neither do descriptions of the site today. Where did Coleridge get them? The geological region called karst, of which the Shenandoah Valley is an example, occurs all over the world: southern France, the Burren of western Ireland, Andalusia in Spain, Gloucesterchire in England, the Nullarbor Plain of Australia, the Chocolate Hills of the Philippines, and the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas. The word karst derives from German, for the limestone plateau that surrounds Trieste, and from the Slovenian grast.
Karst features bear a colorful array of names: cenote for a sinkhole in Yucatan, turlough for a disappearing lake in Ireland, scowle for a shallow pit or labyrinth in the Forest of Dean, and doline for a sinkhole in the Massif Central of France. Eroded limestone assumes fantastic shapes on the surface. Water mysteriously wells up or plunges back into the earth. In “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge makes much of these strange waters:
And from this chasm with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced.
In Augusta County about ten years ago, for the local housing authority, I inspected a poor, rural house that lacked indoor plumbing. The residents asked if I wanted to see the spring where they fetched water. I demurred, but they insisted. I followed them along a narrow footpath behind the house, through a grove of trees. We emerged at a river that burst from the ground, a torrent from a limestone grotto. This domestic water supply precisely fit the description in Coleridge’s poem.
On Montrose Avenue, as I view the rush of water in front of my house, I think it must be more than snowmelt. The volume is too much, and it carries mud and pebbles. I follow the stream up to the corner of Rialto, where water bubbles up through cracks in the pavement. Can it be a spring like those in the Shenandoah Valley? I return home and phone the city public works department. Within the hour, an official-looking truck arrives at the scene, and an official-looking man says that a water main is broken. A crew arrives to dig up the street, and they stay into the evening.
By next morning, a rectangle of gravel marks the spot, and the street is dry. An overnight freeze has halted the meltwaters. But the sky is clear, and the sun will have its way.