Learn to Play the Ice Harp


Musical notation for ice harp, written by a coyote on frozen pond at Waubonsie State Park. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

Becoming a Naturalist, part 12

We were ascending a steep ravine when suddenly, from behind and below, the sound of shattering ice rang through the woods. I turned to see a young man of our company lobbing ice missiles onto a frozen pond, breaking chunks off the edge and flinging them high into the air. They sounded like icicle wind-chimes as they jingled and danced across the ice.

What compels us to throw random objects at bodies of water, big or small, frozen or fluid? Some might wistfully opine that our friend’s inner child had been set free. Thoreau had a different take on such antics, similar to those in which he had often engaged during a saunters like ours. Something primal and musical is liberated when we fling things on pond ice or follow mid-summer frog-songs into wooded ravines. If anything was liberated at that winter pond, it was not childish impulses. It was the music of a frozen muse, by Thoreau’s telling:

“My friend tells me he has discovered a new note in nature, which he calls an Ice-Harp. Chancing to throw a handful of pebbles upon the ice where there was an air chamber under the ice, it discoursed a pleasant music to him. Herein lies the Tenth Muse, and as he was the man to discover it probably the extra melody was in him.” (Journal, December 5th, 1837.)

The friend in that story was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who described the event in his own journal but did not mention a muse. That was Thoreau’s interpretation, but he did not know the muse by name. Plato identified the Tenth Muse as Sappho. She was credited with the invention of a certain poetic meter and of lyric poetry itself, so named because her recitations were accompanied by lyre, while the wind-god Aeolius made harps of trees. In Thoreau’s woods, the Aeolian harp was a thrush, and the Tenth Muse, appearing now and again in his Journal, was thusly accompanied. And also by singing toads.

A few years later, Thoreau took an evening walk with another friend. When they passed by a pond, the summer “dream of a toad” rang out, but his friend could not hear it. Thoreau diagnosed his deafness as an inner-ear turbidity caused by the pervasive commotion of modern life: “How watchful we must be to keep the crystal well that we were made, clear!” Each of us in our wild and natural state is a crystal pool, receptive to the dreams of toads, frozen muses, and all the musical vibrations of nature. In an almost Zen-like turnabout, one who walks by the pond becomes the pond.

Wild music fills our crystal stillness. Find a frozen pond and listen for muses: Aeolian thrushes have made for the south, but January plays her woodpecker drums. Dreaming frogs are sleeping deep, but frosted oaks creek and croak.The songbirds of summer evenings become the what-cheers and che-winks of shorter days. Oddly, owls embrace the day and hoot for love at noon. Bladdernut rattles, and bittersweet. Musical notation, in coyote tracks and rabbit dashes, is written on new-fallen snow. And if you learn to play the ice-harp, you can add your notes to all the rest.


For details on The Loess Hills Nature School 2017 Winter Session, click here.