“THE ARCTIC IS CARRYING THE DEEP WOUNDS OF THE WORLD,” asserts Gretel Ehrlich in her elegiac In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape [Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2010]. She continues: “Wounds that aren’t healing. Bands of ice and tundra that protected Inuit people for thousands of years, ensuring a continuity of language and lifeways and a meta-stable climate, have been assaulted from above and below, inside and out. Pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, the crushing demands of sovereignty and capitalism, war and religion have severed the strong embrace of ice.”
Her timely, highly recommended book clashes great beauty (“The poet Joseph Brodsky said that the purpose of evolution was beauty,” she notes amid myriad descriptions of awe-inspiring Arctic allure) with dispassionate science (“The paradise called the Holocene is ending, and a new epoch, tentatively named the Anthropocene, is beginning—an era when climate will be forced against its cyclical ‘instinct’ to become cold again”). It’s this clash, really a jarring shift, like ice shelves themselves colliding, then violently crumbling as they part, that infuses Ehrlich’s text with its vigorous and heartrending power.
In her telling observations, she is as unrelenting as the melting ice: “Perhaps the term climate change should be changed to climate care, since it is carelessness that is bringing so many changes to life as we know it and most likely will bring much of the life of humans and megafauna on this planet to what may be the end”; or try: “When we lose an ecosystem we are losing our thumbprint uniqueness, our way of knowing the world and our strategies of survival.”
As tocsinlike and grim as this may sound, and is, Ehrlich also celebrates native ingenuity, creativity—primarily as witnessed through storytelling, myth and art—and toughened spirit—the will to survive, to balance a hierarchy of needs and to bask rather contentedly in the determinate beauty of a (still) ice-locked natural world—a little of the noble savage perhaps, but I’d never for a moment confuse Ehrlich with Rousseau.
I FIRST CAME ACROSS EHRLICH back in the mid-nineties when researching an Elliott Bay Booknotes story entitled “The Natural World & the Written Word.” I wrote, in part, about A Match to the Heart, her reminiscence of time spent recovering from a lightning strike she suffered while hiking near her Wyoming home: “[S]he approaches the natural world from an entirely different perspective, one that evokes awe at the ineffable, the edge of the infinite where lightning is born, delivered into our world then snatched back just as suddenly.”
Her evocation of awe at the ineffable certainly hasn’t been tamped down a decade and a half later in In the Empire of Ice; instead, it has simply been tempered, or annealed, by the observable—both quantifiable and qualifiable—onslaught of climate change, especially as she has first-hand witnessed it in her nearly 20 years traveling the Arctic Circle. (Her Arctic-themed books include Arctic Heart, This Cold Heaven and The Future of Ice.)
A 2007 National Geographic Expeditions Council grant to make a circumpolar journey and report on the environment and lives of indigenous Arctic people and how they were being impacted by climate change was the genesis of this book, which reads part-travel journal, part-scientific inquiry and part-requiem for a rapidly vanishing/never-to-return way of life. Ehrlich’s prose skitters, crackles and walrus-harrumphs its always-fascinating way from discussing diminishing albedos (surface reflectivity of the sun’s radiation, which can keep global warming in check) and the negative impact of more open waterways on native hunting, to the current value of jimajatuqangit (traditional Inuit knowledge) and the ultra-sensitivity of a narwhal’s eight-foot-long spiral tusk (actually a tooth with ten million nerve endings).
Ehrlich’s poetic predilection for anthropomorphizing the ice—it embraces, calms and cools, has legs that bend at the knees, it gets sick and dies; her glaciers have faces, toes and snouts—makes it a living, breathing character throughout the book, one whom we come to love and admire (or at least empathize with) as much as she does, and with increased fervency as we become more aware of how imperiled it is, losing more ground, literally, day by day, month by month, year by year. It’s an effective technique, handled in such a way as to not come across heavy-handed, and provides a solid narrative base as we move, across four chapters, from the Bering Straight to northwestern Russia to Arctic Canada and finally to Greenland.
Along the way we meet scientists and naturalists, but primarily natives, be they Inuits in Alaska and Canada, nomadic Komi in Russia or native Greenlanders; all struggling to adapt to the changes in their world and to continue to survive as best they know how. All the stories Ehrlich shares are compelling. “Arctic people are unique because of their environment,” she writes. “Isolated by ice and fierce weather, theirs represents a continuum of culture that spans tundra and ocean, ice sheets and glaciers, fjords and open-ocean ecosystems, steep coastal mountains, ice-flattened benchlands, and valleys that are verdant for the one-month-long Arctic summer.”
As much as this book is about, as Ehrlich punchily puts it, “genocide: the abuse of indigenous peoples at the top of the world [and] terricide: the abuse of the planet for progress and profit, paying no heed to the biological health of the world,” it is also about hope, about not wanting to see the vibrant people lovingly profiled and their ways of life destroyed or devastatingly compromised—humanity can change its ways, learn from past mistakes and oblivious misadventures—hope, then, even under current conditions, can exist, and persist.
“Surrender is not normally a word used to wage war against extinction,” Ehrlich writes. “But surrender we must—that is, surrender our sovereignty over the planet. The interglacial paradise in which we’ve been living so comfortably is shifting to a world that will not be compatible with human life.” She sums up, in elegant simplicity: “We can no longer hide from the truth.” In the Empire of Ice, then, amounts to full exposure, a heady mixture of terror and beauty, irrationality and reason, a mighty yawning abyss and a greater spirit to enlighten and ennoble in the face of adversity.
Let me close with one final Ehrlich observation, the first word she learned in Greenland:
The first word I learned in Greenland was Sila. It means, simultaneously, weather, the power of nature, and consciousness. For humans and animals that have co-evolved with ice and cold, there is no perceivable boundary between a “knowing” sentient being and the strong forces of weather.