“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. Read More »