Like many excellent travel books, Gretel Ehrlich’s The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold is classified as Nature writing rather than travel literature. Travel, however, is certainly what Ehrlich does in this book, following chilly weather cycles to touch down in three places: southern Patagonia, Spitsbergen east of Greenland, and her own freezing tent in Wyoming.
I’ve always had a problem reading Gretel Ehrlich. She’s a writer whose work I desperately want to like. I keep coming back to her because I have few kindred spirits, writerly or otherwise, in a pure love of winter and ice and cold. But there is something in her work that always holds me back, a style that whispers a little too much of spirituality — a part of me wants to say “pseudo-spirituality,” but it’s unfair to judge another’s experience. It’s a characteristic of several good writers whose work I don’t like that they are long-term Zen practitioners, which perhaps accounts for the extensive use of short, staccato sentences that flash past too frequently to hold my attention. (An odd combination, the Zen and writing I dislike, considering I myself am a devotee of yoga and meditation.) Ehrlich, while a talented writer, is one who engages in a style I simply don’t enjoy reading.
Having faced my own bias, I wouldn’t dare call this book, or any other of Ehrlich’s, bad. Even I, who react against her writing style, acknowledge that she’s an excellent writer, who has become an acknowledged expert on Greenland native culture and writing about the remote places inhabited by ice.
The Future of Ice, with its scenes on three continents, with many experiences of winter, is comprised of tiny chapters, each a snowflake of experience. Ehrlich teases readers with a new love interest, Gary, in Patagonia; memories of traumatic events in over two decades of Wyoming winters; and the gravitational pull of scientific and artistic personalities on an Arctic ice boat.
The Future of Ice seems to promise more than it delivers, but that problem is perhaps due more to marketing than to any shortcomings of the writer. Rather than focusing on the way cold affects our perceptions and consciousness, and how our very thought processes will be changed by “deseasoning” (the loss of winter), Ehrlich has written a very personal book that tells much more about her own abstract, poetic view of the world around her, than about the world itself. Zen poetic near-introspection speckled with scientific fact.
That’s not to say Ehrlich’s book isn’t good — it is — but the writer’s use of language forces the reader into a reaction of love or boredom. Take this passage:
“Inside cold there are musical notes: once, while I walked in hunger and fatigue across the center of northern Greenland’s Warming Land, where no human had ever ventured, rays of light sprayed out from the ends of my feet. Each time I stepped down, a burst of music erupted. The earth was a piano and my feet were searching for chords. … Winter is a white vagrancy. There are no days or nights. Just breathing and snow pushing space between thought. I rub my neck. Where lightning drove through me, snow recongeals on neural substrates. By afternoon I feel as if I can touch all the way back to the cells of my brain.”
I know many people who would respond to the above words with adoration, whereas my reaction is impatience. Maybe I’m too literal, maybe my scientific background is irritated by the lack of solid grounding. The best part of Ehrlich’s book is the middle sections placed in Wyoming. Here, in her solid, cold, sometimes heartbreaking life, Ehrlich isn’t pushing so hard to infuse everything with meaning.
The Future of Ice is a book that many people will enjoy reading, and, as with much nature/travel literature, an important one. The section on the Arctic, in particular, lays out the stark facts of the poisoning of the climate above the Arctic circle — the high levels of PCBs, for example, found in the breast milk of Inuit women, and the acid rain falling on glaciers. Maybe I have a problem reading it not because of Ehrlich’s writing style, but because it’s filled with the sort of inarguable observations that make me wonder why I am having children. A world without ice might rely less on heating oil, but the prospect of it fills me with the magnitude of what, as a species, we’re losing.