Will Our Icy Passions Turn to Mush?

This week in its continuing series Climate Connections (a year-long project undertaken with National Geographic), National Public Radio reported on the effects a shortened Arctic ice season is having on seasonal scientific research stations in the ever-evocative North Pole. Obviously, the news is not good, the prognosis so predictable that it hardly counts as newsworthy anymore: the ice is returning for shorter periods each year, and is consistently thinner and weaker.

News programs like Climate Connections and Marketplace‘s series Frozen Assets have followed the mainstream tone of the global warming conversation by focusing on economic impacts and changing ways of traditional life from Jakarta to Juno. What occurs to me is that loss of ice — serious, massive ice that envelops the traveler like being in outer space — will wipe out landscapes that have inspired some of the most riveting travel writing in the history of the genre.

Extremes of weather have always made for excellent travel writing, whether it’s monsoons in India in the 1400s, or blizzards on Everest in the 1990s. Ice and cold, though, force a traveler to turn to a personal, inner landscape in a way that only desert life, such as that Wilfred Thesiger pursued, can compare with. Ice is not just cold, it’s pure, or at least seems so. Its nothingness invariably transforms into a land of awe-inspiring features for those with the patience to watch it. The nothingness itself can transform the inner person.

We no longer live in an age of real exploration, not of our own planet. Never again will a book such as The Worst Journey in the World, narrating Captain Scott’s last attempt to reach the South Pole, be created. Its author, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, was a budding scientist so gifted with a sense of drama and storytelling that his Bible-sized tome, meant simply as a chronicle of an expedition, is impossible to put down (it also happens to be one of my all-time favorite travel books).

Even though the age of explorers like Scott and Rasmussen is gone, we can always hope for a resurgence in the age of those who notice, and think, and go. Writers such as Gretel Ehrlich (This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland, among other chilly books) view travel through a prism of cold, breathtaking beauty. Those cold places, those icy places, wrap themselves around our skin, demanding that we take notice of every speck of nature that refrigerates our eyelids and numbs our fingers.

Personally, I love ice. I love cold. Throw me somewhere hot and humid (like where I now live) and I either wilt or stalk around with a temper like a Grizzly dragged out of hibernation. Winter is when I wake up. I could spend forever tramping around a frozen Russia, never seeing its summer, and keep grinning. I daydream of landing that tremendous freelance gig of being sent to the nether parts of our world’s iciest places. Ice and cold are things I believe in, like a religion.

And I believe in the writing that comes from experiencing these places, narratives and stories and outlooks that add much-needed facets to the human experience: not only The World Journey in the World, but the clean lines of Jack London’s frigid northern tales, or the ancient, wild Sagas of Icelanders, which rival the budding fiction of Europe’s Middle Ages in their complexity.

I’m curious to see how vanishing ice and milder temperatures will transform our literary landscape. I envision something a little more humdrum, a little less independent, a little more threadbare in those insights scoured clean and pure by an Arctic wind. In the meantime, I hope to pay obeisance to the ice in person, while it’s still there.

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