Ice: Symbol of the Anthropocene
Jan - Feb 2021
The wide track left by snowmobiles, sleds, and skis did not turn up the hill. I realised if I wanted to reach the top – that place I had spotted from afar, the suspiciously 90º cut-out of forest-less white – I would need to forge my own way. I started to climb directly through the forest. Despite my snow shoes, with every step my feet plunged into the metres-deep snow so that soon I was sweaty and panting. I came upon criss-crossing tracks of animals who had passed through an indeterminate time ago, as snow hadn’t fallen for several days. Prints of paws, reindeer, moose; huge, heavy holes I have no chance of identifying. I tried to follow the tracks when they matched my desired direction in the hope that the somewhat pre-compressed snow would provide sturdier footholds. I soon realised they made no difference, but I still followed where I could, finding it reassuring to walk alongside these memories.
Ice helps us understand our past.
Snow remembers, holds onto tracks and impressions that we could build stories out of, forged mostly from guesswork but held together with the trace of truth. In Antarctica, snow falls upon snow that will never melt, trapping particles of the atmosphere as it compacts into ice that scientists can then drill out, analyse, and use to understand previous versions of the climate. Ice freezes a moment in time, allows us to rediscover it days or millennia into the future. Like when it offers our ancestors back to us, their skin or fur shrunken but so intact they could almost walk beside us again. When the sudden expulsion of water from a pipe is immortalised as a dramatic icicle. When the river’s flow is held in place, momentary ripples transformed into contours that for once we can stop and consider.
As I hurriedly climbed, no time to stop and rest, it struck me that I had come here to study the snow, the ice, the cold, but had instead found myself devoting all my attention to the sun, or any other light and warmth. Here in Sápmi, more commonly known as Sweden’s Lappland, I found I must chase the sun. On my first day I had discovered that the daylight lasted longer than expected, but I also knew that the darkness was absolute, so I was keen to reach the top of this hill with enough time to return to my caravan. Back in Uppsala where the days were longer and the air warmer, there had been no need for such a rush: I had calmly lain in the snow to stare up at the sky and listen to the muffled forest.
Perhaps it was my upbringing in the warm and dry South East of Britain (where snow days were a singular, annual occurrence of chaos and excitement) that had bred in me such a reverence for snow. I always find snow’s inevitable transience begs me to forget any goals and plans, to make the most of this preciously rare moment of a world turned white. Whereas, here within the Arctic Circle, at -17ºC the snow was here to stay. Instead, it was light and warmth that was made transient. If I stood still for the short time it took to get a photograph of the sun’s fleeting flow of untranslatable colours, the life in my fingers would quickly drain away as they became too cold to bend. There was no time to self-indulgently study the ice; it demanded I obsess over the dying light and my dissipating body heat, to fight against stillness moment to moment.
Ice helps us understand our present.
Change demands our awareness of time. Ice always exists at the threshold of change as water that has gone through the act of freezing which will – to varying degrees of probability – then go through the act of melting. Ice, then, represents time in its essence, capturing process in its form. Cultures dominated by an icy existence tend to incorporate this essence into their worldview and lifestyle. The Sámi structure their lives around seasonal rhythms of winter snowfall and melt, moving their reindeer herds between mountains and forests accordingly. Therefore their perspective of dasein, of being in the world, is a cyclical understanding of temporality that ‘emphasises the recurring and holistic nature of existence, both in terms of natural resources and the lifecycle of humans’ (Kääpä 2017: 137). In the Polar Regions where the ice never melts, vast featureless landscapes are transformed into a ‘timeless poem’ (Hastrup 2009: 183). Harsh conditions demand moment-to-moment survival tactics from the Inuit, with careful attention to animal migration patterns and ice flows.
Global heating, along with the industrialised conception of time as a ceaseless, linear progression, is threatening the Sámi’s cyclical narrative and the Inuit’s timeless present. Warmer winters disrupt the Sámi reindeers’ ability to forage for food in seasonal patterns and forestry industries chasing more profit destroy the centuries-long lifecycles of ancient forests. Meanwhile, the march of colonialism upon the Arctic and its melting ice creates a linear narrative of cultural and environmental catastrophe for the Inuit. Primarily because of Capitalism’s determination to endlessly grow regardless of season or limitation, the present has never before been in such a rapid and irreversible state of change.
I had been right to be suspicious of this perfectly perpendicular patch of white on the hillside – the forest had been clear-cut, all trees in the area uniformly cut down. One tree at the edge even bore a plastic wreath courtesy of forestry company SCA (Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget), like it had been bestowed a medal for its service. I had wanted to come to this place because of the way it glowed pink under the Polar Circle’s permanent sunrise and sunset. The unblemished white had created an alluring canvas that covered the scars of the destroyed trees. Even up-close, looking down the slope from the crest of the hill, the only trace of the cut trees were slight mounds in the snow, easily ignored or unnoticed. As I warily eyed the dark, possibly blizzard-threatening clouds, I remembered the unusually hot summer I arrived to when I first came to Sweden, how I had swum daily in the nearby lake. I knew logically that these industry-cleared trees were connected to my memories of sunbathing in August’s unexpected heatwave, were connected to the caravan owner’s warnings about the lake’s thin ice due to the uncharacteristically warm winter. The connection felt somewhat distant, muffled beneath the pristine snow; after all, I had crossed the lake just fine.
Ice helps us understand our potential, our choices, our future.
In the wider narrative of the climate crisis it can be difficult to understand that mere lifestyles have agency to cause such unprecedented changes in (what are for most people) faraway places. The very existence of ice can make global warming seem ludicrous, like when it let me walk on a lake, or, as reasoned by Donald Trump in 2013, “I’m in Los Angeles and it’s freezing – global warming is a total, and very expensive hoax.” But each step I took on that lake was cautious, and when I listen to Sámi people describe their difficulties with melting snow I connect it to the increasing flooding of the Thames in London. And as much as the snow covered the scars of the trees, it also made that calculated clear-cut all the more stark on the hillside.
There’s no denying that framing what ice tells us about our changing climate is a tricky balance, but there’s a reason ice has become such a central symbol to the Anthropocene. Within environmental activist movements there has been a growing call to highlight the “human side” of the narrative, to move away from the classic image of the bedraggled polar bear and intangible narratives of lost sea ice. But by helping us understand our past, ice reveals how our present is defined by time; the Anthropocene has made the linear narrative of irreversible change dominant, as ice is doomed to melt but never again re-freeze. Not only that, it’s a problem that connects us all, connects us to those faraway places, for melting ice leads to rising sea levels, a phenomenon that threatens every continent and island in the world. Ice in the Anthropocene evokes a sense of planetary (dis)harmony that environmental movements should not be quick to abandon – “the seas are rising and so are we”.
When Ok in Iceland melted so substantially that in 2019 it was declassified as a glacier, it was given a monument titled ‘A Letter to the Future’. Explaining that Ok’s declassification is expected to be the first of many, the letter states “we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” Ok’s plaque does what its ice no longer can: it preserves the past, it vitalises the present, and it calls to our futures. Perhaps what feels most painful about this monument, therefore, is how the ice cannot tell its own story, and that the story is increasingly being defined by one particular future. The story of ice as it exists currently bears the unmistakable tracks of the Anthropocene – or more specifically, the Capitalocene, a term which underscores the effects of Capitalist endeavours on the climate instead of conceptualising humanity as a singular homogenous force. As much as we are all implicated in the effects of melting ice, we are not all equally to blame for the cause. Capitalism’s conception of time as a linear progress of infinite and uninterrupted growth is infecting the cycles of the world. The lifecycles of trees are cut short for industrial profit while production pushes up levels of CO2 so that the lakes are struggling with their yearly freeze and polar ice now only recedes. Ice, as both reality and symbol of the Capitalocene, exposes the brutality of obsessions with progress, asking us instead to remember the natural cycles of existence as we try to choose our planet’s future.
References and further reading
Arctic Indigenous Perspectives S01E05 (6 Jan 2020) Barents Press Sweden Projects: Available at: https://www.barentspressprojects.com/arctic-conversation-podcast-1/2020/1/6/episode-5
Campbell, Nancy. (2018) The library of ice: readings from a cold climate. London: Scribner.
Haraway, Donna. (2015) Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin, Environmental Humanities. Duke University Press. Available at: https://doaj.org
Hastrup, K. 2009. The nomadic landscape: People in a changing Arctic environment. Danish Journal of Geography 109(2): 181-189.
Ingold, Tim. 1993. The Temporality of the Landscape. World Archaeology 25:152–174.
Kääpä, Pieari. 2017. ‘Cyclical Conceptualizations of Time: Ecocritical Perspectives on Sámi Film Culture’ In: S. Monani and J. Adamson, eds. Ecocriticism and Indigenous Studies: Conversations from Earth to Cosmos. Routledge: Taylor and Francis.
Malm, Andreas. (2016) Fossil capital: the rise of steam power and the roots of global warming. London New York: Verso.
Åsfjäll, L. (2020) ‘Kampen om skogen – nu växer rörelserna för att bevara och inte avverka’, Blankspot, 25 December. Available at: https://blankspot.se/kampen-om-skogen-nu-vaxer-rorelserna-for-att-bevara-och-inte-avverka/
Here's some questions to get you thinking about this topic on a personal level:
Have you ever found curious tracks in the snow?
How does snow and ice make you feel?
Does thinking about (melting) ice help or hinder your understanding of what the planet and humanity is facing?
The Shape of Snowflakes
She told me not to trust the ice
In the narrow place.
Is this the ebbs and flows?
Or is this the change?
I am drawn to all that is delicate
The places where time is thin
Bonded by the line of light between clouds and sky.
I am caught in spirals
Feel rushed down
But the Earth has no time
To wait for me now.
Perhaps when we came to understand
The flow of glaciers
We thought we had to rival their brute path
In our brief lives.
Cut crisp as I fall,
Embroiled in the negotiation of civilisation,
The petty grandiosity of survival,
I am scared
Of how clocks define edges;
Ice crystal lattices
Bitterly obey their brute pace,
Spirals are made metronome,
And the delicate harmonies of impermanence
Drip down a forgotten face.
Drawn to all that is delicate
I am caught in spirals
Cut crisp as I fall
In the shape of snowflakes.
In the shape of snowflakes
There is promise of an end
By whims of clouds.
Drawn to the thin places
I know no land within me
But I remember how
Settled snow frees me to fall
Without a care,
Serenity held in place
By the knowledge of brevity.
Dependent on the whim of clouds
My life can be anywhere between
Touch and eternal.
Maybe none of us will last forever now,
It’s the bitter-melt promise of an end
For edges define us
Too bonded to be deemed distinct
Yet too distinct to be remembered as bonds;
Lattices of me and your delicate promise,
Spirals of us and the land.
See how I am held between time
By crisp ice crystals
And infinite serenity cannot exist.
Oh is this the sign?
Is this to be mourned?
In the narrow place
She told me not to trust the ice.
Thoughts, comments, feedback welcome - go check out the post on instagram
The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell
I looked over the ice floes tessellated upon the ocean like Kay’s puzzle. I wasn’t going to try spelling out eternity. There was not enough time left for that. The ice was beginning to disappear - and before it vanished I wanted to learn what words it would teach me. (p17)
I started reading Nancy Campbell’s Library of Ice after I got back from my trip to the North, and it has carried me through my icy ruminations and revelations in the weeks since. What I love is how every kind of ice is important in this book: Campbell investigates ice caps and icebergs, glaciers and avalanches, hail storms and snow flurries, ice cores for scientists, ice rinks for skaters and curlers, ice cubes for our drinks. By attending to the breadth of ice’s impact on earth and humanity’s lives she expertly shows the interconnection of everything. All beings, alive or otherwise, are caught in a network of cause and effect, traceable in the records of earth. Each place she visits opens up a spiralling web of lives and histories, her writing like a snowflake in the wind as she alights upon literature, art, diaries, scientific research, anecdotes from her travels and the myriad of people she meets. But Campbell never lets you escape how different all these facts and stories feel as a person alive today. We are so aware of ice melting on huge and irreversible scales that we have a fundamentally different reaction to ice as a concept compared to people of even recent history.
Library of Ice is preoccupied by history, though our Anthropogenic future always hangs over Campbell and the reader like a shadow. As she retells everything from ancient myths to Polar explorations to family stories, you discover the extraordinary beauty and majesty of ice and its meanings. Chapter 1, ‘Scientists’, tracks the history of the science of ice and cold, explaining the remarkable discoveries about ice crystal lattice structures and climate. Chapter 3, ‘Hunters’, describes the changing lifestyles of Greenlanders, their traditional uses of ice. She frequently invokes folk tales and art, both indigenous and colonial. Emulating a snowstorm or a river, Campbell doesn’t tell these stories one by one, but instead weaves them together so that each chapter is a holistic experience. By refusing to discriminate against any form of knowledge - explicitly putting climatology on par with painting - she shows there can be no single truth. It’s a rallying cry for our current situation; environmental, social, economic, racial, psychological and so many more issues are too intertwined to be dealt with singularly. We must respect and listen to all the stories that our earth is telling us.
Words are important to Campbell. Exploring the languages and ancient texts of Greenland, Iceland, Scotland and more, she compares the emotive yet endangered qualities of ice and stories. It becomes clear that language stores history like ice: like footprints left by Arctic explorers or unidentifiable frozen bodies, language imperfectly records ideas and lives, susceptible to changing human sentiments. In this sense the book truly deserves its title as a library of ice. Like the monument to Ok the declassified glacier, it records (in detail but inevitably incompletely) humanity’s relationship to ice, remembering its past with a sharp, disapproving eye on its future.
Find more of her work:
As I expressed in my essay, forestry in Sweden is not the picture of eco-friendly green sustainability that it claims to be. Sveaskog, the predominantly-state owned forestry industry of Sweden, continues to cut down ancient forests and thereby threatening reindeer ability to forage for food and the sequestration of CO2. They claim to be sustainable by planting 2 trees for every 1 they cut down, but this entirely misunderstands the importance of forest lifecycles and biodiversity. Global warming is already threatening the reindeer; warmer winters mean that a layer of ice forms over the snow, making it difficult for them to dig for food. The last thing they need is even less forest to live in.
Luokta-Mávas is an area of ancestral Sámi land that has become the latest battleground over land rights. Though it is far from the only area of Sápmi threatened by the forestry industries, it is an important one as it has become an international poster-campaign for Sweden’s forests and indigenous land rights. The Arvas Foundation, started by Sofia Jannok, is the key place to get information, but here’s a guide on how to get involved even if you're outside of Sweden:
Arvas Foundation: read about the situation in Luokta-Mávas and Sveaskog’s behaviour
The battle for the forest: a detailed report about the importance of ancient woodland and the importance of Sámi land rights (in Swedish, but google translate works well on it)
Skogsmissbruket: read about the lies of the forestry industry in Sweden and see how you can support the campaigns
Follow Sofia Jannok on social media: she’s on all platforms but most active on instagram (@sofiajannok)
Sign the petition to respect Luokta-Mávas right to protect their ancestral land
Listen to the song Lávvu; all money earned from streaming is going towards the Luokta-Mávas campaign, but doesn’t cost you a thing.
Sign the petition to stop Uppsala university (where I’m studying) from logging the local nature reserve Hågadålen-Nåsten (the forest I visit every day)
Support the project
Creative prompts on the theme in written, visual, and musical forms
Extended reading list with articles, podcasts, music, and more artwork
Another really helpful way for you to support the project is to check out my instagram where I post on the theme throughout the month. Get involved with the discussions in the comments! Or, if you have burning ideas about things I've said, feel free to pop me an email, I would love to hear your thoughts.