of you who wince a little each time some "scientist" on TV encourages
us all not to worry about our warm and sticky future, who can't believe
the nerve of that Michael Crichton, lecturing us all on environmental
paranoia after making millions spinning yarns about killer robots and
reconstituted dinosaurs, who can't help but curse each time the Bush administration
guts yet another environmental protection, here is a useful corrective:
Gretel Ehrlich's The Future of Ice.
Not that it's going to make you feel any
better. Ehrlich's writing, based both on scientific research and her own
observations in wintry locales like Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, the Arctic
island of Spitsbergen, and her own home in Wyoming, may help vindicate
those who hate the pseudo-science wafting through the media these days,
but it doesn't exactly inspire childlike hope for the future of ice or
anything else. "The end of winter might mean the end of life,"
she points out on the first page of her introduction, making it hard not
to read this book as an elegy of sorts. Ehrlich's willingness to confront
this possibility head on, unlike a veritable laundry list of scientists,
politicians, and journalists, marks The Future of Ice as a brave
yet bleak addition to environmental literature.
Despite this sense of deepening gloom,
Ehrlich approaches her subject matter with her sense of wonder fully intact.
The Future of Ice contains many gorgeous descriptive passages,
conjuring up glaciers, snowstorms, and the Spanish River on the cusp of
a spring thaw. My favorite bit concerned the Arctic coal-mining town of
Barentsburg—"plumes of black smoke wafting over snowy mountains
and ice-littered seas"—a location that seemed straight out
of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Ehrlich also fills her
book with anecdotes that will pique the imagination of armchair travelers
and environment junkies alike. A few of these are uplifting—one
glacier in South America, named Perito Moreno, is growing despite global
warming—but most are fascinatingly grim, including an encounter
with a botanist who found a palm tree growing in the middle of Switzerland.
Ehrlich's writing comes across as
a combination of memoir, environmental journalism, and prose poetry. While
this yields some beautiful passages, her style can also be frustratingly
oblique. Surely I am not the only reader mystified by lines like "All
that's holding me together at the moment is the thought of the terns in
the middle of their molt." She also devotes much space to chronicling
her relationship with a man named Gary, a relationship that sounds as
doomed as the planet, but fails to hold my attention the way potential
worldwide annihilation does.
Still, it is this attempt to combine her
fascination with the environment, meaning both that mostly unseen stretch
of space shared by us all and the immediate piece of land right in front
of one's face, with the her personal moods and feelings that gives The
Future of Ice its paradoxical edge: it is an elegy with a faint whiff
of hope about it.