Language fails me. It always does when mountains and glaciers are involved. The old naturalists, John Muir among them, pretty much used up the decorative language: “noble” glaciers, “majestic” rocks, “sublime grandeur,” every icy hollow “throbbing in pale-blue tones of ineffable tenderness and beauty.” Too saccharine, in any case, for twenty-first-century realists.
The scientists have another language, not without its own poetry: ablation, rock flour, cirque, trimline, bergy bits. Glaciers pluck, surge, and calve; they leave behind erratics and kettles. Meanings are exact, a bergy bit requiring more than seven but less than 15 feet of ice exposed above the waterline.
These days, we turn to visual images. When we “see,” we forgo much of our imaginative effort, the long reach of association, one thing inadequately representing another. Although, in the end, it’s all inadequate. The words and the pictures are small, distant, antiseptic; the thing that is not the real thing lacks the cold air, the deep rumble, runoff rubbing on stone, birdsong. You cannot turn your head. You cannot lick the ice. You miss the whole sky, the waterfall just out of the picture, the concealed seal drawing a vee across still water.
All I really want to say is, go.
For a few years I worked on Alaska cruise ships and talked to tourists about glaciers.
“There are more than 100,000 glaciers in Alaska, but only a few hundred are named. The number of glaciers increases every year. That’s right—as they melt they separate into more in number but less coverage.”
“No, that’s not a road down the middle, that’s a medial moraine. It’s rock and dirt scraped from the mountains, and when branches come together those scrapings end up in the middle.”
“Yes, exactly, rivers of ice—they’re flowing, pulled by gravity, usually several feet a day.”
“The ice is blue because enormous pressure has squeezed out the air bubbles, and water molecules absorb all colors except blue, which they reflect.” When the weather was crappy, I added, “You’re lucky today; the overcast makes the blue ice even bluer.”
Many of these people had come to Alaska to see glaciers while they still could, while tidewater glaciers were still spilling into the sea.
I told them: If all the glaciers in the world melted, sea level would rise about two feet. But if the Greenland ice sheet melted, sea level would rise by twenty feet. And if all the ice cover in Antarctica melted, the rise would be nearly two hundred feet.
They knew glaciers were thinning and retreating. What they often didn’t expect was that they’d be so dirty. Someone once quite seriously complained, “Why don’t they clean the glaciers?” Perhaps, I think now, the question was less a longing for purity and more a concern about the dark streaks and edges soaking up the sun’s heat to increase the melt. Cleaning glaciers might be akin to painting parking lots and roof tops reflective white—only much more difficult.
What tourists—most of them—really want is to see glaciers calving. They want to see house-size pieces break off and crash to the sea, preferably with enough wave-making to rock the ship. They work their little cameras, click, click, purr. They narrate their own stories.
What I really want—then and now—is for everyone to just be quiet. Shut off the boat engines and the speakers and all the chatter. Be present with the pop and sizzle of air escaping ice. Let’s rest our eyes on ice and ice shadows and the long curve that crosses from one side of the plowed-out valley to the other. Let’s lift our faces to the rocky mountainsides; to the remnant glaciers, hanging; to the sharp peaks that are rising, now, with tectonic force and have never been buried under ice. Now it’s just us with this glacier, those mountains, water and sky, the marmot whistling from a rock pile. What story do we tell, in what language, now?
Nancy Lord and Irene Owsley were collaborative artists-in-residence in 2013 with the Voices of the Wilderness program, in the U.S. Forest service’s Nellie Juan-College Fiord Wilderness Study Area. This video essay is one of the outcomes of their collaboration.
Irene Owsley, a freelance photographer, specializes in the outdoors and travel, particularly in northern regions. Her work has appeared in such magazines as Canoe & Kayak, Sierra, National Parks, Earthwatch, and Natural History, and in the publications of several conservation organizations.
Header photo, the base of Harriman Glacier, by Irene Owsley.