On our first evening at the end of the world, my dad decides he forgot to pack his rain pants. The weather at the end of the world is erratic. There’s so little land—we’re at the tip of America, where it curls toward the Antarctic Peninsula—so there’s nothing to stop the gales howling from the southern ocean across this sliver of land. In Patagonia, land fractures into fjords and fast-breaking wind, sand and strewn rocks, walls of white-shattered snow. Beech trees grow like long hair whipped back in a convertible.
Wind comes with rain and snow and so, really—my dad does kind of need rain pants. But my dad is six feet and seven inches tall and his rain pants, wherever they are, are 38 inches long and there is no replacing such lengthy pants here. I suggest that we can buy him too-short rain pants at the hotel gift shop with gators to keep his ankles dry. He’s unamused.
Tomorrow, we’ll wake at dawn to walk on the edge of the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina’s Los Glaciers National Park. I didn’t know you could walk on a glacier, but this is something thousands of us do every year—we go mini-trekking. A glacier is a tongue of ice, sliding—slowly—into a valley. A glacier begins in an icefield, in a broad mountain range where it snows most days in a year. A day’s snow is not heavy. But year after year, for thousands of years, it compresses, condenses, and coheres into thick, impenetrable ice, thousands of feet deep. And this is what oozes out the sides of mountains with such force that it moves boulders and sculpts valleys.
Our hotel room has WiFi and so, sitting on my twin bed, laptop on crossed legs, I email my mom. We are here! Dad forgot his rain pants. She writes back almost immediately. Oh dear. I hope he finds the pants. Should I look here? He gets very distressed when he forgets things and he worked so hard not to forget anything.
My dad quietly berates himself as he bends over his open backpack, pulling carefully folded dryfit layers out of carefully flattened compression bags. I hadn’t noticed before, but my dad looks skinny and suddenly, I am worried about his memory. My mom’s mom had Alzheimer’s disease—one summer morning, she woke up and walked into our kitchen without any pants on at all—and so I often think about my mom’s memory. I’d forgotten to worry about his.
He finds the rain pants, deep in his suitcase, moments after my mom emails to report they are not at home. When he finds them, he sits down on his twin bed and bends his forehead foreword into his palms and I sit, silent, and it feels like we are truly at the end of the world.
Of course, we’re not at the end of the world, as there is no end, only more and more and more. The earth is a spherical billiard ball—a well-used, well-loved billiard ball, with gobs of gum stuck on a smooth surface and gouges removed like valleys.
My dad reminds me, as our crampons crunch along the edge of the Perito Moreno glacier the next morning, that all matter has gravity.
I almost say duh, but he paid for my airfare.
“If gravity is greater at a place with greater mass—like a big underground mountain—then that mass will pull water toward it,” he says. “So the ocean is higher, maybe 200 feet, in Japan than it is in the United States. If you sail across the Pacific to Japan, you’re actually sailing uphill.
“I learned that when I was a kid,” he says. “I read it in National Geographic. It absolutely blew my mind.”
He looks at me, grinning, and then crunches onward, faster than I can manage into the pressing wind. My dad is a quantum physicist with a seemingly unending store of knowledge about the world—he has always had all the answers, so I assume that he always will.
We walk. We learn that the Perito Moreno glacier is a mass of ice sliding off the Southern Patagonian Icefield. It creaks and crumbles, cracks and sighs. It advances 16 feet a day. The Southern Patagonian Icefield is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water, but by a long shot—the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland contain more than 99 percent of the freshwater on Earth.
After we trek, we watch the glacier from platforms built across the lake. We watch to see the glacier fall apart, for pieces to shear into the impossibly bright lake below. The jagged edge of the glacier leans over the water in jumbled pieces, the wind whistling through its crevasses. After an hour or two, a vertical wedge of ice cleaves from its clinging overhang and hovers over the water like a swimmer on the edge a high dive. A crack whips through the thin air. We lean forward, cameras aimed. Finally, the piece bows headfirst, swishing through air, hitting the water like a belly flop. People applaud, whistle, then the blast of wind arrives.
My dad says: If all matter has gravity, then glaciers have gravity. NASA runs a program called GRACE, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, that measures the gravity of the earth. From space, two satellites traverse the contours of that bumpy billiard ball, reading Earth’s textured gravity. Bigger things—things with more mass—have more gravity than smaller things. Continents have more gravity than oceans, and continents with big blocks of ice on them—like Greenland or Antarctica—have more gravity than they would without ice. Over the past two decades, GRACE has been measuring Greenland and Antarctica’s decreasing gravity. Decreasing, because ice is becoming ocean. Decreasing, because ice is memory in a warming world, fragile and finicky.
Once, when I was 15, my dad and I sat at our little round kitchen table after dinner. We’d just gone to a public lecture about peak oil, and I had questions. My dad sketched a simple graph on a post-it. Two lines rising between three axes—year, global temperature, atmospheric carbon dioxide. It was the first time I remember realizing the inevitability of a warming world. After dinner, I took the post-it to my room and sat on my bed, staring at it, terror churning in my stomach.
It is a specific fear—this crack of ice, the slipping of an edge into the ocean, the unrecoverability of gravity. I am 30 now, living in a world more unstable than ever before, and still I wonder what to do with the fear.
Decked head to toe in Gore-tex, we trudge up the soggy French Valley, the twisted slate peaks above us obscured by thick clouds. We eat sandwiches under a canopy of tiny green leaves, rain pattering quietly above. In the afternoon, an arm of wind clears the sky, revealing the imposing silhouette of los cuernos—the horns of the Paine Massif, the tightly bound mountain range that defines Los Torres Del Paine National Park. Another day, we stand struck dumb before the three towers of granite that are Los Torres del Paine—gray and pink and peach, extending like three long fingers before a vivid blue lake. We start our descent at twilight, but here twilight lingers long and late; the evening arrives slowly, slow enough for us to find flat ground before darkness does.
The world is raw, its mechanisms exposed. We see hillsides etched with parallel, slopping scrapes, sculpted by the ice that had once filled these valleys—that formed these valleys. We peer into lifeless lakes, the shady blue water skittering in the wind. I rub my hands on the jumbled popcorn piles scattered around the edge of Lago Sarmiento—calcium deposits from cyanobacteria, as old as earth. We see thick-bodied guanacos grazing on thin patches of grass—the llama-like creatures stare as we lumber past, loud and layered. We walk into wind so strong it catches us, pulls us upright, forces us to inhabit our own tall gravity. I forget everything. The world is only rock and ice and water and wind.
A year later, a friend and I are lying on cold cement steps underneath a hot bridge that crosses a dry river in the desert, where I live. We’ve spent the day biking into the wind along the Santa Cruz River. It is warm and dry and my cheeks burn red. My friend asks me how wind works. High pressure moves to low pressure, I say. The greater the difference, the stronger the wind. He shrugs. So I say: it’s how things dissipate. It is compression’s release. It’s how time makes change.
We can see the Tucson skyline glittering above the riverbed, shimmering in the heat. We are on the edge of a memory—a riverbed that once was a river. This river was once corralled into canals to irrigate nearby fields—archeologists have found evidence of agriculture here extending back 4,100 years. We’re sitting on some of the oldest continually farmed land in North America. And yet it is all so new. The glass of our downtown skyscrapers beams back the late afternoon sun. Before the railroad arrived in 1880 bearing steel and glass, we were made of adobe—a single-story farming village. And so it seems as if we have forgotten something. Forgotten how temporary all of this is. A city perched on the edge of a dry river—surely this cannot be sustained, as surely as the weight of water inches us forward.
I wonder, then, if wind is how we will recover the gravity of ice—how we will reclaim the fate of our textured billiard ball globe. I have no memory of what was before the doctrine of perpetual growth. Before the fear of climate change. Before the paralysis of alternatives. But the wind at the end of the world reminds me that there is an alternative, and that there is power in pressure. Tiny changes in atmospheric pressure, again and again, wearing on rock and stone, ice and power. It shows me that everything can change—that the gradual accumulation of small pressure will transform a landscape.
The house is troubled and so we inherit the wind.
As the warm wind rushes through mesquite, everything shifts perspective—I can imagine our beautiful downtown as it cracks and crumbles and releases its own gravity, as seamless as a melting glacier. This time, no one applauds. We sit, still, and wonder at what could be instead. What we will build when the memory of a former generation fades. When it’s finally time to make it up ourselves.