Books

Shedding Light on the Messy Beauty of the Arctic

Artist Nancy Campbell’s book The Library of Ice draws parallels between ecological breakdown and the loss of human culture.

Disko Bay, Greenland (© Nancy Campbell 2016)

“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.”

Landscape as language. Landscape as teacher. Landscape as visual record, archive, ticking clock. These ideas pervade The Library of Ice, a nonfiction work by artist and poet Nancy Campbell inspired by several years spent traveling and undertaking residencies in Arctic countries. Setting out from the world’s northernmost museum, in Upernarvik, Greenland, Campbell explores ice in all its facets, on glaciers and in libraries, through hiking and reading.

Rainbow over Reykjavik (© Nancy Campbell 2017)
Nuuk, Greenland (© Nancy Campbell 2016)

The sources of her research are wide-ranging, and she treats each element with a democratic sense of equality, finding insights and analogies about the nature of ice and the culture of cold places in the everyday as well as the academic. A ruler from a museum gift shop receives the same exploratory treatment as the objects in the museum itself, while the experience of getting a haircut frames her investigation into climate science.

Similarly, recognized artists or scientists, whose work is the subject of Campbell’s analysis, are treated the same way as people in the author’s personal orbit. She introduces us to painter Bill Jacklin RA on the same terms as an Inuit hunter suffering from depression and bemoaning the ecological state of the planet, as well as a former champion figure skater, a member of an amateur Scottish curling team, and Katie, the sister-in-law of an officer aboard the ill-fated Arctic expeditionary boat HMS Terror.

Campbell’s prose has a powerful sense of clarity, particularly her visual descriptions, in which vivid details punctuate the text: our attention is drawn to a scientific presenter’s bright red gloves, or the tiny puncture-mark made by a drawing pin in a painting.

Nancy Campbell on a glacier, Iceland 2017 (© Nancy Campbell 2017)
Greenland dog (© Nancy Campbell 2016)

But Campbell’s textual clarity doesn’t reduce the landscapes, people, or problems of the Arctic to an essence. Instead, her prose sheds light on the messiness of Arctic beauty, on the sprawling, never-ending network of languages, cultures, and text that the ice-covered margins of the world evoke — an ecosystem of ideas that cannot be distilled.

Campbell told me she “hoped the book could look beyond the clichés of the Arctic and present the reader with new perspectives.” She deliberately avoids the overused tropes of “emptiness” and “purity,” and references to well-known works of art and literature that deal with Polar regions. I had expected her to discuss Olafur Eliasson’s famous melting glacier works, for example, but she cleverly captures the project in a single allusion before devoting more space to lesser-known works, such as the engravings of the prolific Dalziel brothers and Katie Paterson’s extraordinary piece Vatnajökull (the sound of) (2007-2008), a live phone line to a melting Icelandic glacier. She says, “I am not one to fill silence with unnecessary language, so perhaps I was moved to avoid things that had been written about before, unless I could show them afresh by positioning them in a new context.”

Artists residence Upernavik, Greenland (© Nancy Campbell 2012)

The concept of the archive is key to the book, through Campbell’s experiences of undertaking research in diverse locations. The archives she explores on her journey are both conventional (libraries) and unconventional (fridges that preserve ice core samples). Furthermore, she powerfully argues that ice itself has archival qualities. “Human beings, lodged on the earth’s thin crust, must drill deep or soar high to understand their environment,” she writes. “The Polar ice is the first archive, a compressed narrative of all time in a language humans have just begun to learn.”

Just as glaciers and ice floes are vulnerable to global warming, so, too, human records are susceptible to disaster. We are told about hundreds of thousands of years’ worth of ice-core records that melted because of malfunctioning scientific refrigerators, and about the fire that destroyed a huge proportion of the collections held by the Greenlandic national library — an institution that held the only copies of many texts written in vanishing Arctic languages.

Parallels can be drawn between ecological breakdown and the loss of human culture. Campbell’s book puts a personal slant on the conservation of texts and languages, on the importance of saving both centuries of human endeavor and the landscapes that inspired them.

Disko Bay, Greenland (© Nancy Campbell 2016)

Perhaps the most startling aspect of The Library of Ice — and the element that best highlights the interconnectivity of human language and landscape — is the way in which Campbell writes her own creative process into the text. Its function as a memoir means that she frequently refers to the book she is writing, which is, of course, the book we are reading: “I’m writing this chapter backwards,” she informs us. This metatextuality works to draw us up short, encouraging the reader to think more deeply about the process of writing, the apparatus, time, and materiality that come to bear on meaning and language, and to use some of those ideas to consider the inevitable challenges that will be faced by people and places as a result of a warming climate.

The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate by Nancy Campbell (2018) is published by Scribner UK and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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