Af­ter trav­el­ling to Green­land and Ice­land, an artist and poet pur­sues her Arc­tic ob­ses­sion

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Gavin Fran­cis

As a child, Nancy Camp­bell had a snow globe; in it was a dio­rama of a pine for­est, a cot­tage and a fig­urine of an old lady pick­ing up sticks. Camp­bell would shake it and watch spell­bound as the plas­tic flakes fell through the vis­cous liq­uid. “My fa­ther was of­ten away dur­ing those years,” she writes. “Once, hav­ing re­turned from a par­tic­u­larly long trip, he told me a bed­time story in count­less in­stal­ments about how my toys were lost and try­ing to find their way back home.” As the tale evolved, the toys be­came lost in a win­ter for­est; it seemed to her that her snow globe would of­fer the ideal refuge. The Li­brary of Ice ex­plores cul­tural per­spec­tives on ice and snow, and traces Camp­bell’s ice-ob­ses­sion to that mem­ory of ad­ven­ture, re­turn and com­fort.

Camp­bell is an artist, print­maker and a poet of dis­tinc­tion – her col­lec­tion Disko Bay was short­listed for a Forward prize (“The coast is new as a foe­tus and old as a fos­sil. / The be­drock re­bounds from the glacier’s weight”). In 2010, she gave up her job with a London dealer in manuscripts, and for the next seven years stayed in a series of artists’ res­i­den­cies con­cerned with Arc­tic cli­mate and cul­ture. Three were in Green­land, one in Ice­land, and one in Switzer­land – her stays in Green­land pro­duced the poems of Disko Bay , and her print­maker’s book How To Say I Love You In Green­landic . She’s in­flu­enced by Barry Lopez’s Arc­tic Dreams, and moves be­tween two tra­di­tions of na­ture writ­ing: the “sil­ver-tongued sci­en­tific in­ter­pre­ta­tion” of John Muir, and an­other she frames as “silent with awe”. Most chap­ters fo­cus on two places: the Bodleian Li­brary in Ox­ford is paired with Antarc­tica, Fife with Wash­ing­ton DC, Switzer­land with Italy.

Ice can be an archive – buried in po­lar strata are records of cli­mate go­ing back mil­lions of years. Camp­bell speaks to sci­en­tists who drill for them (“Once, ex­plor­ers rammed their flag­poles into the ice as proof of con­quest; now sci­ence leaves be­hind only a cylin­dri­cal ab­sence.”) In the Alps, she re­counts the story of Marcelin and Francine Du­moulin “who left home to feed their cat­tle on 15 Au­gust 1942 and had been lost ever since”. The cou­ple’s seven chil­dren were sep­a­rately fos­tered; 75 years later their par­ents’ bod­ies were re­leased from a glacier. In 1991, a 5,000 year-old body was found frozen into the Ital­ian- by Nancy Camp­bell, Scrib­ner UK, £14.99 Aus­trian fron­tier. The ice-man, “Ötzi”, is “fated to be the ex­am­ple by which all life in that era will be judged”, Camp­bell ob­serves. Pol­lens in Ötzi’s stom­ach sug­gested he’d been climb­ing up and down the Alps; grains in his cloth­ing sug­gested an au­tumn jour­ney. Ice is un­der­stood as a pre­server of hu­man his­tory, of­fer­ing glimpses of dif­fer­ent ways of be­ing.

The book is an­chored as much in UK ar­chives as it is in the tun­dra and per­mafrost of the Arc­tic. In the Bodleian, Camp­bell finds a 17th-cen­tury copy of Jo­hannes Ke­pler’s won­der­struck the­sis on the ge­om­e­try of snowflakes, De Nive Sexan­gula, and is the first to read that par­tic­u­lar copy in its en­tirety – its pages are still un­cut. “There are li­brary guide­lines for sit­u­a­tions like this,” she writes, and the li­brar­ian duly hands her a sil­ver knife. The thrill of cut­ting open the pages is like stamp­ing foot­prints into vir­gin snow.

As a print­maker ac­cus­tomed to work­ing in move­able type, Camp­bell weighs her words care­fully, and her de­scrip­tions are steeped in fine ob­ser­va­tion of artis­tic ob­jects and ma­te­rial cul­ture. Ilulis­sat is a Green­landic town fa­mous for its bay of ice­bergs, but it’s the ice paint­ings of Emanuel A Petersen that in­ter­est her, not the panorama of real ice­bergs rolling and grind­ing out­side. At Vat­na­jökull in Ice­land she treks out on to Europe’s largest glacier, but her at­ten­tion is cap­tured more by Katie Pater­son’s 2007 in­stal­la­tion: a mo­bile phone in­stalled un­der the ice, en­abling any­one around the globe to be in­stantly con­nected to the au­di­ble re­al­ity of cli­mate change.

The book’s nar­ra­tive jour­ney threads back­wards and for­wards, mak­ing as­so­ci­a­tions that, in a more ortho­dox, less dream­like book, wouldn’t share the same page: Inuit gram­mar sits with dis­cus­sions of early mod­ern sci­ence; high-pres­sure ice chem­istry with the his­tory of Scot­tish curl­ing; the sex­ual pro­cliv­i­ties of pen­guins with Torvill and Dean. One pow­er­ful scene sees Camp­bell watch­ing the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic chan­nel with an Inuit hunter whose liveli­hood is be­ing de­stroyed by cli­mate change. “Peo­ple should stop do­ing these things,” he says, ges­tur­ing at the tele­vi­sion. “Fly­ing. Cut­ting down trees in Brazil. Ev­ery­thing. The ice is van­ish­ing. Soon we won’t be able to live here any more.”

At the end of the book Camp­bell re­turns to London; it’s not clear if her time in the snow globe has been a refuge, or, as she once feared, a kind of en­trap­ment. She un­packs her books with a sense of lib­er­a­tion, but feels am­biva­lent about words as a legacy, as a way of shoring up the present against the fu­ture. Her iceob­ses­sion has a re­fresh­ing lack of ro­man­ti­cism; she re­flects that her old snow globe prob­a­bly had noth­ing to do with her mo­ti­va­tion af­ter all. “As the years passed, the glass dome had de­vel­oped a crack and air bub­bles entered,” she writes of it, “bring­ing my suspension of dis­be­lief in the old woman’s world to an end. I can’t give this as an an­swer.”

Gavin Fran­cis is the au­thor of True North: Trav­els in Arc­tic Europe and Em­pire Antarc­tica: Ice, Si­lence & Em­peror Pen­guins. To buy The Li­brary of Ice for £11.99 go to guardian­book­

The Li­brary of Ice: Read­ings from a Cold Cli­mate

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