After travelling to Greenland and Iceland, an artist and poet pursues her Arctic obsession
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 guardianbookshop.com.
The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate