In Norman MacCaig’s poem ‘Humanism’, he compares a glacier to a defeated army, leaving behind ‘stones, the size of / sand grains and haystacks’ in its retreat. But as soon as MacCaig has developed this image, he denounces it:
What a human lie is this. What greed and what
arrogance, not to allow
a glacier to be a glacier –
to humanise into metaphor
that long slither of ice….
The glacier, MacCaig muses, might have been ‘no more / a beaten army than it was a horde / of cindarellas…’ ‘Humanism’ builds towards a neatly sinister conclusion, a stanza that puts the reader in their place:
I defend the glacier that
when it absorbs a man
preserves its image
Last month, I spent the best part of August (and it truly was the best part – the best of my life, in fact) on a mountaineering expedition, camping in view of the Knud Rasmussen glacier in East Greenland and growing accustomed to its rhythms: the huge booms as parts of the ice collapsed into the water, erupting spectacularly, the drifts of ice in the fjord. I crossed glaciated terrain, roped to my friends, leaping nervously across crevasses. I looked down at icebergs from the summits of mountains, noticing the blue aura underneath them, the shapes they form – some wide as sheds, some shaped like peaks, others rounded and almost shell-like. In my diary from my first day in Greenland, I wrote:
Until now, icebergs have always been an idea to me.
That phrase captures much of my experience of Greenland. It’s one thing to think about ice melting, another to see how far the glacier has retreated (’50 years ago, it would have reached this island…. 5 years ago, it reached the end of the bay…’). I was there to write a long poem about the environment we were encountering, a piece that will work alongside music by William Carslake and silent film footage of the landscape and our adventures in it, forming the basis for a project with schools. Even as I made notes, writing about what I was seeing felt like an impossible challenge. How can you find an appropriate language for Greenland? How can you capture something awe-inspiring without resorting to a simplistic vocabulary of beauty? Whenever I’ve tried to describe the trip since I got back, I’ve resorted to cliche, failing to explain how humbling it was to see the Northern Lights, how terrifying and exhilarating it felt at times to be in the middle of a labyrinth of ice.
In ‘Arctic Dreams’, Barry Lopez asks what it means to be rich and wonders:
‘Is it to retain a capacity for awe and astonishment in our lives, to continue to hunger after what is genuine and worthy?’
It will be a long time before I find the right language for my continued sense of awe. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to read poems about ice that capture it better than I could, like ‘Iceberg’ from Kathy Towers’ new book ‘The Remedies’:
The icebergs arrive in their beautiful veils.
They drift along the aisles
of the sound with creaks and growls
seeking a warmth that will finish them….
Thank you to everyone who made the trip to East Greenland possible, especially Matt and Helen at Pirhuk and all who supported the Kickstarter campaign.