The Library of Ice

by Nancy Campbell

Scribner, £14.99

Review by Kristian Kerr

Like many poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave erratic answers to inquiries about the origins of his poems. Inspiration is slippery, elusive and evanescent. He also disavowed Wordsworth’s notion that ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ had been inspired by the story of the shooting of an albatross in George Shelvocke’s A Voyage Round the World by Way of the Great South Sea. Recollecting the dispute, Thomas De Quincey was left to conclude that the episode was not in itself inspirational, but had collided with Coleridge’s long-meditated plan to write a poem on “delirium, confounding its own dream-scenery with external things, and connected with the imagery of high latitudes”.

There are no albatrosses in The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate, Nancy Campbell’s exploration of the still-just-about frozen ends of the earth, but the book is compendium of stories written with a poet’s glittering eye about forms of life at high latitudes. Inspired and fascinated by the extreme and contradictory nature of ice, Campbell weaves a story of ice as a natural phenomenon and of how humans have interacted with it. Packing in her job as a manuscript dealer in London, she embarks on a seven-year research voyage around the coldest places on the planet. Explorers, scientists, artists, writers, merchants, skaters, all appear in the story of this inexorable yet fragile element.

She beings with a residency at the world’s most northerly museum, in Upernavik in Greenland. It is January and the polar winter is dark. A place that it was hard to imagine existed has become a place that demands special skills to navigate. While Campbell is there to experience and interpret the ice as an artist, she finds that the locals are constantly observing and listening to the ice too. As they live and work, their survival depends on being attuned to its variances.

As she slithers around town and skids through the complexities of the language with a wry sense of her own humiliation, Campbell opens this world to the reader in glimpses, always keeping it as strange and inscrutable as it has appeared to outsiders for centuries. For European explorers the ice was an impediment to movement, imprisoning ships and a blockade to progress. For the Greenlanders, however, ice is the highway that connects communities and allows hunters to roam. Climate change, of course, is undermining the stability of this way of life. Later, in Iceland, Campbell will find that ice melt is changing not only shorelines but also, remarkably, the contours of higher ground as the weight of ice is lifted.

In Upernavik, empty cases at the museum stand in wait, as if to receive artefacts that might be given up by the melting ice. This book does not shout headlines of environmental catastrophe, but makes a quietly urgent and reflective statement of what is being lost or irreversibly altered. Like peat, ice is a powerful preservative and Campbell’s telling of the finding of George Murray Levick’s photographic journal from Scott’s final Antarctic expedition and the discovery of the Tirolean iceman, Ötzi, are spellbinding. Since ice yields its discoveries at the moment of its own disappearance, however, we pay a steep price for the knowledge disclosed by this now fragile and finite resource.

The Library of Ice is an archive of stories about human encounters with ice, but, as Campbell puts it, ‘The polar ice is the first archive, a compressed narrative of all time in a language humans have just begun to learn.’ Ice cores drilled in Antarctica offer cross-sections of data about the environmental conditions at the moment of the ice’s formation. The Vostok core reaches back 420,000 years, offering the possibility of a longitudinal study of global climate history. A scientist tells of how the ice fizzes and pops as it melts, ancient air whispering its secrets.

Schooled in the Scottish Borders, Campbell has also researched closer to home. Kinross Curling Club has an Iceman too: his name is Steve and he illuminates the technical particulars of making the ice over which stones glide as if by force of will. It’s not telekinesis, it turns out, but physics. Towards the end of the book, Campbell questions what has inspired her almost fanatical pursuit of ice and snow. It’s not reducible to a single source, she says. Nevertheless, ice has been for her the source of infinite metaphor and story, bound up brilliantly and preserved in this book.