Reading Nature’s Archives in the Library of Ice

The Library of Ice by Nancy CampbellClimateCultures welcomes new Member Sally Moss, who brings us her review of fellow Member Nancy Campbell’s new book, The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate. Nancy has long had an interest in the polar regions and in watery environments; she is currently the UK’s Canal Laureate and has written for ClimateCultures about her Polar Tombola project. Sally is a writer, editor and activist exploring the cultural shift required for regenerative living and creative ways to challenge high-carbon habits. She is currently Social Media and Website Project Coordinator (freelance) for Commonweal, using online platforms to link forms of nonviolence activism and prompt grass-roots action.

approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes 


Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice documents both the realm of ice and humanity’s multifaceted relationship with it.

It was while working for a book and manuscript dealer in London that Campbell came to her decision to tour the ice-related destinations of the world:

“The more archives I catalogued, the more concerned I became about their future readers. Humans had libraries to preserve their fragile records, but the gloomy news headlines put our own survival as a species — and that of the wider world — in doubt.”

A contact of Campbell’s suggested she undertake a residency to concentrate on her own work, and she was persuaded:

“I would find out how other artists were recording this temporal world, and immerse myself in archives that nature itself had devised.”

This direct nature scholarship, and the latent fragility of the ecosystems that support us, are the themes that underpin The Library of Ice’s wandering course. We are presented with manifold landscapes, eras, hubris-driven expeditions, personalities and planetary prognoses, piling up like brash ice.

The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell
The Library of Ice

The poetry of precision 

The book is rich in meticulous detail — it’s a microscope and a dictionary, as much as a library. Less familiar words bloom throughout (‘dioptre’, ‘firn’, ‘philtrum’), and it does well to veer only occasionally towards the abstruse. For all the density of scholarship, it’s a readable account, and highly poetic in places.

Vivid imagery is conjured, whether it’s through Campbell’s words (“The [curling] stone makes me think of a child potentate: everyone’s eyes are on it, and its apparently independent movement is cleverly controlled”) or the words of others (Arctic explorer William McKinley: “As I turned round to face the ship, old Karluk seemed to be doing her best to outdo nature. Her deck covering of snow shimmered like tinsel. Every rope and spar was magnified by a fluffy coating of frosted rime”).

Disko Bay. Photograph by Nancy Campbell.
Disko Bay,
Photograph: Nancy Campbell © 2016

The book also internally debates narrative approaches. An example: Robert Boyle was one of the founders of modern chemistry and devoted much of his energy to “the Phaenomena of Cold”. He said of his sources, “to get to the useful matter [the reader] must labour through ‘melancholy Accounts of storms and distresses, and Ice, and Bears, and Foxes'”. Campbell’s response is to smile and admit “My own journals are not free of such accounts”.

But when reading Boyle’s own words I find his personal fascination with his subject far more engaging than his results. And I am anchored and reassured when Campbell shares her rawest perceptions with us. What can be more important for humanity’s prospects right now, I wonder, than examining our subjective responses until we become, one by one, a great deal more self-aware and adaptable?

Whispers of catastrophe 

When it comes to raising the climate alarm, the book is relatively measured: mere whispers of catastrophe punctuate the chapters. But while it may be a myth that a whisper can start an avalanche, several in concert can certainly trigger disquiet.

Campbell reflects in the opening pages that

“When the last of the ice has melted … the records of the past will be the least of our concerns.”

And the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, we hear, has predicted that snow cover will disappear from the Alps by 2100, leaving the unprotected glaciers to melt quickly.

In a changing climate, crop and animal husbandry have to change too:

“The flood becomes critical. The waters rise too quickly for [Icelandic] farmers to rescue their sheep. This year, the flock might have been safer up in the hills.”

The Icelandic landscape is regularly used for filming, often because it has the look of an alien planet; Campbell notes that “As the Earth changes, this rocky landscape may hint at humanity’s future, as well as its past”. 

And Haukur, one of Campbell’s Icelandic glacier guides, comments that

“Sea-level rise doesn’t worry me so much … I’m more concerned what happens with the tectonic plates. They are going to rise up when the ice melts.”

Icebergs Upernavik. Photograph by Nancy Campbell
Icebergs Upernavik,
Photograph: Nancy Campbell © 2012

Against this background, I began to think about the reading process itself, about the pace of life. I read The Library of Ice in snatched quarter-hours on commutes and in queues; reading a book such as this can take time that isn’t always easy to find, or justify, in a frenetic age. There’s the daily grind, which grinds ever harder under neoliberalism, and the fiery panic the climate emergency can induce.

But if a profound book can change a reader’s internal landscape in a matter of days or weeks, then I guess it works fast enough even for 2018. This one slows us down until we can see through the lens of geological time, see in academic detail what is happening to us, and begin to accept and process it. Rapid, society-wide change is certainly needed, but the personal change it rests on requires us to relearn patience.

Talking of the neoliberal grind: we discover that to complete this research and this book, Campbell needed not only the support of a variety of funds and institutions but also a knack for under-consumption of the essentials:

“… I had to live as frugally as I could, which meant moving between house-sits. Sometimes I sofa-surfed for a few nights, or spent the night on a train concourse, or holed up in an airport or bus station toilet cubicle, leaning against the door, ignoring the lock when it was rattled by the cleaner early in the morning.”

It seems that inventorying ecosystems is not yet as lucrative as despoiling them still is. These insights add poignancy to Campbell’s disclosure of her feelings when seeking a base in Greenland for one leg of the journey: “I needed someone who would invite me, tell me I was welcome.” 

A possibility of movement? 

Through Campbell’s reflections, we encounter a range of perspectives across times and places.

“I understand what has been troubling me about [Edmund A.] Petersen’s paintings: they represent a romantic depiction of the Arctic, from a more innocent time, before icebergs and sea ice had become an indicator of climate change, when convention framed such a view as majestic, rather than temporal or even tragic.”

And in a TV weather forecast in Upernavik, Campbell tells us, “Europe, North America, the rest of the world are off the map, beyond the edges of the screen — out of sight, out of mind” — just as those parts of the world that were ravaged first by climate disruption are often out of mind in Europe and North America. In this journey, she has joined the dots between nations who don’t always recognise their primary interdependence.

Another parallel: for hunters in Qaanaaq, where the ice is retreating, “The changing climate has removed both the possibility of movement, and the promise of rest”. Perhaps we face a corresponding conundrum in the guilty West, with many of us stuck in the chronic busywork of overconsumption yet still lacking a collective sense of the way forward.

Artists residence, Upernavik. Photograph by Nancy Campbell
Artists residence, Upernavik
Photograph: Nancy Campbell © 2012

Having starkly laid out the current condition of our planetary home, The Library of Ice concludes with an individual act of home-making: Campbell returns from her travels to a new base in the UK.

It strikes me that the book plays it very cool in ending as it does, transporting us to the melting point (and no further) in the settings it explores. This is no bad thing, I think. It leaves us to ponder for ourselves the journey onwards to unbearable temperatures, to drought and death — a journey already completed in the most vulnerably situated countries, and one that many more of us will make, globally, if our nature scholarship is lacking, or if we fail to start living by it in the very near future. 


Find out more

Sally Moss is a writer, editor, researcher and activist exploring the cultural shift required to live regeneratively and adapt well to the Anthropocene. She is currently Commonweal’s freelance Social Media and Website Project Coordinator, using online platforms to link forms of nonviolence activism and prompt grass-­roots action. You can find out more about Sally’s work in her Directory entry and at sallymoss-editorial.co.uk. Sally interviewed ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe for Commonweal in July 2018, published simultaneously here.

Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate is published by Simon & Schuster / Scribner UK. Nancy has previously published a poetry collection, Disko Bay, and artists’ books, including The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words and How To Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet. Nancy was a Marie Claire ‘Wonder Woman’ in 2016 for activities including Arctic Book Club and The Polar Tombola, an interactive live literature event. She is the UK Canal Laureate 2018. You can find more of her work in her Directory entry and at nancycampbell.co.uk. Nancy’s posts for ClimateCultures include The Polar Tombola and A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #7.   

If the Anthropocene is Violence, What is Nonviolence?

Writer and editor Sally Moss works with nonviolence education organisation Commonweal, and she contacted me recently to suggest an interview for their blog.  I was very happy to talk with her again - we first met at Weatherfronts in 2014 - and to find out more about the work of Commonweal. Sally's questions were a great opportunity to introduce ClimateCultures to a new audience - and to touch on some of the connections between climate change and violence. 

We agreed that it would be a great idea to publish the interview simultaneously on our blogs, as part of this important conversation. Do head over to Commonweal and engage with Commonweal and ClimateCultures on Twitter or Facebook if you'd like to comment on our discussion and take it forward!

approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

Mark Goldthorpe runs the ClimateCultures project, which showcases ‘contributions by artists, curators or researchers working on many aspects of environmental or climate change’.

Its strapline is ‘Creative conversations for the Anthropocene’ (the era when human influence dominates climate and environment), and we took the direct approach by starting a conversation with Mark himself about climate, culture, violence and imagination…

Mark Goldthorpe at the Hay Festival 2017
Photograph © Paul Musso 2017

In a nutshell, Mark, what do climate and culture (and activism) have to do with each other?

That’s a huge question, I think!

On a basic level, I guess, climate shapes culture: the ways societies live within their environments, accommodating regional patterns and seasons.

Much of that accommodation is to do with how humans try to understand, predict and protect themselves from climate norms and extremes wherever they live.

Those norms and extremes vary hugely around the world (and over time), so I imagine that differences in culture are also partly affected by this variation – though not in a simple, deterministic way.

Imperial geographers used to find some very handy climatic justifications for the supposed ‘superiority’ of their European cultures over the ones they encountered around the globe. This made the imperial project seem very natural.

This convenient ideology helped drive a lot of the environmental destruction and social oppression that still exists today, and which, of course, climate justice activism and other types of activism are trying to redress.

Perhaps it’s even more fundamental to say that culture also changes climate. In our modern globalised culture, unquestioned technological ‘progress’, unimpeded economic growth and accelerated individualism drive the resource depletion, habitat destruction and fossil fuel consumption that fuel climate change, and species extinction with it.

It’s awareness of these links, of the almost supernatural status we grant to what are actually quite recent assumptions about progress and growth – and to the mantra that ‘there is no alternative’ – that drives a lot of activism and attempts to decolonise our culture.

This activism asserts that, yes actually, there are alternatives, and we need them.

Scallop, by Maggi Hambling, on Aldeburgh beach.
“I hear those voices that will not be drowned.”
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2014

What led you to undertake this project? Have you been involved in any forerunners?

Most of my earlier environmental career involved working with businesses, public bodies and NGOs in local, regional and national programmes to improve their use of energy and resources and reduce waste and pollution. More recently, it also focused on how they take into account what impacts climate change will have on society in two or three decades.

But the longer I focused on that, the more I felt something fundamental was missing in how we talk about climate change and we wouldn’t achieve much change without it: imagination.

Very few people really feel how extensive and rapid environmental destruction has been, what the acceleration looks like and how what lies ahead is far more perilous.

Trawling data
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

It’s called shifting baseline syndrome: essentially, we all get used to the conditions we inherit. The new, degraded environment becomes ‘normal’, and we fail to see that what looks natural, stable and manageable is in fact unbalanced, accelerating, in crisis.

Our imaginations have become insulated and we need greater creativity to help us see what’s happening, what the alternatives are, and to work on them.

I don’t mean it’s the job of art or artists to ‘explain’ the climate crisis. It’s not about using art to translate science so people ‘get it’, about creating better policies and laws or nudging behaviour change.

It’s simply about finding ways to pay attention to what’s going on, to the voices we don’t normally hear (human and non-human), to whatever creativity others are bringing to it, and the creativity we can bring ourselves.

It’s about possibility – having conversations and then finding better ways to do things, and better things to do, because of those conversations.

I was fortunate to be asked to help TippingPoint organise their last four events. That charity did great work bringing together artists of all kinds, at all stages of their development, with climate change experts from sciences, social sciences and humanities. It created space for conversation, inspiration and collaboration.

There are other organisations too, such as art.earth, whose work inspired me to set up ClimateCultures.

Partly, I wanted to take what those gatherings offer artists for a few days a year and complement it by opening up a space between those events. Scientists have their climate networks and forums – artists and curators less so. And I want it to be a space for original work by artists and others, not just circulating what already exists: to grow the content and the conversation.

What have been the most memorable artistic moments for you in the course of this work?

Every artist’s post I publish on ClimateCultures feels memorable to me!

A personal highlight is a series I launched called A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

Each contributor writes about three objects that speak to them about some aspect of the past, the present and a possible future, as we begin to realise how our species (led by the rich, industrialised nations and the well-off) has shifted the planetary systems all species depend on.

Each artist has brought something new to that conversation – not just their objects, but the meanings and emotional significance they hold.

Our focus at Commonweal is on nonviolence. How would you define violence and nonviolence in the context of climate disruption and climate activism?

That’s a great question.

I think the most fundamental shift in perception we can make – one we need right now – is that climate disruption is violence.

The Anthropocene is violence. It’s violence we do to ourselves, to people all over the planet, to the other species we live alongside or far removed from, and to the future.

And, of course, that violence and its causes and impacts are very unevenly distributed. Normal, everyday acts (travelling, shopping, surfing the web, this interview) only happen through the vast, complex infrastructures exploiting minerals, metals, fossil fuels, petrochemicals, habitats, animals and other humans.

These systems circulate the ‘goods’ in some directions and the ‘bads’ in others – including the violence of pollution, destruction and poverty. These circulations underpin the standard of living for the lucky few (me included).

Hence the activism and the need for activism.

Darkness Visible: H sapiens, entering the Long Barrow, West Kennet
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe © 2016

But I’d add that there are no blueprints. If we think we have a neat solution to the climate crisis (and everyone has a different solution), then we clearly haven’t understood the situation.

Climate change isn’t simply a ‘problem’ waiting for a solution. It’s a predicament we have to find ways of addressing, of caring about. Ways: plural, unfinished, messy. Coming back to art, imagination and creativity again…

Unfortunately, in this context, nonviolence is harder for me to define and I’d be interested in what your readers have to say. I’m not talking here about the very direct (though often hidden) violence done by corporations, governments, individuals to advance their interests; or of the direct nonviolence of communities, NGOs and individuals seeking to expose and oppose those.

What I’m asking is: if even our most innocent and altruistic actions imply some level of violence arising through the systems we rely on, then we certainly need more and better ways to reduce those flows of harm, oppose the causes, mitigate the suffering and care for our place in the system, but what is nonviolence at its core?

In that context, nonviolence seems a very tough thing to define – and I don’t have a good answer. Let me have yours!

You’re also involved with Finding Blake, a project that focuses on William Blake’s legacy and its relevance today. Please tell us more!

I love that project! It’s the brainchild of James Murray-White, a filmmaker I met through TippingPoint and an active supporter of ClimateCultures.

I’ve always been gripped by William Blake’s art and the way he influences our culture – although he was largely unrecognised at the time he died.

But I’ve never really understood exactly where he was coming from. He had some very interesting views, let’s say, but inevitably they’re not as easy (for me) to grasp as his art.

So when James said he was crowdfunding this project, I wanted to get involved – mainly through setting up the website and editing the blog contributions. Very crafty really, because this exposes me to lots of Blakean content that’s new to me, helping me get a fuller picture of this visionary, poet, artist!

There’s an important link for me to ClimateCultures, because Blake fought against what he called ‘singular vision’ and in favour of an expanded way of perceiving the world. For him, imagination was key.

Science has made wonderful advances in how we understand the world, giving us great tools to improve how we live within it. I’m no anti-science discontent – I spent four years studying to (not) become an astronomer, and many more re-employing that fascination with science in environmental work.

But the simplistic, singular vision of reductionism is a big part of the predicament we’ve backed ourselves into.

We need a radically expanded vision to help us find better ways forward.

And Finding Blake – although not about climate change, environment or any other single topic – aims to help us imagine ourselves through more Blakean eyes, and reimagine what this 18th– and 19th-century radical offers a 21st-century culture.

Light into the Dark
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Find out more

Commonweal is an education organisation that aims to inspire, inform and connect ordinary people who have had enough of violence. Commonweal, founded by a single activist in the 1950s, focuses on the following areas and the connections between them: methods of nonviolent action; personal change; equalities; regenerative living; peace and peace-keeping; and political and economic alternatives.  You can find out more at their site and on Facebook and Twitter. 

Sally Moss is an editor and writer and also, currently, Commonweal’s freelance Social Media and Website Project Coordinator. She has previously started conversations about the Anthropocene and regenerative living using street theatre and dramatic monologues and by running a series of Permaculture SurgeriesTogether with Zero Carbon Liverpool and improvised theatre company Impropriety, and inspired by the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon training, she is currently exploring other creative ways of challenging high-carbon habits.

TippingPoint, created in 2005, was a charity connecting the worlds of the arts and climate science. Its twelve-year programme of major events led to conversations, collaborations and new commissions in writing, performance and other arts. In 2017, TippingPoint became part of the wider programme of Julie’s Bicycle, where TippingPoint’s founder remains on the advisory group.

art.earth is a family of artists and organisations focusing on contemporary art and ecology, the environment and the natural world. art.earth produces events, conducts research and works with others to make new projects happen. ‘We’re here because we believe strongly that art has a role to play, and that artists have a responsibility to pose questions and to worry about the way we live in and on our world.