A Review of The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell
Ice is a mine of metaphors, inviting connections to a whole reach of other concerns. It stands for memory in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, hovering pristine in the Colonel’s mind as he faces his death; the promise of colonisation in Francis Spufford’s Ice and the English Imagination; and a quest for artistic or familial identity in Alicia Kopf’s recent work, Brother in Ice.
As the title suggests, Nancy Campbell’s presiding metaphor is the library: ice as nature’s archive, as she puts it, and ice as an object of study, obsessively pored over by scientists, artists, explorers, sportspeople, and entrepreneurs. While the author’s background as an archivist and book artist lends a vivid materiality to the texts she studies, the tale of her seven-year search of frozen places makes for an absorbing travel book in its own right.
One of the most fascinating themes that grows from this bibliographic root is that of communication: how can we communicate from, to and about the ice? Campbell tells, for example, of the rescue party sent in search of Franklin’s doomed expedition to find the North-West Passage attaching messages to the necks of Arctic foxes and sending them out into the wilderness. Generously alert to contemporary artists who are pursuing similar obsessions, she gives intriguing accounts of Carmen Braden, who records ‘the noise of ice in conversation’ and makes music out of it, or Katie Paterson, who connected a mobile to a glacier in Iceland, allowing anyone who rang that number to shoot the breeze with the melting ice.
Ice, then, speaks with multiple voices in this book, and it is a pleasure to listen to them. Who knew, for example, that water mixed with the sediment formed by glaciers shoving their way over bedrock is called glacier milk, or that hailstorms, unlike snow or rainfall, are always short?
A greater enigma, however, is the voice of the book itself. At times, I felt that its understated tone ran the risk of slumping into flatness (some details of the author’s travels could, perhaps, have been omitted, such as the description of finding a bar near Edinburgh Waverley, used as a segue between ice sections). However, all in all, I think this subdued, level-headed tone is actually quite radical. I think it may be the kind of voice we need when we’re talking about ice in a world which seems, as Campbell writes with characteristic understatement, ‘pretty close to ruin.’
The classic tone of Arctic exploration must surely be sublime, stubborn and bold, as can be felt in the names of the ice ships: Resolute, Erebus, Terror. But now that the vast, bulky, superhuman lastingness of ice is fatally under threat –the permafrost designed to protect the Global Seed Vault like an impenetrable armour-plated fist has started to melt, for example –what we need is a steadier, less heavy-booted voice, like this one. In other words, whilst so much ice writing seeks to understand and conquer the ice, it is vital that this library seeks, instead, to listen to it.