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Baby, It’s Cold Outside

As if for the convenience of poets, the pronunciation is flexible. Ultima Thule. This is Thule rhyming with truly, but you also sometimes hear it as a monosyllable, echoing fool.

Truly foolish, in any event, were some of the historical attempts to locate Ultima Thule, which dictionaries define, again with flexibility, as either the most northerly of inhabited lands or a remote goal or territory. The term’s origins are appropriately confusing and obscure. In the fourth century BCE, a Greek explorer named Pytheas reportedly reached, some six days’ sail north of Scotland, a land whose cold-inured inhabitants lived beside a thick, slushy sea. He’d found Thule. As our knowledge of the Arctic solidified, over the centuries, this mysterious place and people, elusive as the northern lights, shimmered off into myth.

Regardless of how reliable Pytheas’ account was (and there’s nothing to say it wasn’t an outright fabrication), its hold on the European imagination was potent and perdurable. It inspired Virgil, Petrarch, Pope, Charlotte Brontë, Melville, Poe, Hardy—as well as a host of proto-Nazis in Weimar Germany, beguiled by notions of an Aryanism purified by distance and cold. Christopher Columbus, evidently not content with only one New World, claimed to have visited Thule. If he’s taken at his word, he was one lucky man. Some of those who set out to actualize a legend, sailing off into the bone-cold reaches of the north Atlantic, did not return. For them, Ultima Thule turned out to be a fatal fable.

Joanna Kavenna’s The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule investigates the lore of Ultima Thule historically, chiefly through scholarship, and geographically, through her plucky wanderings in Nordic lands. Her pilgrimage begins in Scotland, and takes her to Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, and—well above the Arctic Circle—Svalbard, the fjord-cut archipelago that used to be known as Spitsbergen.

As befits a book spun around a dim and nebulous bit of travelers’ lore, The Ice Museum is a somewhat loose and anecdotal account. Part of Thule’s appeal for Kavenna is the fervor with which various partisans will announce that they’ve pinpointed at long last, with ineluctable logic and certainty, the true terminus of Pytheas’ journeyings. The Icelanders, the Norwegians, the Estonians—each have categorically asserted that their land once represented the edge of the earth.

Ultima Thule is, then, a sort of chilly, buttoned-up counterpart to lost Atlantis—which was a land, or so it has come down to us from Hollywood, all but destined to drown itself through sheer licentiousness and corruption. By contrast, it’s hard to picture a cadre of studio executives green-lighting a steamy costume drama set among the world’s northernmost people.

A North-Pole-centered map, such as is found opposite the title page of Kavenna’s book, makes clear what your standard equator-centered Mercator projection obscures: while a big beetling chunk of Greenland overhangs the Arctic Circle, as does a substantial fringe of Russia, the Arctic is mostly a vast dark watery sinkhole—concealed by a sort of manhole cover of ice. There isn’t any ultimate—Ultima—within it: land drifts indistinguishably into mist, into blizzard, into those bedeviling labyrinths of pack ice whose only “solution” is to give up and head south.

The unreckonable inhospitality of that world is conveyed with wonderful dynamism and precision in Mariana Gosnell’s Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance. Gosnell has digested and lucidly recapitulated an extraordinary amount of technical material about the behavior of ice—everything from hydrogen bonding at the molecular level to the movements of those gargantuan ice sheets that, 20,000 years ago, buried Manhattan under glaciers a thousand feet high. Her focus is hardly restricted to the Arctic (she ventures down to Antarctica to visit colonies of those gentle, put-upon creatures whose astonishing hardihood has made March of the Penguins the second-highest-grossing documentary of all time; she draws on space photographs to scour neighboring planets for ice). But much of her richest material originates in the Far North.

Both authors intersperse a good deal of poetry into their prose. Kavenna draws on Shelley, Scott, Longfellow, and Auden, as well as, for humor’s sake, a contemporary Icelandic poet one of whose stanzas consists of “just the word freedom, repeated thirty-four times.” Gosnell has assembled an even broader fellowship, including a number of contemporaries: Richard Wilbur, Amy Clampitt, Paul Muldoon, Nicholas Christopher. In both books, I kept waiting for the appearance of one of the oddest and most haunting poems I have ever read about polar regions, Randall Jarrell’s “90° North.”

It’s a poem that might be subtitled “Anti-Thule.” Like so many explorers, our narrator, a child, begins a journey northward, all in the course of one magical night:

At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; the globe’s impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.

But triumph soon subsides into barrenness, and anxiety, and inanition. The journey necessarily must end with a sense of letdown and constraint, since there is nowhere to go but down: “Turn as I please, my step is to the south.” At the close, the revelation is harrowing:

I see at last that all the knowledge
I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

This is a vision that all Arctic explorers must experience at some point. Mystical Thule never materializes; cold yields only to deeper cold; the land of apparently deathly desolation outspread before you actually is dead. From a theological standpoint, it’s the agnostic’s anguished doubts finally arriving at an absolute and crushing certainty: one suffered one’s way to the journey’s end, only to discover that, from the outset, there was never anything there.

Welcome for its own sake, the verse in both volumes also underscores the way that poetry has always served as insulator and protector against the cold. The medieval Norse sagas and eddas, with all their defiant declamations, can be seen as a sparking, flickering flame meant to outbrave the winter darkness. And in the best fictional depiction of snow and killing cold I know of—the blizzard sequence in Halldor Laxness’s Independent People—the book’s hero, Bjartur of Summerhouses, keeps himself awake and alive by reciting every one of the hundreds of poems he has by heart. Two sorts of amassing are occurring simultaneously: snowbank is contending against memory bank. Memory wins.1

A latent, painful irony underlies both Ice and The Ice Museum. The very conditions that render the inaccessible regions the books explore so inimical to human life—the endless hills and valleys of unforgiving ice—turn out to play a protective, benign role for everyone on the planet. They are a stabilizing climatic force. As Bill McKibben recently pointed out in these pages, we have just passed through the “hottest year on record for the planet.”2 And as all of us are forced to contemplate the possible unfolding consequences of an ongoing, accelerating global warming, forbidding regions of the globe that most of us will never visit—the Antarctic, the ice sheets of Greenland—assume a relevant immediacy, a nearness they did not have for our ancestors.

Gosnell takes an understated approach to the issue of global warming. There is little exhortation in Ice, though she certainly provides a good deal of scary information about what a significant warming of the atmosphere might entail—the mass extinctions as various environmental niches disappear, the altered ocean currents and attendant climatic upheaval, the dire implications for those living along or near coastlines. Her long-view approach is especially helpful when she points out just how rapidly, in geological terms, shifts in climate have occurred in the past. And while the causes of such shifts may be obscure, the results can be unequivocally catastrophic.

Her argument may be all the more powerful for being largely implicit: something as vast and apparently impervious to outside influence as the earth’s climate may be subject to remarkably rapid alterations that, once begun, plunge forward in wild, unstoppable avalanche fashion. Our unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases may well cause such an alteration, or may merely contribute to it. Either way, we are literally playing with fire.

The shivering but self-possessed ghost of Thoreau broods over Gosnell’s Ice. Both times I’ve read Walden—in college, some three decades back, and again a few years ago—nothing moved me more than his descriptions of pond ice. Such passages may seem an ancillary pleasure, since Thoreau is best known for his cleansing, epigrammatic moralism: “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” and “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and “Speech is for the convenience of those who are hard of hearing,” and “Why should I feel lonely? Is not our planet in the Milky Way?” To write in this exhortatory fashion—and to establish a permanent place for himself in the American canon—Thoreau hardly needed to possess the keen observational powers of a naturalist.

But possess them he did. Walden brims with minute observation. Thoreau relished the pursuit of the minuscule:

The busy north-west wind had been depositing the powdery snow round a sharp angle in the road, and not a rabbit’s track, nor even the fine print, the small type, of a meadow mouse was to be seen.

And his rhapsodies over spring thaw at Walden, with its intermittent grumblings from the pond ice, are an implicit call for painstaking surveillance:

Who would have suspected so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive? Yet it has its laws to which it thunders obedience when it should as surely as the buds expand in the spring. The earth is all alive and covered with papillae.

Thoreau is often at his most effective in understated moments. I felt my heart go out to him in this brief description, quoted by Gosnell, of the inside of his house on a very cold night: “The latches are white with frost, and every nail-head in entries, etc., has a white head.” Those nail-heads shine all the brighter for the largely unremarked discomfort indoors. While such coldness is literally numbing, and might be expected to dim and dull one’s scrutiny, Thoreau treats it as a summons to brightened, sharpened examinations.

I felt much the same way while reading both The Ice Museum and Ice. The prose reverberates as Kavenna sails up the west coast of Greenland through pack ice: “When the ship hit a low berg, the decks rose and fell, and a gentle shuddering went through the frame.” Like the boy in Jarrell’s poem, Kavenna reached the last stop on her journey, a village at 77° N, and found it disillusioning:

The harbor was one more pile of rubbish, one of the most northerly piles of rubbish in the world: rows of containers, plastic bags lying neglected on the muddy beach, the remnants of fishing boats, with the dogs forming piles of matted white fur.

At this point, having been told that a helicopter occasionally flew from the village to Thule Air Base, a remote American outpost closed to idle visitors, Kavenna—endearingly—abandoned ship. (I think of myself as having a keen appetite for northern places, with a high tolerance for inclement conditions—in general, I prefer bad weather to good—but I can’t imagine not wanting to get the hell out of there.)

She wheedled her helicopter journey, and wound up speaking with an American major at the base, who told her:

In the spring we will have a rising of the sun party. Fancy dress. Concerts, bands invited. Greenlandic choirs. Leather-making workshops, ceramics workshops, woodwork, pottery societies. You can take the stuff home. “Made in Thule.”

It would be hard to make this up. You had to be there, as you did for another Greenlandic vision straight out of Wallace Stevens:

There was an Inuit man standing on the shore, holding a guitar. He was tall, with fine features and dark eyes, wearing black trousers and a blue hooded top. It seemed a piece of curious defiance as he sang to the twilight.

Gosnell’s chapters on polar fauna are packed with delights, but she is perhaps most powerfully appealing when she follows her frozen pursuits into outer space. Is there ice on the moon? Indeed, in “thin layers mixed with dirt.” On Mars? In buried profusion: “In some regions, ice could make up half the volume of the Martian soil.” In the rings of Saturn? Preponderantly, the rings are a sort of floating rink of ice chunks. On the moons of Jupiter? Yes, and with the dizzying possibility that ice sheets may overlay reservoirs of liquid water. We may eventually discover life on Europa, smallest of Jupiter’s major moons, more than 300 million miles further than we are from the sun.

Comets—those blazing matches struck across the firmament—turn out to be composed mostly of ice. Gosnell discusses the theory, espoused by a number of scientists, that life’s origins derive not from the earth itself, whose earliest chemistry may have been insufficient to support organic buildup and synthesis, but from a steady blizzard of comets across the eons, which, in colliding with the earth, left behind a residue of enabling compounds: “In recent decades, the spectrographic signatures of several dozen organic chemicals have been discovered in comets.” It’s irresistible fuel for the poet, of course—this notion that Vermeer’s View of Delft and Beethoven’s “Appassionata” and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time all had their genesis in the peltings of a kind of cosmic snowball fight.

I had a few problems with each book. Kavenna’s is marred by repetitions—quotations have a way of popping up more than once—and Gosnell, with her encyclopedic breadth, may exhaust even the most enthusiastic reader with her thoroughness. (Two substantial chapters on pack ice? Two on sea ice?)

But there’s a happy madness to both books—as sometimes arises when erudition broadens a seemingly narrow obsession into something illuminating and consequential. Not surprisingly, both writers reveal a lifelong passion for cold and ice. Kavenna, an Englishwoman, recalls a childhood in Suffolk (“winters were never cold enough”), and repeated visits to Norway, beginning when she was fourteen. Gosnell, an American, lives in New York City, but she has been constantly tugged coldward over the years (“One winter, I rented a cabin in Elkins, New Hampshire, so I could watch a lake freeze”).

Kavenna’s book strengthens the more remote or further north her travels. I was disappointed in her portrayals of Scotland and Iceland, which evoked similar accounts I’d read in magazines. But her depictions of Greenland and Svarsbard (where “the few tourists sit in the pizza restaurant, eating whale-meat pizzas”) and the further reaches of Norway were a wonderful mixture of the exact and the fanciful—much the way icebergs will assume shapes that blend the solid and the fantastic.

Gosnell is particularly fascinating on the subject of ice cores (those immensely long cylinders drilled out of Greenlandic or Antarctic ice sheets which can serve as climatic annals dating back over hundreds of thousands of years) and on the ways in which even temporary ice layers are actually storehouses of information. If anything on the planet ever looked like a tabula rasa, it’s new ice on a freshwater pond. But as Gosnell points out, the seemingly random arrangements of air bubbles in an ice cover disclose a wealth of telling details:

In black ice, bubbles tend to be tubes, not spheres…. The more prolonged the cold the longer the tubes will be, and the greater the cold the bigger around the tubes will be…. If temperatures should rise while the ice is growing, a tube may narrow or become pinched off…. If you sawed pieces of ice out of the cover at regular intervals and examined the bubbles in it, you could read the history of weather over a winter at that spot.

Ice is a book the late Italian novelist Italo Calvino, whose fictions frequently verged on expository natural history, surely would have admired. As Gosnell revealed how a trained eye might tease out a chronicle from a simple piece of pond ice, I was reminded of the scene in Invisible Cities where an exhausted Kublai Khan, having reached the depleted point where no further worlds remain to conquer, contemplates an empty square on a chessboard. His life is “reduced to a square of planed wood.” But his companion, Marco Polo, begins to detect things in the wood’s grain: “Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was a larvum’s nest.” The vision expands:

The quantity of things that could be read in a little piece of smooth and empty wood overwhelmed Kublai; Polo was already talking about ebony forests, about rafts laden with logs that come down the rivers, of docks, of women at the windows….

Keats left by way of epitaph a description of himself as one whose name was “writ in water”—a symbol for the fleetingness of human life and the impossibility of the poet’s task. But for Mother Nature it turns out that water—once it has been hardened by a crystallizing coldness of outlook—is an ideal medium for chronicling earth’s comings and goings, and an ice core is nothing less than a painstaking journal of worldwide events:

In the codified language of the test results, scientists can read tales of droughts and monsoons, forest fires, powerful windstorms, sudden warmings, gradual cooling, dwindlings of snowfall, increases in solar activity, buildups of greenhouse gases, eruptions of volcanoes, the spread of wetlands, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the introduction of low-lead gas.

It is the technician’s eye, finally, that may provide the last word on Ultima Thule. Which is the “most northerly of inhabited lands?” To the scientist, inhabitants come in all shapes and sizes, and they are to be found wherever there is water. As Gosnell observes:

In recent years, biologists have discovered primitive life-forms in highly unlikely places in our world, between rocks ten miles below ground; in the dark, volcanically heated depths of the sea; in the ice of Siberia and the perennially frozen lakes of Antarctica.

The remotest spots imaginable turn out to be aquiver with animate forms. The search for the most remote of inhabited lands takes us to the bottom of the glacier, to the dark depths of the permafrost, to the black depths of outer space. The dream of an Ultima Thule turns out to be as big as—as small as—life itself.

  1. 1

    For a fuller appraisal of the sagas, see my review of The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, edited by Vidar Hreinsson (Rejkjavik: Leifur Eiriksson, 2000), in The New York Review, December 20, 2001. For a discussion of Independent People, see “A Small Country’s Great Book,” The New York Review, May 11, 1995. 

  2. 2

    The Coming Meltdown,” The New York Review, January 12, 2006.