Melting Laboratories, or: Ecocritical Readings of Icy Landscapes

Guest Post by Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz

It is my pleasure to welcome guest author Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz. Svenja is a doctoral researcher in the interdisciplinary project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Conditions of Disruption” at TU Dresden, where she investigates “Contact Scenes” between humans and non-humans, scientists and non-scientists, knowledge-seekers and their ‘objects’ (together with Kirsten Jüdt, Jakob Hammerschmidt and me).

Ice and Ecocriticisms

Ice is at the forefront of global debates about climate change. Rising temperatures cause ice to melt and melting ice causes temperatures to rise even further. The consequences of these processes are disastrous on every scale: the collapse of the gulf stream, rising sea levels, the loss of habitats for numerous species, droughts and hunger, erosion. Melting ice is the imagery that is used whenever there is a discussion about climate change. Dramatic pictures of ice shields with a single polar bear on them circulate through tabloids and social media; in documentaries such as the BBC’S Planet Earth, we see time lapses of Arctic ice, that, like lungs, breathes by retreating in summer and expanding in winter, thereby providing the planet with processes that are vital for the survival of life. Ice is ubiquitous in environmental discourses whenever the need arises to show something that is hard to see in more temperate (or tropical) climates. It serves as hard, but disappearing proof. The act of disappearing symbolizes such a convincing image for change, that it promises to bring (hard) science into contact with everyday life and convince even those, who deny what is so clearly visible.

Yet, despite the fact that almost every debate on climate change at least mentions ice, its full potential in discourses in ecocriticism is yet to unfold. There is a rising interest in ice and its disappearance, as books ranging from Dahr Jamail’s The End of Ice, Andri  Snær Magnason’s On Time and Water, or, in literary studies, Sabine Frost’s Whiteout show, yet in comparison with literary texts and scholarships on trees, animals and other “wild things”, ice ranges at the fringes of public and academic interest. The reasons why ice does not receive the same attention as other ‘natural’ beings or spaces are as manifold as ice itself, but, at this point, remain somewhat speculative. It might be that landscapes as extreme as Arctica and Antarctica are way too hostile for humans to associate ideas of reconnecting with nature, which is one of the focal points of early ecocriticism. They often remain tied to stories of survival and dominance and rarely to those of coexistence. It might be that ice is a landscape that is too remote, too far removed from everyday life for most people to be thought of as a medium for cultivating relationships to non-human nature – at least from a western point of view; indigenous groups such as Sámi and Inuit show otherwise. 

Ice is hard to grasp, literally as well as cognitively: It is the frozen state of water, but when it melts, it turns into a different state, and the description of being solid and frozen not longer fits. A fact as simple as that brings forth a number of complex problems for scientists and literary scholars alike. Established ecocritical premises, viewpoints and modes of analysis can fall short when confronted with icy landscapes: Frozen landscapea do not seem like spaces in which an individual person can understand that they are part of an ecosystem; the barrenness hardly suggests a life for people in reciprocity with the land. The extreme cold suggests hostility and does not seem like a space that offers refuge or a safe haven as a familiar forest might. Ice is dynamic, it tells different stories compared to mountains or trees in spring. Where to place humans in such a landscape? How to narrate and depict the instability of ice? Not only the ice itself challenges analysis and criticism, the icy environment deprives humans of their senses, their ability to distinguish individual ‘things’ and thus, treat them as such. Yet, ice-texts hold a great potential for ecocritical readings: They produce critical nature relations and allow us to re-evaluate human-nature-connections. Polar ice, in the extra-textual reality often serves as a laboratory for science on global warming, for military tests and a still largely untouched field for resource extraction. Yet, it can also become a laboratory for ecocriticism. Ice-texts challenge us to think about coexisting with threatened nature, but even more so with threatening nature. Icy landscapes can be visited, enjoyed, experienced if one is either a inhabitant of the Arctic circle or wealthy enough to afford a touristic trip. Storytelling, then, provides a form of access, that in some respects is not just “second hand” but provides information and context that is not even available to those who have “been there”. Herein lies another challenge and potential of ice: it questions notions of authenticity on a fundamental level.  

Harley D. Nygren – NOAA At The Ends of the Earth CollectionImage ID: corp1014 ([1]), ,

Ice intensifies questions that are important for environmental storytelling in general – it isolates (like a laboratory setting) problems that are not necessarily unique to “ice” but to human-nature-relationships under the conditions of change: How, then, does one narrate a landscape that could disappear without a visible trace, that is dynamic in spreading, retreating, melting, growing? Are they even “landscapes” (with all the cultural baggage this term implies) or are they seascapes, waterscapes, something entirely different and does it even matter what you call them? How can you read ice, whether as a reader, as an ecocritic or as a scientist?

Ice is exceptional in its role and potential in ecocriticism, both as a precarious archive and as a producer of human-environment-relationships. Moreover, polar ice presents a canvas for the literary imagination, filling the vast amounts of white with stories on human survival from the age of polar explorers. It is a refuge for all kinds of creatures such as Frankenstein’s monster disappearing into the frozen wilderness, home and residence for Lovecraft’s horrible tentacle-headed Cthulhu, or polar worms being considered for biochemical weapons in Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. It is romantically charged with the sublime, the awe-inspiring. And it is part of a history of domination, turning Arctic and Antarctic poles into prizes in a long-ongoing scramble for nationalist and economic supremacy; polar ice is embedded in discourses of post- and neocolonial environmental protection and resource extraction that marginalizes the voices of the people that live there. Yet, these voices are not necessarily lost and reading ice through an ecocritical lense has the potential to shift the focus from tales of domineering and loss to coexistence and creativity. Therein lies the potential to highlight agencies beyond humans.

Frozen Agencies

In Marie Darrieussecq’s novel White (2003) ice does not only fulfill the role of providing the background for a plot that takes place in the precarious and extreme landscapes of the Antarctic. Much more than that, the polar ice brings forth its own agenda in the novel. It refuses to be analyzed by scientists, it refuses to be dominated by humans, it refuses to by claimed by explorers. Instead, it provides the characters in the novel as well as the readers with challenges – to be grasped, understood and categorized. This is due in part to not only the barren and extreme landscape, but also in part of the narrators, spectral beings that just like the ice, refuse to be categorized and analyzed, are fluid in their shape and appear visible, or rather, readable only to the reader, whether as ghosts of former polar explorers such as Amundsen or Scott. Edmée Blanco, the protagonist of Darrieussecq’s novel, is a telecommunications scientist who has to decide between two different scientific missions to participate in; one of them leading to Mars, the other to Antarctica. Blanco, whose telling name hints almost painfully obvious at the title of the novel, chooses Antarctica and goes on a journey to help establish a European scientific base at the south pole. As the title of the novel suggests, she is met with endless white surrounding her. As ecocritics, however, we can also take the white as a metaphor for the voids that are yet to fill when it comes to Ice-ecocriticism.

White : Darrieussecq, Marie: Bücher

Looking at the Antarctic ice from a purely scientific point of view in White (it being as far removed from human existence as different planets like Mars), sets up expectations for (the) matter, presents it as an object to be discovered and analyzed based on rational, scientific methods and viewpoints. However, the spectral beings do their best to sabotage the mission and provide distractions for the scientists. Invisible and inaudible to them, they declare themselves to be like spiders, swinging on their thoughts and feeding on emotions – which, in the extremity of the surrounding hostile landscape provide a feast for them. As ungraspable as the ice itself, they provide a way to narrate about humans in the non-human landscape: in their spectraliltiy, fluidity, insgraspability, they form an in-between between the ice and the humans. On the first page, they tell the reader that the area is lonely and empty, and their awareness of their in-between state since there is, “[no] one left in a radius of four thousand kilometers, except for three Russians who are hibernating in the Vostok base. And us, of course, but how can we be counted?” (Darrieussecq, White, 3). Donna Haraway proposes that “It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledge knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds”( Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 35).

The spectral beings can be read as fictional expressions of this in taking a de-centered position that puts neither humans nor nature at the center but observes them in interaction with another. As the reader follows the protagonist Edmée Blanco going south, the spectral narrators present the ice as indifferent and independent to humanity as possible, when the first iceberg appears:

 “It is a scout, a sentinel. A warning. Something enormously white. And imagine how cold it must be, in the centre. It is not something that warms up the deeper you go, like the Earth, or bodies. And behind it, the impassive continent. You can imagine that if you went around the iceberg (how long? an hour’s yoyage? a day?) there would be the hidden side of the moon, signs that have been left there, an intention. But this has nothing to do with humans. It can do without them. Ice, that’s all there is to it. No meadows after the thaw, or trees, or streams, or even familiar deserts, with sand, scrub, a dried river bed.” (Darrieussecq, White, 17) [Emphasis added S.E.-K.]

Ice, that’s all there is to it, it has nothing to do with humans – and yet, humans and their impacts aren’t absent from the icy landscapes at all. Scientific proof for the connections of humans and the ice can be found in abundance. Even in the Antarctic, which, in Darrieussecq’s novel, remains unaffected by the discourses on climate change, is not an impassive continent that is as far removed from everyday existence as outer space. However, even by the wordings “It can do without them”, the ice is presented as independent of humans, as a place that doesn’t exist to be easily visited, or narrated. As the scientific mission reaches the southernmost continent, the reader is told: 

“This is a place to which visiting humans have given very few names. Not many come here, and none stay (alive, that is); and those who have kept a diary did so to recount their conquest, an exploit, or to say farewell to their loved ones with their frost-bitten fingers. Later, those who will stay here for scientific, political or military reasons will speak international pidgin English and will content themselves with snow, ice and white or hazard a desert and flat, or when effusive solitude. And when they are alone, quite alone in their minds, alone with their mother tongues, why would they describe anything?” (Darrieussecq, White, 61) [Emphasis in the original]. 

Only few visit the ice, thus direct experience of the matter (literally) is rare for humans. Those who do visit – for scientific, military and/or political reasons – are neither equipped to survive nor are they able in their records to account for how the ice affects humans (and vice versa). The oppositions (ice/humans; nature/culture) remain fixed and thus overshadow any kind of interaction. The environment seems so hostile that it deprives humans of their very human capacity to even utter the experience of the ice, language loss seems to turn the humans into parts of the environment instead of turning the environment into a background for them. 

Yet, even in White, the rational scientists cannot escape their humanity which operates not only on rational, but also on emotional, poetical, and philosophical motifs. They are in need of more words than the snippets of pidgin English exchanged in the novel, and they do feel the urge to describe their icy environments – and yet, they lack the words, the language to do so. As they drill holes into the frozen ground and pull the ice cores to the surface, they are reminded of their humanity, as Peter Thompson, once of the engineers in the novel exemplifies: “And these long tubes of raw, blue, deep-frozen time which the glaciologists are extracting, millimetre by millimetre, carefully clutched in their gloves, make Peter philosophical.” (Darrieussecq, White, 89) This works because the cores and their time scales put a single human life in a different perspective and challenge familiar relations and relationships. As Nancy Campbell puts it, “Human beings, lodged on Earth’s thin crust, must drill deep or soar high to understand their environment. Knowledge comes from far beneath our feet, from distant outer space.” (Campbell, Library of Ice, 25). This knowledge is hidden in the ice and not necessarily easy to access even if you suspect it is there. The ice, in the novel White and outside of it, gains meaning or is viewed as a storage for knowledge because humans look for understanding of themselves in their surroundings and put their own perspective and agenda onto the frozen matter. The ice itself, the frozen matter, merely (still) exists, and “[i]t is there for no one, just like the snow, the ice, the lakes in the depths and the bedrock beneath them, like the sky and the tiny hint of wind and empty space. It is expecting nothing. It wants nothing. It is flat, cold and indifferent.” (Darrieussecq, White, 64)

But the polar ice is not flat, cold and indifferent to the humans because it brings them their physical and psychological extremes. The seemingly barren, empty landscape reflects the sun multiple times, polar ecosystems, though everything but lifeless, contradict (European) expectations of ‘natural environments’ that were developed with trees and lakes, meadows and fields in sight.  . The protagonist of Darrieussecq’s novel has to grapple with these extreme conditions: “[…] Edmée Blanco stares at the five suns, and her human brain is the sole living thing, messy and living, in all that array of spheres and crystals.” (Darrieussecq, White, 63). Not only does this landscape provide extreme physical conditions that cause the human senses and perceptions to be warped, it also comes with another predicament that makes life for humans difficult: Extreme loneliness. Places as hostile and as far removed from urban centers and settlements seem to be hardly reconciled with ideas of the movement of ecocriticism, to foster a reconnect to nature.

However, they are there. The polar ice regions might be indifferent, but they are affected and impacted by humans, changed by global warming. The scientific interest in this frozen matter is huge, for research on climate change, for research in geology and biology, for military reasons and after all, for capitalist regions, since there are vast amounts of natural resources hidden underneath the ice; gasses and fossil fuels. However, reading the frozen mattera through an ecocritical lens bears much more potential than just an analysis of Cli-Fi novels that deal with current political development, but allows to develop a self-critical ecocriticism in re-assessing ecocritical perspectives. 


In the novel White, going to Antarctica is set to be as likely as going to space. Already in 2021, billionaires like Elon Musk launch their own rockets and announce “affordable” space travel in the near future. If you can leave earth, how far away can the end of the world be? At the same time, accelerated global heating moves polar ice closer because it becomes obvious how closely connected global ecosystems are… Reading ice ecocritically also means to find ways for how humans inscribe meaning into indifferent matter. Ice, as the abundance of ice texts shows, is charged emotionally and imaginatively, it is a reservoir for myths and mythologies across epochs and cultures. In a way, thus, ice becomes an archive for human activity both in a scientific and cultural sense. It shows how theories such as the nature-culture-distinction no longer hold (frozen) water. Even the scientists in White are amazed by the possibilities of ice:

“’You can’t imagine what can be found in the snow. Ten metres down, the smoke from the start of the industrial revolution. At three metres, the ash of the Solfatara. Stick your arm in up to your elbow, and you’ll pick up the remains of the World Trade Center. But if you dug much deeper, deeper even than our glaciologists, then you’d discover prehistoric climates, the evaporation of the primitive oceans and the scents of the forests that covered Gondwanaland!’” (Darrieussecq, White, 99)

Ice cores, drilled into the Antarctic and Arctic landscapes show remains of events that were important for humanity. This works only because we ascribe meaning to them, because we declare them to be culturally significant, we turn them into archives for human history. Ecocriticism, here, has the potential to parallelize the correlation between science and the production of knowledge with its counterpart in literature.  In the era of the Anthropocene, we take the focus away from the indifference of the ice, its mere existence, and turn it into a space that holds the evidence of our modern existence, as Nancy Campbell shows in the Library of Ice: “The polar ice is the first archive, a compressed narrative of all time in a language humans have just begun to learn. Only a few people are fluent: we rely on scientists to read the alphabet of elements and isotopes for us.” (Campbell, Library of Ice, 26)

File:K.A.Colorado Ice Core Sculptures Series.jpg
K.A. Colorado’s proprietary series of Ice Core Sculptures include this group portraying climate change and ocean health, created for NOAA for their permanent collection. Photo taken in 2015 at the artist’s studio. M.R.Tahan.books, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What happens to those archives when they disappear? Ice does not only confront ecocritics with questions of how it can be read, but more interestingly how it can be narrated and grasped. In works of creative non-fiction such as Campbell’s, it is understood as a conservation of all traces of human existence, providing glimpses into the circumstances of living in the present and living in the past. But what happens when such a conservatory disappears? What happens with the contents stored in this archive? And who is able to talk about this ice? And who listens? The ice, read as an archive, provides a canvas for ecocritical possibilities that blurs boundaries, it is mesmerizing. Rational, scientific language is not enough to unveil the sublime, the mundane, and the archival potential of the ice:

“These giant icicles are witnesses to global climate and its history. Within them is evidence of past temperature, the gas composition of the lower atmosphere, solar variability, ocean volume, volcanic eruptions, rainfall, the extent of deserts and forest fires. Under the magnifying glass the cross-sections of the core glow like magic lantern slides. Summer and winter snowfall have an entirely different appearance: the coarse-grained summer hoar is covered with a fine-grained layer, densely packed by the winter winds. This pairing is known by scientists as the ‘depth hoar/wind slab couplet’. It is a surprisingly poetic term, which calls to mind the neat closing lines of a sonnet. The couplet forms an annual marker that – like the growth rings of trees – can be counted to date the core.” (Campbell, Library of Ice, 25)

Ice helps us to understand that there is no one single approach to ecocriticism, in fact that there is no ecocriticism but multiple ecocriticisms that bring humanities and sciences together, not in a binary model but as a layered, cylindrical core, describing hard facts  in poetic terms that provide glimpses into human existence in a time of crisis. Ice seems to be non-graspable, non-narratable – it’s just there. Ice-ecocriticism weaves together these multiple strands to unveil meaning or knowledge from the ice for non-experts since “[t]his knowledge can’t be separated from the words in which it is expressed. But, like the ice, the reach of some languages is diminishing, to the extent that the state of the language may be of as much concern as the ecosystem it describes.” (Campbell, Library of Ice, 116) The ways to speak of ice are manifold – whether as Creative Non-Fiction in The Library of Ice, or in Cli-Fi novels such as White. The ways to read it ecocritically are just as diverse. And just as urgent.

Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz is a doctoral researcher at TU Dresden where she works in the interdisciplinary project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Condition of Disruption”. She studied Comparative Literature and English/American Studies at Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany), Limerick (Ireland) and University of Oklahoma (USA). She received her M.A. in 2021 from Ruhr-University Bochum with a thesis comparing French, German and US-American Climate-Fiction (Cli-Fi).

The research project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Condition of Disruption” is part of the Excellence Measure “Disruption and Societal Change” at TU Dresden (TUDiSC) and is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Freestate of Saxony under the Excellence Strategy of the Federal Government and the Länder.

Donna Haraway: Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, 2016.

Marie Darrieussecq: White. Translated by Ian Monk, Faber and Faber, 2005.

Nancy Campbell: The Library of Ice. Readings from a Cold Climate, Scribner, 2018. 

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