For those of you who wince a little each time some "scientist" on TV encourages us all not to worry about our warm and sticky future, who can't believe the nerve of that Michael Crichton, lecturing us all on environmental paranoia after making millions spinning yarns about killer robots and reconstituted dinosaurs, who can't help but curse each time the Bush administration guts yet another environmental protection, here is a useful corrective: Gretel Ehrlich's The Future of Ice.
Not that it's going to make you feel any better. Ehrlich's writing, based both on scientific research and her own observations in wintry locales like Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, and her own home in Wyoming, may help vindicate those who hate the pseudo-science wafting through the media these days, but it doesn't exactly inspire childlike hope for the future of ice or anything else. "The end of winter might mean the end of life," she points out on the first page of her introduction, making it hard not to read this book as an elegy of sorts. Ehrlich's willingness to confront this possibility head on, unlike a veritable laundry list of scientists, politicians, and journalists, marks The Future of Ice as a brave yet bleak addition to environmental literature.
Despite this sense of deepening gloom, Ehrlich approaches her subject matter with her sense of wonder fully intact. The Future of Ice contains many gorgeous descriptive passages, conjuring up glaciers, snowstorms, and the Spanish River on the cusp of a spring thaw. My favorite bit concerned the Arctic coal-mining town of Barentsburg—"plumes of black smoke wafting over snowy mountains and ice-littered seas"—a location that seemed straight out of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Ehrlich also fills her book with anecdotes that will pique the imagination of armchair travelers and environment junkies alike. A few of these are uplifting—one glacier in South America, named Perito Moreno, is growing despite global warming—but most are fascinatingly grim, including an encounter with a botanist who found a palm tree growing in the middle of Switzerland.
Ehrlich's writing comes across as a combination of memoir, environmental journalism, and prose poetry. While this yields some beautiful passages, her style can also be frustratingly oblique. Surely I am not the only reader mystified by lines like "All that's holding me together at the moment is the thought of the terns in the middle of their molt." She also devotes much space to chronicling her relationship with a man named Gary, a relationship that sounds as doomed as the planet, but fails to hold my attention the way potential worldwide annihilation does.
Still, it is this attempt to combine her fascination with the environment, meaning both that mostly unseen stretch of space shared by us all and the immediate piece of land right in front of one's face, with the her personal moods and feelings that gives The Future of Ice its paradoxical edge: it is an elegy with a faint whiff of hope about it.