The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate
by Nancy Campbell

Scribner, 2018



Emily Dickinson’s lines “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away” are particularly apropos to the experience of reading Nancy Campbell’s new book, The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate. The book is a compendium of wonders related to that most simple of molecular substances: frozen water. It takes place indoors and outdoors at cultural and scientific institutions and gatherings, libraries, and one curling club, as Campbell narrates seven years of artist and writer residencies in Greenland, Switzerland, England, Scotland, Denmark, and Iceland.

The book has been called nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, and memoir, and all of those descriptions fit, but they do not highlight Campbell’s unique gifts and training as poet, printmaker, and art critic, who in 2018 was appointed Canal Laureate, charged with writing about the two thousand miles of waterways in the UK. Her art criticism is featured often in the Times Literary Supplement, and Enitharmon Press published her first collection, Disko Bay, poems from her first Greenland residency at Upernavik Museum. Her essay “The Library of Ice” won the Terrain Nonfiction Prize in 2014.

Campbell’s visual arts background shows in the close observation and sharp focus that makes vivid scenes of the various sites she visits. Her skill as a poet shines in passages like her description of August in Greenland: “The days are still long and light, but an indigo gloom descends around midnight. For an hour at least, streetlamps shed their rays like the heads of cotton grass that line the dusty gutters.” And in her recounting of a walk on a glacier in Iceland: “I step off the moraine and enter a world in which the ground is translucent, where depth is measured by light. I need to learn to walk again.”

In the Introduction to The Library of Ice, Campbell tells us that the museum at Upernavik that she visited during her first Arctic sojourn in 2010 is largely empty, the glass cases awaiting artifacts that will be uncovered as the Greenland ice melts with climate change. And her contract states that “if you’re an artist, you’re required to leave the work you make behind. If you’re a writer, you’re encouraged not to.” Thus Campbell goes directly from her job with a book and manuscript dealer in London to immerse herself in a culture with a strong oral tradition that values images more than printed words.

It begins to dawn on me that tracks on the ice are considered a better way of telling hunting stories than any words. Even their disappearance is part of the story—an indication of time passing, as the hunter and hunted move on. When the last of the ice has melted, I realize, the records of the past will be the least of our concerns.

At the end of the author’s time in Upernarvik in March, she reflects that “The ice was beginning to disappear—and before it vanished I wanted to learn what words it would teach me.”

Where better to find words than the Bodleian Library in Oxford? Campbell begins the first chapter by settling in for some library research into ice science. Here we meet Robert Boyle, whom you may remember from high school chemistry class as one of the fathers of modern chemistry. But Campbell introduces him through his letters—as a writer having trouble with his publisher. Through the quotes she chooses from Boyle’s writings, and her own reflections on other readings, she brings Robert Boyle to life as a real person dedicated and sometimes cranky, researching cold—in the 1600s—when that was an extremely difficult pursuit.

The chapter then moves beyond Boyle to consider more recent scientists and discoveries about the crystalline structure of ice, and we meet up with artist-explorer Emma Stibbon RA in a café in Oxford—Stibbon just back from a shipboard residency in Antarctica:

Her Antarctic works record all three states of water—solid and liquid and gas—and the permeable line between them, a reminder that it is the only substance to exist naturally in all these forms on Earth.

Campbell leaves the two sitting in the café watching a hailstorm and writes a short discussion of hail through the eyes of nineteenth-century meteorologist Ludwig Kamtz, followed then by her own reverie on hailstorms as poetry:

A short hailstorm is like those uncomfortable condensed forms in poetry, the limerick or the triolet, which often have a sting in the tail . . . It’s hard not to get lyrical about snow, which falls so gently that it seems to slow down time; hail speeds time up like strobe lighting does a pantomime.

As the book proceeds through Campbell’s seven years of residencies, the patterns set in the first chapter continue—discussions of the science and cultural history of ice interspersed with personal reflections on her experiences. If the book is a memoir, it is not one in which you will learn much about the personal life history of the author, but you will feel as though you have shared every part of her grand journey of ice with her. The choice she made to write in first person and present tense when describing a personal action or sharing a reflection gives those moments immediacy, set against the third person and past tense descriptions of the work of various scientists and explorers. It is as though the reader is in one of the libraries or museums she visited, looking over Campbell’s shoulder, or walking on the glacier with her, tentative in unfamiliar crampons.

Another feature of the book that distinguishes it from self-focused memoir is the number of people Campbell engages with as she moves through her seven-year ice journey. Some are people like Robert Boyle, whom she discovers through library research, others are people she meets in real time. Some, like George Levick of the Scott Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica, are journal keepers or letter writers. Others are people who provide an uncommon slant on the topic of ice, like Stephen Kerr, the “iceman” who creates and maintains the ice surface at the Kinross Curling Club in Scotland; or Torvill and Dean, the British ice dancers who won gold with perfect scores at the Olympics. And perhaps the most outlandish slant is provided Geoffrey Pyke, an inventor who proposed that an iceberg could be made into a “bergship” aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic in World War II. In The Library of Ice, Campbell serves as host and guide, often moving her story along through the words of these “characters,” as in this conversation with a scientist about holding a piece of the Vostok ice core:

“The thing is, it fizzed,” he said. “It was melting with the warmth of my palm, and the air was under such pressure that it exploded out of its pockets. It fizzed,” he repeated, “then it melted, and I just wiped it on my shirt.” He passes his hand across the checked cotton covering his chest, an expression of mild bewilderment on his face as he relives his . . . encounter with a 20,000-year-old piece of ice.

A compendium can be defined as a collection of concise but detailed information about a particular subject—The Library of Ice certainly qualifies. It is almost encyclopedic in its sheer volume of information, but Campbell’s writing style is visual, evocative, and warmly conversational. She communicates her sense of wonder and a kind of understated celebration of ice while recognizing the poignancy of its imminent disappearance.


Kali Lightfoot

Kali Lightfoot is a poet and reviewer based in Salem, Massachusetts. Kali was once a wilderness ranger in the U.S. Forest Service and later founding director of the National Resource Center for Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Visit her at www.kali-lightfoot.com.