The Antiqua (source)
by Sherry Marr
Lynne Quarmby is a scientist, a professor of cell biology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and an environmental activist and writer. She ran as a Green candidate for a federal seat during the 2015 election in Canada. Her growing despair over the accelerating climate crisis led to her joining an artists’ expedition to the high Arctic aboard the schooner Antigua, in search of watermelon snow, and to observe with other artists the effect of global warming on the landscape of the far north. The voyage resulted in her book Watermelon Snow – Science, Art and a Lone Polar Bear, a weaving of memoir, microbiology and the author’s journey through a stunning landscape.
Watermelon snow occurs during summer blooms, when microscopic algae turn snowfields watermelon red. They absorb solar energy, storing heat and accelerating the snow melt.
Watermelon snow (Source)
Quarmby relates how she had been feeling irritable, burnt out, depressed. It was on this voyage she identified her feelings as the grief she was carrying about what is happening to the planet. She began to understand “I have to learn how to live with a grief I haven’t yet had the courage to face.” She says she has done all she can to encourage urgent action, including being arrested blockading the infamous Kinder Morgan pipeline. “I acted like the house was on fire. I gave it everything I had – and the house is still on fire.” I think we all understand this grief (and frustration) very well.
The expedition’s first stop was Svalbard, site of a coal mine generating heat into the area. A seed vault in the permafrost, designed to preserve seeds in the event of a global catastrophe, stored as recently as 2008, has already experienced flooding by melt water. The seeds were not breached, (this time), and “technical improvements” are being made, but the irony is clear, along with the horror of the permafrost, there for millions of years, melting at such a fast pace.
After years of fighting for political action on global warming – civil disobedience, lawsuits, a run for Parliament – hearing about, reading about, and seeing various graphs of melting ice, here I stand on an actual sheet of melting summer sea ice, bearing witness. It’s emblematic of our warming world; it’s an abstraction – and yet also cold, hard blue, real. I quietly weep. I see the melting away of our democracy and the melting of the ice and I know these are tightly entwined.
Out here on the floe edge, I am struggling with burnout and despair. I am traveling on a schooner, a scientist on an artists’ residency. The voyage is a search for rational, meaningful responses to the global environmental crisis, a search for life beyond despair.
We are all on that search. It is hard to know what we know.
Quarmby writes that she was feeling the weight of being there, at the soft heart of global melting.
A civilization based on extraction and consumption is doomed. Conversely, if we take on the hard work of a speedy and dramatic reduction in emissions through reduced extraction, reduced consumption, and reuse, it will pay dividends in a healthier environment.
I would add to that wish list a swift and just transition to clean energy sources (which are so abundant), completely away from fossil fuels, retraining folks from that industry to the many planet-healthy energy alternatives. Win-win.
Sigh. It sounds so reasonable and easy. We only have to change the stubborn mindset of a capitalist extractive system unwilling to divert their fossil fuel gravy train so the rest of the world can survive.
Quarmby quotes a recent paper by scientist James Hansen who predicts, given business-as-usual fossil fuel emissions, we can expect to see multi-metre sea level rise within 50 to 150 years, a rise that would flood every coastal city on the planet. (I venture to say it could be very much sooner than that, given how fast the climate crisis is accelerating, and how much flooding is already occurring.) Quarmby reflects:
Over evolutionary time, leaders of our communities were trusted to guide us, to find ways forward that would best serve the whole group. Today the information we are receiving from elected leaders and mainstream media is at odds with information from other trusted sources, such as scientists, independent investigative journalists, and others. I feel nausea because I am aware our society is being led by people who are not trustworthy.
Why would our government be acting contrary to the health of the planet, the rights of Indigenous peoples, a healthy society? Climate action requires an economic shift, and it is no surprise that those investing in making fortunes on the status quo economy are lobbying hard to prevent change.
Corporations can manipulate public opinion, but money can’t change science – hard realities like how much carbon dioxide is in the air. One thing I know with confidence [is]: time will show those protesting pipelines are on the right side of history.
The rapid warming of the Arctic…and a warmer atmosphere carrying more water is why we’re seeing more severe weather – stronger storms, hotter wild fires, catastrophic floods, and prolonged droughts. We’re facing loss of species in the ocean and on land, as climatic regions shift faster than species can migrate or adapt.
We’re facing radical changes in our weather systems with severe impacts on human civilization. It’s happening now and it will continue to get worse. How fast it gets worse and how bad is up to us.
I think that’s what scares me the most. Not nearly enough rapid response is happening. Individual actions are not enough; we need strong, urgent leadership action, regulatory changes, including reducing the power of corporations, in order to build a society with easily available low carbon choices; otherwise corporations will continue to dictate policy that favours pollution, wiping out individual and community efforts. Quarmby calls it “pollution in service of enriching the rich.” At the expense of all other living beings. Therein lies our problem in a nutshell. Corporations back political leaders who wish to stay in power. No one is brave enough to do what most urgently needs to be done. She continues:
There is solace in the contemplation of evolutionary time. There was life before we arrived; there will be life after we are gone. Only now do I see that this trip has been like a ‘celebration of life’ for ice. Every day we celebrated ice. And every day there was sorrow at how much the ice had retreated, at the sight of a polar bear in distress.
As it turned out, Quarmby didn’t find watermelon snow in the Arctic, but on a mountain hike back home. In summary, she wrote:
Today I see the struggle we are in as the timeless evolutionary struggle for power. Will the cheaters among us be the demise of our species, or will compassion and ecological wisdom prevail? That is the big unknown within which I live.
I’m haunted by the vision of the polar bear sitting on the ridge, watching. If the bear was after that bearded seal we saw lounging on an ice floe in the middle of the bay, I doubt he succeeded – there was too much open water. That lone bear, watching us from his post on the ridge, haunts me like all of Nature sitting in judgment, wondering perhaps whether our remorse will drive us to reassess our place in the world.
Quarmby saw, among the artists from various disciplines who joined that expedition, the way each of them responded in their own way to the melting ice, the hungry polar bears, the awe and sorrow of the melting ice in a landscape of unimaginable beauty.
Like those voyagers, we poets can use our poems to bear witness, to raise awareness about the climate crisis, and to preserve with words the wonders of nature we are still privileged to enjoy, while we – and they – are still here. In my twelve years online, I have seen growing awareness of the escalating climate crisis rise in the poetry community. My early poems left some bemused; now understanding has grown exponentially with a truth too stark to ignore. The crisis we thought might lie years ahead is here, now. Our poems measure our response, as well as being a vehicle for our grief and frustration.
For this week’s challenge, contribute to a celebration of life for ice. You could imagine the plight of that polar bear, whose dinner lies too far away. Or ponder the beauty of the far north, its blue other-worldly ice, its melting tundra, a once-pristine world that has lived in our imaginations and between the pages of books. How does ice embrace the sea and gleam with starlight? Before they’re gone for good, help us celebrate the cathedrals of ice. Write whatever your heart responds to in this challenge.
Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.
― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants