A year ago, there was no snow on the ground, and I was thinking about icebergs. “We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship,” begins the first stanza of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Imaginary Iceberg,” and continues,
although it meant the end of travel.
Although it stood stock-still like cloudy rock
and all the sea were moving marble.
These lines came to me when I was reading, walking or cooking, was alone or sharing someone’s company, and they came in all kinds of weather. “The Imaginary Iceberg” is a poem that I love, although at the time I could not remember when I had last read it. Yet there it was, its first four lines on repeat in my mind’s ear, a phantom verse.
It was March and I was in Jena, a small city in eastern Germany. The nearest sea was 340 miles to the north; the nearest icebergs, at least 2,000 miles to the northwest. The nearest body of water was the river that meandered through my neighborhood and onward through fields of winter wheat. I lived in Jena for six months, and the only memorable bits of marble I saw there were the busts of Goethe, Schiller and Hegel perched atop columns on the university campus, where those men had once taught. Otherwise, Bishop’s lines reminded me of nothing I saw around me.
Soon it became difficult to see much of anything. In the middle of March, Berlin restricted domestic and international travel in order to curtail the spread of COVID-19, and regional governments soon followed suit with curfews, homeschooling and the closing of restaurants, shops and much else. My daily ramble shrank to the short walk between my apartment and office. There was polite grumbling about the restrictions, but even so it was no louder than the churn of the river after a steady rain. That changed in April, when anti-vaxxers began to organize weekly protests in Germany’s big cities. No matter how clamorous those gatherings became, they were subdued compared to a common response to the pandemic in the United States. The pastor David Jeremiah, who was one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers, asked in a sermon if the virus was biblical prophecy, and called the pandemic “the most apocalyptic thing that has ever happened to us.” No less assured but without Jeremiah’s religiosity, Laurie Penny wrote in Wired that “Covid-19 changed everything. Suddenly, the immense and frightening upheaval, the cataclysm that means nothing can go back to normal, is here, and it’s so different from what we imagined.” Many Americans agreed: by the middle of March, publishers in the United States were reporting strong sales for books about apocalypse.
The pandemic has changed lives, some more drastically than others. It has also left us looking for ways to comprehend the brute reality of mass death. During the early months of the pandemic, newspapers periodically compared the death toll from COVID-19 to the number of U.S. combat fatalities in Korea, Vietnam and World War II, which lent the pandemic an epic weight. Calling it an apocalypse does something similar. The word is derived from the Greek apokalypsis, which means to uncover or lay bare. (Its antonym, eukalyptós, means to cover or conceal.) For all its terrifying overtones, the apocalyptic analogy is seductive because it purports to reveal the narrative of a life or society in crisis to be a cardinal point in time, a catharsis separating us from all that came before while simultaneously placing an ambiguous or chaotic present in a promising relationship to the future. As the novelist Joanna Scott has explained, the attraction of such an idea—especially when the surprise of catastrophe is matched by language that sounds utterly reassuring—is that “it offers its audience the special privilege of significance: no prior crisis in human history will compare with the coming upheaval.”
That privilege, however, is hardly unique. In the early days of the pandemic, Justin E. H. Smith issued a challenge on the website of this magazine: “To the squealing chiliasts and self-absorbed presentists, indulging themselves with phrases like ‘the end of the world,’ I say: ‘Did it never dawn on you that all of human history has just been one partial apocalypse after another?’” If there have been so many apocalypses, Smith is asking, how can there have been any at all? He is pointing to a paradox, which is that any new image of an apocalypse depends on the example of previous ones, even as it rejects them. An inadvertent twist of Smith’s essay is that it repeats the argument about apocalypse made a half-century ago by Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending.
As the weeks in lockdown passed and an apocalyptic fervor showed no signs of fading, I came to understand what “The Imaginary Iceberg” was nudging me to hear. The poem has three eleven-line stanzas, and as they unfold the tight rhyme and rhythmical schemes established in the first stanza (like “travel” and “marble”) are gradually relaxed, the only exception being the rhyming couplets that end each stanza. Bishop takes the poem’s metaphors in the opposite direction, stressing self-containment and the loss of sight: “The iceberg cuts its facets from within”; “This is a scene a sailor’d give his eyes for. / The ship’s ignored.” Beginning innocently enough with an unambiguous statement, the poem becomes a parable about the dangers of valuing the imaginary over the imagined, of treasuring an iceberg that is “Like jewelry from a grave,” that “saves itself perpetually and adorns / only itself.”
Bishop is cautioning against surrendering the necessary work of perception and comprehension for the seduction of revelation, no matter how enticing that may be. “We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship, / although it meant the end of travel.” Be wary of ways of thinking that hinge on a catastrophic break between the present and the past, I heard the poem saying. Bishop is expressing obliquely something that Wallace Stevens would state openly nearly a decade later in “Esthétique du Mal”—“We are not / At the centre of a diamond.” Not even an imaginary one cut from ice.
Jena rests in a wide, flat valley ringed by low-slung mountains called the Saale Horizontal, and when a few lockdown restrictions were relaxed last April, I walked in them often. The mountains I’ve known in the United States have been ranges of jagged granite and gneiss heaved upward from the earth’s volcanic crust. The Saale are steep, flat-topped formations of limestone and sandstone, a summit-less landscape that was new to me. All mountains change over time; they weather, buckle, erode. But the Saale is dynamic in a particular way; its limestone, formed from the compressed bodies of crinoids, ammonoids and other ancient sea creatures, is a thick concatenation of life and death. Those countless, tiny creatures formed their shells and skeletons from the ocean’s calcium, and their petrified remains, once dissolved, become a source of calcium for other creatures and plants, like the wild orchids that thrive in the dry, caked soil of the Saale’s southern slopes, and whose royal purple brightens the sky’s blue. In the valley there are streams so rich in calcium that leaves snagged in their currents gradually acquire a thin white crust.
If the metamorphosis of the Saale’s limestone seemed pastoral to me, it was partly because I learned that the mountains have been the scene of disaster and horror. In 1806, Napoleon’s troops crushed the Prussian Army on a plateau overlooking the valley and pillaged Jena and its neighboring villages. In April 1945, as U.S. forces were closing in on Buchenwald, the Nazis led 30,000 prisoners from the camp on a death march to Weimar that passed through Jena and the foothills of the Saale. The Wehrmacht specialized in putting limestone to brutal ends. Drive south from Jena for eight hours and you’ll reach the Carso, an elevated limestone plateau that stretches from northeastern Italy into Slovenia, and whose western edge borders the Adriatic Sea. The Carso is famous for its flooded caverns, buried rivers and caves with living glaciers; during World War II, they were overrun by a guerrilla war. After the Axis captured Yugoslavia in 1941, German and Italian troops occupied the Carso with orders to cleanse it of ethnic Slovenes, who fought back. Hollows in the limestone were used as bunkers, field hospitals and weapon depots; sinkholes became execution chambers, with prisoners pushed into them alive. Walkers in the Carso still occasionally find rusting barbed wire and bones, as well as swastikas freshly carved into memorials to the Slovenian dead.
The writer Robert Macfarlane has walked the Carso, and as he explains in his recent book Underland, when he came across one such defaced memorial there several years ago, he felt “a sudden horror reaching up and out of the sinkhole to coil around my heart. Something terrible has taken place here, and continues to reverberate.” His queasiness reminded him of the narrator of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, who while walking along the militarized coastline of East Anglia “becomes preoccupied to the point of ‘paralysing horror’ by the combination of an ‘unaccustomed sense of freedom’ in the landscape ‘with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.’” Macfarlane has elsewhere praised the “avidity for the undiscovered” in Sebald’s work; as he continues walking the trails of the Carso, however, he leaves the example of The Rings of Saturn behind. To explore a place “only for its dark histories,” as Sebald does, “is to disallow its possibilities for future life, to deny reparation or hope—and this is another kind of oppression,” Macfarlane writes. “In living as in poetry, your art / Refused to tip the scale of being human / By adding unearned weight,” James Merrill wrote in his elegy for Elizabeth Bishop. Macfarlane is no less wary of tipping the scale. Can one live in the shadow of death, he is asking, without succumbing to the lure of nostalgia or oblivion?
His answer can be found in Underland’s linked stories about places marked by a human presence yet where time is measured in epochs and eons instead of days and years. Refining a sense of time and place has been the natural direction of Macfarlane’s writing. His first two books, Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places, explain the fear and fascination with spectacular landscapes aboveground, like the mountain peaks first glorified by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Lord Byron that have become pilgrimage sites for climbers, or the meadows, wildwoods and hilltops of Britain and Ireland where a human presence has amounted to a blink in time. His more recent The Lost Words is a work of salvage, a re-enchanting of words like bluebell, conker and kingfisher that have fallen out of usage. Macfarlane’s abiding passion for nature is inseparable from his sense of belatedness: that as a walker and writer he comes after the Romantics who deified mountains, after the technological innovations of the twentieth century that have made slag heaps of meadows, rendered bluebells into afterthoughts and turned oceans into holding pens for floating islands of plastic trash.
The word often used to characterize the era of immense change to the environment caused by human activity is Anthropocene. Many books about the Anthropocene are a blend of manifesto and jeremiad, tinged with a furious or helpless dismay about how our technologies have irreversibly damaged the planet and climate. Although he is acquainted with the practical and philosophical questions raised by the Anthropocene, Macfarlane has not written an Anthropocene book in Underland. While accepting that the concept does issue “a powerful shock and challenge to our self-perception as a species,” he remains suspicious of its rhetoric. It “generalizes the blame for what is a situation of vastly uneven making,” he emphasizes, “while the designation of this epoch as ‘the age of man’ also seems like our crowning act of self-mythologization.”
What most concerns Macfarlane is the question of how to go on living in a world that feels ever more alien and insecure, broken and diminished, one in which the overstepping of ecological boundaries has led to species extinction and global pandemics. Macfarlane does not underestimate those losses or obscure their dangers in order to sanitize contemporary history; at the same time, he does not think that contemporary history is an immense panorama of desolation and futility. Consequently, for all its magnitude as a concept, the Anthropocene is not seen as apocalyptic in Underland. Instead, it’s used as a new word for an old fact: we are mortal, and the earth will survive us by billions of years. And while we have always been the creatures and casualties of transience, impermanence can also be understood as something capable of renewing life’s meaning and value. “The imperfect is our paradise. / Note that, in this bitterness, delight,” wrote Wallace Stevens in “The Poems of Our Climate.” Not unlike Stevens, Macfarlane thinks his only choice is to try to find a new earth in the imperfect one he inhabits, and to undertake that work with imagination and without despair as best he can.
Underland is organized around visits to eleven underground chambers of “deep time” in Britain, southern Europe and Scandinavia. What Macfarlane seeks in them is not the Lethe’s dangerous comfort of oblivion, which makes human morality seem absurd and assertions of value futile. Rather, he believes that an awareness of the ways time is recorded in stone and ice “might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and million to come.” Stone and the earth, he emphasizes, are not inert matter. And we “are part mineral beings too—our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones—and there is a geology of the body as well as of the land.” We carry an even older past in our cells, which go back to the origins of life on the planet. Macfarlane is searching for neither a new world naked nor an ancient one where he can vanish, but an ancient one understood differently, its meaning and his place in it thereby renewed.
Among the chambers he visits are old potash mines on the Yorkshire coast more than half a mile below the earth’s crust. There, in a vast laboratory, physicists search for evidence of dark matter, the non-luminous substance that accounts for most of the matter in the universe. In order to find it, you must descend far from the sun, Macfarlane explains, because sometimes “in the darkness you can see more clearly.” In Paris he slips from a rail tunnel into the labyrinthine catacombs. Forming a vast network of branching vacancies, they are remnants of the tons of limestone quarried to construct much of the city aboveground, and have served as ossuaries, mushroom farms, classrooms for the Paris School of Mines and a Wunderkammer for urban spelunkers. Macfarlane’s guide is a woman named Lina who at one point in their two-day journey coaches him to wiggle on his belly through a vertical passageway so narrow that it feels like a form-fitting coffin. (Macfarlane is changing the script here, because in classical stories of the underworld, it’s men who attempt to retrieve a trapped, beloved woman—Eurydice, Alcestis.) After hiking in the Carso, Macfarlane heads north to Lofoten, Norway, where the walls of sea caves are covered with dancing human figures painted in a ghostly red preserved by the calcium carbonate in limestone. His final destination is Finland, where a burial chamber for nuclear waste is being carved more than a quarter mile below the surface from 1.9-billion-year-old bedrock. The bet is that the tomb will keep the future safe from the waste of the present.
In ancient Greece, an underground journey was known as a katabasis. Macfarlane’s expeditions, although not undertaken to rescue a beloved, depend on descent being the road to a renewed understanding of reality. In part, Macfarlane is trying to relieve the sense of nostalgia created by the technologies of modern life, which have made the earth feel haunted, scarred by the enigma of loss. Yet for all that Macfarlane follows the subterranean path of the Greeks, I think his most important predecessor lies closer to our era. Preoccupied with remains, keen to stretch his imagination and language to encompass geological time, Charles Darwin thought that existence was a losing struggle against scarcity and extinction; however, he did not believe what lies beneath the earth to be abhorrent and the work of understanding it futile. He viewed even the most slender of underground burrows as places where life’s unavoidable losses could be turned into gains, ends converted into beginnings.
As Adam Phillips observes in Darwin’s Worms, in the studies of the earthworm that Darwin undertook throughout his career, the naturalist explained how through their tillage of the soil these creatures preserve the past and create the conditions for future growth. In Darwin’s eyes, the lowliness of worms is exemplary. They “buried to renew: they digested to restore,” Phillips explains; like the “unironized heroes of some lost, classical myth,” Darwin’s worms possessed an elemental force. Extending Darwin’s insights, Phillips writes that whether we are ironic or not, we “are more like worms than we might think”—we too have the ability to make a world of losses contingently hospitable—“and this need not cause us shame.” The art of losing may be hard to master, but for Macfarlane, as for Darwin, considering how other people and creatures have approached that arduous task is formative, because it can renew and enrich our quality of attention toward the natural world.
As a guide to that world, Macfarlane is often as affable as Phillips, and while his writing about loss is rarely tinged with despair, he doesn’t share Phillips’s cool composure about the “sheer voraciousness of change.” On the last leg of his journey in Greenland, Macfarlane hikes to a glacier near Kulusk Island. It is the Knud Rasmussen, “a body of ice so great that it makes its own weather.” When he and his three guides arrive there, the glacier is felt but not seen: “It extends a chill around itself, dropping the air temperature by five degrees or more. … We drink ice. We wash in ice.” On a rest day, while the group is relaxing near their tents, the face of the Knud Rasmussen starts to calve, and in a matter of seconds a massive chunk of glacier breaks free, roaring through the air and landing in the sea. It has become an iceberg, Macfarlane writes,
made of a substance that has to be ice but looks like no ice we have seen before, something that resembles what I imagine meteorite metal to be, something that has come from so deep down in time that it has lost all colour, and we are dancing and swearing and shouting, appalled and thrilled to have seen this repulsive, exquisite thing rise up that never should have surfaced, this star-dropped berg-surge that has taken three minutes and 100,000 years to conclude.
The ice of the Knud Rasmussen “bellows, cries, echoes,” Macfarlane observes, and living at the foot of it has been like “moving in next door to a thunderstorm.” One of his guides has lived on Kulusk Island for sixteen years. The man says the ruckus of the calving is nothing compared to the roar of a nearby glacier called Helheim, whose name means “the realm of hell” (Heim is German for home) or “the hidden place.” As Macfarlane explains, the deeper roots of Helheim are the Proto-Germanic noun *haljo, which is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *kel– or *kol-, “meaning at once ‘to cover,’ ‘to conceal’ and ‘to save.’”
Thick with the language of apocalypse, the landscape has been cultivated to seem ominous. Macfarlane, however, writes subtly against those metaphors. He is certainly not at a loss for words. His account of the calving is dramatic, unfolding like a dream, and for a moment, because of his description of how the calving bends time, taking three minutes and 100,000 years to conclude, it also sounds ominous. Yet he avoids concluding that the glacier’s rupture is the sign of something inherently ghastly. For all that the new iceberg seems to be otherworldly, a “star-dropped berg-surge,” in his eyes it has not ushered in the end of a world. It marks an end that is also a beginning. Repulsive and exquisite, durable and perishable, it is a paradox that causes him no exasperation and that he chooses not to explain away. The following day, Macfarlane leaves the Knud Rasmussen for Finland. For all the terrifying beauty of its beginnings, the iceberg is not the center of a diamond, and it does not mean the end of his travels.
The “earth of things,” wrote William James in Pragmatism, “long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights.” With his suggestion that our pale blue dot, long overrun by the hubris of human ambition, must resume its rights, Macfarlane renews James’s call. As he learns at Knud Rasmussen, such work is essential as well as difficult because it is not only bigger than any individual but also ongoing. Macfarlane is fond of a remark from The Living Mountain, a book by Nan Shepard about her walks in the granite ranges of the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland. “Knowing another is endless,” Shepard writes. “And I have discovered that man’s experience of them enlarges rock, flower and bird. The thing to be known grows with the knowing.”
And so today, when there is no snow on the ground, I am thinking again about icebergs. Along with the work of Bishop, Stevens and several contemporary poets, I’ve often turned to Underland during the past year as an alternative to the doomsaying of our times. What these writers have taught me is that no matter the allure or elegance of its rhetoric, apocalyptic thinking is a poor way of understanding change. While change may bring a sense of urgency, neither change nor urgency, despite their difficulties, are inherently catastrophic. Denying us a backward glance, apocalypse leaves one unprepared to act in the face of uncertainty or danger.
Very few among us can crawl or climb to the depths and heights of deep time that Macfarlane describes in his book, but correlatives can be found in his attempts to imagine a future from the remains of the past in the natural and imaginative worlds he knows best. Such work can often be more frustrating than consoling, yet its process of recovery and transformation is no less essential and valuable because of that. It’s the choice of understanding our lives by regularly reconsidering our place in nature and culture, describing old problems in new ways, facing them with new questions and never taking the answers for granted. Such knowledge need not become an unremitting elegy, because an account of past losses, of transience, can also be a record of survival. Life as we find it is about what can be made anew from what remains, what still happens to be here, now, but not always.
Image credit: Banco de Imágenes Geológicas (CC / BY Flickr)