An illustration of Liz Rush and Emily Raboteau surrounded by pink and orange blobs and squiggles
Illustration: Indi Maverick

What the Ice Asks of Us

A conversation with Elizabeth Rush about Antarctica

I FIRST BECAME ACQUAINTED with the environmental writing of Elizabeth Rush when I was assigned to review her last book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, an innovative work of creative nonfiction about sea-level rise that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. As a writer and concerned parent leaning into the subject of the climate crisis myself, I so admired Liz’s approach: rigorous, poetic, meditative, essayistic, personal, political, well-researched, and democratically attentive to voices from frontline communities and scientists alike. She’s applied these same qualities to her new book, The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth, which chronicles her Antarctic journey among fifty-seven scientists and crew to witness and document the collapse of the so-called “Doomsday Glacier” in January, 2019. The intimate question that guides her on this journey is one that preoccupies so many of us these days: What does it mean to bring a child into the world at this time of radical change? I had the privilege of talking to Liz about The Quickening around the time of its launch, at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn in August, 2023. (Directly before the event she told me in private that she was nearing the second trimester of pregnancy.) The following is a transcript of our public conversation, slightly revised and expanded for context and clarity.

A photograph of a wall of ice rising before a deep blue sky

Elizabeth Rush

Emily Raboteau: Congratulations, Liz, on this accomplishment. It’s such a monumental book, and a momentous journey that you took. I like how formally inventive the work is. When I opened it up, I was excited to discover that the story starts with a lengthy cast of characters. You were among dozens of people who sailed to the Thwaites Glacier on the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer. Some of them were scientists, some of them were crew, and a few were members of the media. There are so many shipmates populating your narrative My favorite “character” was Julian, the cook from Jamaica.

Elizabeth Rush: It’s a couple of pages long. It kind of looks like —

Emily: Like the script of a play!

Elizabeth: The last character is Thwaites Glacier, the most important character in this play, the one that moves all the others.

Emily: And the most inscrutable. The book is also structured in four acts, with setting descriptions that start each act, and elegiac black and white photographs you made of the water and ice. There are dozens of monologues throughout, whittled down from the extensive interviews you took of your shipmates, not only about their respective roles on this expedition to Thwaites, but also (because you were preoccupied with the desire to get pregnant) about their birth stories. This felt like a radical line of inquiry to me, holding death and life so close together. A playful form for grim content. How early on did you know that’s how you were going to dramatically structure this book like a play?

Elizabeth: When I decided I was going to write about Antarctica, I went to the library, as one does, to be like, Well, what else has been written about Antarctica?

And my first impressions were…nothing has been written about Antarctica. Not nothing, but also not a lot. I thought: My job’s going to be pretty easy if all I have to read are these books. The first person to ever see Antarctica saw it in 1820, so every single human story, that’s like a first-person story about Antarctica, has been written in the last 200 years. And the overwhelming majority of them were written by white men from the Global North setting off to conquer the last continent.

Emily: Terra incognita.

Elizabeth: They’re full of language that’s like, “Antarctica’s broad white bosom draws us towards it, and her impenetrable interior is the ultimate prize.” And most of the books replay the same six expeditions in the same kind of tired language. There is constant talk of Amundsen’s conquest of the Pole, Scott’s death at 10-ton Depot, Shackleton’s miraculous return, and so on.

I read a lot of those explorer books, but I was really curious about the other people on those expeditions. Not just the leader. I’ve always been interested in getting a non-singular perspective on an event. So I definitely went on the boat knowing I was going to do a bunch of interviews.

There was a version of this book where all of the me narration was written in the second person. How distrustful I was of my own experience. I had this mindset that this book wasn’t really about me, not in the way the old explorer narratives function anyway. 

A photograph of a blue and white glacier in dark water in front of a grey sky

Elizabeth Rush

Emily: Well, your goal isn’t conquest. It’s to make a baby when you return from confronting the brink of disaster in the company of others.

Elizabeth: At some point, a dear friend of mine read an early draft and was like, “I mean, it’s about Antarctica and motherhood, and that seems like a question that sort of only you want to ask.” I thought: Okay, I guess I’ll own that. He was like, “I’m not interested in that question. When you say ‘you,’ that’s not me.” So I feel like that’s kind of the beginning of where the weird structure took off from.

Emily: I’m interested in that question! Tell us about the title, The Quickening, its multiple meanings, and why you chose it.

Elizabeth: In order to go on this journey, I had to pass a series of physical examinations. And one of the examinations that you have to pass is you have to prove that you’re not pregnant. Pregnant people aren’t allowed to deploy to Antarctica. And I had, before being accepted, wanted to get pregnant, more or less around this time. And so, to go on the journey, I delayed my plans to get pregnant by about a year. I went on the journey wanting to bring a child into the world, and motherhood is one of those things that’s written out of every book on Antarctica. I thought: what if I carry that desire with me into the labor of writing this book? What if I carry it with me onto the boat?

Something that grounded me throughout were the little linguistic gemstones that I would find along the way. To calve, that’s the word we use when a glacier sheds a piece of ice; it’s also the word for a mother giving birth to a baby cow. And later on, it occurred to me, this word “quickening” is used to describe when a mother can first feel her child’s movement, before we had ultrasounds. It’s sort of like the moment that you recognize the life quaking inside of your body, and it also means to accelerate, right? As in what Antarctica’s great glaciers are doing right now. 

Emily: “The Quickening” puts me in mind of the term “the Great Acceleration,” attentive to drastic change.  I love the title. It’s so perfect, the tension between those two things—life being made; life coming undone. Let’s talk about the Drake Passage! It reminded me of a birth canal. As you know, I’ve also been to Antarctica. I crossed that passage when I traveled there for research toward a novel in 2009 into 2010, which was the last International Polar Year (a collaboration with intensive research focus on the polar regions.)

Because of the confluence of currents, the Drake Passage is the most violent – if that’s the right word – stretch of ocean on the planet. So it’s 20, 30-foot waves. And it’s 600 miles, I think, from the bottom of South America to the tip of the Antarctic peninsula. But if you don’t die from seasickness, which I almost thought I might, you’re delivered from turbulence into this beautiful realm that’s totally otherworldly and in some ways beyond language. And yet you’ve done it. It occurred to me that, among many other things, your book is a meditation on the climate crisis, on creation during the climate crisis – and it’s also armchair travel, since very few people get the privilege to go to Antarctica. 

Elizabeth: Totally.


The book cover for Elizabeth Rush's The Quickening


Emily: You went through the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, to witness and document the collapse of the world’s widest glacier. Would you talk about the voyage and some of the tensions that came up?

Elizabeth: There’s a clinometer on the wall of the boat that measures how far off-center the ship is rolling. And we were rolling – I think it was about 30 degrees off-center like every 45 seconds for two days straight. I was lying in my bed, and you kind of feel like you’re on this malfunctioning hoverboard.

It was also totally awesome. You go up into the bridge, and these huge waves are crashing over the front of the boat. It was honestly quite humbling. I remember being up there and thinking about how I had judged Shackleton, how he writes about his crossing as though he’s in this war against nature. And then I was up there and imagining him in a 20-foot dinghy, and I was like, Well, it probably does feel like a war against the elements when you have a reindeer sleeping bag, a wooden boat, and a barrel of brackish water. 

It took us about a month to get to this glacier. And I’ve realized I haven’t said the tagline about Thwaites, which is, Thwaites is the widest glacier in the world. It contains two feet of potential global sea level rise. It also acts as a cork to the West Antarctic ice sheet. So if we lose Thwaites, there’s concern that it’ll destabilize the entirety of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which could cause global sea levels to rise ten feet or more.

We literally have no observational data from this place. We’re the first people in the history of the planet to ever make it to where the glacier discharges ice into the sea. As someone who’s written about sea level rise for over a decade, I was really surprised to find that a lot of our sea level rise models don’t even count in West Antarctica because we don’t have enough information from it. Are we significantly underestimating sea level rise? Perhaps. We know next to nothing about this massive wad of ice at the bottom of the earth. I remember walking up to the bridge on the morning we arrived and thinking that it looks like the Northern wall in Game of Thrones. That’s literally all I’ve got. I have no other external thing to compare it to. The front side of the glacier is about four times higher than our boat, so we can’t see over the top of it. What we’re looking at, this wall of ice, we’re only seeing a fraction of it. It’s the upper portion of an ice shelf that extends hundreds and hundreds of feet into the ocean.

And that’s a moment when talking to other people is super helpful, because a lot of the scientists on the boat, and a lot of the crew on the boat, have been to other ice shelves. I can still remember Ali, who’s literally worked in and around Antarctica for half of his adult life. He was like, “I was worried I would be disappointed by Thwaites, but it looks really different and not in a good way. It looks mangled and gnarly.” Someone described it as snow slumping off a roof. One of the sedimentologists was like, “It looks like it’s sick.” So that first morning, I think I went from awe to a sense of like, Oh, the actions that we human beings take so far away from here are impacting this huge piece of ice and causing it to take on strange, unnatural shapes.

A photograph of an ice wall breaking into smaller chunks of ice

Elizabeth Rush

Emily: Someone on your voyage describes the glacier’s surface as looking like “reptile skin.”

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Emily: That’s one of the uncanny descriptions I remember. While you were there, a lot of science and sampling happened. Tell us about some of the assistance that you performed for the scientists doing fieldwork. Why did you feel it was important to contribute to their research, even though you were there as a writer, and what’s some of the data that they gathered?

Elizabeth: Once we arrive, all that matters is data. We have thirty-four days to learn as much as we can, and we have to do all the physical labor to get the data during that time. So, like, an oversized straw will be dropped off the side of the boat, and it’ll drop down to the bottom of the ocean, and it’ll suck up a bunch of mud, and we bring that straw on board, and then we have to sample it in a very methodical way. You know: scoop the mud from centimeters 142 to 143 and put it in a bag, and then clean that spoon very well and then do centimeters 143 to 144. It was like that for hours and hours and hours on end.

I want to say it felt a lot like domestic labor. It felt like repetitive actions that you do again and again and again. I decided to help because I didn’t need special training, and we only had a limited amount of time to work in. And because I had been asking people to sit down and be interviewed by me at these regular intervals for like half an hour every couple of days. These are arguably the most important months of these people’s lives, and they’re making time for me during them so I can make my project. I felt very much that I had to return that gesture of generosity. I couldn’t just keep taking and taking from the community without giving something back. 

Emily: You touch on the writers and philosophers from Melville to Foucault who’ve described “ships as spaces apart, where isolation generates the conditions for a redistribution of power.”

Elizabeth: One thing I am increasingly interested in with nonfiction writing, is like, How do you stay engaged with a community? How do you write about a community? How do you do so in a way that’s reciprocal? This expedition felt like a really incredible space to be accountable to the community that I was writing about.

Emily: I hear you. Not so extractive.

Elizabeth: Yeah, exactly. 

Emily: There’s this horrible moment in the book where you drop some of the mud and you’re wondering, How many tens of thousands of dollars of funding did I just lose?

Elizabeth: So we arrive at the glacier, the switch gets flipped, and everyone starts working really hard. It’s day two. I just start helping sample mud, and I help sample mud from 7:00 a.m. until, like, 1:00 a.m. when I make a really grave error. It’s the second mega core that we’ve gotten in front of Thwaites, and I just drop it all over the floor. I can’t emphasize how awful that was. It was the most ashamed I’ve ever been in my entire adult life.

I really wanted to get off the cruise then. I was like, I wish I could disappear. I just wish I didn’t have to see these people tomorrow. But then Megan, who’s this really wise Ph.D. student, was like,” The thing is with Antarctic fieldwork is you have no choice but to be accountable. You don’t get to not own your actions.”

And once you own them, you can move past them and continue to do the work that you need to do. There’s something also liberating about being like, I made this huge error, but we will continue to work together and try to get as much information out of these days as humanly possible. I think there is a really important lesson in there about how we can respond to all different sorts of crises, both global and more personal. 

A photograph of the sun rising over an icy landscape

Elizabeth Rush

Emily: For sure. A lesson about accountability, teamwork, and moving on from mistakes. When the ship you’re on finally reaches the glacier, you describe it with reverence. You write, “We stand together in the difficulty of it, trying to see what sits right in front of us.” I wonder if you could talk about what was going on for you emotionally, witnessing something so awesome and so unfathomable?

Elizabeth: I set out on this mission, as someone who’s written a lot about sea level rise, wanting to see the source and thinking I’m going to see it and maybe watch it change. And then I will know something in my body that my mind can’t quite grasp. It was humbling and frustrating.

I was really trying to see the glacier and be in its presence, and I felt like I regularly failed at that. Even when I was on the boat, I was like, Whatever revelation I’m supposed to be having, I’m not having it. And then there was this moment when I woke up, and I went out to the bridge, and I looked out, and there were all of these really beautiful icebergs. It was the first clear day we’d had in a week since we arrived.

I remember taking so many photographs. And then I went downstairs and I did some interviews, and then the chief scientist came into the lab. He was toggling between two aerial satellite images of our study area. In one, the ice shelf looks like a solid thing. And in the next one, it looks like a windshield that someone has smashed with a hammer. It’s just exploded. And he’s like, “The first one was taken the day after we arrived, and the second one was taken today.”

So a huge chunk of Thwaites, 20 miles wide and 15 miles deep, has collapsed right in front of us. 

Emily: That’s bigger than the island of Manhattan.

Elizabeth: And I couldn’t see it. I had thought it was just a pretty morning with icebergs. I remember running upstairs and being like, This is why we’re here. We’re supposed to see this collapse. This is what this is all about. And I still didn’t feel it in my body. It just looked really beautiful. And so that was so disconcerting. Disorienting, really. 

Emily: You asked a couple of metaphysical questions close to the end of your book that you admit you’re still working through. So I’ll just throw them back to you. What does the ice reveal by coming undone? What does its disintegration ask of us? What do you think about those questions tonight?

Elizabeth: I expected this enlightenment. It didn’t happen. And I think I expected to see the animacy of the glacier. I wanted it to see it as a being – not a human being, but a being shaping us. Because I know it’s shaping us, but it was really hard to recognize that beingness. I thought a lot about why that is, and I think that it has to do with the fact that I spent thirty days there. I don’t live alongside the ice; I have no depth of experience with it. And so, to expect to have it just reveal itself to me says more about how hubristic my expectation was.

If anything, it made me return home with a desire for heightened attention to the sublime in my backyard. What are the things that I actually do live alongside, that I actually can notice incremental change in? I know it’s happening at Thwaites, but I can’t see it because I don’t live there. What can I be attuned to the aliveness of the non-human world in a day-to-day way? And how can I raise my son to have that kind of attunement? I think that that’s partly what the ice is asking us to do. 

A photograph of penguins running on and jumping into the water surrounding a sheet of ice

Elizabeth Rush

A photo of Liz Rush on a ship

Photo Credit: Tasha Snow

Elizabeth Rush is the author of The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth; Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon, Myanmar. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, Orion, and elsewhere. Rush lives in Rhode Island, where she teaches at Brown University.
A photo of Emily Raboteau in Antarctica

Photo Credit: Victor LaValle

Emily Raboteau is the author of Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse” (out in March, 2024), Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, winner of an American Book Award, and a novel, The Professor’s Daughter. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Orion, and elsewhere. Raboteau lives in the Bronx and teaches at the City College of New York, in Harlem.