In the Empire of Ice

GRETEL EHRLICH’S newest work, In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape, is about two things: genocide — abuse of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic; and terricide — abuse of the planet for progress and profit. Climate change is melting the world out from under the ice-adapted people who have lived with genius and elegance at the top of the world for ten thousand years without overdepleting a single resource.

This isn’t Ehrlich’s first encounter with ice. This Cold Heaven chronicles seven seasons spent with subsistence hunters in Greenland, and The Future of Ice charts a six-month journey following winter from Tierra Del Fuego to the top of the Spitsbergen archipelago, and back to her one-room cabin in Wyoming.

In the Empire of Ice takes her on a yearlong circumpolar trek, funded by the National Geographic Expeditions Council. Her narrative, a mix of scientific fact, informal diary, interview, lyrical description of place, and anger-and-despair-tinged disquisition, begins in the village of Wales along the Bering Strait in Alaska. “You’re here about global warming?” says matter-of-fact snowmobile driver Ronnie upon dropping Erhlich and her guide, Joe, off at their temporary lodgings. “We’ve got it.”

Ronnie and others, from hunters to political activists and shamans, tell stories of melting ice, soggy permafrost, weird weather, dragonflies and mosquitoes where there once were none. They talk about hotter summers, eroding coastline, and less access to polar bear, walrus, whale, seal, and other animals that have traditionally provided Arctic peoples with everything they needed to survive — food, clothing, shelter, tools, and transportation.

Along with those stories are tales of cultural fallout from a way of life changing so fast, said one Greenlander, “we are in a panic.” Poverty, pollution, rising crime, depression, poor nutrition, erosion of indigenous concepts of space, time, community, and human connection to the animal/spirit world, are just some of the secondary impacts of climate change that Ehrlich records.

From the Bering Strait, Ehrlich travels to Siberia, where she roams the tundra with Komi reindeer herders, then on to Nunavut in Arctic Canada, and finally to Greenland, where she revisits her old friends from previous journeys. The story is the same all across the Arctic. The Empire of Ice is melting.

There’s an urge to take refuge in the notion that since one is not an Inuit or a Komi reindeer herder, then it will be okay. Something will save you, and anyway, can’t they just move into town, move to higher ground, get retrained to sell something online? Ehrlich addresses that impulse to turn the peoples of the Arctic into dispensable casualties of climate change. “All that otherness is also us. . . . Igloolik’s problems belong to everyone,” she reminds us. “The lies we tell about ourselves, about others and otherness . . . are the same ones we tell about the earth.”

And what are the lies we tell ourselves about the Earth? That we don’t really need it (we have grocery stores, air conditioners, malls full of shoes), we are not beholden to it, we can control it. The peoples of the Arctic know things we all need to know. There is a word: Sila. It means weather, the power of nature, and consciousness. It defines a sophisticated understanding of the intermingling of human, animal, and Earth that is not part of Western capitalist thinking.

Parts of this book are repetitious and not as careful as one would expect from someone of Ehrlich’s literary stature; perhaps those imbalances express not lack of care but urgency. Ehrlich first sought Greenland in 1993 to heal herself after being struck by lightning. She fell in love with that icy world and has spent the last two decades trying to convey its beauty and importance to the rest of us.

I can’t help but admire Ehrlich’s intimate relationship with the Arctic. I wrote in the margins as I read: How in my culture of white middle class temperate America am I connected to the land, to the seasons, to weather, to Sila? What rites and rituals do I have that connect me to the Earth? Who are our shamans now? Could Ehrlich be one? Shamans are said to be called to their job of healing and restoring balance usually after a long illness of their own in which they themselves seek healing. They are intermediaries, messengers between the human and spirit worlds, or, in Ehrlich’s case perhaps, messengers between two cultures. “I’m so sorry for what is happening to your ice,” she tells her Inuit friends. “I will work hard to bring your situation to the ears and eyes of other people. . . . I have tried to show them who you are — there’s no one quite like you in the whole world.”