Sunday, 26 August 2018

Mapping the lines of a glacier

The beginnings of a new book. They seem to be losing words. The octobook didn't have so many. Recovery was more space than text; and this one - as it stands - even more so. I think in part it is the subject matter: what words would be contained in the map of a glacier? The design grew in my mind when I was lying on the beach alongside Bloomstrandbreen - it was a sunny day and many of us lounged in full waterproofs like seals on the sand - I had a horrible thought I'd said in my funding application I'd make a book a day: there were only four days left before the end of the trip and I'd made none. This riffs from: the folds, crevasses and lines in ancient ice. I liked how the path through the opening of the pages has no obvious beginning, like a glacier that moves and pops and calves in all places. Once I made the first version I realized I wanted the paper wrinkled, as if having been scrunched up and thrown away before being rescued and flattened, carefully saved. I had to stitch the folds to prevent a flat opening, and used blue thread as unoxygenated water is blue, glimpsed in deep holes in the surface and edges of glaciers. I've been wanting to use material line in a book for a while because poems have lines, but these lines that have lost their words. I love how Hepworth's lines make space seem deeper in her sculptures, or draw our eyes to emphasize the hollow.

The words came much later: one sentence that is not set in order, which might be frustrating, might not make it easy to read. But I didn't find glaciers very easy to read. I made two further editions of the book from A1 sheets of cartridge paper which meant the words had to be handwritten - not ideal. In fact the more I thought about the words I'd used the more uneasy I felt. A single sentence set in all that paper felt an extravagance. It had to be worth it.

I read the embedded water in a sheet of A4 could be anything from 1 to 10 litres of water. I've been more conscious than normal this week of the sheer amazingness of having drinking water on tap. I'm thirsty I turn the tap. The water in my glass is a day or two old, I tip it away to refill. How can I be so complacent about such a precious resource. It has seemed crazy to me for years that in the UK we flush our toilets with drinking water. I have friends who have linked their brown water to their cistern. Why is this not standard?

And yet this precious life-source can flip to serve as a threat. Glacier ice is the largest store of fresh water in the world - apparently holding 75% . Imagine another 75% more of the water already in the world. And while that still seems an unreal apocalyptic scenario ice that is usually too thick to melt is doing so now and glaciers are calving as ever but snowfall is not accumulating at the same rate (we saw around most of the glaciers we visited the lines of retreat, marking newly exposed rock that was once covered in ice). Even if decisions are made tomorrow to curtail emissions the ocean will continue to heat up and more ice melt. And as my last post pointed out the decision I made to go to Svalbard contributed to that warming (although interestingly I read in No is Not Enough that is takes 10 years for carbon emissions from a flight to convert into heat - which gives a little more credence to offsetting). Christina Figueres claimed that even a 1.5% rise in global temperature would only give a 50% chance to the most vulnerable people on the planet, while a 2% rise "closes the door to any stability" in low lying islands and coasts.

So all this is swirling about while I'm folding and unfolding this white sheet of crumpled paper that represents a glacier, unhappy about the words in there, wondering what words ought to be there, if there ought to be any in there. I start to think how lines might spin off or lie tangentially to the threads. Maybe they're stitched, a friend suggests. I try but such slow going prevents the possibility of it being a multiple. And I want more than one of these. Then, elsewhere, during a quiet moment, I suddenly see how lines of text could cross under or alongside the folds and thread. In short bursts of worded lines I see the poem cutting and carving along the paper like the lines of the glacial cracks, splinters of colour that drew my eye into and along the depth of the glacier. I think I might have a shape of a poem, if not exactly what it contains.

I can't let it go, not entirely. I'm working on other things, reading other things and find myself thinking of the folded paper and chew again and again over the correlation I made in my last post between Svalbard as metaphor for the Global North: the imbalance of power, impact and capacity for change between those able to visit (and leave) an intimidating wilderness and those having to face it with a view to surviving it. This is a possible place for those ideas. An object to bind thought and experience into its opening and closing, to draw together reflection to the original moment of encounter.

Through some fluke of internet browsing, during all this I came across Sara Ahmed's Phenomenology of Whiteness, which grabbed me by the lobes and didn't let go. In it she builds on the work of Frantz Fanon and Merleau-Ponty to write persuasively of how being white is historically embodied as an invisible inheritance: taking up space in a way that isn't necessarily felt - unless we encounter the stress of it, which of course as a white person is less likely than as a person of colour. She writes of whiteness as habit, as a repeated action, reinforcing this situatedness in how we act. I read and reread the essay and kept thinking of how this habituated embodiness could describe the movement of a glacier: the being pushed forward by what lies behind, the invisibleness of the inhabited space, being shaped by the encounter with an enormous, invisible force. How the whiteness that drove colonialism's view of the world in terms of resources to be exploited fueled the global disconnect that capitalism maintains in its denial of ecological reciprocity, that has led to where glaciers, as well as so much else, are threatened - indeed, seem to be regarded by some as scrunched up bits of paper.

And so the poem begins to stretch into the shape I had seen for it but not heard until now. Which feels like the first time I had a sense of a poem as receptacle before knowing how or what to put in it. And anything that is a first is, in my book, an interesting thing.

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