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It’s like walking on the back of a giant beast. The creature’s skin is gritty, cracked and wrinkled, sometimes streaked with pink algae.
I’ve only walked on glaciers a few times, but each experience was distinct and otherworldly. My sense of scale goes awry, my usual perception of being an already small figure in a large landscape shrinks yet again. I crawl like an ant on the glacial body. And it is a body: The terminus is referred to as a snout or a toe, it lies in a bed, its length is a tongue, it calves when spawning icebergs. Each glacier is an individual in setting, surface and configuration. Some dangle on impossibly steep slopes, others lounge in wide valleys, while a few curl around spires.
I’m a visual artist who relies heavily on my sense of sight, but it is sound that has given me an intense perception of a glacier as a living being. I will hear my companions’ footsteps in their toothy crampons and the hissing of wind. The shadows of clouds seem to sigh as they pass over the higher snowfields. On one glacier, I could hear the water making bathtub-drain noises as it gargled into crevasses. Even the hatchings they etch into mountain walls in passing are called chatter marks, visual traces of sound.
I once heard a glacier’s voice, too. We had crossed Atlin Lake in northern British Columbia, steering the boat down channels between mountains covered with grey and white V-shaped patterns of snow like Icelandic sweaters, their reflections distorted in our wake.
We pulled the boat up on a shallow beach and hiked through the woods for 30 minutes, until a valley several kilometers across opened up with its glacier draped across a distant ridge. At its foot lay a café au lait-coloured lake, opaque with silt. Reaching the glacier required several hours trudging across glittering stones and ankle-high beds of willow herb, a small type of fireweed that streaks magenta across grey stone.
Standing on a bluff close to the glacier’s snout, I could see jagged ridges of ice glowing turquoise at the edges. My field of vision was filled by neon-blue cracks that burrowed into surfaces marbled with grey streaks of grit. If I turned, the lake, sky and surrounding mountains were monochromatic; only the glacier’s blue highlights contained colour.
All at once, a great slab of ice the size of an apartment building sheared off and landed in the lake. A milky tsunami emanated from its splash. I stared. I viscerally felt the approaching roar, a sound I can only describe visually as vast, nimbus grey, muscular. It soared over my head and banked by the mountainside, circled the bowl of the valley. I could hear it echo off the stone cliffs. The growl turned and came back at least twice before it diminished and subsided.
But the demise of glaciers is here. I picture them now tender as snails, without a shell into which they might retreat, their bodies exposed to the oblivious sun. On a visit to the Columbia Icefields in Alberta, I walked past markers showing where the ice had reached in different years. The glacier’s toe has pulled back two kilometres from its position in the late 1800s.
A young woman who grew up at a backcountry lodge in B.C. told me how, within a decade, the nearby glacier shrank back into its valley. Next to a glacier in France, a hiker said to me: “Ça recule” – it’s backing up. These creatures’ lairs are remote. Aside from a few hikers having to climb farther for glacial selfie backdrops, the loss of glaciers isn’t always in our faces. Out of sight, out of mind.
In B.C., recent summers’ forest fires have sent soot eastward to cover the ice, like a black babushka. It gets hot under that scarf, so the glaciers melt faster. The planet’s water savings accounts are being drained to service a significant debt we humans have incurred.
I find a particular resonance in two artworks about glaciers. I am moved by the video installation of Paul Walde’s Requiem for a Glacier – an orchestral piece performed in 2013 by musicians in dark garb on a glacier’s surface. Urgency and sorrow are expressed collectively and accompanied by gushes of constant melting. The performance – the only audience being the glacier and the video-production crew – stands as a sincere and direct apology.
I also identify with a character in Thomas Wharton’s novel Icefields, who became obsessed with a glacier. Accidentally wedged into a crevasse, he saw something. Once rescued, he spent the rest of his life calculating when it would appear at the glacier’s toe. And what materialized, ultimately, was not what he expected. As glaciers disappear, it’s hard to know what to expect.
On that trip when I heard the glacier’s voice, I don’t recall my companions or the date. But I still carry that sound with me. It circles in my cranium, reverberating in my bones.
Glaciers give us more than just fresh water. They give us what endangered rhinos and blue whales do: otherness. Their snouts and toes literally shape our landscapes and remind us about the mosquito-short span of our lives. The glacier gave me the sound of otherness: a great cracked tongue bellowing its loss.
Bettina Matzkuhn lives in Vancouver.