What I Saw of Motherhood and Climate in Antarctica
Elizabeth Rush Discusses Her New Book With Kerri Arsenault
Deep in the throes of the early pandemic, when human contact felt so dangerous that I, for one, sprayed down my groceries with household cleaner before bringing them inside, someone, somewhere (bless them) sent me an advanced reading copy of Kerri Arsenault’s Mill Town. I was very pregnant then, and it was literally the only book to break through the fog and anxiety that defined that time.
I remember reading this contemporary version of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (where the author is actually from the community she chronicles) in the bathtub, the bottom of the binding propped up on my ever-expanding belly. Kerri’s writing, so detail-oriented, so attuned to the fabric of everyday life, and the agency of people and places far from centers of power, immediately struck a chord with me.
One day, a little over a year later, we got together. One of the greatest gifts of the writing life is becoming friends with other writers. I am lucky to consider Kerri one of mine. She certainly helps me feel less alone in the world.
I recently sent her a galley of my new book, The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth, and asked if she would have a conversation with me about it. On the one hand, The Quickening is about a 54-day scientific mission to one of Antarctica’s most important, least understood glaciers, Thwaites.
And on the other hand it is an inner investigation of what it might mean to bring a child into the world during this time of radical change. I thought Kerri might like it, the way it draws this sublime place into more familiar territory. Anyways, Kerri said yes. She knows what we do for each other matters as much as what we write.
Kerri Arsenault: You begin the book as if writing a play, with a cast of characters and four acts divided equally into three parts. This very controlled structure felt in direct proportion to the uncertainty you faced in becoming a mother, in traveling to Thwaites, and the uncertainty of our planet. I wonder if you could talk about this structure and also, your mini interviews with other passengers?
Elizabeth Rush: The idea to structure this piece as a play actually came from Illya Kaminsky’s most recent poetry collection, Deaf Republic, which tells the story of a small town in an occupied country during a time of political unrest. The book opens with a kind of cast of characters “(Sonya (the best puppeteer in town, pregnant); Alfonso (Sonya’s husband, almost a poet); Momma Galya (owner of the puppet theater, instigator).” You get the gist. And we follow these characters as an increasingly repressive regime causes the community to contort and conspire in unexpected ways. This structure somehow lent each person autonomy. I didn’t think of Sonya as a character that Kaminsky created but as her own person.
In writing The Quickening I was really interested in acknowledging and augmenting the autonomy, the personhood, of each individual that sailed to Thwaites Glacier on board this research icebreaker with me.
Most of the famous stories about Antarctica are narrated by whatever white male explorer is credited with conquering whatever corner of Antarctica he set out to conquer. They don’t mention all the people who work in service of these missions, nor do they mention those they left behind caring for homesteads and kids. Like no one, absolutely no one sails to Antarctica alone. But somehow the story of the interconnected communities that make exploration and science possible aren’t all that common.
Anyways, my writing practice has long been driven by the impulse that I can learn a whole lot by listening to those who traditional storytelling excludes. So from the very beginning of the mission (we were at sea for a total of 54 days) I was conducting interviews with my shipmates. And not just the scientists: the cooks, the crew, the electronics technicians, everyone. I wanted to know how they got involved and what they were up to on a day-to-day basis. I didn’t know what I would do with these interviews but some part of me knew that I wanted my shipmates to speak directly with readers about their own experiences. I knew that I couldn’t be the book’s sole narrator.
KA: That makes sense! Do these twining movements of doom and birth give your book its thrust?
ER: Oh gosh, as soon as I learnt I would deploy to Antarctica on a research icebreaker, I went to the library to see what had been written by people who had traveled to Antarctica before me. Like, if you are a nonfiction writer, that’s just what you do. And I was floored, absolutely floored, to learn that the first person to see the last continent did so in 1820, just over two hundred years ago. Which means that every single first-person account of Antarctica has been penned in the last two centuries.
So I dove into these texts and very quickly became bored because they all (like the overwhelming majority) mention the same half a dozen events–Amundsen’s conquest of the pole, Scott’s death eleven miles from One Ton Depot, Shackleton’s miraculous return, Douglas Mawson shooting and eating his sled dogs. These few stories are woven into nearly every narrative account of the last continent’s history.
These are the origin stories that circulate through the only place on earth that has no original inhabitants, the tales that get told and retold by each successive generation. Their repetition builds up a set of expectations not just about what Antarctic narratives include and what they don’t, but also about who belongs on the ice in the first place. The more I read, the more I realized I wanted little to do with this tradition.
At the time, I was also contemplating having a child, so motherhood and life-making was very much on my mind. What if I write a book about Antarctica and motherhood? I thought. The thought really was there from the beginning and then I had to see where it took me. It turns out that it meant staring into the gaping maw of our changing planet and asking how do I live with this desire, how do I hold these two seemingly opposite impulses in my mind and body and heart at the same time– one grounded in creation the other in wanting to witness our disassembling planet up close? I think The Quickening, as a whole, is my answer to that question.
KA: Speaking of two impulses (ha ha), you start with the second person POV present tense, but switch to past tense and first person. Can you talk about why?
ER: There was a moment in time when the entirety of the narration (aside from the interviews) was written in second person POV. In fact, I am sure you remember coming over to my house with Sumanth Prabhaker, the executive editor at Orion, to eat goulash and talk about what POV the book should be written in (at the time I was thinking first person singular or second person.) We talked about how the second person didn’t really work because this book is also, in part, about asking the question is it still OK to have a child?
And at the end of the day I don’t want to tell readers how to act in response to that question I just want to give them an opportunity to encounter it, and its many facets, so they can make up their own minds. This book is about learning to dwell in discomfort and with the unknowable and the uncomfortable, and it’s about making decisions inside that space. If you want readers to get better at those skills that you can’t give them the answers, right?
And at that lunch we also talked about how first person ran the risk of sounding too much like those old explorer narratives that I wanted so badly to eschew. “What about first person plural?” said Sumanth. We. Well, we decided that might be a good idea. The result is what you describe. A first person singular that slips into first person plural, that moves around in time (before the expedition, during the expedition, after the expedition and not necessarily in that order.)
And there are also sentences that are real holdouts from when the book was written in second person (Like this one: Shuffle up the five flights of stairs, undog the door by the Ice Tower, and walk out on the bridge wings.) I kept these as is because I like the way the second person stripped the language down to its bones. There was something cold and exacting about this POV, like the ice, and I wanted it to stay a part of the text even after I switched the perspective from which the story is narrated.It is a kind of story that excludes all different kinds of people from the cannon–those who live in cities, indigenous people, mothers of young children whose attention must always be drawn in multiple directions at once.
KA: I love this synchronicity between a stripped-down place and the POV, which conflicts with the historical narrative that Antarctica is a place of certainty, solidity, worthy of mapping or planting a flag upon. And now, it is arguably a place being ruined, or disappearing by the hands of men, at least men of “exploration and extraction” as you write and is reflected in that second person POV. I wonder if you could talk about how absences relate to environmental storytelling – how these types of stories were written in the past and what you aim to do differently and why?
ER: What an interesting question! And to be honest, I had never really thought about how many of these named places are literally being wiped off the map because of the legacies–if not of the individual men that explored them–then of the long afterlives of imperialism that so profoundly shapes our present. It’s beyond ironic, really.
But your question makes me think of this fabulous book that I just read by Camille Dungy, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden. In many ways she is writing in response to a centuries long environmental tradition which she describes as “La la la! Walking through the woods. Nobody to think about but me!” I just love, love, those lines as a way to talk about what so much of the nature writing that I was raised on–from John Muir to Annie Dillard (both of whom I enjoy immensely as writers, BTW)–claims that the only way to really experience nature is in solitude.
But that solitude is so cloying. It assumes that the places visited have no prior human inhabitants. And that solitude also creates a stage in which one’s attention can be lifted into a sublime state by that which the natural world offers up. I mean the day-to-day tasks of cooking meals, wiping tooshies, and cleaning the gunk off of dinner plates all disappear. Nature and domesticity are kept apart from one another. I think that is another falsehood. Or at the very least a very narrow idea of how one might experience the more-than-human world.
Certainly, it is a kind of story that excludes all different kinds of people from the cannon–those who live in cities, indigenous people, mothers of young children whose attention must always be drawn in multiple directions at once.
KA: One of the things I most admire about your work is how you write about ordinary people more than famous people, and ordinary moments, rather than end-of-the world stuff. Where do you feel that gets us?
ER: Well, yes! I admire the same thing in your work. With The Quickening I really wanted to show a more quotidian side of Antarctic exploration. I wanted to capture our day-to-day life on the boat. I wanted to show Fernando Naraga (the Able-Bodied Sailor who has been working on the Palmer since it first set sail in 1992) caring for the ship, mopping the floors and shoveling snow off the deck, since it is his attention to detail which keeps this boat afloat.
I wanted to show moments of extreme boredom and the ways in which they demanded that we take care of each other in unconventional ways. For instance, at one point, we had to suspend our scientific experiments for eleven consecutive days in order to evacuate one of our shipmates. By day three everyone was going a little stir crazy. But inside of that long expanse of mundane time, people found the most ingenious way to entertain and care for each other. Anna Wåhlin, who would become the first person to ever send a submarine under the ice shelf, started a bridge club and she took it upon herself to teach anyone interested how to play this really complicated card game. Barry, the electronics technician and I, together we ran the International Amundsen Sea Ping Pong tournament.
So often when we hear about climate change we hear stories of destruction, chaos, doom. I’m not saying that climate change isn’t the greatest threat multiplier humans have ever encountered. It is. Trust me, it is. And in order to understand how we can continue to change and adapt to it I think we need to hear from people whose lives and livelihoods are already being shaped by it. We don’t just need the tales of the singular events that upend everything in their lives, we need stories of the long path to recovery or how to keep oneself occupied when you can’t tackle the state of the art science. We need stories of what it looks like to have to keep living as the world goes to pieces around us.
And also, I guess I should also admit that my taste has always been inclined towards the common, the everyday. Like I am a huge, huge Kelly Reichart fan. Everyone should go see her latest movie, Showing Up, and then go watch one of her first, Old Joy. Both are slow, lyrical odes to friendship, that capture, quietly, what holds people together and what attempts to pull them apart.
KA: To my next point, right off the bat, you write about the community you are about to enter (and form), a Richard Scarry-esque crew that’s made (in part) of a Jamaican chef, a paleoclimatologist studying sediment cores, a guy who studies whales,and marine biologists, etc. Could you talk about what community means aboard an icebreaker? How is it different or the same than the community in your Providence neighborhood, or anywhere really? And what does community mean before you board the icebreaker and then after? For Instance, towards the beginning, one of your shipmates, Peter, says, “The thing is, you can’t get off if you don’t like us.”
ER: At some point on the expedition, I fucked up in a major way. It was so bad that I literally hid in my cabin for a couple hours, dreaming my way off the boat. But there I was at the bottom of the planet on this icebreaker, alongside the same couple dozen people I had been living with for over a month at this point. Being accountable for my actions wasn’t something I could choose to do or not do, it was demanded of me.
At first it was really, really scary to have to be accountable for everything I did or said. But then it became liberating. Like you fuck up, you own it and you move on. Because there is always work to be done. Sometimes, often actually, I wish the whole world could function with this kind of radical accountability. But I am not sure what it would take. Certainly the smallness of our community (we were 57 people) and its self-contained nature played a really significant role in shaping the rules of engagement while we were onboard.
The closest thing I have experienced since was the early days of the pandemic, when people who could afford to stay apart from society at large (read; white, read: with white color jobs, like myself) would create these artificial social bubbles. And inside of these communities people created rules about how to act responsibility, with each other in mind. And it was hard to do, right? People got into all sorts of weird fights. But also that was what being accountable looked like and felt like. Being accountable is extremely uncomfortable at times. I think it would behoove us all to get a little more comfortable with that kind of discomfort.
But then that phase of the pandemic ended and our intense and insular communities became more fractured, and our lives returned to “normal.” When the expedition ended our extraordinary community broke apart. We returned to dry land and within 24 hours everyone was flying back to their various homes–England, Sweden, Brazil, the U.S. I knew I wanted this book to be about community, about how it is formed and what can be accomplished when we work together. But I also really didn’t want to get precious about all that and so I had to recognize that even the tightest most transformative communities have expiration dates. Everything ends. But that doesn’t mean these communities aren’t worth seeking out and forming. This kind of flexibility in the face of change, maybe that is something we need just as badly as we need accountability and resilience.The only way I could justify my presence in Antarctica … was that I would return and devote almost five years of my life to writing a book about it. And even so, it often felt like I was trespassing.
KA: Could you talk a little about the scientific research you assisted with while on board, and how it affected you in comparison to simply reading about climate issues? Also, what do scientists think about such vessel traffic and human presence in Antarctica ( including cruise ships that travel to polar regions)?
ER: One of my absolute favorite things about the cruise was that I was able to participate in many aspects of the field science, from sampling sediment cores to digging up ancient penguin bones. Something that surprised me about doing the science (or at least the science I was able to help with) was that it wasn’t in any immediate sense risky.
We didn’t traverse across crevasses. Instead we were digging holes, and laying on our bellies and sorting through the rocks we unearthed searching for seashells or, like I said, penguin bones, so that we might carbon date them and better understand the glacier’s retreat over the last couple thousand years. There was something startlingly domestic about it, like hunting for sea glass or extruding a splinter from a child’s finger. It really gave me an appreciation of the minutiae and repetitiveness of the labor that rests behind a lot of our scientific data around climate change.
I don’t want to speak on behalf of the scientists as a group about how they felt regarding tourism and vessel traffic in Antarctica. What I can say is that when I crossed back over the Southern Ocean, after over a month of working in and around Thwaites Glacier, I knew I would never return. The only way I could justify my presence in Antarctica–a place so powerful that it literally held us at arms length for the overwhelming majority of human history–was that I would return and devote almost five years of my life to writing a book about it. And even so, it often felt like I was trespassing.
KA: I gotta ask: What did you miss most, besides people, while you were aboard?
ER: I missed reading in bed alongside my husband. I missed going for long walks with actual land beneath my feet. But overall the ship was comfortable and the experience so singular that, honestly, there wasn’t a whole lot I missed.
The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth is available now from Milkweed Editions.