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‘On Time and Water’ » Yale Climate Connections

How do you say goodbye to a glacier? It’s a difficult question with no easy answer, touching as it does on climate change, loss, and grief. Yet that question lies at the heart of On Time and Water by the much-loved Icelandic writer and public intellectual Andri Snær Magnason. How do you say goodbye to a glacier, or a forest, or a grassland, or a coastal plain, or a waterway, to the places and landscapes that shaped in utero your understanding of the world and gave you the physical and emotional bearings to navigate that world and your place in it?

Wrestling with this question over the holidays, as my news feed sent me breaking stories of wildfires in and around Boulder, Colorado, filled me with an ache I still don’t understand. How do we say goodbye to the places we love? 

First published in Icelandic in 2019, On Time and Water opens in Reykjavic, on what Magnason calls the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. In 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Höfdi, a white wooden house. To some observers, that meeting marked the beginning of the end of communism. Not far from Höfdi, across a grassy lawn, stands the building that housed Iceland’s largest bank that was too big to fail, until it did in 2008.

“I don’t mean to gloat over others’ misfortunes,” Magnason writes, “but it astonishes me that before middle age I’d already witnessed the collapse of two vast belief systems, communism and capitalism.” Although 2008 represented a crisis of capitalism, not its collapse, Magnason’s response was nonetheless profound: “Between the two buildings, looking up at the sky, I found myself wondering which system would collapse next, what big idea would be the next to take hold.”

Visiting his own past … and our future. What’s here and what’s coming

Across 300-plus beautifully written pages, Magnason visits both his past and our future, at times struggling to find the words to convey the enormity of the climate system’s collapse, of what is already here and what is coming down the pipe. “When a system collapses, language is released from its moorings. Words meant to encapsulate reality hang empty in the air, no longer applicable to anything.”

Dalai Lama:  Materialism… ‘just more, more, more.’

At one point, Magnason discovers a book on his grandfather’s shelf about Iceland’s last reindeer herd in Kringilsárrani. Published in 1945, In Reindeer Country is more baroque hymn than travel narrative, its elevated language dated, even jarring. Contemplating Iceland’s eastern highlands, the author attended, in his words, to his “soul’s breath” and found himself “moved to tears, resonant as a tremulous bell in the pregnant silence of God’s vast expanse.” Writing about the Kringilsárrani reserve 60 years later, in 2006, Magnason couldn’t talk about his soul’s breath or God’s vast expanse without being dismissed as some kind of New Age nutbar. Trapped inside the logic of economic growth, he had to draw instead on the language of tourism and revenue streams.

Reading a book published at the dawn of the Anthropocene – that refers unselfconsciously to a glacier’s “weighty murmurations of silence” – confirmed for Magnason the poverty of a worldview that can only see nature through utilitarian lenses and the urgent need to recover a reverence for and a connection to nature, a belief in nature’s holiness and its right simply to exist.

Realizing what happens if (when?) Vatnajökull melts …

On Time and Water is a lovely book with interesting stories about interesting people, including Magnason’s uncle, who selflessly dedicated his life to conserving crocodilian species at risk, and his grandparents, who in 1956 spent their honeymoon on an expedition to Iceland’s largest glacier with the Icelandic Glaciological Society. When he was 11-years old, Magnason asked them if they were cold. “Cold?” they laughed. “We were newlyweds!” Although the child Magnason didn’t get the joke, the adult Magnason gets that if Vatnajökull melts, the world’s oceans will rise by a centimeter. Already it has added one millimeter to global sea level rise.

To reconcile our central contradiction – our simultaneous need for and destruction of nature – Magnason wonders if “it will be necessary to let go and to take shelter in irony and apathy.” But he also knows that’s a cop-out. An interview with the Dalai Lama reminds him of the power of compassion, respect, and truth, of love, forgiveness, and forbearance, of, in a word, warm-heartedness, the opposite of competition, greed, and accumulation. Materialism, the Dalai Lama insists, “is insatiable; there’s no contentment, just more, more, more.”

Finding “the point where happiness thrived before overconsumption prevailed” is the challenge of our time, Magnason writes. It won’t be easy. And we may not succeed. But what choice do we have? Drawing unapologetically on language he couldn’t use in 2006, he now recognizes “the all-encompassing silence of God’s great expanse.”

In 2019, Magnason was invited to write a memorial plaque for Okjökull, to say in effect goodbye to a glacier. Speaking to the future, he wrote, “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument acknowledges that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Could anyone have done any better? I’m sure I don’t know. But I do know that this book and that plaque will stay with me for a long time, like the winter wildfires in Colorado.

Donald Wright teaches political science, including the politics of climate change, at the University of New Brunswick.

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