Gender and Glacial Agency in The Ice Sings Back
The image of melting ice has become a highly recognizable way to express the destabilizing effects of climate change. Photos of polar bears struggling on top of small islands of ice circulate across social media. Artists assemble creations with ice even outside the North and South Poles, offering people the possibility to experience the encounter between ice and a warmer climate with all their senses. Olafur Eliasson developed Ice Watch with blocks detached from Greenland’s icebergs and transported to public squares where passers-by relate to them as they shrink away under the sun. Short-lived installations are laboriously constructed with local ice by artists like Andy Goldsworthy, who collaborates with the environment to make sculptures on land and embraces the ephemerality of his creations by allowing nature to run its course through them. A lot of affective potential lies in this kind of work, and it aids in concretizing the consequences of what many people tend to convince themselves are abstract, distant realities. But to an extent, the “melting ice” genre reinforces a certain dynamic between the ice and us: humans are the ones manipulating the ice.
What’s often overlooked is ice’s ability to rearrange human lives. While working as an intern for Green Writer Press last summer, I got to read a variety of stories in search of potential acquisitions and to get accustomed to future releases. A friend had recently introduced me to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin’s story approaches the Gobrin Ice as an agent who shapes the paths of the other characters while they cross the cold environment. Ice was on my mind—and still is. Just as I was getting to think about the dynamism of glaciers and the exoticizing Western gaze usually applied to them, I dove into one of my first readings for the press. I was surprised that it was precisely about how ice didn’t fade into the background of the human narrative.
In her debut novel, The Ice Sings Back, Dr. M Jackson takes the idea of ice as an assembler of human pieces to a literal end. The narrative starts with the disappearance of a young girl. One moment, nine-year-old Amelia is enjoying the wilderness of the Oregon Cascades with her mom; the next she has vanished without a trace. The attempt to untangle the mystery of what has happened to her unveils secret histories darker and stranger than any of the townspeople could have imagined. With their pasts bound by trauma and their present brought together by Amelia’s disappearance, four women find themselves at the center of the complex web of buried violence haunting their community. This haunting also gives them common reasons to fear for their own safety: Amelia is not the only girl to have gone missing. As it turns out, the disappearance of women and girls in the area is an all-too-common occurrence—and no one knows where they have gone.
Somehow, the local glacier that has been thawing in the belly of the forest for over a century seems to be the only one who can tell. From its remote place in the wilderness, the glacier makes sounds some of the characters can hear. Before her disappearance, Amelia shares with her mother how the glacier told her that “she used to be where [Amelia and her mother] are in 1906, but she started to thaw and hasn’t stopped” (9). Amelia’s use of feminine pronouns for the glacier seeks to create a kinship between them, as she insists to her disbelieving mother that the glacier indeed talked to her about its sadness around melting and its fondness for Amelia. This interaction calls to mind numerous other examples from literature and media where children have a uniquely heightened attunement to nature. Entering Western adulthood tends to imply a diminishing of the depth of this connection as the child is initiated into the customs of “enlightened” society. However, in Jackson’s book, Amelia is not the only one to hear the glacier. Most often, the others perceive it as distant laughter. One of the main characters feels the calling in her abdomen, like “a small snick, a clipped pull tugging her forward, towards the glacier. . . . It was the closest thing to clouds on land. It drew her intensely. As if they were kin, her and the ice” (86). The idea of kinship between the women and girls and the ice resurfaces throughout the story.
Womanhood is not a monolith in The Ice Sings Back, but a thread that runs through the various shapes and intersections of existence. Jackson, a geographer and prolific public speaker, has a vast experience in questioning how cultural perception differently informs the experiences of people. She specifically focuses on how encounters between gender, science, and glaciers reveal the kind of stories that can be conveyed, and who the storytellers can be. Other than the missing girl and her mom, Jackson’s cast of characters includes a daughter trying to detach herself from a toxic family, a medic-in-training constantly dismissed by her superiors, and a reclusive scientist struggling with the memory of tragedy. The daughter is also a passionate cartographer, the medic processes the world through television shows, the scientist yearns for the affection of the woman visiting her. Jackson dives into their positional identities and how the resulting, ever-shifting presentation of who they are gets interpreted by the people around them.
Then, of course, there is the character of the glacier. The ice in Jackson’s book does not wait patiently to be noticed or geo-engineered. As the ending reveals, it geo-engineers first. Writing the ice as not only knowing but as acting beyond the awareness of the human characters decenters them from being the only shapers of the story. It allows for an elemental agency to unravel itself. Exemplifying new materialist ontologies, the ice eludes placement in a mechanized model and discloses its own vitality. Its dynamism comes through in descriptions: “The ice flowed along the mountain and looked like thick cake frosting” (79). Someone “wondered what that ice had seen over the millennia, how it had survived. What it had done” (86). Jackson portrays the ice as both a witness and an active participant with its own interests and pursuits. The element not only is in motion and engages the senses, but it absorbs the movements of others. Moments of introspection—such as when one character ponders how the collapse of ice in the prehistoric age impacted humans and mammoths—express the ice’s influence on all the life connected to it. While reading, the distinctions signaled between nature and humans—between warm bodies and the cold ice—get challenged, and the reader is nudged toward attuning to the complex entanglements they are part of. Jackson’s novel challenges dominant human-nature dynamics and opens space for alternative forms of relationality.
Through her interlinking of women and ice, Jackson astutely presents how different forms of oppression are linked and ripple from the same larger structures. The novel illustrates how the anger resulting from being squeezed under the weight of the patriarchal system connects to intersecting expressions of agency. The historically made connection between nature and femininity—either through attitudes that justify common oppression or well-intentioned language of empowerment that is nevertheless essentialist and exclusionary—lingers in the parallel. The text explicitly signals the parameters of this connection: “Everyone always talks about how glaciers are threatened. That they’re vulnerable and weak. And now they need protection, right? Fuck that. Who hurt them in the first place?” (160).
However, just as the narrative refuses to legitimize the trope of the “human savior” who’s coming to protect the ice, it also complicates the kinship between women and ice by avoiding the women’s easy and complete identification with the natural element. Instead, the text acknowledges the distance and the limits of their communication through the tragedies that occur. The legends shared among the characters disclose how an awareness of accidental clashes unfolds back in time, as with the passed tale of a blue-eyed woman who stumbled upon the ice while fleeing harassment and got crushed to death by the disturbed glacier. Even though this legend ends with the ice revenging the woman after learning about the unfairness of her demise, the relationship remains unstable. Instead of reducing the women-ice dynamic to an easy, harmonious connection, the focus throughout The Ice Sings Back is on their distinctive brands of rage and agency and how they amplify each other.
Many of the stories that illustrate the historical relationship between women and the glacier in Jackson’s book are rooted in Indigenous knowledge, even though the main characters are not themselves Indigenous. Relating to the pursuit of understanding the ice, Tove, a researcher accompanying “the scientist” character, says: “I also don’t know if I have to know. Some of the data I’m referencing includes Indigenous stories, and I know I don’t possess the ontological perspective to fully know” (155). Tove acknowledges the epistemological gap of her position as a Western scientist while discussing how settler colonialism and white violence have forcibly shaped the stories told about ice. The ghosts of the “first peoples . . . who had been slaughtered during colonization” (83), along with those of animals driven into extinction, populate the minds of the characters as they walk through the forest.
The extractive violence committed upon lands and groups of people is connected in ways that make the two inseparable. The intensity of the search for Amelia, the girl who goes missing at the start of the novel, is informed by her non-Indigeneity and whiteness, as the text makes clear: “Donna’s class at university had taught her how often women went missing, everywhere, and how rarely anyone really looked for them. The exception pivoted around specific variables: if the missing woman was white, urban, and well off. Women who registered within any other category sets were typically treated as expendable” (146). Data detailing both the rate at which the ice is melting and the number of girls and women who are disappearing each year is easily accessible—one click away for many of us. Indigenous women are murdered at a rate three times higher than Anglo-American women and thousands of them go missing each year (and that number is underreported). The data are staggering, interconnected, and reflective of histories of exploitation that impact the development of the plot in The Ice Sings Back and inform the characters’ approach to apprehending the novel’s events and the ice’s role in them.
Prevalent representations of what it means to be human and what constitutes “nature” frame a violent separation between the two. Repetition of this sterile binary holds in place the power structures reproducing the issues facing both forms of existing. Bringing together stories of violence committed upon nature and vulnerable human groups draws attention to the flawed systems within which they can occur. Jackson’s story stretches the expectations of what is real by challenging the limits of human apprehension, drawing on the scientifically researched voice of the ice and old knowledges of the element, amplifying their implications with a touch of magical realism—a genre allowing alternative, unruly explorations that can open what Amitav Ghosh calls “a crisis of the imagination.” Within Jackson’s novel, it is useful to see the magic that might lie at the edges of our realist orientation—magic that can be approached through an active effort of listening. The magical realism is a quiet thread in the novel, but it supports the apprehension of what moves beyond human perception. It draws attention to areas where daily human observation does not often reach, or can never fully reach. In bending the reader’s sense of reality and challenging the limits of their perspective, the story articulates the complex, multi-elemental dynamics molding everyone’s stories and expands the conversation around what can happen in this world.
Dr. M Jackson’s book emphasizes an urgent need for beyond-human interconnectivity. The Ice Sings Back is the work of someone who is intimately aware of what’s at stake with melting ice and missing women, and who takes the ensuing impetus and puts it into a narrative to be followed, felt, and pondered. Jackson accomplishes the tough task of generating both a safe space for processing difficult emotions and an invitation to rethink what is possible. She delivers an equally provocative and moving story driven by women and by ice.
Featured image: Clouds forming over Mount Hood as a system rolls in. Photo by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2020.
Maria Tane (she/her) is a Literary and Cultural Analysis student at the University of Amsterdam and an associate editor with Green Writers Press. Contact.