2008 Paul Gruchow Essay Contest Winner, Patricia Monaghan

Patricia Monaghan is the author of four books of poetry, most recently “Homefront,” on the effect of war on families; and of several books of nonfiction including “The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog,” an ecospiritual journey around Ireland. She is associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at DePaul University in Chicago and Senior Fellow of the Black Earth Institute, a progressive think-tank dedicated to reconnecting arts, spirituality, and the environment. She was awarded a Pushcart Prize in 2004 and the Phoenix Award for environmental poetry in 2003.

The Memory of Glaciers

By Patricia Monaghan

         We were not talking about glaciers that day. I was not even thinking about them, and I doubt that they crossed Judith’s mind as we followed a winding highway in eastern Missouri. Old friends from Alaska, we had traveled through the area a decade earlier, both of us raw with recent grief. Happier years had covered the pain like glaciers burying boulders. Given the chance to reprise our earlier journey without grief’s heavy burden, we packed and were gone.

That day, we dawdled until we were hours behind schedule. Judith and I share an insatiable curiosity about what Alaskans call “outside,” which makes us great traveling companions, as we never argue about whether this little river town or that historical marker merits a stop. Didn’t we want to store one more thing in memory for when we were too old for wandering?

So I demurred only weakly when Judith urged me to turn onto a by-road marked “Scenic View.” A quarter-mile later, we stood in a parking lot ringed by empty maples. The wind was bracing. Dry leaves scuttled about the asphalt. Down a steep slope beyond the guardrail, trash lay where it had been pitched: paper, cans, a mattress stuck between two poplars. Below, huge flat fields opened out, stubbled with corn harvested earlier that month for the ethanol market.

Beyond the fields swept the river. Wide, slow, many-channeled, dotted with forested islands.

How many times have I seen the continent’s great central vein? Hundreds, certainly, for I went to school in Minnesota. I lived on the river’s West Bank and, every morning, walked to main campus across the Mississippi, always taking a moment to look down into the river’s swirling waters. But I never recognized the river’s distinctive fractal shape.

I grew up in Alaska, so I know the look of glacial rivers: the wide flat valleys, the twists and turns of multiple channels, the innumerable islets and islands. The Mississippi was bigger than any glacial river I had ever seen. Its valley is scores of miles across, its channels a mile wide, its many islands acres in extent. Yet the pattern is the same. Ten thousand years ago, the Mississippi drained the immense Wisconsinian glaciers, their mile-high ice faces melting into the river’s flow. No glacier remains at the river’s head, only lakes gouged out ten thousand years ago. But the river remembers.


         I had encountered glacial memory before. In the west of Ireland early each summer, drifts of flowers bloom on the limestone pavement of the Burren. Limestone retains the sun’s heat, radiating it slowly through the winter, so that cows graze on the rocky fields. From a distance, they appear to be eating the rock. Come nearer, and you see mouths reaching into grassy rivulets starred with wildflowers. Those are grikes, cracks in the limestone where soil has settled, providing narrow hothouses where terrestrial orchids bloom beside alpine gentians. Seven hundred flowering species make their home on the Burren, including those whose seeds floated on the Gulf Stream to Ireland. Bee orchid thrives there, and dense-flowered orchid, and lesser butterfly, flowers not seen anywhere else in Ireland.

Beside them are flowers I recognized from the arctic. Purple fireweed, rampant in wildfire scars in Alaska, flourishes under the name of willowherb. Mountains avens lifts small white heads above pinnate leaves, and grass-of-Parnassus sweetens the air. Their seeds were first deposited 10,000 years ago as the great snow masses that covered Ireland melted slowly away. Those seeds had been frozen centuries earlier, when winds had flown them onto snow, to be covered by more snow and carried slowly, glacially, to where the glaciers deposited them like arctic mementoes.

Every spring, the most famous of these glacial survivors appears. Gentians bloom everywhere like rivulets of blue, almost but not quite the color of glacial ice.


         The first time I saw glacial blue was the 1950’s. Our family of eight had struggled along the unpaved Al-Can Highway for two weeks, blowing out every tire on the car at least once. When we stopped each night, we kids ran around like released demons. Then we got to work, erecting a canvas army tent while my father fished for dinner. I hauled dishwater, filling buckets from the river on whose gravely shores we camped. Dad assured me that, once boiled on the little camp stove, the water was safe, but I grimaced at the steel-gray water.

As we drove north, we passed dozens of glaciers, hanging in mountain valleys, advancing on the highway, flowing between great peaks. I learned to detect the difference between glaciers and “just snow,” learned to see the distinctive riverine quality of the glaciers. I learned how they ground boulders into dust to color our dishwater. I stopped wincing at the color of the water in my bucket.

But I had never been close to a glacier until Portage, and I did not know that they were blue.

After we settled in Anchorage, Dad took advantage of the long summer days to explore our new home. One Sunday, we drove south along a narrow two-lane road that clung to the mountainside. Cook Inlet rolled beside us, its retreating tide revealing beds of clay that I would later use in art class. I would come to see this as a familiar land, full of useful and edible things, but as a newcomer, everything in Alaska was bigger than I had imagined, and stranger. The flowers had unlikely scents like rotting meat and citrus. Animals appeared suddenly beside the road-moose, elk, bear-then disappeared back into the brush. Even the light was different, the sky a pearly gray long before sunrise and long after sunset.

The road turned off from the main highway and climbed towards high pointed peaks. I knew that we were seeking a flowing ice-river, but I did not recognize the braided stream flowing beside the road as its fluid offspring. Then we reached a wide blue lake with, at its head, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Girls always ask each other, “what is your favorite color?” and I had always answered “blue.” But until that day, blue had been sky, forget-me-nots, a satin party dress, my father’s eyes. I had never known blue as a quality of light. Yet that is what I saw: white glacier ice emitting an impossible blue light.

A glacier is blue the way the sky is blue, the way smoke is blue, the way a mountain lake is blue. Physics explains that a glacier’s dense ice refracts light, causing that improbable color that seems trapped within. Ancient snow, sifting down onto Alaskan mountains, crushed itself as it fell, becoming more like a frozen ocean than a snowball. What we see is the color of water, which absorbs the red end of the color spectrum and reflects back the blue, as though the ice held onto the blue and spit out the red, as though it remembered the blue and forgot the red. Physicists say that light is “scattered” when it strikes the ice. When I first learned that, I misread the word: I thought it said “shattered,” for glacier light seems like tiny shards of bright blue glass.

That first time, I was overwhelmed. I could not look for long. I looked until I grew faint, then closed my eyes until I grew curious. Was the blue really that astonishingly clear and deep? When I opened my eyes, I felt a bolt as I saw the glacier afresh. Even now, every time I see that blue-green-azure-turquoise-ultramarine-cobalt-peacock-lapis-cyan of light scattered by glacial ice, I have the same reaction. After a moment, I close my eyes. Then I open them again, just to feel the shock of beauty.


         Not every glacial memory is sublime; some are ridiculous. I remember a raucous party in Juneau several decades ago. Someone had just moved there from Outside. Our host officiously offered her a drink, loudly calling attention to his action. “I’m going to make you a real Alaskan drink,” he announced, pouring cola into a glass filled with ice. The girl tasted the soda, looking baffled at its alleged Alaskanness. After awhile, someone noticed that her drink was empty and refilled it. This happened several times, until she stopped sipping and stared into her glass.

“There’s something weird about this ice,” she said. “It’s not melting!” Everyone roared and poked each other. Of course it was not melting. Glacial ice is so dense that it lasts all night and even into the next day.

Glaciers taste dusty and metallic. That newcomer must have thought Juneau had very strange cola, as the glacier slowly released ancient dust into her glass. Her host had gathered the ice from the edge of the Mendenhall, young by glacial standards, whose ice formed around 3000 years ago..

When naturalist John Muir saw the great ice mass in 1879, he called it “the most beautiful of all the coastal glaciers.” At the time, the glacier was called Aak’wtaaksit by the local Tlingit people, who call themselves Auk Kwaan, “people of the lake place,” after the deep-blue glacial lake at the glacier’s terminus. They lived for many centuries on the coast, a rich land of salmon and berries and, unfortunately for them, the gold that was to prove their undoing.

Dwellers in a rich land, they saw no reason not to share with the pale newcomers. But where the Auk Kwaan saw wealth in meaty sockeye salmon and its nutritious oil, the newcomers wanted inedible yellow metal. Chief Kowee showed a goldfield to Joe Juneau and Richard Harris, and a stampede followed. Thirteen years after Muir’s visit, the U.S. government changed the glacier’s name to honor the man who drew the boundary between Alaska and Canada.

Three thousand years ago, snow fell softly into an Alaskan valley. A thousand years ago, that trapped snow began to move down the valley towards the Auk Kwaan village. Thirty years ago, the ice reached the face of the glacier and calved off. A bit was picked from the lake by a man who kept it in his freezer for a year, until he could play a trick on a newcomer.

After she drank the melted memory of glaciers, did she dream of snowy skies in the time of Stonehenge and the settlement of Rome? Did she walk down the stone streets of Ur of the Chaldees? Does she still wake feeling that she tamed the first horse on the steppes?


          In the 1840’s, geologist Louis Agassiz drilled into glaciers, trying fruitlessly to reach the glacier’s bottom, to study the rock floors for clues about the glacier’s history. He missed the real archive, the ice itself. Glacial ice is the only place on earth where we can find ancient air, tiny pockets of which fill every glacier. When we cut into these pockets, we can for a moment breathe air from hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Core sampling, invented in the 1950’s, requires that a long piece of ice be extracted from a glacier and analyzed to determine the amount of carbon dioxide in the air when the ice formed. In the early 1980’s, Russian scientists extracted cores that held 160,000 years of climatic information, but that was topped in 2004 when Dome C in Antarctica yielded a dazzling 720,000 years worth of data.

Ice cores are not read concentrically, like tree rings, but in linear fashion. Upper layers, not yet compressed under the weight of ice, are broad. The oldest layers, records of snowy millennia, are thin, often faintly or deeply colored with trapped dust. As with tree rings, glacial scientists can compare the upper layers with history, whether written by humans or recorded in lake sediments and annular rings. But glaciers remember far longer than anything else on earth, vastly longer than the 5000 years of the bristlecone pines or the 20,000 years in arctic lakes where every summer is sand and every winter is dust. Glaciers remember every moment in the sky’s affair with earth; they are scrapbooks of love-letters that billowed as clouds and fell as rain.


         Glaciers usually appear in mythology as female. In Tibet, Lha Ghangla Signi Karpo is a white lioness whose sacred color is white and whose sacred direction is west, the location of death. In India, we find Annapurna, a name shared by the mountain, its glaciers, and the goddess of both. The Tlingit called glacier spirits Sit! tu kohan’nî, “fair girls of the glaciers.” When traversing glaciers, the Tlingit people murmured to these spirit women, calling them in friendly tones “my son’s daughters,” for surely anyone would be friendly to grandparents?

It was important not to offend the glacier spirits, for they would sit on you for any impertinence. John Muir said that to the Tlingit, glaciers should not be offended “as they crawl on their way devouring the woods & rocks.” He spoke to Hoona people who remembered when young men spoke slightingly of a glacier, which quickly galloped forward and sat on their village.

To those who live beside them, glaciers are not inanimate piles of snow but conscious beings who could take offense at such things as cooking greasy food on their snowy faces. The punishment could be sudden retreat or just as sudden advance. Glaciers have long memories. Centuries after an insult, a glacier crushes a town; millennia later, its skeleton emerges from melting snow.


         Today, we buy memory at the computer store like we buy grapes at the grocery, thus further moving memory away from the body, a progression that began with the invention of writing. At first, with cuneiform writings in Sumeria, only unimportant things like inventory lists were written down. Certainly nothing important, like the myths of Ishtar and her lover Dmuzi, would be entrusted to anything as perishable as clay tablets. Important things were memorized by trained poets and recited with ritual regularity. Important things lived within human bodies, not outside them.

But within a few generations of the invention of writing, people gave in to the temptation to write down even the most sacred scriptures. Instead of living on the voice, poems became mute, hidden away until needed. After awhile, the need for poetry seemed to subside. Locked up in white pages, poems and prayers grew silent, and the world babbled of commerce and war.

Proust reminded us of the power of that sensual memory. Actors know the importance of memorizing gestures that cue them to their lines. Memory is no still watery reservoir, to be emptied at will. Memory, like the glacier, moves: it moves within us, and it moves us.

Glaciers move. They pick up anything and everything: villages from which insolent boys throw stones, huge cedar trees, mountain ranges. Like a flood descending on a river town, they sweep things away. Some get dismembered: boulders ground to sand that spreads across outwash plains, lost travelers whose arms are found in one crevice and legs in another. My own memory has seen such glacial action. I have dissected certain moments, like the first meeting that led to a failed marriage, until they spread like silt over my life. I do not hold these moments whole and perfect. I tear at them, trying to find the core and, when I cannot, I throw them like pebbles at other memories, hoping to dislodge some meaning.


         The last time I visited Portage Glacier, it had melted out of sight.

In 1986, the state of Alaska built an $8-million glacier-viewing museum at the place I remembered as wild and remote, now the most heavily touristed part of Alaska. I visited Portage not long after, to enjoy the breathtaking sight of a wall of ice that calved blue icebergs. Although thirty years had passed, Portage Glacier seemed not much different than I remembered. The glacier seemed ageless, permanent.

But now, visitors must take boats across the lake to see Portage, which has melted away so fast that it is beyond viewing range. Geologist Bruce Molnia says the glacier is “almost out of water.” All those blue icebergs that I saw that day, crowding the lake below the glacier face, were evidence of Portage’s collapse. In retrospect, I think of that day as though it was my last visit with a friend who, unknown to us both, was terminally ill.

A glacier’s blue water does not evaporate: the icebergs melt, the braided river carries the water to sea, the sea level rises. Somewhere in that ocean rests the remains of a small plane and its crew. In 1974, Hale Boggs, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was campaigning for his friend Nick Begich when the two went down in a small craft. Despite the largest manhunt ever launched, the plane’s wreckage was never found. In their honor, the glacier museum at Portage was named Begich-Boggs.


         At that overlook above the Mississippi, with the river’s glacial history so visible beneath us, Judith and I shared memories of arctic seasons past, of my cabin above the glacial Tanana, of her time among the glaciers of the Brooks Range. The river meandered along, no longer braided but still many-channeled and dotted with islands. Glaciers formed the Midwest, and the land remembers.

Glaciers are more than a metaphor for human memory; glaciers are the memory of the earth. Ancient air rests within them, long-dead people stare naked from them, dust from forgotten volcanic eruptions stripes their crevices. When glaciers melt, memory evaporates. Fossil air dissolves into the atmosphere, bodies decay, primeval dust blows away. In the Arctic and Antarctic, we are losing the earth’s great archives. How will we be different if earth loses its memory?

As we turned back from the cliff edge above the Mississippi, we noticed graffiti on the pavement. “2007,” the chalked message read in a childish scrawl, “will the last person living please turn off the lights.”