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Glacial Poetry: Photos Don’t Do Them Justice

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A photo doesn't really do a glacier justice. Photo by Tolka Rover CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I have never seen a glacier (or any sea ice for that matter) in real life, though I’ve seen them in countless photos. I’m spellbound by James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, at the shapes and scale of ice in the Arctic. I express the perfect mixture of dismay and wonder at “then and now” photos that show how much ice we’ve lost over the century. I’ve always known it’s not enough, that a photo could never do justice to the hulking ice structures at the ends of the world.

A new essay by Nancy Lord, accompanied by photographs by Irene Owsley, really drove home how little I understand about glaciers and sea ice in the wild. Her lovely words, describing her time working as a guide on an Alaska tour ship, get at the meager attempts by naturalist-writers, scientists, and tourist photographers to export majestic glaciers from the cold and into familiar landscapes through words and photography. But even the finest photography is inadequate, she writes:

These days, we turn to visual images. When we “see,” we forgo much of our imaginative effort, the long reach of association, one thing inadequately representing another. Although, in the end, it’s all inadequate. The words and the pictures are small, distant, antiseptic; the thing that is not the real thing lacks the cold air, the deep rumble, runoff rubbing on stone, birdsong. You cannot turn your head. You cannot lick the ice. You miss the whole sky, the waterfall just out of the picture, the concealed seal drawing a vee across still water.

Listen to the full essay (accompanied by photography) in the video below, and read the whole thing at Terrain.org.

Hannah Waters About the Author: Hannah Waters writes about natural history and the way people think about nature. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA, but really on the internet. Follow on Twitter @hannahjwaters.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. tuned 11:58 am 04/11/2014

    Greenland ice IS losing it’s grip in some places due to GW/CC.
    24 feet of sea level rise some say if that all goes !
    Much mayhem. “/

    Link to this

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