The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth

  • By Elizabeth Rush
  • Milkweed Editions
  • 424 pp.

Antarctica’s ice is speaking. Are we listening?

The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth

On its surface, The Quickening is about author Elizabeth Rush’s 2019 scientific cruise to Antarctica, where she hopes to find out what the frozen continent has to say about climate change and the future of life on earth. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Or glacier, in this case.

Exploring the underbelly of the Thwaites Glacier, the author seeks answers about the life she longs to bring forth from her own womb — torturing herself with hyper-conscientious questions about whether it’s right to add another set of baby-shoe-sized carbon footprints to an already climate-change-ravaged world.

“I am ashamed to admit that despite understanding the negative environmental impact of the mission, I still want to be a part of it,” she writes, slicing open the first of countless veins.

“A similar feeling surrounds my desire to have a child,” she continues. “As a white woman born in the wealthiest country in the world, I know that all the things I do — love, play, work, and potentially parent — actively break down the web of life upon which all depend. Should I have a child, their greenhouse gas emissions will cause roughly fifty square meters of sea ice to melt every year they are alive.”

“Econatalism,” the term-of-art she shares for the act of connecting reproductive decisions made today to long-term ecological health, haunts her throughout the book:

“I finally understand that mothers are makers of life, to be sure, but that in doing so, they are also makers of death. Not the possibility of death, but its guarantee.”

Rush’s willingness to explore the dark sides of herself and humanity at large is what makes The Quickening so compelling. Too many people put too little thought into decisions about the 21st-century ethics of having kids — about what’s best for the survival of our planet. Her candor and vulnerability make readers want to reach through the pages and hug her when a home pregnancy test produces no solid line. She asks if she’s “allowed to mourn a thing that never was?” Her global and personal truth-seeking make us want to embrace her again when her suffering ends by giving birth to a baby boy, Nico.

We also feel Rush’s turmoil when she learns it was British Petroleum that conceived the idea of the “carbon footprint” concept so ubiquitous today. Spending $100 million per year on a media campaign starting in 2005, BP hatched the idea to deflect blame for the overuse of fossil fuels from itself and its Big Oil siblings and onto individual consumers.

The knowledge filled Rush, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her previous book, Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore, with “rage that any young person might find their plans to have or not to have kids shaped by corporate maneuvering…rage that my own desire to have children has always, for as long as I can remember, filled me simultaneously with joy and fear and guilt. Rage at the time I lost feeling ashamed for wanting to become a mother.”

Rush’s introspection unfolds aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer with 57 scientists and a few other reporters. True to her character, the author doesn’t spend her time at sea neutrally recording the events of the day: She gets her hands muddy in work — even when it results in her making a rookie mistake and destroying a core sample taken from the ice.

Her intense personal connection to the work of gaining a “clearer understanding of Thwaites’ past and present to better predict the future” produces dividends for readers. We gain fly-on-the-wall access to the science conducted, vicariously share the thrills of the crew’s findings, and get to know not just the researchers but also the traditionally unheralded support staff that makes such missions possible.

We also experience seemingly in real time Rush’s reactions to the data extracted from the ice — and from herself. As days turn into months on the ship, she’s an eyewitness to the fact that we humans can’t wait until we gather yet more information before we start taking dramatic steps to confront climate change.

We feel her frustration, too, when colossal epiphanies don’t come and celebrate with her when they do — like when Rush, a year after the voyage, visits a scientific archive that holds the core samples collected by the Palmer team.

“This is but a tiny fraction of what the seafloor in front of the world’s widest glacier contains,” she writes, “and yet it is also an entry in an archive written in a language that comes before our own: one that is vast, produced by collective effort, and open to anyone. It is an archive that reorients our attention, focusing it on the story Antarctica is telling us rather than one that we want to tell about it…Our task is to draw as close as we can — in spirit if not in body — and listen.”

Christopher Lancette is a Maryland-based writer, essayist, and multimedia storyteller focusing on nature and the environment. He publishes a passion project at Follow him on Twitter at @chrislancette.

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