Book Review: The Quickening

Humans have bestowed many rather grandiose names upon the region we otherwise know as Antarctica. It has been called the Last Continent, the Last Wilderness, the End of the Earth. Even before any person had set eyes on the southernmost continent, early maps often included a speculative polar landmass labeled Terra Australis Incognita, the “unknown land of the south.” Antarctica is always framed by these words: last, final, ultimate, unknown. How are we to write about this land which seems to exceed human understanding? Or is language simply irrelevant when we apply it to this place our species has never permanently inhabited?

In The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth, Elizabeth Rush devotes over 350 pages to the task of trying to capture Antarctica in words. Among those pages, however, Rush acknowledges the apparent impossibility of her task. In one moment, while standing upon a tiny island which has most likely never before held human visitors, Rush finds herself on the last page of her notebook. She takes it as a signal to “let go of trying to render the experience in a language that denies agency to the birds and the sun and the land,” and to instead simply witness the diverse activities unfolding around her.

Rush is probably as good a candidate as anyone for taking on the impossible challenge of expressing the inexpressible relationship between humans and Antarctica. She has spent years researching and reporting on climate change, particularly its impacts on coastal areas (see Jacki Skole’s review of Rush’s Pulitzer-nominated Rising). With that background, it makes sense that the National Science Foundation offered Rush the chance to join a team of almost sixty people on a mission to study Thwaites Glacier, which she tells us is “the biggest wild card, the largest known unknown” currently affecting models of sea level rise. Rush’s area of journalistic focus, as well as her knack for writing that moves between nuanced explanations of climate science and more lyrical, open-ended reflection, make her an ideal artist to cover this urgent undertaking. The Quickening is Rush’s record of that journey, and it offers readers a firsthand account of what traveling to Antarctica looks like in the twenty-first century.

But The Quickening is much more than a traditional travelog. Alongside the narrative of her journey to Thwaites, Rush weaves in meditations on maternity, a topic much on her mind at the time, in part because by accepting the opportunity to voyage south, she was also putting off the pregnancy that she hoped to have. Indeed, the topic of motherhood is perhaps the theme that truly steers the book. It becomes a deeply thoughtful investigation of what it means to make new life in a world subject to increasingly unpredictable planetary systems, which we ourselves are actively altering. Rush asks her travel companions what they think about these matters, and much of the book is presented as “monologues” spoken directly by various scientists and crew members. These sections of the book are formatted almost like dialogue in a polyphonic play.

An insight expressed by one of the geophysicists studying Thwaites gets back to the idea that the Antarctic – and particularly the accelerating changes it is undergoing – exists beyond our limited capabilities of articulation. The scientist observes to Rush that “things we once experienced as inert are springing into action: ice sheets are splintering, glaciers shrinking.” She goes on to note that “to move at a glacial pace once signified a kind of mind-numbing slowness, but the world has fallen out of sync with the metaphor it made.” The changes humans have brought upon our planet have moved faster than our language. This could be interpreted as “the quickening” that Rush’s title refers to, but she reminds us that the word also “describes the moment in pregnancy when you can first feel the baby’s movements,” and that the root of the word “meant ‘to be alive’ long before it meant ‘to move fast.’” In its attempts to reckon with a very lively Earth, The Quickening is a uniquely valuable addition to the canon of Antarctic literature.

The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth
Elizabeth Rush
Milkweed Editions

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