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The meaning of ice

In his new book, Klaus Dodds delves into the fascinating natural and cultural history of ice

  • Jul 17, 2018
  • 1,293 words
  • 6 minutes
Cover of new book ICE, with author photo of Klaus Dodds Expand Image

You’ll get a pretty good idea of the breadth of Klaus Dodds’ research for his latest book, Ice: Nature and Culture, by scanning its index.

Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a Fellow of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, includes the obvious suspects — ice crystal, Northwest Passage, glacier and skating to name but a few — but it’s some of the other entries that make the prospect of reading this book so intriguing. What, one wonders, does ice have to do with the English poet Ted Hughes? Or Margaret Atwood? Or the philosopher René Descartes? Or submarines? Or a supermarket chain in the United Kingdom? Or — and don’t bother answering if you’re a film buff — Top Gun?

This sort of variety is a hallmark of Reaktion Books’ Earth Series, of which Dodds’ book is a part, along with titles such as Air, Cave, Earthquake, Flood and Gold. (Reaktion publishes a number of series, covering everything from important cultural figures such as Ernest Hemingway to a global history of caviar.) Like Ice: Nature and Culture, they’re smart, fun and fascinating volumes that open our eyes to a natural world that we sometimes take for granted.

Read part of the prologue to Ice: Nature and Culture below and then check out Canadian Geographic’s Facebook page for a chance to win one of two copies of the book.   


Our relationship with ice

We have an ambivalent relationship with ice and snow. The mathematician Johannes Kepler marvelled at the snowflake’s perfect six­-cornered symmetry and in the early seventeenth century contributed to modern understandings of the struc­ture of crystals. The nineteenth­-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of the beauty of the falling snow­ flake and contributed to a Romantic sensibility, which took pleasure in the intrinsic beauty of ice:

Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud­folds of her garments shaken, Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest­fields forsaken, Silent, and soft, and slow Descends the snow.

While the tiny snowflake inspired scientists and poets alike, speculation about ice sheets, ice caps and sea ice fired geo­graphical imaginations. Were there, as Aristotle believed, ‘frigid zones’ which book­ended the temperate and torrid climatic zones? We have a rich legacy of maps and charts that offer insights into how our ancestors envisaged those ‘frigid zones.’ And we have a litany of written and visual accounts of first­-hand encounters with nature’s ice. As a young medical doctor, later novelist of crime, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about his experiences of the Arctic while on board a whaler. But he also penned a fictional account  entitled The Captain of the Pole­Star (1833), which describes how the captain’s vessel goes mad and eventually walks to his death over the sea ice. In Conan Doyle’s literary imagination, ice is where white European men simply go mad.

Nowadays, scientific advances involving ice cores and satel­lite mapping mean that we can engage with ice in very different ways. Modern ice maps are far removed from their ancient Greek and European Renaissance counterparts, tracing as they do underlying geological structure and surface contours. They add height and depth and bring a distinctly volumetric appreciation of ice and snow. It is perfectly possible to spend an entire career looking at and listening to ice without ever having to experience it directly.

For all our enhanced understanding of ice, a cornucopia of awe, pleasure, loathing, fear and revulsion endures. Children might enjoy snowball fights and skating while parents fume about disruption to their journeys to work. But there was a time when it was only the very privileged among us who enjoyed add­ing fruit and sugar to fresh lumps of glacial ice harvested from Norway and the European Alps. Consuming ice was considered a marker of sophistication rather than something commonplace or even mundane. Ice has been a healer for centuries, treating swelling, sores and wounds.

We still find examples aplenty of our ambivalent relation­ship with ice throughout the world. In Swedish, if someone reports that they are feeling ‘under the ice’ (under isen) then the listener would reasonably presume that they were feeling ‘under the weather,’ as their British counterparts would say. In Spanish, the phrase quedarse de hielo implies a sense of astonishment, with ice (hielo) being used to invoke the involuntary reaction of the body to shock — akin to someone putting an ice cube down your back without warning. In Korean, residents refer to a ‘normal winter’ as sam-han-sa­on (three cold, four warm), meaning that after three cold days it is not uncommon to enjoy four warmer days if the cold Arctic currents from Russia change prevailing direction. In Chinese, being ‘ice-­ or snow­-smart’ is considered a compliment.

In English, we put ice to work in a variety of ways, using it to describe aspects of human character and behaviour and reveal­ing the intersections with gender, race, sexuality and nationalism. For women accused of being ‘assertive’ or ‘unemotional,’ epitaphs such as ‘snow queen,’ ‘ice dragon,’ ‘frigid’ and ‘ice heart’ are put to use. Ice is thus associated with an undesirable personality type, such as that which the British American pop group Foreigner sang about in the 1977 song Cold as Ice. But ‘snow queen’ is also used as an anti­-gay slur to refer to black gay men who prefer white partners. We might, as the film Top Gun (1986) reminds us, refer to an ‘ice man’ (a white straight man) and imply a positive persona that remains ‘ice cool,’ regardless of the pressure. But how often do we hear women being described as ‘ice cool’ rather than ‘frigid’? And when we speak of ‘pure as the driven snow’ we have William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to thank for another gen­dered ice­bound epithet occurring in Act iii, Scene 1: ‘Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go.’

We chide children and even adults for ‘skating on thin ice,’ inferring that their actions and  behaviour are close to the boundaries of social acceptability. Arguments and actions that fail to convince us ‘cut no ice,’ and if we underestimate a problem we are told that we have only grasped the ‘tip of the iceberg.’ We talk of ‘ice­breaking’ with its origins in the sixteenth century referring to safe passage through river ice. Nowadays we use it to refer to activities designed to bring people together, especially those who have not yet met one another at conferences and workshops. If a Swedish speaker says ‘there is no cow on the ice’ then they mean to reassure us that there is nothing to worry about.

The idiomatic flexibility of ice is in keeping with the material itself. Icebergs are solid objects that float on their liquid version and are created when pieces calve off from large bodies of ice and float in oceans and lakes. The popular adage ‘tip of the ice­berg’ is germane because 90 per cent of an iceberg is submerged. Generally speaking, icebergs refer to pieces of ice more than five metres in width. On the one hand, they represent a hazard to shipping and are capable of sinking ships. On the other hand, iceberg tourism is popular in places like Newfoundland and Labrador, where it is common to see hundreds of icebergs offshore as a consequence of calving from Greenlandic glaciers.


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