THE SOUND OF
kathleen dean moore
A block of glacier ice hurls itself out of the depths of the cove, massive as a breaching whale. Kittiwakes flap and scatter, screaming. When the ice crashes down, its impact throws a wing of water fifty feet up the face of the glacier. The water falls back in a thunderous torrent and the ice-block surges up again, but not so high as before. Then again, the ice crashes down, the water sluices up, the kittiwakes scream bloody murder. The violence of rising and falling, the thunder and echo, the scatter and glare – in all this, the block of ice bounces and then settles, finding how it will float as an iceberg on the sea.
Kittiwakes circle madly, shrieking, kittiwake kittiwake, diving to feed on small shrimp stunned by the violence. Our skiff rises on a slow swell.
I didn’t know that a tidewater glacier could calve underwater, but it makes sense that the action of the waves would dislodge a big chunk. And when a block of ice shot through with bubbles is unlocked from the glacier, of course it will shoot up into light and bird-cries. And I never thought about how the impact, ice and water come to blows, would affect the birds and their prey. I expected the thunder. I was surprised by the cries.
But no time to wonder. A crack sharp as rifle fire, then the grumble of tumbling ice. We flinch and swivel to watch chunks bounce down an ice slope. Suddenly undermined, the pinnacle above it begins to slide. The slab gains speed, then the whole thing disappears under a descending cloud of snow. The avalanche hits the sea and suddenly all the force of down, down is heading back up, water exploding.
Here is where the official caption from the photographer will go in a few days. Here is sadasd where the official caption from the photographer will go in a few days. Here is dasdad where the official caption from the photographer will go in a few days.
The boom, when it comes, is a bombshell. We are drifting a hundred yards from falling bombs, the shock and awe, birds like shrapnel. The face of the glacier is not smooth, like an office tower; it is all shattered pinnacles and spires, broken and leaning, veined with rubble, more like a cathedral town after a war.
The ice-falls are continuous, and our nerves are on edge. The sun has been heavy on the glacier, and night-time temperatures and even the sea temperatures have been unusually warm. Each day, across the entire face of the mile-wide glacier, a mass of snow and ice forty feet thick falls off. Forty. What I mean is that at the end of the day, the glacier is forty feet shorter and all that ice is melting in the sea. I am sitting in a skiff on a rolling swell in dazzling sun, smelling salt, squinting at sea-level rise.
How beautiful sea-level rise is today. It feels strange to say, but it’s true: Saltwater: smooth and thick as green-bottle glass, reflecting ice floes and kittiwakes. Sky: intensely blue and without a cloud. Sunlight: a shattered disco ball, shooting white spears. The air is baked solid with silence -- until it explodes, when the booms and gull cries echo in countless ice caves and crevasses. Hoonah people come to dance on land exposed by melting glaciers. In a circle, the women sit still and watchful. A man strikes a skin drum. The women rise up waving their arms and shouting, kittiwake, kittiwake, kittiwake. Here is the ecstasy of danger. Kittiwake, kittiwake, kittiwake.
The beauty of the falling ice signals disaster. The more glaciers and ice sheets melt, the higher sea levels rise; the higher sea levels rise, the more saltwater inundates farmers’ fields, the more storms drive people from their homes, the more villages are taken by the sea, entire island nations submerged – around the world, a rising tide of suffering.
We should not be surprised by the paradox of beautiful danger; the world dazzles us with danger, time after time. When dry winds scour dust from desert playas, sunsets are never more glorious -- clouds of dirt on scarlet fire. When repeatedly lightning strikes a hillside in the night, the trees spark like meteor showers. In the light that streams under the purple clouds of an advancing hurricane, every tree and field glows green, and a red barn, soon to be rubble, is never redder. The beauty of a melting glacier is even more menacing. It signals not a moment of change, but a million years; not a place destroyed, but a world.
Hank cranks the key that starts the outboard and turns our bow into the swell. This is Hank Lentfer, our lanky friend, showing us his beloved Glacier Bay. He grew up next to the tidewater glaciers and explored from one to the next, skiing across the snowfields at their heads, climbing the cirques to map the sheer-line of the glaciers in the trees. Now he is mapping the sounds of the Bay, bird calls and whispers, waterfalls, the huff of nervous bears, the click of Dall sheep hooves on rock. If anyone should be broken-hearted at the melting, the prospect of Glacier Bay without glaciers, that would be Hank. I can ask him how he holds beauty in his heart, as it melts away.
He shushes me with a raised hand. He is recording and he wants me to be quiet. I sit and listen, but the quiet fills my mind with our friend William, and I know that Hank is thinking of him too. William was an irrepressibly happy man. He had a smile that made you think he was about to spring a terrific surprise – happiness held in like that, waiting for the moment. Last month, climate change killed him. He was our friend, and climate change killed him.
Under the stalled jet stream, hard rains and wind pounded Southeast Alaska. Four inches one day. Six more the next. On a mountainside near Sitka, wind uprooted ancient spruce and rain loosened mud and rocks. Tons of muddy debris roared down, engulfing a house under construction. William was inspecting the wiring on the new house. Two minutes later, he was lying under that pile of mud and rocks. Startled eyes and a mouthful of mud – I can’t get that image out of my mind.
Three-hundred thousand climate-change deaths every year, and rising. Every life is as sacred as the next. Every grief is the same scream and the same long horror. I glance at Hank and find that he is watching me. His hand gesture tells me, just listen. Sit quietly and listen.
Light travels faster than sound. So first the gull-rise. Then the ice chunks trickling down, all the little facets, falling. The ice-fall undermines the spires. Two great towers fall on their faces, still gaining speed when they hit the sea, and then – only then -- the screams reach us, the clatter and rumble, the crack, and the boom. The calving has created an echo chamber for its own thunder, which rolls and rolls until now the roll of the sea reaches the boat and we rise like inhaled breath and fall again.
It is impossible to be quiet in the face of this glacier’s spectacular collapse. Aaah, I say and then remember that Hank has signaled me to be still, a silent awe. But how is that possible? ‘Awe’ is onomatopoetic; its sound is its meaning. How did the first people find a word for that mix of fear and excitement and appreciation? Maybe they listened to their bodies’ response, that exhalation, that ‘awe.’ And if the exhalation of awe is the first word, then I think the second word has to be hist, listen.
It’s getting late, although the sun will not set for hours. But as it rolls along the peaks of the mountains, the sun is losing its color and the air chills, and we begin to think about finding a place to camp. It will be a perfect campsite, with a view down a fjord to the glacier where the sun will finally hide its face.
Avoiding the biggest ice floes, Hank slaloms the skiff through deepening sky and a skim of slush like clouds. Waves have eroded floes into fantastical shapes – a swan with an arching neck, a fist raised from a bloated body, a shelf of sliding books, ducks, lots of ducks, and unaccountably, a ballerina. Many of the icebergs are pocked with holes, each cradling a dark stone. Most of the blocks have dark stripes. “Dusty summers,” Hank says. The bottoms of the floes are wave-bashed into sharp facets, smoothed into curves, or cut into a lattice of caves. One floe is a barge carrying a load of gravel.
Hank steers beside a baby seal who stares up from floe no bigger than a kitchen sink. Even as we stare back at her, she holds her ground, for some reason unwilling to slide into the safety of the sea. And then, a killer whale’s black fin shows against an iceberg not so far away. She patrols slowly past the baby, then turns to glide back the way she came.
The island where we will camp was born about when I was born, when a glacier stalled and melted, dropping polished stones in a long ridge. There hasn’t been time for trees to grow, but the boulders are laced with runners from beach strawberries and blanketed by mats of Dryas. In a pocket of sand, dwarf willows have begun to grow. Here, beside them, we smooth away the pawprints of a brown bear and pitch our tent.
A little slosh of whiskey, a small beachfire. The sea darkens and the tide begins to flow, carrying a parade of ice floes past camp. Kittiwakes are flying to a roost on a nearby rock face, a quieter ruckus now, ock ock ock. Occasionally, a crack rings out as another chunk of ice breaks from the glacier’s distant face. We know that in a half hour, a tiny tsunami will push a white riffle a few inches up the beach. A raven hops toward the fire and leaps away, muttering.
I am muttering too.
Of all the things that the brutal, extractive, fossil-fuel economy takes from us, it is now poised to take away the simple enjoyment of beauty. I feel guilty when I admire the glory of the decaying face of the glacier. I feel like an accomplice when I ooo and aaah as it cracks apart. It feels wrong to be so happy here, not just witnessing, but cheering on the great unraveling that will flood homes and fields. It feels wrong to admit that this is probably the most beautiful set of events I have ever seen, even as I know that fathers on the other side of the planet are lifting wailing children onto their shoulders and wading through pestilential mud, away from the only homes the children have ever known, and with no refuge in sight.
Not just guilty. Beauty makes me sad now. When I watch the shorebirds in a sandflat in front of me -- those little sanderlings, buzzing along the shore, poking their bills into the mud, birds lifted all in a cloud that flicks from black to white as the flock turns into the light and away again -- all I can think of is 78%. Seventy-eight percent reduction in the number of migrating shorebirds, over the last fifty years. I start to count them. Are there twenty-two, when there should be a hundred?
My heart skips a beat. I see a cloud of dazzle above a rising humpback whale, and even as I call out in wonder, I start counting down to 57 percent. I’m not sure my grandchildren will be able to watch spouting whales when they are middle-aged; or sanderlings. I’m quite sure they will never see a calving glacier.
Our essayist friend, Scott Russell Sanders, wrote that there is a connection between what is beautiful and what is good. “What we find beautiful accords with our most profound sense of how things ought to be. Ordinarily we live in a tension between our perceptions and our desires. When we encounter beauty, that tension vanishes, and outward and inward images agree.”
But in a stripped-down, struggling world, what we find beautiful may be in profound discordance with how we think things ought to be. All is not right with the world. Its beauty deceives us. Taken from us now is the idea, as old as Plato, that there is any necessary connection between what is beautiful and what is good. Photographs in a Central American newspaper showed cumulous clouds reaching to the heavens, and beneath them, brown earth sprouting automobiles and bringing forth shattered window frames. “Born in clouds worthy of Michelangelo,” the newspaper said, “the floods in Central America have killed more than 10,000 people.”
Taken from us also is the idea that there is a connection between what is beautiful and what is safe. We find open savannahs beautiful, ethologists argued, because our ancestors recognized the safety in the long, uninterrupted view. We find chubby, bright-cheeked children beautiful, because their faces signal robust good health, and so it is with beautiful adult faces; the bilateral symmetry, that perfection, is a sign of an easy birth and unmarred growth.
These are confirming examples; but counter-examples abound. And now I am thinking again of the beauty of a calving ice sheet – a danger to boats that get too close, and a danger to everything too close to the rising sea. Its beauty doesn’t make it dangerous; its danger doesn’t make it beautiful. It is just both. It is a sign of the glorious creativity of the ancient earth and the reckless iniquity of the human beings who are on track to destroy it. It’s just both.
Night is descending on our camp as rapidly as the moon is rising, and soon the edge of water picks up the light and wanders onshore, as if it were a lamplighter offering a flame to each black stone. The whole world smells of woodsmoke and the sea. I feel that my heart would stop if I lost all this, and the terrible longing is a mystery to me. What is beauty saying so insistently?
“You know, Kathy,” Hank says. “This is all the world’s beauty asks of us – to notice it, to be glad for it.”
I carefully put down my little cup of tea and honey, taking time to balance it on a stone. But I have knocked the cup off kilter, and the spilled honey also is beautiful, a sheen on the rising tide.
Next morning, we are casting flies to salmon in a glacial river. The river is glossy and new, the willows are glossy and new, the beach is glossy and new, the whole world smells like a newborn baby, salty and milky like that. Someone gestures across the stream and up the beach, and here is a brown bear trotting toward us with a little cub in tow.
The great bear is not running exactly, but she’s not wasting time either, and the little cub whimpers in protest, trying to keep up. Now and then, the sow looks back over her shoulder. And so we understand: just up that hill and a little behind her, a line of five wolves is pacing her, not gaining on her, not falling behind, just trotting silently, weaving between shrubby willows up the gravel slope.
“Get in the boat,” Hank says. But he doesn’t get in the boat; he crouches onto the sand. I don’t know why he does this, but it looks like a gesture of respect, maybe obeisance. I climb into the boat. Of course I do; I am terrified. The bears keep coming.
At the edge of the river just across from us, the sow stops and stares, swinging her great head from side to side. Then she comes on, wading into the shallows. The cub follows. They couldn’t be twenty feet away, as they start to do what looks a lot like playing. The sow dunks the cub. The cub sputters up. Dunked again. Riverwater sprays into sunshine and falls in heavy drops that lift trumpets from pools of gold. The bears’ heads gleam. A dark school of salmon rockets away; their dorsal fins draw silver streaks on the stream. Now the air smells of fish and overwintering leaves. The wolves melt into the willow scrub and do not reappear. Eventually, we all exhale. The sow rounds up the cub and wanders upriver onto a gravel bar. The willows close behind her.
It’s true that the world is profligate with beauty, as it has always been and will continue to be, scattering beauty about recklessly, as if there were no limit to its supply -- dropping beauty on a bear’s head and the back of a fish, of all places, wasting it on the inside of an oyster shell or the shimmering layers of cambium under cottonwood bark, casting it to the winds, throwing it like sparks into the sea, firing up auroras in the night sky when everyone is asleep. The world makes beauty – it is helpless to do otherwise – and drops it on the beach, places it carefully in a bird’s beak, buries it in the sand, embeds it in a cottonwood bud. It makes no empty promises of safety or salvation. It has no responsibility to make us glad. Beauty came before us, and will be here when we are gone.
I will not let fear or anger—or monstrously immoral oil and gas oligarchs—take this away from me. If the seas rise like flame in a sunset, then let their beauty upend me, just as they topple homes and overturn trees. If prairie fires surge sparkling through the night, let them ignite my own outrage. I will run from one lethal beauty, only to recoil from another, and stop to play between them. Let the violence of descending ice swamp me, and let sorrow flay any remaining hope of easy redemption. If there is work to be done now, it is to accept beauty as a last great offering from a shifting world, and shape it into something that is fierce enough to stand in a final defense of all we love too much to lose.
Here is where the official caption from the photographer will go in a few days. Here is where the official caption from the photographer will go in a few days. Here is where the official caption from the photographer will go in a few days. Here is where the official caption from the photographer will go in a few days. Here is where the official caption from the photographer will go in a few days. Here is where the official caption from the photographer will go in a few days.
is a writer, moral philosopher, and environmental thought-leader, devoted to an unrelenting defense of the future against those who would pillage and wreck the planet. As a writer, Kathleen is best known for award-winning books of essays that celebrate and explore the meaning of the wet, wild world of rivers, islands, and tidal shores - Riverwalking, Holdfast, Pine Island Paradox, and Wild Comfort.