Monday, December 7, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 7, Corinna Cook, A Clockwork for the Land in Beth Peterson's "Cairns"

One day, a Norwegian glacier museum burns to the ground. The glacier beyond it continues its incremental melting. “That’s the thing about a world on fire,” writes Beth Peterson. “You wonder if when the match was first struck, what would have happened if you had known to look.”
     Strange losses abound in Peterson’s essay collection, Dispatches From the End of Ice. A theory of the universe is advanced, then dismissed. Peterson herself falls into a crevasse. A literature professor disappears while hiking on a Japanese volcano. And a friend is gone forever when he takes a deadly plunge off a mountainside. Even the coroner cannot initially identify him, for every single one of his teeth is broken from the fall. 
     “Apocalypse literature,” Beth Peterson reminds us, “pulls back the veil on reality.” 
     If Dispatches From the End of Ice pulls back a veil, here’s what I see behind it: the paradox that loss magnifies more than it erases. Of her disappeared professor for example, Peterson confides in a friend, “I never saw Craig before, but now I see him everywhere.” 
     Peterson is born in Wisconsin and grows up in Chicago. She is educated in Illinois and Wyoming and Missouri. She presently teaches and writes in Michigan. In the interstices of all this movement, Peterson often spends summers alongside a receding Norwegian glacier. It is “urgently blue. Luminescent.” Incrementally, it melts. Its ice pools to ponds and rivulets, then to creeks and lakes. She watches the water flow and squints at light glancing from its surface. 
     Of course I think of the Mendenhall Glacier in my own hometown, Juneau, Alaska. Parents here are as apt to measure children’s growth by making pencil marks on the doorframe as they are to track their children’s blossoming as it coincides turn by turn with new landmarks emerging as the glacier recedes. (Remember second grade? That creek shot out into a boulder and made a huge roostertail. And eighth grade! When that one ice cave was a tunnel. You could step out from under the ice into white winter sun on either side…) Ice entails both poetry and politics, not to mention science—but what’s most arresting is how the glacier plays out for us domestically, as a location and a neighbor and family archivist all in one. 
     This is what happens when our most essential frames of reference won’t hold still: when we can’t count on them to navigate in space, we use them instead to measure time. We continue to rely on them to orient us even as orientation becomes functionally impossible.
     Hence my fascination with a middle essay in Peterson’s collection, “Cairns.” Two-thirds of the way through the collection’s catalogue of mis-placements, gone-missings, meltings, dissolvings, and lost and founds, “Cairns” is an essay about safe passage. This is to say that two-thirds of the way through a book of disappearances lies an essay that studies continuity and throughlines.
     To be concrete about it: a cairn is a mound of rocks. 
     Built in ceremony, cairns mark memory and location upon gravesites. 
     Built as trail blazes, cairns mark safe passage through sparse territory. 
     To be more analytic about it: as a mound of rocks, a cairn cuts through physical emptiness with the simple bulk of its presence. And as one mound of rocks in a sequence of such mounds marking passage across the land, a cairn reminds travelers that others have safely passed this way before. A cairn’s twin purposes—remembrance and navigation—strikes against amnesia, both on otherwise traceless land and between people from distant eras. 
     Of course, “Cairns” is not at all an outlier in the collection. The essay chronicles its own set of disappearances: for example, beyond the site of the burned museum, the narrator sets out to walk to the glacier and loses the footpath. And in another of the essay’s threads, the 1845 Franklin Expedition goes missing, its two ships swallowed by Arctic sea ice. But after a while the narrator finds her way back to the parking lot. And when historians and archaeologists finally consult the local Inuit people and consider the area’s oral histories, both the Erebus and the Terror are found. But what really catches me in this essay is how it handles time. Beyond the essay’s textured treatment of the historic record lies the simple haunting Peterson ascribes to cairns. As Peterson points out, cairns are what’s left for us by the departed. They haunt sparse lands, invoking those who have been there before. 
     The first people to arrive in Lingít Aaní (Southeast Alaska, the part of the world that includes my hometown) traveled out from beneath the blue belly of a glacier. They slid out from under the ice and have been there ever since. I grew up with that history, on land inhabited by those ancestors, schooling alongside their descendents. But I am white and these are not “my” ancestors and this fills me with questions: what is my relationship to all those who lived their lives at the edge of the same sea alongside which I lived so much of my own? Peterson’s essay doesn’t grapple with Indigenous-settler dynamics. But “Cairns” affirms the urgency of my question with crisp certitude all its own: of course traces and markers bind us into complicated relationships of trust across family lines and across time.
     In this, Peterson’s essay reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s attitude in Infinite City. “The past walks through the present,” writes Solnit, “we are ourselves ghosts of other times, not fully present in our own.” In another book, Underland, Robert Macfarlane makes a similar suggestion. Reflecting on an archaeologist’s view that the past drifts about us, always already part of the present, Macfarlane ultimately concludes that “we ghost the past. We are its eerie.” Either way, travel is not just about coming and going in place, it’s also about coming and going in time. That is why I’ve begun reading “Cairns” as an invitation to participate in relationships with past and future travelers who converge on the same paths we do.
     In “Cairns,” as in most of the collection, Peterson constructs a narrator who’s above all else a visitor. Mobility and transience permeate the collection. For example, in Norway Peterson carries a blue laminated notecard on which she’s noted addresses, approximate locations, and best routes to important places like the airport, the guest house where she sleeps, “even the National park where the Norwegian glaciers are”—because “I had no phone with me in those days […] it seemed prudent to always keep locations on hand.” And of her temporary home in Colorado and schooling stint in Wyoming, Peterson recognizes that she, like her professor who would ultimately disappear while hiking in Japan, would never feel rooted in Wyoming’s mountains or high deserts. “There was no illusion of permanence there in the West,” writes Peterson. “Not for him, not for me. There was only art—I realize now but did not then—only poetry.” One might expect a profound detachment to result from the movement of a transient narrator. Yet “Cairns” demonstrates the opposite. This essay crystallizes an insight suggested throughout the collection: that what’s important about transience is not how leaving severs ties, but rather how passing through can weave a person into a whole constellation of relationships across time and space. 
     Peterson writes that in Norway, hiking is a way of life. A Norwegian land policy gives all citizens the “freedom to roam.” This allemannsrett (“all men’s right”) is a right to access, and it means it’s legal to camp or hike through any property, and illegal to build fences that would prevent passage. Peterson writes that “land, in this way, is neither wholly public nor private. By law, it lives in a liminal space.” It occurs to me that by extension, roaming itself becomes a liminal activity—something we do not wholly at home, but not wholly away from it, either. 
     In its time travel—its enlargement of the present to include the past and the future—I hear in “Cairns” echoes from a much earlier essay in the collection, “Theory of World Ice.” In it Peterson writes about Hanns Hörbiger’s Glazial-Kosmogonie, also called Welteislehre (or theory of world ice). Peterson sums up the theory as follows: “the deep matter of the universe, Hörbiger suddenly recognized, was ice; the cause for evolution was ice; ice was creating new worlds and destroying others.” Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, incidentally, comes from the same historic period. And while Einstein’s ideas stuck, Hörbiger’s Theory of World Ice eventually fell into disfavor. This was partly due to “unfortunate political alignments.” But its popularity also must have waned because, as Peterson writes, “the larger public didn’t believe ice could ever be as important as Hörbiger surmised.”  
     Meanwhile, the arctic and subarctic permafrost melts, its peat burns in stupendous wildfires, and the methane our frozen polar areas held for so many millennia is released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, shrinking ice caps expose dark earth and as the globe’s area of reflective ice decreases, the planet absorbs heat more and more rapidly, driving worldwide shifts toward increased droughts and more violent storms. And in my hometown, the most lovely and normal passtime—widespread across age groups and ethnicities, religions and body types—is “going to the glacier.” Over the rocks, along the bikepath, across the lake, it really is this simple: we like to face the ice and go toward it. The glacier gathers us.
     Reading Peterson’s delicate handling of history and the future, we realize that while Hörbiger may have gotten the science wrong, he was correct in strange ways about the importance of ice. In anticipating the centrality of ice as both mark and measure of the world—a world presently on fire—Hörbiger’s theory ultimately haunts the whole collection. His theory is a cairn among other essays, a mysterious but confident mark that someone has passed this way before and carried on into the territory beyond.


Corinna Cook is the author of an essay collection, Leavetakings (University of Alaska Press, 2020). She is a former Fulbright Fellow and holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. Her newest essays focus on Alaska and Yukon art, ecology, and history. More at

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