Chronicles of Ice
Born on a ranch near Santa Barbara, California, Gretel Ehrlich (b. 1946) studied at
Bennington College and the University of California, later working as a maker of documentary
films. Her last film project (1978) was on a Wyoming sheep farm, where she
stayed and took up ranching as her day job, devoting the evenings to her new writing
A great deal of Ehrlich’s work shows a reverence for nature, as is the case with the
essay that follows. However, her interests are varied. Her first published work is
Solace of Open Spaces
(1984), a book of essays centered on her Wyoming experience. In
1987 she published a novel,
, about a Japanese internment camp during
World War II. A second book of essays,
Islands, the Universe, and Home
1991. In 1994 she wrote
A Match to the Heart,
which discusses the effects of having been
struck by lighting, an event that hospitalized her.
Ehrlich is an avid traveler, having made trips to the Himalayas, which inspired her to
Questions of Heaven
(1994), and to Greenland, about which she wrote
Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland
(2002). “Chronicles of Ice” is from
of Ice: A Journey into Cold
(2004) . This essay is about a trip to a glacier at the southern
end of Argentina, quite near the South Pole. It reflects her concern for the natural world
and her fear that human activity is doing it irreversible harm.
A trapped turbulence—as if wind had solidified. Then noise: timpani and
a hard crack, the glacier’s internal heat spilling out as an ice stream far
below. I’ve come on a bus from El Calafate, Argentina, to visit the World
Heritage glacier Perito Moreno, to see its bowls, lips, wombs, fenders,
gravelly elbows, ponds, and ice streams, and to learn whatever lessons a
glacier has to teach.
Some glaciers retreat, some surge, some do both, advancing and retreating
even as the climate warms. Perito Moreno is 257 square kilometers
across. It advances two meters a day at the center. From where I’m standing,
I can look directly down on the glacier’s snout. Two spires tilt forward,
their lips touching. They meet head to head, but their bodies are hollow.
Sun scours them as they twist toward light.
I walk down stairs to a platform that gives me a more intimate view.
A row of ice teeth is bent sideways, indicating basal movement. Out of the
corner of my eye I see something fall. A spectator gasps. An icy cheekbone
crumbles. People come here to see only the falling and failings, not the
power it takes for the glacier to stay unified.
A glacier is not static. Snow falls, accretes, and settles until finally