The Secret Lives of Glaciers 

by M Jackson
reviewed by Amy Doffegnies
published by Green Writers Press

Growing up in Cumbria, mountains have long been a beloved feature of my surroundings — massive bodies of ice, not so much. So as I approached The Secret Lives of Glaciers this spring, honestly, it’s subject struck me as cold and distant. M Jackson’s prose however, is glistening. Quickly I was spellbound by The Secret Lives of Glaciers, which the author reveals not only through sparkling descriptions of ice, but chiefly through the voices of Icelanders who grow up together with ‘their’ glaciers.

A glaciologist and geographer, Jackson has the sharpness and skill of a scientific illustrator as she produces images of glaciers with her words. The author depicts terrain that was beyond my imagining, conjuring confounding pictures of glaciers that are rough, replete with tubes and tunnels, sometimes dark and dirty, and sometimes aglow with the northern lights. Jackson brings into view glaciers that sit atop 700,000 year-old Icelandic volcanoes; frozen landscapes where floods arrive so suddenly they ‘skim…across the winterized land’, and shining chameleon-like glaciers that change colour through the seasons, ‘blooming’ blue in mid-winter.

What is more, Jackson’s evocations of the non-physical, intangible aspects of glaciers are even more affecting. Beside brilliant images of glaciers, the author presents human stories that are inseparable from the ice. The book explores Iceland — that harsh country of sea and fire and ice — first and foremost through its people: a people who ‘watch’ and ‘monitor’ and ‘adopt’ their local glaciers. The ‘blue blue blue’ masses of ice, we learn, are woven into the country’s cultural fabric: ‘glaciers are part of the cosmology of Icelandic identity,’ Jackson writes.

Inevitably, a book about glaciers is also a book about climate change. Jackson points out that in the popular imagination, glaciers have become defined by the story that they are melting. As glaciers melt, sea levels rise, and as such they have become a barometer for a natural world undergoing frightening change. Of course, the author stresses, this is a crucial part of the story, but importantly, the book is also a corrective to the dominance of a single narrative about any subject. Jackson lays out a rich array of other stories surrounding glaciers through the book’s chapters, which are otherwise at risk of being drowned out by the single story of melt. The author celebrates complexity and contradiction; she makes serious and scientific subjects compelling and human. She collects and amplifies voices that tell a variety of truths – those of artists, fishermen, tour operators and bureaucrats – and through these stories illuminates the ‘constellations’ between people and the glaciers they live with.

Jackson explores how in people’s lived experience, glacier change is not always negative. There are locals who remember losing loved ones in glacier floods, who express understandable relief that glacier shrinking means they no longer stand to lose their homes and farms. There are those Icelanders who are reaping the profits from a boon in tourism, as glaciers have melted to reveal mystical ice caves inside, a magnet for visitors winched in to photograph unfathomable underwater worlds. And there are those for whom glacier retreat remains ‘invisible, unthinkable’, despite the data. Jackson’s conclusion that ‘people consciously or unconsciously shield themselves from difficult realities’ hits close to the bone.

In one of the most curious chapters of the book (my personal favourite), Jackson shares intimate stories of Icelanders who see glaciers as ‘living’ and speak ‘matter-of-factly’ of their sentience. In a thought-provoking discussion, she considers these voices in relation to indigenous understandings of landscapes as ‘alive,’ raising the question of how such interconnections (between humans and nature) might impact how we live with the natural world. Jackson highlights this and other stirring questions, shining a light on places where evidenced-based scientific knowledge (e.g. glacier melt, the mechanics of ice upon landscape) and ‘knowledges traditionally deemed outside that framework’ coincide, introducing the reader to individuals who embody both.

The book’s subject matter reaches far beyond glaciers. This was abundantly clear as I sat reading accounts of people absorbing the beneficial ripples of climate change, while basking in unseasonably warm sunshine. In the midst of a process that we know is leading to catastrophic consequences, Icelanders are not the only ones enjoying a ‘long twilight.’ Jackson is right on when she surmises that the things we see in our back gardens, whether they are forests, rivers, or glaciers, have the power to ‘refract cultural perceptions of change.’

Beyond being a sublime introduction to glaciers, Jackson’s book brought home why specific human stories are important: ‘I found that we can have the very best data, statistics, and models chronicling glacier change, but if that information is not grounded within the human stories of place, then that information is largely powerless.’ The Secret Lives of Glaciers is a book about people’s interaction with the natural world, and in turn how environmental features participate in our communities. It left me thinking about my own relationship with my surroundings, and how my own back yard fits in with the broader processes at work in the world.


About the author

Dr. M Jackson

Dr. M Jackson is a geographer, glaciologist, TED Fellow, and National Geographic Society Explorer. M earned a doctorate from the University of Oregon where she examined how climate change transformed people and glacier communities in Iceland. M is the recipient of many grants and awards, including three U.S. Fulbright grants and a U.S. Fulbright Ambassadorship. M currently serves as an Arctic Expert for the National Geographic Society, holds a Masters of Science degree from the University of Montana, and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia. She’s worked for over a decade in the Arctic chronicling climate change and communities, guiding backcountry trips and exploring glacial systems. Her 2015 memoir While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change weaves together the parallel stories of what happens when the climates of a family and a planet change.

About the reviewer

Amy Doffegnies

Amy Doffegnies is a Researcher, Writer and Poet and is Kendal Mountain Literature Festival’s Blogger in Residence. She has a PhD from the University of New South Wales, Canberra, which focused on issues of human rights and religion in South-East Asia. Having written on freedom of expression and writers in Burma/Myanmar, since returning home to Cumbria in 2018, she has developed keen interests in contemporary nature writing in the UK and beyond. Alongside writing, she loves walking in the hills and is enjoying re-exploring the Lakeland fells.