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Writer and poet Andri Snær Magnason talks about Iceland’s sacred cows, the importance of his grandmother, ...
2020-10-02 09:00:00
Mind the climate

Nature Is Not Nice
An Interview with Andri Snær Magnason

An expedition to Vatnajökull in 1956, with a team from the Icelandic Glacial Research Society and friends. Photo from family archive
Nature Is Not Nice
Nature Is Not Nice

“Words get worn out, we are getting used to them. We have reached a sort of herd immunity against the concept of ‘climate change’,” says Andri Snær Magnason, the author of On Time and Water.

Read in 19 minutes

Aleksandra Lipczak: I did the exercise you write about in your book. It turns out my intimate time ends in the year 2150, because that’s how long my hypothetical grandchildren will live. Which scares me, because it probably won’t be the easiest of times.

Andri Snær Maganson: This idea came to me when I was doing events for my previous book, Draumalandið, the subject of which had been the struggle to save the Icelandic natural landscape. I was on the lookout for something that would help us realize our responsibility for the seemingly faraway future. Because otherwise ‘the year 2100’ feels like a distant, meaningless date.

So I started asking my listeners to estimate the lifespan of the people they will meet in person, the people they will get to love. One day I set this task for my youngest daughter. We were sitting at the table with my mum and my grandmother, eating pancakes. To my daughter’s surprise, the timescale of her existence turned out to be about 260 years. Her great-grandmother was born in 1924, while her granddaughter will probably live till the year 2186.

When people who attended my lectures arrived at dates such as 2150, I would show them data and say: Look, here’s what the scientists predict about our world and its climate in 2100. We tend to think of such faraway dates in a dehumanized, technological context. However, our greatest challenge is to imagine a future still inhabited by human beings.

As you once put it, “pancake science-fiction”.

Precisely. It boils down to a very simple thing: picture a world in 2150, where life is still possible, where you can share a kitchen table with other people and eat pancakes – and share the planet with other species.

Asking someone to estimate their ‘temporal footprint’ is a very simple idea. So simple, in fact, that calling it ‘an idea’ seems like an overstatement. We ought to consider it strange that we don’t tend to think in such categories, to plan a few decades or 100 years ahead. The stonemasons who built cathedrals had those skills. They would begin their work fully aware that the task of completing it would fall to future generations. That’s what we are missing today. I think I stumbled upon a metaphor that many people consider very powerful – it certainly made a great impression on me, when I first considered myself in a broad temporal context.

A simple yet effective measure. The same goes for the idea that the whole thousand years of Iceland’s history can be contained within the lives of 12 women.

I like turning complex ideas into simple concepts and finding metaphors capable of shedding more light on powerful phenomena like, for example, time. So I looked for a novel way of talking about disappearing glaciers and the acidification of oceans.

Writing yet another typical book about climate change would be quite easy: I could take all the facts and write them up in a simple, journalistic way. A computer scientist could probably create an algorithm that would write such a book in half an hour. But that wouldn’t be very effective. Stories told in that way haven’t yet moved our hearts.

Finding a way to write about this most important of issues took a long time. I decided I must make people forget about climate change for a while. First, I tell them a long story about something completely different – and then drop it on them in the last chapter.

On Time and Water feels like a tapestry woven from many different threads. We get the personal story of your family, we get the history and mythology of Iceland, Himalayan glaciers, the Dalai Lama, the inventor of the atomic bomb, and the endangered crocodiles that your uncle is trying to save.

A year ago, when I was still writing it, someone asked me: are you sure it is one book and not four? Because it seems there’s a separate book about climate change, another one about your grandmother, there’s a book about mythology and yet another about the uncle who deals with crocodiles. According to Buddhists, I replied, everything is connected. I wanted to prove it.

I am quite fond of this type of storytelling. Rebecca Solnit excels in it, and so does Sven Lindqvist. George Orwell did too. They are able to tell you something important about an issue without mentioning it at all.

I tried to send my readers on a journey through various areas of the mind. We are religious, we are rational, we have families, but also each of us is connected to everyone else. Rationality and knowledge on their own aren’t enough. The information must reach us in different forms – otherwise we won’t be able to ingest it.

I wanted the reader to think of his or her own grandmother while reading about mine. To think of her times, her story, things they would like to preserve. Our generation’s grandmothers went through all sorts of dramatic events in their lives. Yet they survived. So we can hope we’ll survive as well.

Why did you prefer a book about time and water rather than explicitly about climate change? After all, climate change is your subject.

Words get worn out, we are getting used to them. We have reached a sort of herd immunity against the concept of ‘climate change’. The task of a writer is to find new ways of approaching important things, to keep language alive.

Love, God – no matter which topic we are dealing with, it’s always the same: we need to search for fresh ways of talking about it, especially in the case of climate change, which must be discussed every day for the next 30 years. So I try to avoid the typical scientific language that dominates debates on the climate crises.

A photo from the book “On Time and Water”
A photo from the book “On Time and Water”

As you have explained: “The only way to write about the subject is to go past it, to the side, below it, into the past and the future.”

On Time and Water is, I hope, an easy read, but writing it took 10 years of my life. The starting point was the interview with the Dalai Lama, which I included in the book. Other subjects would then come to me, and they evolved into lectures I was doing. I knew I had some good stories up my sleeve and that I can hold the attention of 400 people. Interspersing my lectures with personal stories made the science more approachable, less sterile, less distant.

A question remained though: how to piece all that together? When you want to put your grandmother and the Dalai Lama in the same book, you suddenly realize there’s a problem: the Dalai Lama is so huge, he can easily overshadow everyone else. On the other hand, for me my grandmother is bigger than the Dalai Lama. Maybe I’m pushing some sort of shameless propaganda: I open up your hearts by saying ‘grandmother’. And then, when I know I’ve succeeded, I throw in the acidification of oceans.

You also write: “We are confronted by changes that are more complex than most of what our minds typically deal with. These changes surpass any of our previous experiences, surpass most of the language and metaphors we use to navigate our reality.” Is it the task of poets to talk about the climate crisis? You yourself are a poet; your first collection made quite an impression.

I saw a tweet today that surprised me. An English professor of glaciology thanked me for my book, because, according to him, I helped him understand what he’s dealing with. The science can seem intimidating, as can scientists. They make you feel like a trespasser. You’re dreading being criticized because of a misplaced comma or having written ‘PH’ instead of ‘pH’.

However, scientists themselves need a language that will allow them to communicate with the world. I was worrying about going too far in simplifying things. Since I didn’t have all the facts I was writing about memorized – for example, I didn’t know off the top of my head how much oil we are burning or the volume of carbon dioxide emissions – I had to start by learning all those things. Then I would wonder how to explain them without oversimplifications. Having said that, simplicity is necessary. I remember from physics lessons in school how enraptured I was seeing some extremely complicated phenomena transformed into short, beautiful equations. I set out to do something similar: to simplify the facts as much as possible, and then wrap them in poetry to offer my readers some metaphors helpful in changing their ways of looking at things.

Scientists have responded warmly to my book. It seems like I’m doing something worthwhile. In reality, people of science don’t have a problem with unconventional approaches towards their subjects. As a writer, someone coming from the realm of poetry, fiction and children’s literature, I’m allowed to do things that are forbidden to journalists or researchers.

However, I detected a hint of criticism towards the latter group in your book, a suggestion that researchers are too emotionally distant from their subjects, as if the spectre of planetary doom didn’t bother them.

We are dealing with a sort of collective apathy or numbness. Sometimes I take part in conferences where the scientists present such bad news, that it’s almost like diagnosing someone with cancer. But the atmosphere remains quite relaxed and all the data are introduced coldly, as if they concerned some mildly interesting, purely technical issue. This detachment of information and emotion fascinates me, but I cannot explain it. Why are we afraid of catching the coronavirus, but are not scared by the possibility of wiping out the foundations of life on Earth?

It’s like when someone says: “About 200 million or billion, I can’t quite remember.” Those numbers are so huge and abstract that the number of zeros ceases to matter. Therefore, I am writing about grandmothers. Because we’ll never be immune to grandmothers.

The history of your family is a true epic. Your grandmother Hulda was a licenced glider pilot. Along with your grandfather Árni, she pioneered the study of Icelandic glaciers and co-founded The Glacial Society.

That’s a core part of my family’s mythology. As children, we were proud of our grandmother and her glacial achievements. We used to brag about them. “Our grandma is stronger than your father,” we kept telling other kids.

Indeed, many things are coming together here: my grandma and her glaciers, my surgeon grandfather who operated on Robert Oppenheimer, and his son who saved endangered species of crocodiles. In a way, it’s a sort of Forrest Gump story.

Forrest Gump?

Just like him, I have a direct connection to many various issues and events. And I mean also the entertaining aspect of storytelling. I employ these stories to distract you – and then surprise you.

Truth be told, I was collecting stories without any purpose or agenda. I mostly wanted to salvage them for myself. Sometime later, I decided I was no longer content with publishing a straightforward interview with the Dalai Lama. Everything is connected – that’s what I tried to prove. I feel responsible for the planet, but I also feel responsible for literature and the art of storytelling. Even if you have something urgent to say, you can’t just spit it out, because it’s not yet literature.

Icelandic culture tends to explain the world through stories. All the geological formations, most of the mountains or strange forms in the landscape get their own legends, their own creation myths. Throughout most of the year it’s dark here, so we need to tell and listen to stories. Parallel stories are a feature of Nordic sagas. As you see, it is not just from Solnit that I draw inspiration, but also from the ancient art of storytelling, in which many threads come together towards the end.

A photo from the book “On Time and Water”
A photo from the book “On Time and Water”

The Dalai Lama speaks not only about Tibet, but about the whole world. It appears that you too tell global stories without leaving Iceland.

Although for the Dalai Lama Tibet remains the priority, he still finds some space to recognize other, perhaps even more urgent issues, and he is vocal about the climate crisis.

When I wanted to write about my grandmother, the climate issue kept pressing into the story. Journalists often call me to ask how I feel about some vanishing glacier. Of course I am saddened and concerned, but I consider such events merely as a symptoms of greater changes. The melting of Himalayan glaciers worries me much more, since millions of people depend on them.

It turns out that Iceland and the Himalayas have much more in common than we would suspect. What is Auðhumla?

A sacred cow. We associate this concept with India. But according to our own Icelandic mythology, the world started with a frozen cow.

Four milk-streams ran from her teats,” claims the Poetic Edda, a famous collection of Norse epic poetry.

Most bizarre for a creation myth. When I was growing up, I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. It seemed like some sort of error. But the more I thought of it, the more similarities I saw between this frozen cow and Kamadhenu, the mother of all cows in India, which is a Hindu symbol of wealth and plenty. Furthermore, there’s the Gomukh glacier in the Himalayas. Water from this glacier ultimately reaches the Ganges. And its name means ‘the mouth of the cow’.

You write: “I had a vision of the holy cow, Auðhumla. I speak on her behalf.”

Glaciers are cows whose milk indeed feeds billion of people. Glacial water coming from the Himalayas flows into the sacred rivers of Pakistan, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. It waters fields and meadows. If these cows fade away or die, an overwhelmingly huge, unspeakable catastrophe awaits us. Neither the imagination nor language can articulate it.

How to express the immediacy of a problem if words fail? Well, in such cases, humanity has always used mythology. We can either say that global temperatures are rising dangerously, or that the life-giving cow is dying. When witnessing great, mythological events, mysticism is undoubtedly relevant.

In the last century, the chemical composition of the oceans changed more than in the previous 50 million years. Hominids have been around for about five million years, or 200,000 generations. Now the timescale of radical change shrinks down to just one generation, one lifetime during which more dramatic shifts will occur than in those hundreds of thousands of generations.

That’s pure mythology, a biblical timescale – for in the Bible the world was created in seven days and the flood lasted 40 days. We are now outpacing geology. A human being can witness fundamental changes and tell a story about them.

You have been granted the peculiar privilege of being the only author in the world to write an epitaph for a glacier – namely Okjökull, also known as Ok, which disappeared in 2019.

Writing it, I kept wondering who is going to read it in 300 years. The copper plaque with the epitaph will probably survive longer than the stone on which it was placed. On my mind were people living today and those who are yet to be born. They will approach this plaque like we approach old graves. How to speak to both groups simultaneously? How to say goodbye to a glacier if you grew up seeing them as a symbol of eternity?

At first I attempted a poem and was contemplating various ancient metres. But then I decided to stick to facts. And so I wrote: “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. We know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Obviously, I am nudging my generation to get up and do the right thing. We have science, we have knowledge and know-how, we have minds and, as I strongly believe, the right ethics. But will the future generations see us as those who rose to the challenge, or as a symbol of failure?

I thought the epitaph would be a small, low-key project, but, as it turns out, it is one of my most widely-read texts. The farewell to a glacier became a global news item. The mayor of Los Angeles quoted the epitaph during World Mayors Summit. People who govern cities of 700 million inhabitants collectively heard my words. If all those cities move just a millimetre in the right direction, I will have balanced my entire life’s carbon footprint [laughs].

A photo from the book “On Time and Water”
A photo from the book “On Time and Water”

On Time and Water isn’t strictly speaking a political book, however a political dimension is certainly present. You state that governments must limit the freedom of citizens to harm others. And that democracy can one day be harshly judged as something that prevented us from planning decades ahead.

My book doesn’t align with any specific ideology. However, I believe in democracy and its values: justice, equality and respect for life on Earth. If our current system fails to address the crisis, history will judge it as a failure. We have no right to harm future generations. Every generation that built cities, hospitals or schools wanted to make life better, easier for their descendants. Now, according to science, we are doing the exact opposite. I don’t think market solutions are the answer. We need lots of innovation, creativity and collaboration to face this problem. And that is a positive thing, because it means doing work with a higher meaning. What we are talking about here is like the Marshall Plan, the moon landing and the biggest infrastructure projects in history put together.

Your book also contains much beauty. You pay homage to glaciers, coral reef, the Icelandic landscape. It seems like an element of political strategy: you make people grieve for what can soon be lost forever.

Yes, that’s true. I wanted my book to include unashamed beauty as well as love towards both people and nature. In the past, people employed religious language when writing about nature. Today we can’t afford – literally – to see nature as sacred. As if nature was diminished by being constantly talked about in the language of economics.

This approach probably comes easy to you because you spent a large part of your childhood outdoors.

As a child I would spend all summer in the house of my grandparents, in the wilderness. All around us were seals and whole flocks of birds – terns, eiders, seagulls. There was also the sadness that comes with all that wildlife, due to the constant presence of death. My grandfather would take a rifle and shoot seagulls because they were threatening other birds. My siblings and I tried to save the abandoned chicks. We watched in despair as the predators killed beautiful little birds. Nature is not nice, especially in the north of Iceland. The remains and stink of dead creatures were overwhelming. I still remember the culture shock I experienced when we moved to Iceland from the United States, where we had lived for a while.

Because what exactly are we talking about when we’re talking about saving nature? Nature is not the cute polar bears we see in wildlife documentaries. It is dirty, cruel and foul-smelling. The more pleasant nature appears, the deader and more pacified it is. Hence I had to ask myself about the nature of nature, because when surrounded by life you experience the constant presence of death, and when surrounded by death you experience the constant presence of life. In Iceland, you can stumble upon a flower in habitats where, in theory, nothing could ever grow. You scratch your head, asking yourself: How the hell did it get here, on this volcanic earth, where there are no insects to lure? Yet the plant managed to take root.

This too comes into my storytelling strategy of shifting the readers’ focus. I write about things we are defending and fighting for. After all, we’re not talking about some abstract planet, but about something greater than us, something perfectly indifferent towards us, that will ultimately outlive us. Do we want to save it for ourselves? Or maybe from ourselves?

In order to bring today’s children closer to nature, you convinced the city of Reykjavik to turn off all the lights, so that children would finally see a sky full of stars.

I persuaded the mayor to switch off the lights for at least half an hour. During that time you could listen to a radio broadcast about stars by an astronomer. We called this project Lights Off, Stars On.

The generation we are now raising rarely has a chance to glimpse a starry sky, which used to inspire seafaring, religion, art and science. All of those things began with someone looking at a night sky filled with stars. How strange to realize that people growing up today are the first human beings in history who don’t really have access to that experience. It’s as if a whole generation lost their sense of smell or taste.

The case of Iceland is unique, because you can’t watch the stars even on some outdoors trips. In the summer, when we usually go camping, there are white nights, so from mid-May to August stars practically disappear from view. We decided to conduct our experiment because we consider witnessing a starry sky, even for half an hour once a year, a human right. That’s what I care about in my work: about reconnecting people with simple, obvious things.

The Dalai Lama appears to be surprisingly optimistic about climate change. He knows about the dangers, but he believes we will come together and save the planet. How about you?

It would be hard for me to write On Time and Water if I didn’t persuade myself to buy into some narrative about hope. I just couldn’t end the book about my grandmother and everything I love the most with some dark, hopeless conclusion. Being cynical is easy; sometimes people consider it quite cool. Many writers say: the world is coming to an end, admit it, accept it, taste it. I, however, created for myself a different sort of vision. Thinking of the 20th century, one obviously sees all the mistakes, but also the achievements and progress. Paradigms change. We have come a long way from the complete negation of human rights to Black Lives Matter and feminism. Things that used to be on the margins are now mainstream.

The children who are born today will be in their eighties at the end of the century. The children who are looking at what’s happening around them know that all the dramatic changes we are talking about aren’t abstract, that they will occur during their lifetimes. And they won’t allow it, no way. Those generations see the world completely differently to us. In the book, I write about how long it takes us to understand various words and ideas. We, who first heard certain terms pertaining to climate crisis in our middle age, cannot comprehend and internalize them in quite the same way as people who are growing up with them.

Paradoxically, hope seems to lie in fear. Perhaps we’ll get really frightened and start doing something. To quote you once again: “When humans face great threats, we tend to show what we’re made of.”

It’s not about panic, but about acting according to the best scientific advice. Just like many countries have done with the coronavirus outbreak. Science should bring on fear of the consequences of doing nothing.

The problem is that we normalize everything very quickly. Only a month into lockdown – which was incredible, unimaginable – we began to perceive the situation as quite ordinary. We adapted to extreme circumstances. We mustn’t allow that to happen with climate change, because then the fires in Australia, the melting glaciers and acidified oceans will become our everyday reality and we won’t notice them anymore.

What emotion and reaction do you wish to provoke in the readers of On Time and Water? Fear? Rebellion? The desire to act?

A megalomaniac part of me wishes that they actualized their intimate time and were able to see themselves in a broader context. As a realist, I want them to become a part of a movement that tries to bring some changes, to move the world at least a couple of millimetres in the right direction, to ask themselves what they can do. Mainly though, I want to impart that this is an urgent matter and we mustn’t wait any longer.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Andri Snær Magnason
Andri Snær Magnason

Andri Snær Maganson:

Writer, poet, conservationist. He studied the history of Icelandic literature. All his works – his poetry collections, plays, novels and the documentary adaptation of one of them (Draumalandið) – were huge events in Iceland and brought him many awards. His books have been translated into 30 languages. In 2016, he ran for the presidency of Iceland.

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