Interview with Nancy Campbell

“My fascination with cold places began when I was Writer in Residence at the most northern museum in the world, on the northwest coast of Greenland, in the winter of 2010,” writes Nancy Campbell a decade later. Her new book Fifty Words for Snow is published this month. Author digs deep into the meaning of words for snow from all around the world – each of them offering a whole world of myth and story. There’s a word for first snow in Korean, a word for sudden blizzard in spring in Latvian, and a word for thick snow on branches in Finnish. Nancy Campbell is an artist, poet and non-fiction writer. Her books include The Library of Ice: Readings in a Cold Climate, Disko Bay and How to Say ‘I Love You’ in Greenlandic.

“For those concerned about their carbon footprint (not to mention having no money), flights of the imagination are better than fossil-fuelled tours,” Nancy reveals in our interview. Once an Arctic traveler, she has returned to journeys into the books. In climate crisis ice is melting into the sea and snow stops falling where it used to. Traveling is no longer what it once was also because of restrictions this year. “The process of tracing a single theme across many languages new to me seemed a powerful way to overcome the borders that were going up around the world,” author writes in the introduction of her new book. “Even under lockdown and pandemic, it was still possible to voyage around the world through dictionaries.”

Icelanders have a beautiful tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the night reading. This custom is called Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood”. Why not to practice something as beautiful as that all over the world and travel through stories? Sea Library is convinced that Fifty Words for Snow could become a perfect gift.

How did you fall in love with the cold and frozen part of the world?

Nancy Campbell’s new book Fifty Words for Snow is published by Elliott and Thompson in November 2020. Photo by Beach Books.

As a child I longed to voyage to cold places where I would find both danger and solitude. I wanted to be Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll, who wakes up in midwinter when all his family are hibernating, and ventures outside to discover a changed world. Or the self-reliant Gerda in The Snow Queen who bravely makes her way to Spitzbergen in search of her kidnapped friend Kay. As a teenager I related to these characters’ loneliness more, when I went to live with two elderly aristocratic strangers who owned a medieval tower on the Northumbrian moors. The ramshackle building had been added to over the centuries, and was now full of secret doors and staircases which I wasn’t allowed to use. When I wasn’t at school I spent most of my time in a room at the top of the tower, into which the old couple’s library had overflowed. There were heavy snowfalls in the three or four or five (I lose count) winters I lived there, and snow lay deep on the battlements just over my head, and on the dense yew hedges that enclosed us, and hid the mile-long drive beyond. Since cars rarely ever passed down this drive, there too the snow remained untouched except for the light footprints of deer and birds. Winter weather made a fantasy of a place that was already eerie and surreal.

Museum on Upernavik in Greenland. Photo by Nancy Campbell.

How has your relationship with ice and snow evolved during a decade of exploration?

After university I travelled through North America and Europe, surviving on jobs like bookbinding and bookselling, until I found a position as artist-in-residence at the museum on Upernavik, an island off the north-west coast of Greenland surrounded by icebergs. My experience of the Arctic winter was intense. I worked alongside hunters’ families on the island, experiencing ice and snow as dynamic forces which were continually changing – and which changed me: not only did I acclimatise to being physically frozen-in on the island, but everywhere I went I was surrounded by heart-breaking stories of how the loss of sea ice was leading to the end of a traditional way of life. My desire to communicate the urgency of this environmental damage was to engross me for the next decade.

In The Library of Ice, I describe my attempt to witness the polar ice through writing as akin to Kay’s task in the Snow Queen’s great northern castle (formed from over a hundred halls of drifting snow): he was “trying to make sense of his situation by writing new words in the sharp, flat pieces of ice she has given him. The Snow Queen tells Kay that when he can form the word ‘eternity’, he will be his own master; she will give him the whole world – and a new pair of skates. Kay drags the ice around, composes many figures, forms different words, but he can’t manage to make the word ‘eternity’, however hard he tries.” Except that in the Anthropocene, the concept of eternity had altered.

Since my time on Upernavik and the other northern journeys this residency led to, climate issues have become more common in the mainstream media, and the language used has moved from “change” to “emergency” or “crisis”. Meanwhile, an obsession that began through books came full circle to paper again, my relationship to cold places evolving through reading as much as travel. For those concerned about their carbon footprint (not to mention having no money), flights of the imagination are better than fossil-fuelled tours. In the stacks of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, I trudged across tundra and slid over the ice (and yet always in easy reach of a coffee machine), in the dusty “Silent Room” at the Literary & Philosophical Society in Newcastle, I unfolded huge charts in first editions of golden age explorers’ chronicles. And then started to write my own.

You write that “climate is a prism through which to view the human world – just as language can be”. What is the connection between words for snow and worrying weather changes?

In ‘The Walls at Yogpar’, a short story by Barry Lopez (from his collection Resistance), the protagonist – a linguist – writes of languages used in China: “No one language is enough. No one can speak for all. Further, across these many borders of expression – Naxi or Salar or Dong – most cannot make themselves understood. Each of these tongues seek to corral some bit of the fundamentally incomprehensible nature of the world – shadings of smell in the forest as they might be known to a dog, the intention behind a stranger’s gesture, the origin of any single thing, the reason the heart breaks.”

 It is inevitable that a book about snow looks forward, considering what we miss, as every winter in many countries we see fewer and fewer snowflakes, and some years now, none at all.

By peering across the borders between languages we can learn how “the nature of the world” is for others. And so the taxonomy of snow reflects detailed traditional knowledge of weather patterns, a knowledge which is essential to any assessment of how climate is changing. One example from Fifty Words for Snow is Sámi. Each spring reindeer herders trek with their herds from the high plateau to the coast, when lush grasses start to emerge from deep snowdrifts. They have an intimate understanding of snow, with terms for how snow falls, where it lies, its depth, density and temperature. Some words relate to snow’s influence on the lives of reindeer, as in moarri, ‘the kind of travel surface where frozen snow or ice breaks and cuts the legs of animals’. Other terms define a more general condition, like seaŋáš, loose granulated snow, which forms at the bottom of the snowpack in spring – it improves grazing conditions as it is easy for the reindeer to dig through to feed on the lichen beneath.

While I was doing my research I found many new scientific papers on the new phenomenon of rain on snow, which leads to the dreaded gaskageardni (refrozen wet snow, with a layer of new snow over it). In every culture I found evidence of changing climate, which even affects the jäätee the ice roads that cross between the Estonian mainland and islands, along the routes sailed by ferries in summer. It is inevitable that a book about snow looks forward, considering what we miss, as every winter in many countries we see fewer and fewer snowflakes, and some years now, none at all. Just as the ecosystem is changing, so are the languages that describe it and the way they are understood, with many languages such as Greenlandic or Nenets now endangered as the environments in which they are spoken.

Nancy Campbell

How does snow vary around the world?

A snow crystal is part of the endless cycle of the water molecule: from its six-cornered solid state it becomes liquid and then gas, and thus a snowflake that falls on the glaciers of the Rwenzori peaks in Africa might melt and evaporate and later freeze again and fall in the apple orchards of Kashmir, and melt again and fall fifty times and more. So to my mind, it’s not so much as a case of snow varying from place to place but the ongoing response of a single water molecule to the conditions (and the other molecules) that surround it – like any nomad, it is a good listener, adaptable to conditions.

While Fifty Words for Snow took me to every corner of the physical world, and across all five continents, I found as much variation in the way humans perceive and use snow, as in the form snow takes – in some places, like Nunavut, it is the material from which an iglu is made; in others, like Kenya, it is a vital source of water for the Maasai whose land is fed by the Kilimanjaro glaciers. I found snow in ancient legends, like the beautiful and terrifying figure of the Yuki-Onna in Japan, who emerges from a storm to seduce lone mountain travellers, then melts away; and in modern times, investigated how means of snow-travel have been recast as sport, from snowboarding to skiing.

Snow and the terms for it may vary, but the word roots sometimes tell stories of connection too. It is possible to see back into the distant past and trace the historical movement of people through a single word: in Europe, for example, snow, snee, nieve, etc. all stem from the same root, the ancient Latin nix and Greek nipha – the initial s comes and goes, without concealing the close connection.

Winter books from Nancy Campbell’s library. Photo by Nancy Campbell.

What books you would suggest to someone who wants to read about frozen seas, lakes and rivers and snow-covered beaches?

I’ve actually divided my books according to which have ice interest and which do not! Here’s a snapshot of a selection of winter books from my library.

– For years I travelled with a copy of Walden, an old Penguin edition which used to belong to my father, illustrated with wood engravings by Ethelbert White. I love Thoreau’s evocative descriptions of Walden Pond in snow, the behaviour of the fish and the muskrat. Now I have the NYRB edition of his journals beside my camp bed, and I like the more intimate writing, the sense of a winter landscape unfolding day by day, e.g. on 5 Dec 1853: “P.M.—Got my boat in. The river frozen over thinly in most places and whitened with snow, which was sprinkled on it this noon.”

Moonlight at Midday by the now little-known naturalist Sally Carrighar, it was first published in UK in 1959 (she was contemporary of Rachel Carson). A pragmatic and observant writer whose books describe as well as any I have ever read the region around Fairbanks, Alaska, especially the dramatic ocean freeze-up.

– I feel ambivalent about the “golden age” of polar explorers, an unease perfectly captured by Christoph Ransmayr’s The Terrors of Ice and Darkness (John Wood’s translation), a novella which describes a re-enactment of the disastrous Austro-Hungarian Arctic expedition of 1873. A fictional account of Josef Mazzini, a traveller who idolises the early explorers, is collaged with the original explorers’ increasingly macabre chronicles. As ships are trapped in the ice, and Mazzini goes missing, the book becomes as dreamlike and haunting as the northern lights.

– Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping may be more about the entirely about icy water, but who can forget the phenomenal opening sequence describing boys diving in an icy lake: “Fragments of transparent ice wobbled on the waves they made and, when the water was calm again, knitted themselves up like bits of a reflection.” The theme of coldness runs through the novel like a seam of blue in an iceberg.

– Yuri Rytkheu is considered by many to be the first Chukchi novelist. A Dream in Polar Fog is the story of John MacLennan, a sailor whose hands are blown off as he is trying to release his ship from ice in the Bering Strait in 1910. He is abandoned by the crew, and survives the hostile landscape when he finds kinship and kindness, and a new life, among the Chukchi community. One of my favourite books of all time, it reveals deep understanding of the Arctic environment.

– Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice, translated by Mara Lethem, is a brilliant hybrid novel – research notes, fictionalized diary, travelogue – which uses stories of polar exploration to make sense of the protagonist’s own concerns as she comes of age as an artist, a daughter, and a sister to an autistic brother. I love that it is illustrated with images Alicia Kopf found in archives during her research. I had the great pleasure of doing an event in Barcelona with Alicia earlier this year, and we bonded over synchronous elements in our books – we both include a passage on our fascination with snow globes. Earlier this year wrote public lockdown letters to each other, contrasting vast imagined polar voyages with the necessity of being contained in a room.

– Autumn Richardson’s Heart of Winter is a collection of found poems assembled from Knud Rasmussen’s journals to the Second Thule Expedition (1916-17), as well as the last diary entries of his colleague Thorild Wulff. Richardson notes in her introduction that Rasmussen’s “style of exploration was so sensitive to both the landscapes he traversed and the peoples that he met along the way” and she in turn is sensitive to these texts. Although the work of the writer entails filling pages with words, Richardson knows the value of wide margins. Spare and shrewd, this book transports me back to the ice-edge.

When was the last time you had a proper snow-fight?

One morning in Germany last December, a fresh snowfall led to an impromptu and immensely satisfying duel.

Endpapers as ice flowers in Nancy Campbell’s Fifty Words for Snow. Photo by Beach Books.


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