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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Language of Landscape

Air Date: Week of

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. (Courtesy of Trinity University Press)

Living on Earth continues its series exploring features of the American landscape. It’s based on the book “Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape,” edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. In this installment, Eva Saulitis explains the term “pack ice.”


[MUSIC: Daniel Lanois “O Marie (Homeground Theme)” from ‘Acadie’ (Daniellanois.com – 2005)]

CURWOOD: Though rising temperatures are already thawing the frozen seas, some features of the icy oceans are indelibly part of our landscape and language, and evocatively described in the book “Home Ground.”

Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney created this compilation of landscape terms, to create pictures in our minds of the features of our planet. Today, Eva Saulitis reads her definition of – pack ice.

SAULITIS: Pack ice. In winter, a quixotic carapace of drifting sea-ice blankets millions of square miles of the Polar Ocean. In Nupiak Eskimo, called the permanent part of the polar pack, consisting of both multiple year and annual pack ice – a conga siku, mother ice. The English-language term is meant to include as well the extensive fields of younger, mobile ice of the year, the seasonal or annual ice that may stretch much farther to the South as winter settles in. During storms, pack ice cries out, grinding, screeching. Winds, tides, and currents mangle flows into pressure ridges, or rip them apart to form temporary open water leads.

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. (Courtesy of Trinity University Press)

When Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance became frozen in Antarctic pack ice in January 1915, the dynamic nature of the ice was made manifest in a ship that was first cemented, then splintered and finally sunk in place – all while the pack traveled 670 miles in ten months, shuddering and groaning incessantly. In his famous poem, Coleridge depicts the fearful aspects of pack ice encountered by the ancient mariner: ‘The ice was here, the ice was there. The ice was all around. It cracked and growled, and roared and howled, like noises in a swound.’ Ismael, Moby Dick’s narrator, calls pack ice a boundless churchyard grinning with its lean ice monuments and splintered crosses.

Eskimos in arctic Alaska hold quite a different view. For these native people, annual ice forming over the continental shelf equals life. In summer, melting pack ice releases fresh water and nutrients, helping spin a food web – algae, flagellets, zooplankton, fishes, mammals. Polar bears and many species of seal and whale are entirely dependent on pack ice for survival. When the pack drifts far to the North, Eskimo hunters scan the seaward horizon expectantly for its reflection in the sky. Ice blink: a brightness in the clouds.

In recent years, summer pack ice, reduced by global warming, remains farther offshore and less accessible to hunters. In this century, if current projections of continuous climate warming are correct, the shrinking ice pack will transform the Northwest passage from occasional adventure to commonplace reality.

[MUSIC: Various Artists “All Alone (On Eilean Shona)” from One Giant Leap (Palm Pictures 2001)]

CURWOOD: Eva Saulitis is a biologist and writer from Homer, Alaska. Her description of Pack Ice comes from the book “Home Ground, Language for an American Landscape,” compiled by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney.



Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape


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