The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth
“Maybe Antarctica could teach us all not to surrender to despair, to keep investing in a world of and beyond ourselves.”
In January of 2019, journalist and professor Elizabeth Rush set sail aboard the research vessel Palmer, bound for Antarctica’s massive Thwaites glacier. Rush’s 2008 book, Rising, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, looked closely at surging sea levels and climate change, and this new project brought her to the “damaged face” of Thwaites, a bellwether ice mass slipping into the Amundson Sea: “Will Miami even exist in one hundred years? Thwaites will decide.” Also heavy on her mind is whether she and her husband back home should have a baby. One of her environmentally conscious students at Vassar does not want to “raise a child in a world beset by climate catastrophe.” “Want to lessen your carbon footprint?” the student advises. “Go kid free.” But Rush doesn’t think that’s the answer.
The Quickening, a term used for the first fluttering movements of a fetus in utero, offers a refreshingly feminine perspective on the Antarctic adventure. “Most of what has been written about Antarctica was penned by lone, enraptured men.” No women were allowed on those perilous journeys led by Amundson, Scott, and Shackleton, nor were they a part of any government expeditions until the second half of the 20th century. The traditional language of polar exploration—“Her ‘broad white bosom’ draws men toward it, her ‘impenetrable’ interior the ultimate prize” or the idea that nature was an “enemy” to be conquered—belies a history of chauvinistic derring-do.
Rush focuses on more generative terms, like “calving,” which describes a cow giving birth or smaller pieces of ice breaking off an iceberg or glacier. “This linguistic echo has long delighted me, because it helped me think of Antarctica not as an inhospitable island at the bottom of the earth but as a mother, a being powerful enough to bring new life into the world.” Sadly, excessive calving is also a sign that polar ice is melting at an alarming rate, and when they finally arrive at their destination, her metaphors steer toward “Thwaites’s unfathomable fracturing, its hemorrhaging heart of milk.”
As an environmental writer dedicated to social justice and inclusivity, Rush records and transcribes interviews with the scientists, crew, and staff aboard the Palmer, prompting them to speak on a range of topics from work and climate change to family issues and the circumstances of their birth. Although similar to Studs Terkel’s oral histories, Rush formats her book more like a play where characters enter and exit the four-act nonfiction drama.
Rush colorfully chronicles life and work aboard the ship, as well as the deeper mission with all its complications and implications to careers, science, and our knowledge of the planet. She lends a hand whenever possible, helping collect penguin bones and process core samples—and does a great job, until she forgets to properly support a stoppered tube and spills the hard-earned sediment on the floor. “It is possible to calculate how many tens of thousands of dollars it cost to retrieve this dirt, but I am less worried about that than I am about the precious information it contained, now lost.”
Accidental loss is inevitable, but much of the Antarctic experience is gained by Rush’s lyrical prose where a “frigid funnel of air thrums around the ship,” “a ghostly gray berg drags at the horizon,” and an emperor penguin’s white underbelly “flashes teal through the Southern Ocean’s stained glass . . . the flame on its long neck a stamp of light.”
Her observations of snow become “Light flecks of pearl” that “swirl and drift, hovering against the sea’s rich velvet, each tumble full of sudden twists and strange moments of suspension.” Prose poetry also enhances the dramatic structure of the book in the form of “settings” that open each part, like this lyrical curtain rise to the final act.
“Somewhere it is Sunday. Dawn breaks lambent, brilliant. For once, the dome of the atmosphere is distinguishable from ice and sea. Saffron first light fades to lapis lazuli. Grease ice pulls across the water like contrails in a clear sky, each stripe slowing the speed of waves, holding the surface still.”
Amid the science and poetry, the book’s underlying theme of motherhood comes to the fore when Lindsey, a marine project coordinator, experiences excruciating abdominal pain that leads to an emergency medical evacuation. Rush interviews a happily pregnant Lindsey six months later and learns that the pain was caused by benign cysts that could have easily been detected if only the ship’s sick bay had been equipped with an ultrasound. With all its state-of-the-art electronics able to probe the depths of the sea, no one was able to see what was going on in this woman’s body.
The Quickening highlights the aspirations and achievements of several women aboard the ship, most notably Anna Wåhlin, a Swedish oceanographer who on this mission becomes the first ever to direct a submersible under the Thwaites ice shelf to gather crucial data. Anna tells the author about her career: “Oceanography is very male-dominated, and in the polar regions it’s worse. But that is changing. Just our being here helps young women imagine a future in polar science.”
Flashing forward from her time in Antarctica, Rush takes us on the journey of her own pregnancy and the birth of her son in Rhode Island. In many ways, her decision is an act of faith that children can grow and flourish on this threatened planet. “Maybe Antarctica will teach me how to become a mother,” she jotted into her journal early in the voyage. Maybe Antarctica could teach us all not to surrender to despair, to keep investing in a world of and beyond ourselves.