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Know the West

A beautiful ode to a melting earth

  Gretel Ehrlich’s latest book, The Future of Ice, is an intimate "ode and lament" on the effects of global warming. The conclusions are dire, of course: In the Arctic, as billions of gallons of fresh water pour into places like the Greenland Ice Sheet and where, in 2002, "at least 264,400 square miles of ice was seen to be retreating," there is dim hope for the ecosystem’s bears, walruses, seals, seabirds and fish. Ehrlich writes that by 2050, all the glaciers on Earth will have melted.

In addition to the Arctic, Ehrlich travels to the southern Andes and within Wyoming and the Northern Rockies to answer the question: What will life be like if winter disappears? Spring already comes two days earlier each decade. And we need winter. Without that snow and ice, less heat will be deflected back into space and temperatures will continue to climb.

Yet, Ehrlich conveys the horrific news with such beauty that readers will find it difficult to turn away. She melds hard science with Zen stories, ancestral tales and personal experience. It’s as if we are in her Wyoming cabin and she has made tea to warm us during the last winter. "Winter is a time when we see into things," she writes. "One minute, life is so much mush; in the next, it comes clear. We break through ice to come on more ice, one translucent door opening onto another."

Aside from becoming aware, demanding legislation, opening oneself to sadness and using fewer resources, there is little we can do to stop global warming. But Ehrlich adds a life philosophy worth adopting. Among her tenets are "learn tenderness toward experience, then make decisions based on creating biological wealth that includes all people, animals, cultures, currencies, languages, and the living things as yet undiscovered; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly."

The Future of Ice: A Journey Into Cold
Gretel Ehrlich
224 pages, hardcover $21.95
Pantheon, 2004