Watermelon Snow

In her recent book, scientist and activist Lynne Quarmby shares her experience of the Artic’s breathtaking beauty and heartbreaking losses

Review by Susan Yates

Photo © Eric Esterle

On the last day of October I received in the mail a book I’d been eagerly awaiting: Watermelon Snow: Science, Art, and a Lone Polar Bear. Written by scientist, educator, and environmental activist Lynne Quarmby, it is an extraordinary book in so many ways.

Since the beginning of November, Watermelon Snow and its author have gone (virtually) from Gabriola Island, BC to The New Yorker’s Climate Crisis Newsletter moderated by world-renowned climate activist Bill McKibben. It’s no surprise that Quarmby’s paean to the high Arctic and its breath taking beauty and heartbreaking climate-induced losses has caught the attention and respect of global leaders in climate action. The book is impossible to put down once you begin the journey.

The author’s quest begins in June 2017 on the tall ship Antigua, with 28 artists, one other scientist, 12 crew members, and one dog. She will be looking for watermelon snow, or more specifically the microscopic red algae that turn snowfields pinky-red, increase the rate of snow-melt, and may amplify global warming. All of the participants are interested in global and current issues, but it soon becomes clear that no one is as impassioned as Quarmby on the topic of climate change.

Quarmby moves between evocative descriptions of her journey to the Svalbard archipelago, her microbiology lab at SFU, her political engagement, and the ever-present fear about environmental crises that numbs most of us to states of inaction. Chapters in the book alternate between the Arctic expedition and what I think of as “life back in the temperate zone,” where science is in the lab and politics are on the front line.

Watermelon snow on spatula | Photo © Casey Engstrom

Watermelon Snow moves the reader to greater understanding not just about the science and politics of global warming, but even more to sympathy with the author as someone who has spent most of her adult life inextricably linked with the need to do more, try harder, and exhaust all efforts in attempts to lessen the human impact on climate change. But the cost of this work is a reminder that even while watching enormous ice shelves thunder into the sea, or a starving polar bear search for food, desperation will not accomplish the most important task we have right now on planet Earth.

In her recent interview with McKibben, Quarmby describes her experience with grief about global warming: “I have direct experience with unproductive despair. After several years of climate activism driven by fear, panic, and anger – two arrests, being sued [for $5.6 million] by a pipeline giant [for peaceful protest], and a run for a seat in Parliament … I was suffering from a failure to grieve – a failure to acknowledge that, for many things I love, it is too late. By slowly opening myself to grief, I began to find some peace. The question became: how to live in this world with this knowledge? For me, it means engaging with others on issues that matter. I work on letting go of the old life – a fossil fuel-driven world – and embracing a vision of a better future. I sit with the grief, vigorously defend the truth, and engage in politics.”

Journalist Melissa Gismondi describes in a Walrus article that for some people climate grief begets a kind of “homesickness” called solastalgia. She writes, “Solastalgia is about grief and mourning and sadness and anguish, but if people are grieving it’s coming from a place of love, and that’s coming from a commitment to the natural world and the environment around us.”

Photo © Eric Esterle

Such commitments are my idea of a wise leader, never mind a compelling author, and I have wondered whether Quarmby’s passion and unwavering moral stance could have improved the tenor of Parliament had she won in 2015 as a Green Party candidate for the federal riding of Burnaby North-Seymour.

Quarmby’s shipmates on the Antigua are mostly artists, and their presence provides interesting company, ideas, and sometimes tension. The effects of climate change are never far from any of the participants’ minds, and their projects and discussions range from bizarre geo-engineering ideas to political solutions that require radical changes in lifestyle – and deep soul-searching for Quarmby and some of her fellow voyagers.

The disastrous results of human hubris (have we all forgotten the lessons in those Greek myths?) are brought to light; so are the hard questions that ask why we refuse to change political course even when faced with deadly climate events.

At the launch of Watermelon Snow on Gabriola Island, fellow climate activist Steven Earle commented, “Lynne has hit the nail on the head with this book, because while climate change is full of cold hard science, some of it is a real struggle to get your head around. In writing about it one must appeal to the hearts as well as the minds of the readers.”

That she does, with alacrity; Watermelon Snow is a literary and scientific tour de force, right from the incantatory opening poem by Mary Oliver (“The Uses of Sorrow”) to the final words, “I keep on, embracing the responsibility of being human at this singular moment in the history of the Earth.”

Watermelon Snow book cover

Watermelon Snow: Science, Art, and a Lone Polar Bear
by Lynne Quarmby

McGill-Queen’s University Press, October 2020
Hardcover $24.95
ISBN: 9780228003595

Susan Yates has been active in environmental and social justice groups for 47 years, inspired and encouraged by working with others whose energy, determination, and visions for the future offer hope for a better world. A longer version of this review was published in Focus on Victoria in January 2021.

Watershed Sentinel Cover April/May, 2021

This article appears in our April | May 2021 issue.

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