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    Editors’ Picks: The Quickening

    Without glorifying community or motherhood, Elizabeth Rush’s The Quickening brings these things into the conversation on climate change.

    By Elizabeth Wainwright

    December 5, 2023

    The first time I felt my daughter move in my womb – a movement known as the quickening – I felt joy, and then worry. Her creation was happening alongside a quickening planetary disintegration: climate records smashed, wildfires raging, floods surging, ice melting, an uncertain future becoming an uncertain present.

    Personal and planetary uncertainty is something that journalist Elizabeth Rush grapples with in her decision to become a mother. Climate modeling is imprecise, and there is no model for parenting, though “we must act with both our children and more than our children in mind.” So, in 2019, Rush joins fifty-seven scientists and crew aboard a research vessel bound for Thwaites Glacier. The surrounding ice has loosened, and researchers can get close for the first time. “Were it to wholly disintegrate, [Thwaites] could destabilize the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet, causing global sea levels to jump ten feet or more.” It has been dubbed the “doomsday glacier.” In her Pulitzer-shortlisted book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, Rush has documented the impact of climate change on coastal communities. Now she asks what it means to create and care for a new life in a place – or a time – that is inhospitable to it.

    The science, the isolation, and the thirty-foot waves of the Drake Passage all make for a thrilling setting. But Rush’s account differs from the usual narratives of Antarctic travel, in which “the same half-dozen events make up most of the story that is told.” There are no conquerors in this account. Instead, a chorus of diverse voices sing of destruction and creation, of community in the face of uncertainty. The book begins with a “cast of characters” and there are four “acts” and personal monologues from shipmates. This theatrical framing underlines the communal nature of discovery and of regeneration. We do not need heroes, we need each other, and Rush’s book is one of the best pieces of writing about, and from, community that I’ve read.

    On reaching Thwaites, the crew “stand together in the difficulty of it, trying to see what sits right in front of us.” Part of its face collapses, creating new icebergs, and Rush is left wondering what the ice – unknowable to her in such a short time – reveals; what its disintegration asks of us. Once home, she becomes pregnant. She writes of wanting her son to recognize the animacy of the more-than-human world. “If I wish a child into this world, then I must also wish this world upon them.”

    The Quickening doesn’t offer neat answers, and it doesn’t glorify community or motherhood, but in the shadow of Thwaites, it poetically and practically brings these things into the conversation on climate change. Reading it with my now five-month-old daughter in my arms has been, above all, a recognition of the necessity of interdependence in crisis and in creation.

    Contributed By Elizabeth Wainwright Elizabeth Wainwright

    Elizabeth is a writer, hillwalking guide, and coach. Her background is in international development and local politics.

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