The author captured the aftermath of a significant collapse of Thwaites's calving edge.
The author captured the aftermath of a significant collapse of Thwaites's calving edge.

A Voyage to Antarctica

In 'The Quickening,' Elizabeth Rush ’06 examines community and motherhood in the shadow of a volatile glacier.

By Britany Robinson | October 23, 2023

Elizabeth Rush ’06 lists 38 people in a cast of characters at the front of The Quickening. But none of them delivers the opening monologue of this book. Instead, it’s Rush’s mother, who candidly shares the experience of giving birth to the author. She describes her water breaking “like the ocean was taking leave of my body.” After many hours of labor: “I just looked at you and thought, You belong to the world and I will be your guide and protector.”

The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth is Rush’s account of visiting one of the most remote corners of that world, a scientific expedition to Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, potentially the most consequential glacier for global sea level rise. Those 38 characters are the crew members, scientists, support staff, and members of the media on board the 5,376-ton ice-breaking research ship, the Nathaniel B. Palmer. The expedition was an ambitious one: three teams collecting sediment samples and using submarines and sound waves to map the ocean floor, to better understand how Thwaites is melting from below. By studying this previously unchartered territory, scientists could more accurately predict the glacier’s future.

But first, in Rush’s telling of this voyage, there is a birth.

And so begins a theatrical dance between the hard science of climate change and Rush’s intimate exploration of her desire to have a child herself, to welcome a human into a world in which glaciers are melting, flooding our reality with consequences we’re only beginning to understand. Rush decided to postpone having a child to first set eyes on the ice that could shape our collective future.

“It is disorienting to simultaneously hold these two possibilities aloft in my mind—one grounded in disintegration, the other in creation,” she writes. “Humans have long projected that which they most desire and fear onto the ice, and I am no exception.”

Climate science tends to be convoluted. Even when the implications are explained (i.e., projections that 2°C of warming, versus the target 1.5°C, could mean hundreds of millions more people will suffer climate-related poverty), it’s still hard to feel what those numbers could mean. It’s hard to want to feel it.

Rush understands this. In braiding together her personal journey to motherhood with detailed descriptions of how scientists and ship crew successfully obtained groundbreaking information about Thwaites, she makes it easier—conceptually, but also emotionally—to consider. Somehow, The Quickening reflects hope—even when the evidence is bleak.

At the start of The Quickening, it is unclear why Rush would structure her nonfiction narrative like a play with a cast of characters and a description of setting at the start of each “act.” The structure seems unnecessary; her prose is so compelling on its own. But then come sections of dialogue, delivered by Rush’s shipmates. The author steps aside completely in these moments, and the reader is presented with a rich variety of perspectives. In showcasing these  voices again and again, The Quickening is increasingly personal but also communal. The characters share different backgrounds and career paths that led them to Antarctica; they share the stories their parents told them of their own births; some explain how they decided to have children, or why they don’t. They are the voices of women, people of color, and ship crew—voices that are historically absent from the canon of Antarctic exploration. Despite the Pulitzer-finalist writer’s compelling narrative surrounding them, it’s these voices that offer some of the most powerful lines.

“My first time in Antarctica, we could not get close to land,” says Fernando Naraga, an able-bodied sailor from the Philippines. “Now we can get closer because the ice is melting.” In his hometown of Bohol, “people who have eighty years or more, they’re saying that the heavy rains that we’re having, the mudslides on The Chocolate Hills—this is the first time in their lives this has happened. The world is different, I know.” 

Most of us will never visit Antarctica. But Rush makes space for anyone to see themselves on this journey, to share in both the fear and hope that swirls around this planet in crisis—a planet to which we all belong.