Scientist and activist Lynne Quarmby’s new book takes us on a voyage of discovery, with lessons from microbes along with deep reflection on science, art, the power of stories, and grief.
SINCE THE BEGINNING OF NOVEMBER, Watermelon Snow: Science, Art, and a Lone Polar Bear, written by scientist, educator, and environmental activist Lynne Quarmby, has migrated from its launch on Gabriola Island 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 of global leaders in climate action. The book takes its readers on a compelling journey.
Scientist and author Lynne Quarmby
The author’s quest begins in June 2017, an ideal time to spend 15 days in the high Arctic, on the tall ship Antigua with 28 artists, one other scientist, 12 crew members, and one dog. Quarmby will be looking for watermelon snow, or more specifically the microscopic red algae that turn snowfields pinky-red, increases the rate of snow-melt, and may amplify global warming. All of the participants are interested in global and current issues, but no one is as impassioned as Quarmby on the topic of climate change.
Watermelon Snow takes us from Quarmby’s home in the Salish Sea to her laboratory at Simon Fraser University where she is a professor of molecular biology, to the Svalbard archipelago, where scientific research is done in attempts to understand the ecology of the Arctic before it is forever altered. It is here that the Global Seed Vault exists, in Longyearbyen, the Earth’s northernmost settlement, and here that this priceless resource was flooded due to melting permafrost in 2017.
Quarmby moves effortlessly between evocative descriptions of her sojourn in the Svalbard archipelago, her microbiology lab at SFU, her political engagement, and the existential anxiety about environmental crises that numbs most of us into 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 gives its readers a greater understanding not just about the science and politics of global warming, but also of someone who has spent most of her adult life exhausting 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, and 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 Bill McKibben, Quarmby describes her grief about global warming, and learning how to extricate herself from its effects: “I have direct experience with unproductive despair. After several years of climate activism driven by fear, panic, and anger—two arrests for protesting, being sued [for $5.6 million] by a pipeline giant [Kinder Morgan], 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 the 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.”
These 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 and direction of Parliament had she won in 2015 as a Green Party candidate for the federal riding of Burnaby North-Seymour. But many of her political efforts were sabotaged by people outside the Party who were not willing to share leadership, and more particularly unwilling to deconstruct concentrations of wealth and power that are beholden to fossil-fuel industries.
The scientific parts of Watermelon Snow are completely accessible for readers with non-scientific backgrounds, because Quarmby makes them so, and because they are essential to the other main theme of the book, which is stories: how we make and use them, and why we need them, now more than ever.
Quarmby is a well-respected scientist and yet she knows that the stories we live by determine our actions more than the scientific knowledge by which we come to understand the bits and pieces of life. She reveres and quotes master storyteller Thomas King, who asks, “Did we just start out with the wrong story?”
Maybe we did, when the scientific examination and parsing of living things into measurable quantities left too many “what ifs” in the dust. No one would understand this better than a molecular biologist like Quarmby, who understands perfectly the intricate relationships between cellular beings and activities, yet knows deep within her soul that applied science has taken us to a level of planetary destruction many of us are afraid to contemplate, straight into the Anthropocene, in fact.
In the chapter “On Why Stories Matter,” Quarmby explains how we can get on the wrong track with stories that define our existence and place in the world. She observes that “Even as natural selection and evolution slowly assumed cultural sway (in most of the world), bolstered by countless scientific studies, refinements, and fresh examples, Darwin’s ideas were twisted by some into a defense of power and dominance that preserved the hierarchical worldview of Genesis. But natural selection and evolution are not in any way linked to that particular origin myth. ‘Survival of the fittest’ provides only a narrow view of our origins. Life is not a zero-sum game. Mutualisms emerge and life expands into previously unavailable niches. The natural world is replete with cooperation and sometimes harmony.”
In his inspiring book The Power of Stories, Horst Kornberger (another master storyteller) writes, “We are made miserable by tales that condemn us to be cogs in a universal machine and pained by a world driven by the competition of everyone against everyone else.” Which begs my own question of whether we too often condemn ourselves to the rigid, limited solutions of technology that preclude or obviate longer and more expansive stories of how we are connected to the living world.
As a microbiologist Quarmby reminds us in wondrous ways that we really are all connected to different life forms, from bacteria to complex organisms, and that pure science asks many questions of us, but also has marvelous answers, if only we take the time and curiosity to ponder these connections. For example, human vision and olfaction use modified versions of the molecular components that the bacterium E. coli uses to sense food and toxins in its environment. But research funding in universities is not without biases and strings—more money goes to faculties that are linked to global corporations than to schools of inquiry connected to the wonders of natural science and its creative possibilities.
Quarmby’s shipmates on the Antigua are mostly artists, and their presence provides interesting company, ideas, and sometimes tension in Watermelon Snow. 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 life style 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.
The artists onboard the Antigua inspire curiosity and contemplation of what it means to be an artist; also for Quarmby an understanding of how artists and scientists are alike: “It occurs to me that the risks involved in experimenting with unusual and provocative shifts are akin to the risks at the leading edges of science. Recalling the intuition I developed as a cell biologist, I appreciate the years of study that underlie the artists’ sense of which risks might be worth taking. Something else that art and science have in common: not everything we do succeeds.”
And then, a kind of epiphany at the wonder and beauty of her fellow travellers in their Arctic realm: “Under the bluest sky imaginable, the water is sparkling to out-sparkle any water anywhere [and] our strange gang of humble gods is each, in their way, seeking meaning. I am awash with that most esteemed religious experience, love.”
When it’s Quarmby’s turn to make a presentation of her work to the Antigua’s crew and passengers, she asks herself, “What does a gang of strange gods need to know about global warming and climate change?” She pares it down to the most essential data, explaining the greenhouse effect, the Keeling curve, and the reverberative, exponential aspects of global warming. And then, “The room is quiet. I see tears in the eyes of an artist near the front and wonder whether I should stop here.”
But she continues, and ends with these thoughts: “In my heart, I know I’ve missed something important. I think of my own burnout and depression, and I realize, in failing to address the emotional impacts of the science, I have failed in the deepest way.”
Quarmby does not fail in this way with Watermelon Snow; at the inaugural book launch on Gabriola Island, fellow scientist and 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 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.”
Journalist Melissa Gismondi describes in a November 2020 Walrus magazine article how climate grief for some people begets a “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.”
Watermelon Snow is that kind of commitment; it is also 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.”
Susan Yates has been working on environmental and social issues for four decades, inspired by her community and writers like Lynne Quarmby.