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Book review: Earth, Ice, Bone, Blood, by Charlotte Wrigley

Book review: Earth, Ice, Bone, Blood, by Charlotte Wrigley

By Jeremy Williams

Permafrost has a particular place in climate change discussion. It doesn’t come up often, and when it does it’s frequently in the apocalyptic tone of tipping points and catastrophe. Fundamentally, it seems under-studied, or at least insufficiently explained for non-academic audiences. So I was interested to see a new book on the subject.

Earth, Ice, Bone, Blood is an examination of permafrost and its role in climate change, but it’s more than that. It’s a kind of anthropological study of life on the permafrost, and a philosophical consideration of extinction.

Wrigley, who is a human geographer, has travelled to northern Russia to see for herself, in a book that I imagine would be hard to write if you were to start it now. She lived for several months in Yakutsk, the world’s only city built on permafrost. It’s a true feat of Soviet engineering, though now walls crack and lamposts lean as the ground thaws in a warming world.

Wrigley also spent a significant amount of time at the Pleistocene Park, one of the world’s most ambitious rewilding projects. I’ve heard a fair bit about this project in other books, and have found it hard to gauge how seriously to take the pioneer scientists behind it, Sergey Zimov and his son Nikita. The on-the-ground view from their remote nature reserve gives a better sense of the precarious grind of their initiative than the hyperbolic online reporting of it, which can be a bit dazzled by stories of mammoth resurrection.

On that point, the first part of the book focuses on the ice and the earth, looking at permafrost melt and its consequences. The ‘bone’ chapter looks at what is turning up from the frozen ground. Enterprising locals go out in the summer hunting for mammoth carcases, and the bones can fetch a good price for collectors. The greatest prize is a carcase so well preserved that it still has blood in it because that’s when the cloning specialists swoop in.

The fourth section of the book delves into this controversial science, crossing paths with some notable characters, and investigating the likelihood of bringing back extinct creatures, and the ethics of doing so. Bringing the mammoth back to Siberia draws Silicon Valley attention and funding, and like many of the solutions they favour, it’s fair to describe it as a techno-fix. “The proponents of a good Anthropocene forge forward with their commitment to the continuity of human dominance, conferring certainty on a hyper-consuming, white supremacist hierarchy that there is no need to scale back on environmental destruction, resource extraction, and colonization – technology, in the end, will save us.”

What I liked about Earth, Ice, Bone, Blood is that Wrigley doesn’t tell readers what to think, but constantly probes us to think about things more deeply for ourselves. How ‘permanent’ is permafrost? Is Siberia the uninhabited wilderness of popular imagination? Rather than assuming that preserving the status quo is what matters, what can we learn from discontinuity and the absence of extinction? Who gets to decide what lost animals are brought back? Is overcoming extinction an attempt to master death? What does this tell us about ourselves and our predicament on a changing planet?

Climate change confronts us with an end of what we know, and it’s an end of our own making. It’s like “an apocalypse without a higher power,” suggests Wrigley, “in which the horror of human time appearing to run out thanks to the destructive practices that produced the Anthropocene generates schemes to stop, prolong and even reverse time.” These are profound questions, raised by a thoughtful and unusual book set in the Russian Arctic.

First published in The Earthbound Report.

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