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Read: White Snow, SnowNancy Campbell

Nancy Campbell
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Hau kea

white snow, snow



In this tropical archipelago, snow is most likely to be found on a simmering crater. In winter the temperature at the summits of Mauna Loa, Haleakala and Mauna Kea – the state’s three tallest volcanoes – drops to below freezing. Mauna Kea means ‘white mountain’ and it is a sacred site, the home of one of the four snow goddesses, Poli’ahu – the most enchanting Hawaiian goddess and nemesis of Pele, the fiery goddess of Volcanoes.


The peak of Mauna Kea is considered the highest island mountain in the world. Up there, you’re closer to the planets, the sun and the stars, the rising and setting of which were once used by Polynesian navigators to chart the ocean’s vast, formless waters, and thus brought the first humans to these islands. With this ancestral connection to the heavens it’s no surprise that today the University of Hawaii has a world-class astronomy facility. Many of the observatory instruments, thirteen telescopes among them, are located on the summit of Mauna Kea. In recent years, while astronomers are looking up into the skies through sophisticated lenses, other eyes have been on the activity on the peak. In 2014 Mauna Kea was selected as the proposed location for another instrument – the giant Thirty Meter Telescope. Leading academics embraced the idea of more technology on the mountain, seeing it as a natural continuation of the astronomical tradition of the early navigators. The act of placing one of the world’s largest segmented mirror telescopes on Mauna Kea was to them an inevitable combination of culture and science, and a tribute to the ongoing human quest for knowledge of distant worlds.


But not everyone sees the development as respectful of ancient knowledge. Many believe that the mountain is sacred and do not wish to see the site developed further for science. Environmentalists are concerned about the displacement of rare native bird populations. In 2015 demonstrations began against construction, with the activists blockading the road to keep building crews off the summit. They see themselves not as protestors but as the mountain’s protectors, or kia’i. They have bravely battled arrests, and, during the winter months, cold weather. Sturdier tents crept into the protest camp, space heaters and stores of thermal clothing. Then, in January 2020 came a winter storm so severe that around two feet of snow dropped on Mauna Kea. The snow, which drifted up to 8 feet deep in places, closed public road access to the summit. Nature or perhaps Poli’ahu doing the work the kia’I had done for years. That winter, the two sides contesting the soul of Mauna Kea agreed to a two-month truce: the consortium that wanted to build the telescope would not start construction, and the kia’i took a break from life in camp conditions.


Protest songs were sung in Hawaiian, a richly polysemous language in which a word or phrase can have many coexisting meanings. Hau means snow, but the term can also mean anything cold (ice, frost, dew); a cool breeze; a type of mammoth; a hibiscus tree with heart-shaped leaves (Hibiscus tiliaceus) which grows in warm places; mother of pearl; or a pumice stone. Only the term hau kea (‘snow white’) exclusively denotes what we think of as ‘snow’. This expansive approach to the material world can also be found in the writings of Johannes Kepler, the seventeenth-century German scientist who investigated the vast reaches of the solar system, and whose studies are cornerstones of Western astronomy. He made a connection between huge masses of burning hydrogen and the microscopic forms of frozen crystals. After charting the elliptical movements of the planets, Kepler moved on to investigate snow, writing that it too ‘falls from the heavens and looks like the stars’. Perhaps instead of looking through the Thirty Metre Telescope, humans need only to climb the peak of Mauna Kea on a winter evening – singing a song of solidarity and celebration – to understand the stars.

With thanks to Mark Olival-Bartley, an inspiring friend who generously shared his knowledge of Hawaiian language, culture and environment during our conversations in Munich in the summer of 2019.


For an example of a protest song, watch ‘Kū haʻaheo’, sung by a group of activists including footage of the kia’i, filmed by Oiwi TV.


Q&A with Nancy Campbell

The notion that there are multiple “Eskimo words for snow” has taken root in popular imagination. But it’s a myth. So why does the idea still captivate people – and why were you so drawn to writing about one particular manifestation of water?

Just as I work across different forms – writing poetry and non-fiction, and exploring the material nature of the book as an artist – I’m drawn to the water molecule in all its states. The appeal lies in its endless condition of transformation. My previous book, The Library of Ice, drew on a decade of research in the polar regions to examine ice as a disappearing record of planetary history. And I travelled the waterways of the UK while I was Canal Laureate, writing poems about water conservation and the human and more-than-human communities the waterways support. 

As my research has mainly been in the Arctic, it was an exciting new departure when my editor at Elliott & Thompson, Sarah Rigby, suggested a project looking at climate and culture worldwide. I stopped flying several years ago, but travel was restricted for other reasons while writing this book, with international borders closing first due to Brexit, and subsequently Covid. It was liberating to voyage all over the world through dictionaries instead, and conversations with friends, and advice from strangers (many of whom became friends) on Twitter. 

The title of this book references the controversial Inuit snow conspiracy,* but I take pains to point out the inaccuracy of this myth. And in the section on Greenlandic in Fifty Words for Snow I chose a word with a changing meaning which demonstrates the bitter legacy of colonial rule in the Arctic: immiaq originally referred to melted snow, which could be prepared by thirsty hunters on the ice edge for free, and now means any drink, especially beer – the import of which has affected Greenlandic life, bringing with it cycles of debt and alcohol dependency. Now however, immiaq offers the possibility of industry, and independence: Immiaq is the name of the first craft beer brewery on the island.


*For more on the ‘Inuit Snow Conspiracy’ see Laura Martin, ‘“Eskimo words for snow”: a case study in the genesis and decay of an anthropological example’, American Anthropologist 89, 2 (June 1986): 418-423, and Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind (London: Penguin, 1994).

The book takes us all around the world, and into fifty languages. What did you learn about snow, and language, during the research and writing process?

I am fascinated by the languages of nature, for example cryologists working in Antarctica who “read” ice cores – the creation of story from layers of microscopic debris and chemical traces, which reveals details of past climate going back centuries. Yet for this book I was investigating human languages. I am not fluent in any languages other than English, but I do my best to respect the languages of the places I travel through by learning as much as possible. When I was living on the island of Upernavik in Greenland, I was being taught the local dialect by my neighbours (who were very generous with their time in this, and patient with my slow progress). I found myself learning a language at the exact moment it was placed on the UNESCO Map of World Languages in Danger. Learning a vulnerable language seemed such a painfully apt metaphor for human and environmental transience. 

A language also demonstrates the ways cultures see things differently, including traditional knowledges of ecology. Writing the fifty entries for this book began with life on an Arctic island, a place where everyday life is still fraught with natural dangers: when you walk across the sea ice, there is always a risk of falling into the freezing water below and the sea even threatens those on shore, as bergs break apart and a wash follows. in Greenland, it’s considered unwise to make plans for the future – even the next day – in the face of these dangers. I’m inspired by the literature that comes out of such landscapes, the way it engages with essential truths about the human condition, whether the novels of Jón Kalman Stefánsson about Icelandic fishermen and postmen battling through storms and snowdrifts, or Greenlandic songs that express gratitude to Sila (nature) after bad weather or a period of dearth. But my research led me to sites of snow beyond the polar regions, from a protest camp on Hawaii’s highest volcano to glaciers on the Rwenzori peaks in West Africa, where photographs taken by mountaineers in the nineteenth century are now being used as a comparison with data collected to assess the extent of glacial retreat. 

Now is a time when many of us find their thoughts turning to transformation, to metamorphosis, and to the idea that out of this crisis, a path to healing may emerge. Do you have a vision of a regenerative future, and what does literature have a part to play in creating it? 

The critical state of the planet shows that we urgently need to imagine new way of being, and, while writers aren’t often also working in roles where they can directly make policy, they can be part of a drive to imagine – and communicate – better or alternative futures. And it is important to communicate in many ways, from a placard to a long-form essay in the New Yorker… I was surprised and gladdened to see words from a traditional, anonymous Greenlandic song about extinction which I had translated reproduced on someone’s banner at a march earlier this year. Laurence Buell wrote that the “environmental crisis involves a crisis of the imagination the amelioration of which depends on finding better ways of imagining nature and humanity’s relation to it”. I take that as a sign that writing, and publishing, has an important role to play – as Borthwick writes, in his introduction to Entanglements: New Ecopoetry, it can be “a subtle form of activism”. The writer’s role to inform and educate and inspire seems more critical now than ever before.


Nancy Campbell grew up in Scotland and studied apprenticeships in letterpress printing with master craftsmen in New York City and in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. A series of residencies with Arctic research institutions between 2010 and 2017 led to the books The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold ClimateHow to Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic and Disko Bay. In 2018 Nancy was commissioned by The Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust to write about waterways: poems from her two-year tenure as Canal Laureate are collected in her book, Navigations. In 2020 Nancy received the Royal Geographical Society Ness Award for the popularisation of geography through literature.



Act now: Nancy would like to share her excitement at the vibrant programme for this year’s Lost Species Day, on 30 November.

I’m looking forward to hearing from an incredible line-up of speakers, who will explore how ecological remembrance can or does contribute to and strengthen the intersectional environmental movement. More at @LostSpeciesDay on Twitter or https://onca.org.uk/2020/11/14/lost-species-day-2020-online-gathering/