Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Q&A with William E. Glassley

William E. Glassley, by Anton Brkić
William E. Glassley is the author of the new book A Wilder Time: Notes From a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice. He has written more than 70 research papers and a textbook on geothermal energy, and he is a geologist at the University of California, Davis, and an emeritus researcher at Aarbus University, Denmark. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Q: You write, “Wilderness is the primordial heart of what we conceive of as soul, and as a consequence, it must be accepted as a version of home. For me, Greenland has been the landscape that embodies that lesson.” What about Greenland makes it the embodiment of the wilderness you describe?

A: The thing that affected me most was walking into a place where there’s absolutely no evidence of human inhabitants. You scan that from the ridge top, and for me, it was the first time I really understood humility. I needed that to bring it to an understanding of who I am—in front of me was a powerful complex process unfolding, of which I was a part.

The other part is that as I stood there, I wanted to melt into that landscape.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: One thing that the title attempted to convey is that the world we live in now is so extraordinarily shaped by human activity. There’s so little that’s truly wild. But a place like that is just wilder. In terms of time, it transcends it. It makes time almost irrelevant. Time itself becomes wild.

Personally, as an experience, I, as a human animal, became wilder. I shed the fiction of what [my definition was] as a human being and became a wild animal.

Q: What are some of the most important lessons or discoveries that you learned about on your trips to Greenland?

A: From a non-scientific point of view, it was the necessity for humility. So much that’s happening in the world comes from the belief that we know what’s going on. In a setting like that, [you don’t know]. It forces you to take on a sense of humility.

Another thing I learned was just how extraordinarily fragile things are, we are, life on the planet is in general. We had a couple of experiences where we could have died. Yet most of the time, those threats don’t present themselves.

We live in an extraordinarily fragile film—it really brought that home. Things could happen so quickly—you see evidence of the power of the natural world all around you, and realize we are very fragile.

Q: In the book, you address the issue of climate change. What do you see looking ahead for Greenland?

A: There are two elements of that that are important. One is the effect human-induced climate change will have on the culture there. The Inuit culture has been there for thousands of years. It’s a subsistence lifestyle. Everything that happens on the planet is affecting them. How will Greenlanders maintain their lifestyle in the fact of this threat?

The other thing, standing at the end of an ice sheet, or in a helicopter, you can see the ice retreating so fast. Things are happening that often aren’t recorded that are shaping the landscape in a dramatic way.

On the other hand, the place is adjusting to it. It’s not what I’ve fallen in love with—in 200 years, there probably will be no ice but a series of islands surrounding a bay. It’s staggering to think about.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Two things. One is a collection of short stories related to experiences in the natural world. There’s a lot I didn’t talk about from the experiences I had in Greenland, along with experiences in other settings that bear on the issue of what it means to be human on a planet that a short while ago was exceedingly wild and now is not that.

I’ve come to realize as a scientist I and my colleagues have taken on a responsibility we may not have have taken on consciously—a responsibility to go into whatever part of the natural world we’re looking at…We are representatives of humanity.

We publish papers—our responsibility is to generate information from an objective perspective. But we’ve lost sight of the fact that all of that is done within a human context. We are trying to provide objective information, but we also have a responsibility to present our emotional experiences. They’re no less valid. They’re as important as the facts we bring back. I’m trying to encourage the scientific community to take on that responsibility, to find ways of conveying [that].

The response from the scientists I’ve spoken with is uniformly enthusiastic, and the response to the book has been similar. People are saying, Oh, man, that’s something I wanted to do! It’s like a hunger out there to engage in that kind of thing.

There also is an absence of confidence. We know how to work in an objective domain, but baring our soul to a bunch of colleagues is terrifying!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I did not set out to write a book about Greenland or wilderness. It took literally 20 years to put this together. It ended up being a book because I couldn’t avoid revisiting my experiences, because they insinuated themselves into my mind in a powerful way and I kept writing.

This was the way the idea of responsibility [came up]. It was time to make it into a book and eventually it happened. It’s been an amazing journey.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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