Creative nonfiction writer Elizabeth Rush had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when she was invited to join a 57-person voyage to the Thwaites Glacier. That piece of Antarctica had never been seen by humans, yet scientists expected that data from its fast-shifting ice would inform our understanding of a changing climate. Aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer, Rush could once again deploy her reporting and narrative prowess to deepen her and readers’ familiarity with the world they call home, as she did when exploring how rising sea levels would affect the United States’ coast in her previous Pulitzer finalist book, Rising.
But to do so, Rush would have to delay her attempts to conceive a child.
These competing desires propel The Quickening: Creating and Community at the Ends of the Earth, a distinctive addition to the Antarctic canon. Before setting out on the Palmer, Rush turned her attention to existing literature about Antarctica—which she finds is largely “fluff or end-of-the-world stuff.” Women rarely appear in these accounts, nor do the crews who navigate the treacherous seas and make research possible through their expertise.
Rush is at ease shifting between various objects of fascination, and she immerses herself in her shipmates’ work at every opportunity. Although she’s on board as a writer, not a scientist, Rush helps teams gather and process samples of mud and ice containing clues to Thwaites’ past and the Earth’s future.
But even the study of climate change seems impossible to isolate from forces that exacerbate it. During an excursion off the Palmer, Rush notes, “Almost every aspect of our mission is threaded through with petrochemicals,” from the soles of the group’s shoes to Rush’s voice recorder to the careers of many shipmates’ parents.
Aboard the Palmer, Rush grapples with her desire to give birth in a world with an increasingly fragile climate. Back home, she encounters an undergraduate student arguing against reproduction in this scenario. But in conversation with her shipmates, Rush cites a scientific article that she recently read: “Its underlying argument—that rapid transition away from fossil fuels, not fewer pregnancies, is what is needed—gives me some solace.”
Rush centers women’s voices in her exploration of motherhood and the Earth, gliding between her personal reflections, descriptions of life aboard the ship and stories of what comes after. Simultaneously lyrical and analytical, The Quickening depicts Rush’s search for meaning while rejecting easy answers.