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With the Floe

With the Floe

Brennan McCracken speaks to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson about her new record Theory of Ice.

In the summer of 2019, one hundred people gathered in a fallow landscape near Reykjavík, Iceland to mourn a glacier. It’s not uncommon to see the language of life or death used as a metaphor in contemporary environmentalist discourse—in op-eds and on protest materials, death has become a particularly urgent shorthand for ecological devastation and irreversible change. But in the case of Okjökull, known colloquially as the “Ok glacier,” death was more than mere metaphor.

Five years earlier, the glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson had pronounced the glacier quite literally dead;it was not only receding, he observed, but it had also lost the animacy that helps differentiate glaciers from continental surface ice. Glaciers are, in part, defined by their movement, Sigurðsson later told Slate.To be a glacier, polar ice must be thick enough to slowly shift under the weight of its own gravity. Decades of warming had taken their toll—Okjökull had shrunk to just a fraction of its former size, and had stilled as a result.

In a situation like this, “death” becomes a foothold for climate scientists and concerned citizens: it offers way of naming, locating and generating meaning from geologic change that operates on massive scales (both physical and temporal) and remains largely imperceptible to the human senses. Death carries with it an emotional heft and a familiarity—in other words, despite its mystery, we seem to know what to do with it.

The public mourning of Okjökull’s death was planned by American anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, who learned of the story after Sigurðsson’s pronouncement and sought to amplify it as a cautionary tale. This glacier was likely not the first of its kind to cease its movement and lose its status, in Iceland or elsewhere. And surely, according to Sigurðsson and others, it won’t be the last.

But Okjökull’s death was the first to be memorialized in such a public way—it was the first to be labelled dead as such and to receive such widespread attention from outside the scientific community. Howe and Boyer also collaborated on a documentary about the glacier, titled Not Ok. They generated thousands of media hits with the memorial, from Iceland’s public radio to the Weather Channel.

The memorial made the changes within the ice and their relation to planetary climate change legible as a story. This was the story from the outside: a story of science and slow calamity. But what might the story sound like from inside the ice?

On the song “Ok Indicts,” from her recent album Theory of Ice, Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg artist and scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson offers one sort of answer. Over strummed guitar, gentle piano and fluid drumming, Simpson calls up an alternative meaning from the story of glacial death. Her lyrics are deeply suggestive: she sings in dialogue with musical greats (“you paved paradise”) and with anti-capitalist and decolonial struggles (“archiving blindness / in meticulous ways”). The words generate meaning in harmony with the band, moving like floes in the melt of the music.

On “Ok Indicts,” two fragments in particular recursively bob to the song’s surface. In one, Simpson inverts a familiar phrase of doomsday exaggeration to destabilizing effect: “the sky is falling up,” she sings, her tone placid. In the second, which repeats three times at the end of the song, she implicates the listener as she recalls Ok’s death: “please don’t mourn me.” In this world, our world, Simpson suggests, devastation is everyday and ongoing. And the ice of this world—even if it is so clearly “etched” by colonial “mistakes,” “sweating bits of time”—is still very much alive.

Theory of Ice, released this spring by You’ve Changed Records, stages a sustained and wide-ranging exploration of how to listen to and with the liveliness of water. Across its eight songs—seven by Simpson, plus a stunning reinvention of Mi’kmaw songwriter Willie Dunn’s anti-colonial lament “I Pity The Country”—Simpson sings through cycles of freeze and melt and listens to what the ice has to say. Often, the songs bring the listener along with Simpson to the shore of her subject: opening track “Break Up” begins with Simpson stepping “over / watery edges.”

Elsewhere, it sounds as if Simpson is singing from within the gut of the freeze itself: on “Ok Indicts,” the singer is “drowning in sublime.” (Simpson recently published a book, Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies, where versions of many of the songs onTheory of Ice appear as poems. At the beginning of Noopiming, the protagonist Mashkawaji, meaning one who is “frozen in ice” in Anishinaabemowin, addresses the reader from within a frozen lake.)

For Simpson, as in her Anishinaabe culture, the winter has always been a time for creativity and deep thinking. A few years ago, she was spending the winter in Denendeh, in the Northwest Territories, where she teaches at the land-based Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning. That year, she says, she had the “complete honour” of witnessing a lake move through its melt as winter folded into spring. It changed from solid to liquid in a period of four to six weeks. Simpson grew up around lakes in Wingham, Ontario. But the daily experience of this particular melt wedded her attention to the radical changes happening in the lake day in, day out, and it stirred something within her.

She remembers there being a musical quality to the lake (the dislodging of a thin layer of ice, for example, sounded almost like a drum). Simpson took out her phone to record what she was hearing, but knew the quality of the recording wouldn’t be able to capture its depth. She turned instead to writing poems. “I want to remember the energy, I want to remember the vibe, I want to try to record this in lyrics as a document,” she remembers thinking. “I was almost the audience of the lake.”

Theory of Ice began to calcify around the writing that Simpson was doing about this melt. Early in the writing process, Simpson, who has released two previous LPs, knew that her work had to respond to the aural dimension of what the lake had brought her. “I mean, if the lake had been just shooting out poems or lyrics, I might have thought it was just poetry” she says. “But it was such a sonic experience...having the sounds of the lake go right inside my body.”

Simpson turned to her band—musicians Ansley Simpson (her sister) and Nick Ferrio, and producers Jonas Bonetta and Jim Bryson. Simpson describes the process of producing the album as collaborative and rigorous: she couldn’t quite articulate how she wanted the album to sound at the beginning, but knew she would recognize it the moment she heard it. So the band played, Simpson sang, and together they worked towards the “gut” feeling Simpson was after. Her lyrics shifted as they were put in dialogue with music; the band moved through several versions of each song (“we even had electronica versions!”) before settling into its rootsy, viscous groove.

The record they ultimately made together is a marvel of lucid, richly associative songcraft. The music moves with a patient flow, calling up short, evocative images in lyric before diving back into the movement of the sounds. Simpson says her associative poetics and lateral song structures speak to the theoretical ground she was building the album on: Anishinaabe aesthetics provide her with meaning-making strategies “like layering, duration, and taking things and then abstracting them out of one relational context and intuiting them in another relational context.”

On “Viscosity,” for example, a gentle bassline steadies Simpson as she presents an incisive critique of capitalist value systems: “you’re not fooling me,” she sings, “tethered to the kinship / of disassociated/ zeroes and ones / shining your crown of neoliberal likes.” The song’s precise target is oblique, but Simpson’s resistance is unequivocal: the utterance “we witness” hinges the song into a glorious second act, where she opens up a vision of life always already happening otherwise: “At the / beach / we build a fire / sit in our / own / silence/ peel off / blue / light / lie back / on / frozen / waves.”

The record’s subtle complexity also shows up structurally. On the marvelous closing track “Head Of The Lake,” Simpson builds vocal layers that move at different paces and in different registers. The song opens with a cadence that feels conversational as it describes “a basement full of plastic flowers / pierogies / cabbage rolls.” As the song settles into its churn, Simpson turns to an airier, more open delivery to create a refrain: “we made a circle / and it helped /the smoke did the things / we couldn’t.” These lines float up off the surface of the song, hanging like humidity as more granular details continue in a plainspoken voice below. In the disjuncture between the two registers—the space between the waves and the clouds, in the atmosphere of the song—Simpson generates a grand, ineffable meaning. “I hold your hand without touching it,” she sings, reaching out to connect with human and nonhuman kin alike.

Near the end of our conversation, I told Simpson that I was struck by her use of the word “theory” in the album’s title. Simpson is an academic (she received her PhD from the University of Manitoba), and works in a world where “theory” carries a weight beyond its colloquial meaning as an idea or an act of speculation. In Western settler thought, theories are ways of naming and understanding the workings of complex systems. Theory offers a framework for interpretation—an intellectual system, a rubric. But many Indigenous modes of theorizing, Simpson reminds me, move with a different logic; her Theory is no less rigorous, but it emerges through a different practice. Anishinaabe theory, she tells me, is often based on whole-body knowledge and engages in land-based practices both communal and individual. Simpson sees Theory of Ice like a sort of dissertation—a synthesis of the practice that led up to it.

“I think music can be a site of knowledge production and a site of understanding,” she says. “And I think if you can engage your audience in thinking and feeling and generating meaning, then I think that that’s the work that theory should be doing. So for Indigenous cultures, theory isn’t something that just people in the ivory tower think about. Everybody has the responsibility of generating meaning in their own lives and within their own collectivities.”

Theory of Ice engages the listener in this act of meaning-making. We are invited to think through and with our own relationships with the water, just as Simpson did on the shores of the lake in Denendeh. And when we do, we hear the trace of a crisis that is impossible to ignore. The album is not about the climate crisis per se, at least not directly. But ecological devastation haunts these songs—to hear it, we need only to listen to the ice.

“In generating the lyrics and the overall arc of the album, I was very much thinking and feeling with ice,” Simpson continues. “Thinking of it as an ancestor, and thinking of it as a relative, and thinking of it as something that’s alive in the present that I have a relationship to that’s reciprocal, that’s a deep relationality. What does that mean, then, when this ancestor or this relative of mine, who I’m sharing time and space with, is really, really suffering?”

Simpson recently gave a virtual talk via Simon Fraser University with abolition activist and writer Robyn Maynard. The two have a generative, collaborative relationship, and were presenting excerpts from an upcoming co-authored book, Rehearsals for Living, which will be published next year. Together, they spoke about how the climate crisis was occasioned by the same settler-colonial, anti-Black and white supremacist logics that each of their work seeks to undo. The book, they told the audience, would interrogate and think through these topics through an epistolary form: letters back and forth from one writer to another, an act of writing and listening “from the end of this world,” from the “belly” of the extractive, colonial beast known as Canada.

“Like making a record,” Simpson said that evening of collaborating with Maynard, “listening became perhaps the most important methodology.”

The same feels true for Theory of Ice. Here, she gives us a document of listening to ice as a practice and as a theory—as an imperative to attend both to the beauty of what surrounds us and to the slow groan of what we stand to lose, and what we’re already losing.

Brennan McCracken is a writer from K’jipuktuk (Halifax) living in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal), where he is a graduate student in the department of English at Concordia University. His last piece for Maisonneuve was “Against the Stream” (Issue 71).