We Must Tell Stories: On Time and Water by Andri Snaer Magnason

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Out from the intricate weeds of facts and numbers that manipulate time and space, Andri Snaer Magnason states that, in fact, a cow had invited him to write this book. At that moment I was sold, ready to absorb anything he wrote next. I would have read him until I walked into the sea. A cow?

Magnason is a writer of all genres and a documentary filmmaker based in Iceland. Besides several childhood years in the United States, he has lived his whole life on the island. In 2016, he ran for president. Yet no matter the focus of his ambitious attention, expanding out in multiple directions, he seems constantly drawn to humankind’s relationship to the natural environment. On Time and Water is a series of short chapters that use origin myths alongside interviews with scientists, Magnason’s family members, and the Dalai Lama, to better understand the effects of climate change through the lens of melting glaciers and ocean acidification.

In another way, the book is eloquently about everything. The story of water has a tendency to flow into the cracks of all life. Magnason, with the skill of translator Lytton Smith, illustrates that time has sped up as a result of mass consumption and how, in turn, glaciers, the great givers of life and seasons, are perilously endangered. Within these massive themes, Magnason is able to bring both water and time down to a personal level. In addition to passed-down family stories, he taps into archives, old photos fanning out like a deeply personal almanac of a glacier throughout the book. From his grandparents’ honeymoon on a now-much-diminished glacier to his uncle John’s obsession with and dedication to crocodiles, which provides a rung for others to care for the animals, these stories clarify that, indeed, our histories are also the teachings of the land and its ecosystems. “When I take a photo of a glacier,” Magnason concludes, “it’s like I’m recording and preserving an old woman singing an ancient lullaby.”

I couldn’t help but sense a bravery in Magnason’s choice to relate climate change to mythology, land, and his own family stories; he is devoted to the idea that each life is deeply connected to myth and the story of the natural environment. For example, Robert Oppenheimer’s fateful role in the development of the nuclear bomb rendered him a modern-day Prometheus. But Oppenheimer’s destiny was also tied to Magnason’s grandfather, who was a surgeon and operated on him, saving Oppenheimer’s life. Ancient stories of fire, like Prometheus’s, are intertwined with human development, which is in turn intertwined with the natural environment. Magnason’s anecdotes can feel entangled, but the sense remains that these connections exist everywhere. Urgency sweeps through the book, yet it is tempered by love. His prose is fantastic, nearly bewildering in the strides it takes. To give reason for the structure, Magnason describes a conversation with climate scientist Wolfgang Lucht. “People don’t understand graphs and numbers,” Lucht advises, “but they do understand stories. You can tell stories. You must tell stories.”

Science books, fiction, and newspaper articles can describe climate change in so many ways. But there are no italics steep enough, capital letters large enough, or exclamation marks multiplied enough to instill purpose within a reader. Our language evolves slowly when it comes to large concepts like individuality, freedom, and human rights. “It can take decades, maybe even centuries, to understand new words and concepts,” Magnason asserts. “We use old ways of thinking to understand new ways of thinking.” But ocean acidification, to name one issue, is massive and irreparable, and happening now. Our oceans, Magnason states, have been developing for 50 million years. They will be acidified to a perilous point in less than one hundred.

But what exactly is one hundred years, and what is fifty million? The comparison of time is meaningless unless we look at it in relation to the change that we can see in our lifetimes. The years that separate Magnason’s daughter and her grandmother are not many. Yet the people those two women will love, grandchild to grandmother, will span nearly 300 years of individuals, each generation as if “stretching out their hands . . . touching flat palms together.”

Let’s get back to the cow. “To say that we live in a mythological time is not an exaggeration. World leaders meet and talk about the weather,” Magnason writes. Fairy tales, folk tales, and myths are stories through which wisdom is passed down across many generations. When the Grimm brothers, Perrault, and all the well-meaning scribes put on paper what was orally transmitted, they placed these narratives in the past—the way stories happen “once upon a time.” Yet in many ways the stories continue to play out through both life and natural ecosystems. Magnason commits to telling a real-time fairy tale: Oil, for instance, is like an ancient black sun that we are bringing up from the vast stores of earth. With an intuitively directed avenue of research, Magnason concludes that the Norse cow-mother Audhumla may be connected to Shiva, who sits atop a bull as a throne. Both are connected by the prefix him-, from the humla of Audhumla and the Norse word for heaven mountains, Himinfj​​öll, all of which mirror Himalayas, whose milky mineral water of four mythic rivers has served as life source for so many from the ancient world to now. This mysterious cry from a holy cow to which Magnason refers in the beginning is for the rescue of the Himalayas’ glacial soul.

After reading On Time and Water I found myself rereading a version of the Russian folktale The Firebird, and I recognized something I had not seen in it before about the role humans have the potential to play as the climate catastrophe unfolds. In the story, an elusive firebird keeps stealing the apples of a tsar. When two of the tsar’s sons go out to find the bird, they are caught at a split in the road. It is marked that one road will kill them, the second will kill their horse, and the third will kill them all. Rather than making a hard decision to sacrifice themselves or their horse, they turn toward a “life of leisure” and choose not to make a decision at all. But the young prince, Ivan, goes out to find the bird and chooses to sacrifice his horse. He makes a choice.

A great amount of time can be devoted to small decisions that have the potential to make change. With his myriad connections, Magnason offers readers a way to nestle themselves into change by moving myth to the present moment, like a koan whose meaning provokes an understanding of how to be present and respond as the climate changes. A folktale is a tiny prism to practice a kind of mind expansion, a leap of faith.

Two conversations with the Dalai Lama anchor the book. They offer a poignant political and personal lens revealing the way polarities can exist simultaneously. The Dalai Lama has lived nearly his entire life in exile in India, and in his meetings with Magnason, he does not seem disturbed. He can hold the loss of a homeland and also the faith that Buddhist beliefs and traditions are immovable, embedded within the hearts of the monks themselves. I imagine a massive glacier within each monk. In displacement, it seems there is a way to love the earth—a way to mourn and be hopeful. There is a way to act and stay completely still.

Ultimately, we must be reminded that we belong, for in the skins of our loved ones is the very soul of the world. Andri Snaer Magnason was charged to write a plaque for the Okjökull glacier that officially died in 2019. It reads, “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and we know what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” Lucht’s voice rings in my head, as well as Ivan’s on his search for an impossible bird. We are on the very same path: We can choose, and so, with a bit of faith and boldness as we find the way, we must.


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Irene is a writer, book artist, and educator based in Brooklyn. Her review writing, fiction, and poetry have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Chronogram, Visitant, and featured in The Poetry Project’s archive. Irene is fascinated by the places where land and dreams meet. She holds an MFA in writing from Pratt Institute and has appeared in its literary magazine, The Felt. More from this author →