When I Am Laid In Earth

© Simon Norfolk

Mapping with a pyrograph, the melting away of the Lewis Glacier on Mt. Kenya.

These fire lines I have drawn indicate where the front of the rapidly disappearing Lewis Glacier was at various times in the recent past; the years are given in the titles. In the distance, a harvest moon lights the poor, doomed glacier remnant; the gap between the fire and the ice represents the relentless melting. Relying on old maps and modern GPS surveys I have rendered a stratified history of the glacier's retreat. Photographing time's thickness, trying to expose it's 'layeredness,' is something I've been attempting in different settings and through different channels for the last dozen years.

It seems entirely appropriate to make these images here. Mount Kenya is the eroded stump of a long-dead, mega-volcano. Photographically, I hope to re-awaken its angry, magma heart. The mountain has an especially fierce demeanour, the peaks are childishly sheer and ragged, and since I first saw them I've been thinking of Gormenghast and Tolkien. The 'Fire vs. Ice' metaphor I employ is especially delicious for me. My fire is made from petroleum. My pictures contain no evidence that this glacier's retreat is due to man-made warming (glaciers can retreat when the don't get sufficient snow, or if the cloud cover thins, for example,) but it is nonetheless my belief that humans burning hydrocarbons are substantially to blame.

But there are romantic reasons to be here too. To be next to the ice is to feel privileged: like you are beside a colossal, sleeping giant. I imagine being close to a darted bull- elephant feels the same and I'm reminded of a 17th century Dutch painting of bewildered burghers contemplating a beached whalefish. Close-up one senses the immensity of the ice mass, its coiled, dormant energy and its colossal longevity. And, of course, the glacier's cold, resigned indifference. One is chilled by an overwhelming feeling of one's own smallness and transience. Englishmen have been feeling this way about mountains for 300 years, since Romantic, Grand-Tour travellers first astonished Swiss inn-keepers with the request for help in climbing to the heights. Nobody had done that before; for the fun of it, because it made you feel whole, because it fed the soul.

Another Englishman on another mountain. History repeats, but this time as tragedy. To think that in ten or twelve years this magnificent glacier that has endured for millennia will exist only in photographs, is unbearable. The feeling I have for the losing of the Lewis can only be called 'grief.'

So, see it now before it's gone: get over there quick before Mount Kenya is just an unadorned rocky stump, robbed of it's innocent, frozen crown. Unless of course you feel that flying around the world injecting tonnes of hot CO2 into the troposphere in order to witness the melting of Africa's glaciers, is just a little too ironic.

click to view the complete set of images in the archive

The artist would like to acknowledge the inspiration provided by Project Pressure in the making of this work, and the technical help with GPS mapping