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The Bees' Laline Paull Takes Us Under The Ice

Posted on 25th May 2017 by Martha Greengrass

'I had seen an emaciated polar bear with my own eyes. And even though the fish teemed in certain bays, no whales or walrus fed or bred there anymore.  It was if the water itself remembered their ancestors’ blood.'

Described as ‘ambitious and beautiful’ by The Telegraph, Laline Paull’s unique debut The Bees was one of those books readers just couldn't stop talking about. One of Waterstones’ most enduringly popular Book Club choices, it earned justifiable comparisons with The Handmaid’s Tale with its hybrid blend of dystopia, immersive fantasy and uncanny affinity with the natural world. Now Paull is back with The Ice, a dark tale of murder and corruption amidst the collapsing Arctic, set in a near-future shaped by environmental chaos. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, she takes readers behind the real-world crisis that inspired her.

My first novel was set in a beehive, my next in the Arctic - but I never consciously intended to tackle ‘environmental’ subjects.  It just happened, because that’s where I found the most compelling stories, of life and death and the visceral passions and danger we crave in story and often avoid in life. Very powerful elements, otherwise known as the natural world.  

When I wrote The Bees, I was gripped and fascinated by the workings of the ancient society of the honeybee.  When I first went to the Arctic (Svalbard) in 2013 on a small-ship cruise, my long-dormant synaesthesia, which I thought had gone away for good, came flooding back.  The pack-ice did it, I heard it chiming and speaking in a strange inhuman tongue across vast black satin distances, water that creaked and murmured, swirling pale shapes like a supernatural kaleidoscope.  And then a polar bear materialized as a creamy smear on a white fragment – an actual polar bear, one of the simultaneously real and mythological creatures that are still – just about – part of the world we all share.  If we can call how we treat the natural world in any way ‘sharing’. Which we can’t.

That’s what I realised in the Arctic, yet again.  In the course of my research on The Bees I’d been confronted with the awful facts about pesticides and pollinator decline, and the industrial farming of honeybees, completely unprotected in law.  And now, as even as I was immersed in the heart-shaking majesty and beauty of the Arctic, with its undeniable spiritual charge – I was backing away in my mind from a new set of awful truths, that I didn’t want to think about.  

I did not want to think about climate change, I wanted to have the tithe added to the bill and let that be my bit done.  But even as part of my mind scuttled away from finding out more (it will hurt! What do I do? This is too big and difficult to think about!)  I knew that something was happening to me in the Arctic.  Even as I was feeling its power, I was also learning about its incredible, unthinkable vulnerability.  Glacier faces had retreated shocking distances in one year.  Rain fell – normally it is only snow.  Bears were rarer, thinner, behaving strangely.

Svallbard old ice © Adrian PeacockSvallbard old ice © Adrian Peacock

I was horrified at the statistics about the retreat of the ice, and the strong likelihood that the Arctic summer sea ice will be gone long before 2030.  When I got back, I started to scratch away at this huge subject about which I knew only as much as my eyes had seen, and the stories I’d read and heard on the voyage.  But in addition to those tales of masculine derring-do, I had also seen the many fragments of whale carcasses, and the massive iron tools involved in their slaughter, preserved on desolate ice strewn beaches.  I had seen an emaciated polar bear with my own eyes. And even though the fish teemed in certain bays, no whales or walrus fed or bred there anymore.  It was if the water itself remembered their ancestors’ blood. 

A story was growing, but what story?  There are hundreds, thousands, to choose from in the Arctic.  The thing that caught in my mind was the melting summer sea ice opening the long-sought passage between Europe and what was once called Cathay – or China, we would now say.  Countless men had died in the attempt to find and exploit it, and now here was the Arctic, melting away in surrender, through climate change.  A new sea route.  Rising waters, changing weather patterns.  And massive opportunities for business.  Not everyone is against climate change.  

I thought I would write about the investigation into the death of a polar bear, but that now started to feel like a tiny part of a much bigger, more frightening, and very intimidating territory.  Did I dare try to write a story set the day after tomorrow, in the melting Arctic?  It was certainly happening.  It is happening and everyone alive at this moment is affected and connected through it.  The rain that falls, the seas that rise, the animals we want to keep alive – 

I chose the story that scared me most and I felt most compelled to tell – the one that focused on the future of the Arctic more than the past, and tackled the big stuff.  With elements that sounded so far-fetched and yet global experts were telling me it was so.  I went back twice more, each trip fraught with its own dangers, expenses, treasures and insights.  The bees changed me, and so has the ice.  As far as I can see, the good and the bad news is the same:  We have been abusing the natural world to the point where our own suffering is forcing us to become aware that we are a part of the whole.  And to redress the balance of the natural world while there is still time for it to recover, while we still have wild animals, while the seas are still fertile, while we still even have recognisable seasons: we must politically evolve.  This is not hippy shit, this is survival.

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