Only by this word do we begin to approach the true being and essence of the glacier.
Perception of Time
Human perception grasps relations between things before a thing itself: to know what a thing is, we must first ask what it does. This question, put to a glacier, initially leaves us speechless.
A glacier does – a glacier is – what? Ice – yes, but this gets us no further. The attributive word slow hoves into view, on schedule, whenever we think of glaciers, but this is quite wrong: in a very important, originary sense, slow can never capture what a thing does, or what a thing is, essentially.
Slowness, it is not
Slow, when we consult its origin in the language, wants to say that its object somehow deviates from its true being or purpose. Its primary meaning relates to the defective working of a mind, as in someone who’s not up to proper mental speed. This defection, when pursued hard enough, overtakes the initial – instrumental or pragmatic – remissness to become a moral fault, as sloth, a later derivation from slow. But the notion of speed itself is deceptive: actually it’s foreign to the origin of this word.
- the Old English slaw (inactive, sluggish, dull) and
- its roots in the Old Saxon sleu and
- Old High German sleo (both meaning blunt, dull)
we have the primordial and real image of a metal utensil, whether knife or plough or, more ceremoniously, a sword, that has fallen from its proper use by the corrosion of a cutting edge.
Speed, or lack of speed, dilatoriness, has therefore little to do with the word slow, unless it lingers behind the frustration of having to expend more time in cutting, striking, ploughing etc with the duller edge to achieve the utensil’s desired end.
Essence & Nature
So we must ask again: what does a glacier do? Certainly, it is ice. But what does ice do? Ice, unlike its other physical cognates – rain, snow – is not accompanied by a ready collection of doing-verbs. Rain falls and saturates the parched earth with its gift; snow falls and collects beautifully in drifts (“Covering earth in forgetful snow” – TS Eliot), the prime image of the winter eclipse of the land’s abundance; water runs and flows and streams and spills, everywhere giving life.
These are vital articulations of the earth’s lexicon of seasonal and shaping forces. But the most we can say of ice in this respect is that it melts. Curiously, slow recurs here – but indirectly, in its secondary, derived sense as a lack of speed – to lend its pallor to the melting process.
But melt itself is another occlusion: a word that is foreign to the being of ice. In its Danish, Old High German and Swedish origins, melting was a process undergone by bodies once they had exceeded their point of ripeness or ideal period of use or consumption: in the case of inanimate organic matter (pears, apples, harvested barley) this meant rotting; in the case of people, this meant corporeal decay and dissolution.
In melt we take the short step over the life-threshold to moult and then mould – where the evidence of decay and uselessness becomes manifest. So, despite appearances, melt is an odd fit as the essential doing-verb for ice, because ice would have had no real agency or use for men and women personally, or at a societal level, to fall away or decay from (it was only among Mediterranean cultures that ice was used as a food-preservative as in Northern Europe and Scandinavia the colder climate did the job: the Romans used to cart oysters from Colchester in Essex to Rome packed in ice and wrapped in parcels of hay). So ice, viewed in its larger forms – as a glacier for example – requires a verb of greater scope, unattached to localised human processes and activities.
To this end, relentless begins to help. To relent is, effectively, to melt, to subside to the condition of slow, viscous or supple, contained in the Latin lentus. To refuse to do this, to willfully preserve this hard, inhuman solidity (relent was originally used in the context of the softening of a human heart: “The notion is probably of a hard heart melting with pity.”)
Such gets translated spatially into the idea of movement, of determined progress at all costs, becomes a kind of non-human automatic grind, nicely approaching what a glacier in fact does and is. But relent is still located in a human scale: and the reason it begins to resonate with glacier is the converse suggestion – of something nonhuman, larger-then-human, something almost godlike, in the familiar sense that all natural forces – sun, moon, stars, seasons, rainfall – were godlike, as in bathed with the divine aura and agency of deities, in earlier moments of historical-cultural development.
To move further on this: glaciers are indeed godlike, in the vital sense that they create: their true doing, what they do, which relentless hints at while being merely an image at the crust of the real thing, is shape the land. In its origin (Old Saxon, Old German, Old Frisian, via Middle English) to shape was to create and fashion, and, mysteriously and beautifully, to draw water from the source.
This is what glaciers do: like gods, they command the elements in the service of real creation; they draw water from its source, the sky, and bodying this colossal force, they redraw the earth beneath us, bequeathing their legacy, centuries later, in the valleys and terrains we call our home. The reason then, that we have no name for what glaciers do and are, is perhaps because we have forgotten the awe due to them as creative titans possessed of godlike powers. We readily say what a hawk does: it hunts and catches food to feed its young; like us, it builds its nest and nurtures the coming generations. But glaciers are beyond this human scale, and our forgetfulness of what they do, and how they are, perhaps exhibits the curtailing and shrinking latent in our anthropocentric, anthropomorphising cognitive tendencies.
This is a very roundabout way of giving an answer to your question but perhaps it suggests a new path towards truer descriptions.
Glaciers are landforms, yes: but they are also landforming, landshaping, and relentless in their being of these things.