West Iron eighth-grader Steven Nelson shows what James Balog wrote in a book recently sent to the high school library.
By Peter Nocerini
IRON RIVER—Recently, West Iron County eighth grader Steven Nelson was asked to report to the high school library.
A new book had arrived that he would be interested in.
It was a big, heavy book, and it had two large pieces of ice on the cover: It was “Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers” by James Balog.
Turning to the title page, Nelson saw a hand-written dedication: “For Steven, with deepest gratitude for your touching essay. Keep up your great thinking and writing. James Balog.”
“I was just ecstatic!” Nelson said with a grin. “I just didn’t know what to say. I can’t believe he actually responded, because he’s a big-time photographer, and I’m just an eighth grader who sent in an essay.”
The story began a few weeks earlier, in a middle school science classroom at West Iron, where the students watched a 2012 documentary film: “Breaking Ice.”
The movie depicts Balog’s efforts to document the effects of climate change on the world’s glaciers. At first, Balog was a skeptic about climate change. Then he went to see the glaciers of Iceland and Greenland first-hand and witness what is happening.
Balon then set up the Extreme Ice Survey to get photos that show the changes taking place in the glaciers found in Greenland, Iceland and Alaska.
Using battery powered cameras, the Extreme Ice Survey took time-lapse photos that show how the glaciers are
“Chasing Ice” was about the team’s research and the images it captured. It also includes news clips from cable TV channels that are skeptical about climate change.
(“Chasing Ice” is available on streaming services such as Netflix.)
“At first I was kind of leery about glaciers melting,” Nelson said during a recent interview. “I didn’t know they were melting as fast as they are.
“I thought it was shocking that it was melting that fast,” Nelson said. “I wasn’t really aware of that--that movie made me aware.”
Later, the teacher, Richelle Jochem, asked the students to write about the movie, “I just wrote about my feelings,” Nelson said. “I just wanted to show people how things are changing, and try to get it across to them.”
His essay, titled “A Signal for Help,” did it in an unusual way: by telling the story from the viewpoint of a glacier that was created during the Little Ice Age. “I personified it and gave it human qualities,” he said.
Over time, it had grown into a vast glacier. But now, like the glaciers shown in Balog’s film, it is receding quickly. The glacier is sending out icebergs “to warn humans of my retreat, my melting down.” In other places, the glacial lake created by the melting leads to fast-moving streams that floor the highland valleys
“I am melting so quickly,” Nelson wrote, “that by the year 2020 I will be completely gone … I am pleased that I have had a chance to be a ‘canary in a coal mine,’ a warning to bigger problems.
“My hope is that people will see this warning and that they will do something to make a difference in the lives of others of my kind.”
The essay ends, “I am telling you this because I know something bigger is coming.”
Nelson is an excellent young writer, and his essay in the My Personal Michigan Hero contest, held every year by Farm Bureau Insurance, has been sent to the state level after being chosen first from West Iron. If he is chosen among the winners, he would eventually go to Lansing.
“Mrs. Jochem, when she read my iceberg one, she’s like, ‘Steven, this is great!’” She sent the essay to Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey, www.extremeicesurvey.org.
“He [Balog] sent an email back, saying he was going to send the books. When we received them, it was just … I didn’t think it was really happening. Such an awesome feeling!”
Nelson said he doesn’t know what field he will go into once he finishes high school.
“I really like science and history,” he said, “and studying from ancient times to modern civilization—and science, I think, right hand-on-hand with that, where you can see what they were studying and how their climate was back then.”
Wherever he goes and whatever he does, Nelson seems to have the right frame of mind for a writer.
“I just write what is coming from my heart and my mind.”