- Barry Hannah
- Open City/AAWW
- Sound Art/Dissonance
- Trance Poetics
“The human understanding is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called ‘sciences as one would.”
- Francis Bacon, quoted in E.O. Wilson, Consilience
“To that end, Bacon advised us to use aphorisms, illustrations, stories, fables, analogies – anything that conveys truth from the discoverer to his readers as clearly as a picture.”
- E.O. Wilson, ibid.
Science is the great art of our era. It may someday form the basis of society and faith, rather than merely acting as advisor and critic, as it has for the last few centuries. With it, we define in exacting brushstrokes the details of a four-dimensional tapestry. We look to science for answers of design and relation, for confirmation of our thoughts and feelings, for metaphors of intelligence and insight.
Science gazes through a universe of doorways – in sizes from the nano to the light-year – for its answers. One of its purest destinations is the cold white space of Antarctica. The presentation of Antarctica’s information – whether mathematical or aesthetic – is both brutal and ethereal. Data etches the icescape in visible – snowflake, crevasse, penguin egg – and invisible ways.
It is here, on the ice, where I seek to convey some of my own “not-dry” subjective truths about the Antarctica that surrounds researchers as they gather their truths. There is science – the great illumination of life – and there is Bacon’s “sciences as one would,” in which political and other human realities of the world inform the story science wishes to tell.
I am not a scientist, but have been an Antarctic resident and am now its expatriate writer. My discussion of Antarctica springs entirely from years of probing into the realities of the ice continent, a place to which I have dedicated my will and affections since 1994.
I follow Bacon’s advice; a diversity of fragments tells my human understanding.
A CURIOUS SUBJECT
Welcome to the empty set. What can you add? And what will be subtracted?
* * *
“Antarctica” is less a name than a concept. It represents a desire, a hypothesized antithesis to what was known; “opposite the Arctic,” or “not the Arctic.” Its other name – Terra Australis Incognita – given by the ancient Greeks, still fits: southern land unknown, unknowable. Even now, our data and our machines cannot fill the icy quietude, no more than they can box up the warming ocean that surrounds it.
* * *
“...If there bee any earthley Paradyse in the worlde, it can not bee farre from these regions of the south, where the heauen is so beneficiall and the elementes so temperate that they are neyther bytten with coulde in wynter, nor molested with heate in summer.”
- Amerigo Vespucci, “Of the Pole Antartike”
Antarctica has always been a cold contradiction to the wisdom of the ages. Amerigo Vespucci, the Renaissance explorer/geographer who gave his name to the New World because he was the first to understand it as a new world, was also responsible for revising the geographic ideas of the ancients. His voyages taught Christianity that there were populated lands other than those described by the Bible, and helped geographers revise the Greek/Ptolemaic wisdom that predicted an anti-Arctic region placed in warm “balance” to the cold boreal regions.
Little did he know how correct the Greeks were about a landmass at the South Pole, and how wrong they were about its nature. Vespucci’s comment here describes the eastern coastline of South America, which being south of the equator, was for him sufficiently Antarctic. He was perhaps the first European to study the stars visible only in the south, not knowing that those cold white celestial bodies were a better model for Antarctica than were the lush forests that lay to the west of his caravels.
Antarctica, which is the only new world ever discovered by Europeans, has in its short human history always been an ironic paradise. Here is a new world which is not of this world, in which explorers found more nothing then something, and where a land set aside for science has relatively little information to offer.
As the Earth’s ultimate expression of cold, Antarctica is not a very apt subject for Vespucci’s dreams. Up in the Arctic, though, at the North Pole, are the polar bear, the fox, and the men, not to mention the plentiful birds of the air and fish of the sea. The north is governed by a much more beneficial heaven. Perhaps we should call it the Antiantarctic.
* * *
“Did God create this entire region so that it remain deserted and forgotten by man? No, no and no again, definitely not. It is our duty to do what we can to understand all this magnificence and wealth which God has given us. We must go further and further. Even the power of the ice must yield…”
- Roald Amundsen, Belgica Diary
“Whenever we proceed from the known to the unknown we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word understanding.”
- Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy
As old-fashioned as Amundsen – leader of the first expedition to reach the South Pole, and the greatest polar explorer in history – may sound here, Antarctic science has nonetheless acted from the same interrogative philosophy for over a century. We know answers to questions Amundsen could not have dreamed to ask; we have ensured that the continent is neither deserted nor forgotten; and we trudge, farther and farther, into the white storm of the unknown.
Yet, as Antarctic science has moved from exploring the visible (penguin biology, say, or glacial motion) to investigating the invisible (paleoatmospheric chemistry, or neutrinos bombarding the South Pole) – ironically moving closer to most notions of God – we have moved away from Amundsen’s concept of our privileged inheritance of God’s magnificence and wealth. Instead, we become intimate with the difficult truth that Heisenberg refers to; namely, that the knowledge we gain changes us. Knowledge is not so much knowledge as it is the fuel of transformation.
* * *
Antarctica scarcely exists. Most world maps eviscerate it, stretch it into an enigmatic white smudge at the bottom of the page. When it’s talked about, if it’s talked about, it’s often confused for the North Pole, presumably because Christmas presents and polar bears are the only things of interest to emerge from the icy wastelands.
The continent is always represented by penguins, perhaps the most charismatic beast on Earth. Because these coastal fish-birds are so cute, they almost entirely mask the immense ice terrain behind them. Ice itself is symbolized most often by icebergs, which are mere crumbs fallen from the continent’s tablecloth.
Antarctica’s three tiny histories – expeditionary, scientific/intellectual, and that of the science support communities – link and overlap somewhat with those of the Arctic but scarcely with any other. The continent suffers the fate of a dreamland as viewed either by nations that are too poor to care or by cultures that already luxuriate in central heating, year-round fruit, and satellite television; Antarctica is a curious subject, a distant object.
* * *
Welcome to a continent built of frozen vapor, an ephemeral geology of water. So many millennia of vacant history: a landfill of silence choked with time.
“In a sense, scientific exploration has not simply revealed Antarctica but created it. Eliminate those expeditions sent for scientific purposes and Antarctica would be no better known than Pluto. Strip away scientific concepts and the scientific lexicon and one is left literally speechless before the continent.”
- Stephen Pyne, The Ice
Pyne, the best modern writer about the Antarctic, is nonetheless wrong about what language defines the continent. He is right about science lifting the shroud from the ice, but overplays the importance of its lexicon of hard facts. We should first remember that few expeditions were sent, by their government offices, exclusively for scientific purposes.
Moreover, Pyne’s reductive notion neglects the explorers’ language that described the psychological and physical challenges of the ice, and our contemporary translation of that language. By doing so, he misses especially the experience of those of us who are supporting rather than doing science.
Less than a quarter of the people who work here, from any nation, are doing science, though few people outside Antarctica realize it. The media regularly refers to all of us as researchers. But it takes a village to raise a scientist… We prepare their food, inventory their beakers, mend their tents, and clean their toilets. In the American program, as at other bases, there’s a ratio of about 5:1 in support staff to science personnel, and few of us read in depth about scientific projects, or think of Pluto.
The greatest single population to experience Antarctica is American support workers. Tens of thousands of us, as Navy personnel or government contractor employees, have come south over the last half century to maintain a cold venue for geopolitics and science. No nation has sent half as many eyes and ears to the ice. When we return home, we speak rapturously not of biogeography or glaciology but of icebergs, penguins and silence.
It’s not Pyne’s fault that he missed out on our voice; rare is the visitor with a short preconceived stint in the Antarctic, funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Artist’s and Writer’s Grant, who chooses to spend much time in the working community. Nor is there much of a precedent for historians to claim Navy cooks and civilian Waste Management Technicians have played a key role in defining the Antarctic, even though every day we tell stories that add to our 50 years of rich oral history.
For the most part, employees are more cognizant of Antarctic history than they are of the details of contemporary science. Despite the briefings on research projects we receive by brushing elbows with scientists, by reading the USAP newspaper, or by attending Sunday science lectures, more people talk about the long-gone sled dogs than the importance of ice cores, and few can list as many principal investigators as they can Heroic Age explorers.
Yet it’s not so much a rich knowledge of history that informs the people who work here (and who then tell their stories back home) so much as it is the everyday notions we have about that history. Primarily it’s our response, ironic or not, to the romantic tragedy of Robert Scott and the miracles of Ernest Shackleton. The somehow moral universe of all their striving against the Antarctic has long ago told us what the Antarctic might be.
Nor is it the lack of a certain lexicon that would leave us speechless before the ice. The ice simply robs us of much of our descriptive speech (which Stephen Pyne first pointed out). We have limited things to say about Antarctica, but we say them all the time, as locals do. The icescape is an abstract, empty room, in which we’ve created a life full of dorm furniture, Ford trucks, and office gossip. Science enriches and frames what it can of our awareness, but it really doesn’t interest many people in the way that our own stories do.
* * *
“Yet there is more information in a single penguin than in all the polar plateau.”
- Stephen Pyne, The Ice
The story of life, of biology intertwined with geography and fate, swims in the penguin’s cells, while the East Antarctic ice cap is a sketch of ice squatting on stone. Unlike the empty white chessboard of the Antarctic interior, each black and white penguin is a vortex of complexity, information spun up over time and space and through all the relationships of the flesh.
So why have penguins been chosen to represent Antarctica? Mainly because they do not represent Antarctica. They are far more interesting to the casual observer. Aside from the handful of us in parkas, there are no charismatic animals present in the great white space. An endless dead horizon, which is the aesthetic and physical essence of this continent, is not charming.
Penguins fill the gap. They are the comic guardians at the gate; the world’s gaze falters on the true white backdrop, but happily seizes on the cartoon from the coast. The power of this irrelevant but iconic advertising is apparently universal, since the geophysicists and engineers (rational beings, one assumes) who designed an Automated Geophysical Observatory (AGO) research project, have chosen a penguin as their symbol. My companions and I worked hard at AGO 1, a mote on the East Antarctic ice cap, to support PENGUIn, the Polar Experiment Network for Geophysical Upper-atmosphere Investigation, the most tortured Antarctic acronym I’ve ever seen. Such is the purchasing power of this squawking fish-bird.
Similarly, the patches given out by the ANSMET (Antarctic Search for Meteorites) hunters, who work far from the coast, show a cute penguin whose baseball mitt is catching a falling star.
We continually add to the data load on Pyne’s penguin (its biological novelties, its power to represent and entertain, its cultural value), while the Antarctic interior continues to explain itself through a near absence of information.
THE CULTURE OF ILLUMINATIONS
“Science is neither a philosophy nor a belief system. It is a combination of mental operations that has become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations hit upon by a fortunate turn of history that yielded the most effective way of learning about the world ever conceived.”
- E.O. Wilson, Consilience
While Wilson’s statement may be true in the strictest sense, it will only be understood as true for science’s more enlightened practitioners and observers. Like any combination of mental operations, from how-to-recycle to how-to-operate-a-forklift, science becomes a mere habit for many of the minds that attend to it. Science is inevitably a philosophy or a belief system for the people who have only a rough knowledge of its results and who know little of its methods or tenets. This describes most educated peoples, most of whom dislike complexity and confusion, and who thus accept science’s intricate view of the world on faith.
Moreover, what is more attractive to an intelligent mind than belonging to a culture of illuminations? Science breeds disciples who, though perhaps aware of the empirical system, often believe that the fallibility of science (the necessary search for errors in its ideas) makes it infallible. Look, for example, at the common utopian notion that science cannot eventually fail at deciphering any rule or fact of nature.
Pragmatists and sophists throughout the culture of illuminations still look for truth in both data and inspiration. Reality is commonly defined as having two comparable methods of inquiry: the rational and the mystical. If we honestly believe that educated people throughout 21st century culture are not equally in thrall with, say, the findings of quantum physics, astrology, and the teachings of Zen, we are not paying attention.
In the USAP, a science-enlightened community if there ever was one, few of us are researchers or even directly in contact with researchers. And for those who are – a quasi-Buddhist ice-core driller, for example – it’s common to hold parallel concepts of the world simultaneously. Scientists work hard at their mental operations while we work hard at ours. On some level we believe (rather than know) that they have undertaken the best means possible to understand the Antarctic, but sheer intuition tells us that our thoughtful presence in this wilderness is teaching us nearly as much.
* * *
“Animated by the common purpose...”
- Herbert Ponting, The Great White South
We in the transient community of USAP employees have no common philosophical purpose that binds our days. We have come to work, and we have come to see Antarctica. There is the NSF’s great talk of the “progress of humanity,” but in reality it is only the logistics of local science that we keep afloat. Science is a good and honorable task, but so little informs our days that it’s peripheral.
Ponting, the deeply romantic photographer for Robert Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, speaks of his common purpose from the viewpoint of a man wedged into a wooden hut at the end of the Earth with a group of hand-picked sailors and scientists. Their adventure, and his photographs, spoke of true discovery, of life and death.
Sometimes I feel like an impostor. Newspaper and TV reports tell the world that all Antarctic inhabitants are red-nosed researchers manhauling the NSF’s sledge full of goodies for the progress of man. Science as the great Antarctic purpose is a myth conveyed to and through the media by the NSF. The locals are not fooled. For us, science is often “Science,” an ironic catchword for some 80% of USAP participants, as in “Well, there’s another cardboard bale for Science,” or “I scrub urinals for Science.”
The sense of purpose that is emailed to us day after day is not that of science, but merely the mutual demand for satisfaction by the governmental and corporate entities of each other, and by them of us. The NSF is “the client,” and we are not expedition members but client-serving team-oriented human resources. The USAP’s unique work camp archipelago has evolved into an extension of American corporate culture, with office managers writing the bottom-line recipe for utopia.
What actually animates those of us who do the real work – when we’re animated – is the same force that binds any group of people working closely together. We loan our forklift to another department, we look for frostbite on each other’s faces, we finish the job with unpaid overtime. We see the tasks and the people around us as deserving of our best efforts.
This is a purpose imported with each diligent worker. Few of us derive a whit of compassion from a USAP or corporate spirit; most are instead motivated by the desire to do well by each other, and are pushed by Antarctic conditions that demand it more often. The intensity of working together in a nasty McMurdo wind or at South Pole’s difficult elevation, or generally under the conditions of an isolated and crowded community, aggravated by sometimes dumb management, instills a work ethic that by definition prefers unity.
THE GLOBAL PLINTH
“The geopolitical importance heretofore assigned to a permanent U.S. presence in Antarctica, particularly at the South Pole, appears fully warranted. This consideration, in itself, justifies a year-round presence at several locations, including a moderate-sized facility at the Pole, along with necessary supporting infrastructure.”
- The United States in Antarctica, 1997 Report of the U.S. Antarctic Program External Panel (italics original)
So much for the primacy of science. Geopolitics, not science, is the U.S. government’s foremost justification for the American presence in the Antarctic. We should remember that Antarctica is inhabited by nations who maintain their grasp on its space and resources while giving lip service to the Antarctic Treaty, which put a lid on such claims.
The main justification for our geopolitical presence can be filed under the heading of Benevolent Control; the Panel’s report states (without irony) that, because there are still several competing claims for Antarctic territory simmering under the treaty, a U.S. presence is “perhaps the most critical element in assuring the region’s continued political stability.”
Science, under the un-dry light of American bureaucracy, is a perfect cover for the geopolitical goals of the empire. It’s not that our government dislikes science, but that it is, from a policy level, only moderately interested in it. Antarctica represents an unusual point in this relationship, however, because while all governments use data for their own ends, the hunt for data on the continent is itself a political tool.
* * *
“The polar regions, like any other part of the globe, may be said to be paved with facts… As surely as there is here a vast mass of land with potentialities, strictly limited at present, so surely will it be cemented some day within the universal plinth of things.”
– Douglas Mawson, The Home of the Blizzard
I love the image of Antarctica as the global plinth, the featureless pedestal on which the sculpted world rests. That said, however, we are busily inscribing the alabaster Antarctic with the facts of scientific imagination, and paving it with the facts of our occupation. We’d be paving streets if the weather would allow it.
There is an ongoing tension between the role Antarctica plays in atmospheric and oceanic ecology, and the human presence that now alters that very role. From the IGY (International Geophysical Year) in 1957, the year that Antarctica became a continually occupied continent, to the recent International Polar Year, we’ve been exposing the potential of the ice to educate us, and demonstrating our potential to alter its purity. Mawson – one of Antarctica’s heroic-age explorers and scientists – was right about the change in our relationship to Antarctica, but was perhaps unclear on the danger inherent in that change.
Whaling and sealing in the 19th and early 20th centuries permanently altered the food chain of the Southern Ocean. Ozone depletion, climate change, and overfishing have extended and enlarged the tragedy into the 21st century. On the local level, dozens of science bases set up during or after the IGY created toxic destruction in their little desolate neighborhoods. For decades, trash was routinely landfilled, thrown in the ocean, or burned. France made a name for itself by blowing up part of an active penguin colony, but the U.S. in its much larger operations managed to build (and remove) a leaky nuclear reactor and transform Winter Quarter’s Bay (McMurdo’s harbor) into one of the most polluted bodies of water on the planet.
Each year, we are more assiduous and intelligent in our gathering of Antarctic data, and more sensitive in our occupation. All bases are cleaner and more responsible; all scientific programs make solemn vows of ecological respectability. But we’re still there, still burning millions of gallons of fuel annually, still tramping studiously across the continent’s rare fields of life.
In our lumbering efforts to understand the planet we’re altering, we’ve mapped the Antarctic continent, its ice domes, atmosphere and coastal margins in dozens of ways; crisscrossed it regularly by plane, Sno-Cat, skidoo, and on foot; attempted to regionalize it by national claims; and drilled into, polluted, poked and prodded it until it could only resemble the confused desires we’ve placed upon it.
* * *
“This struggle over the geography of the Antarctic is not simply a struggle over the naming of places or the charting of space but is also intimately linked to the imagination of place… [S]tates have struggled… to envisage the Antarctic as part of their national space and identity.”
- Klaus Dodds, Geopolitics in Antarctica
Whatever Cold War sparring or warm ecological thinking or nods to science frame a nation’s interest here, it all remains inseparable from notions of empire. But the continent has challenged the imagination of bureaucrats as much as those of the explorers and artists. Antarctica and its airy nothing sit well outside the reasonable domain of any nation. The Southern Ocean still separates the ice physically and intellectually from the offices of those who lay their claim to this oblivious land. These glaciers and ice-drowned mountains are too far-flung and impervious, so far, to be anyone’s backyard.
For those few of us who actually hear the snow crunch beneath our boots, we have no choice but to play the role of a political appointee; we serve at the pleasure of our leaders who know so little of science or of the landscape’s abstract beauty that Antarctica might as well be mythical. And it will always be through the myths of politics – our national space, our geopolitical goals – that we will receive our marching orders. But for now, because the Antarctic is so difficult, we still generally chart this space through the relatively unsullied eyes of geophysical science.
* * *
“The Antarctic continent was often depicted as a place that possessed no natural boundaries and hence imperial powers and post-colonial states alike proceeded to devise lines on the blank map. Those designations continue to haunt the polar continent to this day.”
- Klaus Dodds, Geopolitics in Antarctica
“…and no Foreign Office can trace the frontier between King Edward’s Plateau and King Haakon’s.”
- Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey In The World
“What began as an unknown white spot on the map of the known world would, paradoxically, end up as a known white spot.”
- Stephen Pyne, The Ice
* * *
Antarctica is always discussed as a whole, as a continental entity. “The continent,” we residents say casually, as if we understand the great blank scale of the ice. We act as though what races out flat and white before our eyes represents the whole immensity, even though what we can’t see outstretches China and India combined.
And yet, as long as we’re talking about the ice caps, it’s true. The white part represents the white whole. Regions of differentiation scarcely exist. The only borders are marine: the Convergence (the encircling boundary of cold Antarctic water and weather), the fluctuating sea ice boundary, and the coast. The heart of Antarctica is nearly all of a piece, as place and as idea.
Here on the ice there are no cultural, historical, philosophical, religious, or lasting political boundaries. Only scientific boundaries survive, and most of those (snowfall layers, crevasses, ice domes) are unseen.
It’s as if the continent were the earth’s cold shadow, or a dead satellite orbiting our imagination. Antarctica is cold, white, and strange, and that’s all we can find to say.
BEGGING FOR NUMBERS
Most of the atoms here have been as they are for millennia, a frozen flow, all of it holding its own among its own against the usual rupture of time.
* * *
The day disappeared while we measured millimeters in a whiteout. We left Siple Dome camp early and bundled up for an all-day snowmobile trip out into fog filled with blowing snow. I joined Mike, a Scottish Ph.D. student in an American glaciology program, as he made the rounds of his data sites. Each site measured ice stream movement, snow accumulation, and snow compaction. Traveling through a blinding combination of weathers across a trackless, flagless icescape was amazing. We sped along, mesmerized by the minor textures of snow within five feet – our entire focal range – of our machines. We cruised through the whiteout like two bubbles in a glass of milk.
Miles from camp, at identical known white spots within the white blindness, we used long-duration GPS recording to determine, in phenomenally precise measurements, the annual change in position of three cheap aluminum poles. The poles flowed slowly with the ice outward from the Siple ice dome. Yet these millimeters have helped predict the flow of colossal ice streams, even to help assess the fate of the West Antarctic ice sheet.
The audacious minutiae of science, pulling facts from fog.
* * *
Science is attracted to the Antarctic, and attractive within it, because the land seems to speak in a mathematical, skeletal idiom. The data read as footprints across the white graph, a jagged narrative across the chart. The Antarctic is baseline, hovering near zero; it is also the white page behind the ink. Temporally, biologically, geographically, atmospherically, it begs, we imagine, for numbers to fill in where words have never reached. Thus it has been realized as a domestic space program, our local Moon.
The 20th century marked the first elemental forays into the Antarctic empty set, which science has since subsumed within its own universe-delineating idiom. Antarctica floats into our consciousness with scientists’ announcements of first glimpses and elegant discontinuities. And so we type a veneer of digits across the blank page, but the continent is as yet an appendix of absences larger than any book we may write.
* * *
Continent, not country: any Earthling may visit the Antarctic without a passport, if they can only find, or pay, their way.
Antarctica: 5,098,674 square miles (not including the quasi-permanent sea ice, which for half the year surrounds and doubles the extent of the continent.) A few thousand of us (about 1200 in winter, 8000 in summer) from many nations live here without local culture or agriculture.
China and India combined: 4,973,437 square miles. I imagine some of those two billion people might wonder how we get by without farms, and why we choose to live here. The answers: we cultivate data and de facto ownership, and some of us are here because we need, occasionally, to distance ourselves from the Earth.
* * *
South Geographic Pole, 90° South: The center of the Southern Hemisphere, and the southern point of the Earth’s axis of rotation, as this axis “passes through” the planet. This Pole is equidistant from all points on the equator, which marks the center of the Earth’s attitude toward the sun. The Norwegians got to the Geographic Pole first (led by Roald Amundsen), and the British made a martyr of their second place finisher (Robert Falcon Scott), but the Americans have squatted at the Pole since 1957, indicating perhaps our government’s attitude toward the Earth.
South Magnetic Pole: The center of the Earth’s southern magnetic field. This Pole drifts, but a British team in 1908 nearly gave their lives to be the first to stand in its path.
South Geomagnetic Pole, 78° 05’S/111° E: The theoretical point used to measure variation in the Earth’s magnetic field; it assumes a constant point, as if the planet were a simple magnet. The Russians (as Soviets) got there first, and for some reason still live there, in the rough buildings of Vostok Station, under some of the harshest conditions on the planet.
The Pole of Relative Inaccessibility, 82° 06’S/54° 58’E: The flat white point farthest from any coastline, and roughly the center of East Antarctica. This was an important concept only until aviation made a plaything of Antarctic distances. The Soviets, in a fit of Siberian machismo, got there first too, but abandoned it a few years later because of its relative inaccessibility.
These are some of the invisible nodes of Antarctica. They are nodes in its history as well, places created from logic so that they could be pursued with heroic or nationalist intent. They are, by any account, evidence of the force of abstract thinking on human behavior. We long ago stepped out of green nature onto the street corner of our black and white grid of the cosmos.
THE WHITE MOTOR
Aug. 27, 1778: “It appeared to me very improbable that this ice could be the produce of the preceding Winter alone, but rather that of a great many.”
- James Cook, The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery
Captain Cook was the first to correctly analyze what was at the time the burning question concerning the possibility of open water or warm land at the Poles. He could not have known that Antarctic ice was the product of millions of winters, but he had the right idea. No one else had at the time his experience in both the Arctic and Antarctic, and though his journeys never reached the earth’s ends, the ice that stopped him every time convinced him that ice was what made those ends.
* * *
Antarctica is the stem cell of the global organism.
* * *
These hard, dry flakes rarely fall, but often move; they shift and shift, each one as tiny as a corner. Antarctica is a summary landscape of such flakes, a shattered, storm-tossed room. It’s a hermetic continent, a continent hiding its face with its face.
* * *
Yes, we occupy an earth of ice and a heaven of hypothermia, but mostly we live in our warm imaginations that buzz vaguely between them.
* * *
Though what it grows is negligible, Antarctica supplies the globe with dense cold air and water of its own, like some ethereal cupboard from which a cold grace descends. It’s an astral plane to which the web of life is somehow anchored. The ice is an appropriately cold foundation of that Nothing that sponsors the Something that runs our blood, that sends me searching for the source of what is beautiful, for what is Antarctic.
Earth among the stars seems no greater mystery than this icy asteroid within Earth.
* * *
with these cold white plates
as if I held the earth
in my arms.”
- Andre du Bouchet, from “The White Motor”
Antarctica is the planet’s white motor, driving the air and seas. Full of the energy of loss, it feeds well the feverish latitudes. All the world’s heat has a cold core. And there is no place else I hold so dear as this empty embrace.
Jason Anthony’s culinary history of Antarctica, Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, was published November 1st, 2012, from University of Nebraska Press. Read the Hoosh blog at www.albedoimages.com/blog. Previous publications of his Antarctic essays include Orion, VQR, The Missouri Review, Best American Travel Writing 2007, and a Notable Essay listing in Best American Essays 2006. Others are online at SmartSet.com, Worldhum.com, Fraglit.com, and on his website, www.AlbedoImages.com. He worked various jobs – garbageman, fuels specialist, cargo handler, skiway groomer – in Antarctica for most of a decade as part of the United States Antarctic Program.