Moments of Being: An Antarctic Quintet.” The Georgia Review. Winter 2002
I had been lying on my back, taking notes, looking up into the crystals and into that blue that still amazes me--blue so blue it was as if my eyes had broken; blue so blue it was like gas that faded away into more and more intense blue-violet; beauty so expansive I could not contain it--I had to break to let it in. The first time I had been in an Antarctic ice cave, months earlier, the person who took me there said that often people who go down into crevasses and into ice caves are so overcome by the blue that it makes them cry. I remembered that as I lay there on my back, taking notes, trying to draw the crystals that hung like blooms of flowers above me, trying to figure out where the blue began and where it ended.
I had gone with nine others on this expedition to the ice caves that were part of the Erebus glacier tongue, a long spit of ancient ice spilling out onto the frozen Ross Sea from the base of Mt. Erebus, Ross Island’s active volcano. The caves were about an hour’s drive over the ice from McMurdo Station. We had signed up for the field trip on a sheet of paper outside the galley—it was a jaunt, free to anyone who wished to go—electricians or galley cooks who had the afternoon off, a scientist who wanted out of her lab for a few hours. As the orange truck plodded across the frozen sea, heaving over humps in the ice, we passengers packed snugly inside rolled and bumped into one another like children at a carnival ride, smiling to one another over the great roar of the truck’s engine.
We went to two caves. One of them was easy to get into. You climbed a hill of snow, wriggled through a rather large opening, and slid down a slight slope into a cavern about as big as an average living room. The other cave you would miss if you didn't know it was there. You kick-stepped your way up a steep incline then pressed your body through an opening just large enough to fit your shoulders through. Then, you slid down a thin, icy tube until you landed on a shelf of thick blue ice. Next, with the aid of a rope, you climbed up and around and through a maze of tight ice walls until you reached two larger caverns, luminous with the deep turquoise and violet of glacier ice, and still as a tomb. Standing on the cold, flat floor of this second cave I felt and heard a seal's high-pitched call bounce through the ice.
It was in the first cave, though, that I lay upon my back, so intent upon studying the blue around me that I was startled when I realized I was alone. Suddenly everyone else was gone. I packed up my notebook, reluctantly, and rose to leave. Once I was out of my grotto, I realized that there was one person left in the blue room. It was my friend Gary Teetzel, an engineer from the Crary Lab. He and I had spent time together weeks earlier in the observation tube--an 18-foot-long tube set by scientists into the cold sea near McMurdo, which you could climb down into and sit in and watch creatures in the dark ocean around you.
"Oh, it's you," I said to Gary, jokingly, as if, if there was anyone left in the ice cavern still it would be him, and me. He seemed a kindred spirit—a lover of quiet and contemplation. We stood at opposite ends of this ice cavern for another ten minutes, until we heard a voice calling us to come away and board the vehicle. As I stood, I cupped my hands around my eyes so that all I saw was the blue, and as I stared, my heart began to beat faster and my breath started to come faster and tears came to my eyes. It was that blue that made me cry. That blue. That blue/violet that seems as if it is pulling you in, that makes you feel as if you are falling into it, that compels you somehow to look into it, even though it blurs your vision and confuses you. It was that blue, so enigmatic that for a moment you lose your balance in it. You don't quite know if you are in the sky, or under water, or whether for an instant you might be in both places at once. The blue is like a frosty, vague, and endlessly deep hole in your heart. It has no edges, just color and depth. It is a color that is like some kind of yearning, some unfulfilled desire, or some constant, extreme joy. It just burns there, burns violet, burns blue.
The helicopter hovered over the rugged, ice-carved mountaintop, whipping up gravel and sand. A hunched figure came running from a tent nearby, clutching a hat to its head. Out of the open helicopter door was handed a cook stove, which the figure grabbed under its arm, then there were waves of the hand and nearly inaudible shouts of thanks, and we lifted up again, the tiny camp below us diminishing to no more than bright dots of color in the sweeping landscape of ice and stone.
I was with McMurdo technician Tracy Dahl on a morning helicopter ride up the Taylor Valley in Antarctica’s Dry Valleys, the world’s coldest desert—a landscape so alien that it had become a testing ground for equipment the US hoped one day to send to Mars. Dahl was to deliver the stove and other supplies to two graduate students who had pitched their peaked, yellow canvas Scott tents on the top of a windy, gravely, high plateau. The next stop was a pickup and delivery at Lake Bonney, further up the valley, and then, finally, Dahl and I were set down outside the three uninhabited canvas jamesways that made up the Lake Fryxel Camp, which Dahl was to prepare for a soon-to-be-arriving field party.
After the chores were complete Dahl and I sat beside the fuel stove in one of the jamesways and warmed our feet on its metal sides, tipped back in our chairs, drinking tea, passing the time until his helicopter arrived to take him back to McMurdo, then, I would be on my own. I was equipped for a small expedition: radio, backpack with tent, stove, sleeping bag, extra food, and clothes. I would make my way back on foot to Lake Hoare, the fieldcamp where I had been staying for the week. Mine was an officially-sanctioned several hour walk. If I did not arrive at Lake Hoare by dinner time, there would probably be a helicopter sent from McMurdo to find me. Nevertheless, it felt like an adventure—a walk in Antarctica, a walk in the wildest place I had ever been, a walk in what might yet be the wildest place on Earth.
Every walk, said Henry David Thoreau, that nineteenth century American saunterer of woods and mind, is a sort of crusade-- a westward going, a wildward going--a journey toward self awareness, transformation, and the future. We should be prepared, he said, on even the shortest walk to go “in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,--prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.” The name itself, walker, saunterer, Thoreau wrote, may have derived from the expression used to describe a person in the Middle Ages who wandered about the land, a la Saint Terre, a pilgrim, heading toward the Holy Land. Or it might be rooted in the words sans terre, without a home, but everywhere at home.
I felt both as I set off across Lake Fryxel, my ice axe swinging like a walking stick at my side, its metal point pinging against the hard turquoise surface beneath me. The teeth of my crampons bit in as I walked: metal against ice. The blue lake ice was cut by geometric patterns of crazy white lines and rising white orbs. I felt homeless and at home in the universe, and as if I too was a pilgrim, walking not toward, but in a holy land.
The flatness of the valley I was in was broken on each side by distant hills swathed in shades of brown and white, the ones to my back more mountainous and sharp, and the ones facing me, softer. My way led across Lake Fryxel, so beautifully disturbed by the designs in its frozen surface, toward the edge of the Canada glacier, which spilled out of the mountains between Fryxel and Lake Hoare and which I would have to go around. I paused frequently on the walk, gazing, enthralled with patterns in the snow made by wind, so delicately and improbably shaped -- like letters, like words, like whole sentences written in dark brown dust on snow. Often I would stop to simply gaze about me, down the valley where it spread out wide and met the blue and white cloud-spattered sky, behind me to see the tiny jamesways of the Fryxel camp receding, and the towering glacial wall, emanating coldness. Many times, when I paused, the glacier would crack and thunder and I would jump for fear that I would be smashed by a falling chunk of ice as big as a house, me like a fly beneath it.
Such congenial openness I had never walked in, never traveled by foot in such intimacy with. One step at a time would take me back to Lake Hoare by evening. Each step I savored, giddily feeling my strong legs hinge at the hips, feeling each stride, my lungs expanding fully, my arms swinging, my back bearing up the weight of the pack. The land here was bare bones, stripped-down, elemental, and beautiful; beautiful in the way the bleak, landless, endless ocean is beautiful to fishermen and fisherwomen; the way deserts are beautiful to Saharan nomads; beautiful in its smallness--the many-colored pebbles in my path, the ragged ice along the shore, the turquoise glass I walked upon; and beautiful in its largeness--the infinite reach of sky, the gigantic arc of the land. The land brought me back, as it did Thoreau, to my senses; back to my body, back to my self.
As I walked I pondered how the world was reached through the self, how the universal comes of the particular, the immense from the intimate. Thoreau called it “recreating self,” and for it he went to the most dismal of places; he entered the darkest of woods, the swampiest of swamps; they were his sacred places, sanctum sanctorum -- for they were the places that were truly wild. What would he have made, I wondered, of Antarctica?
The woods and meadows of nineteenth century New England were Thoreau’s wilderness. He called it a mythic land: "You may name it America, but it is not America; neither Americus Vespucius, nor Columbus, nor the rest were discoverers of it. There is a truer account of it in mythology than in any history of America. . . ” That he walked in a mythic landscape meant to him that his journey took him into all time. Thoreau walking in his woods, me walking alone from Lake Fryxel to Lake Hoare, around the booming edge of the towering Canada glacier, was humankind, womankind, mankind walking, walking in an unknown land. You may name it Antarctica, but it is not Antarctica. All moments converge here in this place and time—all efforts at renewal, all quests for knowledge, all attempts at transformation and adventure collide here in this solid earth, in this actual world.
As I rounded the final protruding hunk of ice of the Canada glacier and came within sight of the Lake Hoare camp, I could see the tiny purple, blue, and yellow dots of the domed tents, and the glint of the sun off the small metal buildings. I pulled my radio out of the bulging deep pocket of my bibbed wind pants and called in. “W-002 calling Lake Hoare,” I said, giving my Antarctic code-name, the W standing for Writer. The radio crackled and popped and then came the familiar voice of Bob Wharton, the principal investigator at the camp. “Roger, this is Lake Hoare Camp. How would you like your steak done?” It would be good to be back among them, but it had also been good to be out alone, walking in Antarctica, feeling that magical, paradoxical diminishment of self and enlargement of spirit that such a landscape brings -- that feeling that one is in the presence of something that has been in existence long before you and will continue long after you, into all time; some spirit that is larger and older than the human mind, and that, in its power, comforts rather than terrifies, soothes rather than agitates.
“I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which corn grows…” wrote Thoreau. This is what he crusaded for, what he walked for--the common sense, the link between spirit and body, Earth and self. I believed in this too--that there was a sublime power in this land that could mysteriously help a person reconnect with that subtle magnetism in wildness that would show her the way. I believed in this vast glacier-scoured landscape, this thundering ice, and in the impossible simplicity of the thin line between the frozen earth and sky.
Antarctica is famous for wind, wind that roars down the mountains from the polar plateau, spilling into the ocean; katabatic wind, fast wind, wind that carves ice into feathers and ferns; wind that carves rock into wind facts, ventifacts, signifiers of wind, something solid made of the workmanship of wild air.
The wind howling in around the seams in the McMurdo galley door is a sound I will remember from Antarctica. Wind screaming in on stormy days, at a higher pitch than I could sing, sounding so much like a piece of machinery gone haywire, or an animal caught short, surprised or afraid. I'll remember the wind at the windows, knocking in a thick, padded, muffled kind of way, so that you might imagine there was someone out there, wanting you to open up, open up, let them in. And the wind whistling down the hollow shaft of a bamboo pole, one in a line planted out there in the middle of nowhere showing the way to safety, the way home, the way around a deadly crack in the ice. The wind whistled down the shaft, as if the pole were a bamboo flute and wind was playing on it a merry, eerie tune.
I'll remember too the sound of the small cotton flags tied to those poles--red and green for follow me this way, black for go this way and you'll die--the flags, slap, slap, slapping in the wind, snapping against themselves, cracking like whips in the 100 degrees below zero air.
I'll remember the wind whoop, whoop, whoop, whooping through the electrical and telephone wires. In one spot, behind McMurdo's two bars, the winds whipped and howled and moaned and moaned and moaned around the buildings, into nooks and out again, eddying and swirling, dancing and buzzing through the wires overhead, playing the wires as if they were the strings of a deep bass, pushing me along, pushing me, hurrying me along so forcefully that I had to lean back into the strength of the wind to stand upright.
I'll remember the almost nothing sound of wind across the ice, smooth and moving fast, blowing from nowhere to everywhere, taking with it my breath, the snow at my feet, the fur of my parka hood, and all of my heat.
Siple Dome camp was simple and spare: a small runway, a collection of tents and canvas jamesways surrounded by mounds of snow-buried gear and supplies. Beyond that there was nothing familiar, nothing kind to human flesh or desire, only miles-thick ice and snow, only the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever.
Thoreau’s words came to me then, again, as I marveled at how wild the space around me was, how nobly spacious, how elemental, and how being here grounded me undeniably in me own flesh. Siple Dome, a scientific fieldcamp on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, was a place by all accounts in the middle of absolutely nowhere, where one could turn 360 degrees and not see the horizon alter its unwaverlingly straight face; where one was surrounded by a wilderness of snow and ice stretching as far as the mind could imagine; wildness so extreme it could extinguish you in a blink, as quickly as if you were being drowned, as quickly as if you had been set free in outer space with no oxygen.
Before the cooks, electricians, carpenters, and scientists at Siple Dome could even begin the work of setting up the field station and going about their research, they had to shovel the camp out from beneath yards and yards of snow that had buried it over the Antarctic winter. Now this unlikely village lay atop the snow and ice, looking ever so much like a nomadic encampment in a wide, icy desert, at any moment prone to being blown away, to being buried again, to being neatly erased from the face of the Earth.
Kendrick Taylor, from the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, a man who studies ice, drove out with me on a sunny Sunday to a spot 10 kilometers from the camp, following a line of green flags on bamboo poles that marked a safe route along the snow. When we reached the end of the flag line, we stopped our snowmobiles and Kendrick said to me, pointing into nowhere, at nothing, "Go ahead another two kilometers and turn off your machine and sit. I’ll wait here."
I drove out into a horizon like I had never seen. I imagined that, had I kept going, I could have driven right off the edge of the planet. The only thing separating the land from the sky in this place was a thin white line and the faintest change in hue from white to pale blue. The snowy wind moved like a fog over the ground, like a slinky, elegant, snaky thing, throwing off my sense of balance, blurring the edges of my vision.
I drove for two kilometers, watching the odometer as I went. Then I stopped, turned off the machine, and sat in the quiet. I looked behind me for Kendrick and saw only a dark speck in the distance, surrounded by an immensity of blankness, sky and ground inextricably fused. I got off the snowmobile and lay down in the snow. I spread out my legs and my arms so that I looked as if I might be making a snow angel. I could feel the hard coolness of the ice all along my back and legs. Contact! Here it was beneath me. Here I was upon it—Thoreau’s solid earth! . . . Here was no man's garden, but the unhandsled globe. All I heard was the sharp hiss of the wind blowing crystals of snow over me, past my ears, and across my face. All I felt was my body against matter. How comical I must have looked and how tiny; an amalgam of flesh and bone, nylon and rubber in the midst of that Titanic ice. But who would have seen? I shut my eyes and must have been lulled by the wind, hypnotized by the cold, because I was roused only when a snowmobile engine broke my reverie. It was Kendrick coming to get me. I looked down at my legs, my arms, my boots--they were covered with snow, the black of my windpants now white. The snow had begun to conceal me, as it had buried the palettes of cargo lined up around Siple Dome camp, as it had drifted over the jamesways themselves. How easily, how effortlessly, I could have disappeared; how easily any of us could, and how inexplicably this knowledge of our smallness, of my smallness, filled me with joy.
At the South Pole, I wandered out from the silver geodesic dome into the searing white light of late afternoon. It was always bright day outside at the pole, the sun overhead, circling around and around and around this spot at the bottom of the world, hardly dipping, never setting. I wore snow goggles, my furred parka hood was cinched tight leaving just a peephole, fur-backed gauntlets covered my hands and lower arms, a fleece neck gaiter protected my cheeks and nose from freezing. I breathed with difficulty in the thin, ten-thousand foot high air, and thickened the gaiter over my face with frost. It was the beginning of summer at the South Pole, and it is minus 75.1 degrees Fahrenheit.
When I looked to the horizon I saw only white and blue, separated by a subtle line between the ice and sky that bowed around, encircling me in the curve of the globe. I walked out from the geodesic dome toward the two most famous landmarks at the South Pole--the mirrored ball atop the red and white-stripped barber pole ringed by flags that is the ceremonial pole; and the small, nondescript surveyor's marker that is the exact location of the geographical South Pole, the southern axis of the planet earth. At the ceremonial pole, the flags slapped in the wind and added stunning color to the all white landscape. The flags are those of the original nations that signed the Antarctic Treaty--a treaty that preserves Antarctica as the only continent on the globe free from national ownership, resource extraction, development, plundering and wreck; a treaty meant to preserve the continent in perpetuity "for peaceful purposes."
A short distance away from the barber pole was the survey marker, about three feet high, a metal pole atop which sits a thick, gold-colored disc imprinted with an image of the Antarctic continent itself. Also pressed into the top of the disc are the words "Planet Earth. Geographical South Pole. 90 Degrees South. January 1,1997." The marker is dated because the ice here shifts westward about 30 feet a year, making it necessary to replot the exact location of the pole on the first new day of each year. When I looked up and squinted into the distance, I could see a long line of such markers trailing away into the snowy flatness.
A friend had entrusted me before I left my home in Anchorage, Alaska, with some ashes in a small glass vial. They were remains from her mother and sister. In the past she'd given such vials to others who'd gone, say, to the summit of Denali, and other ends of the earth. I said I would do this for her, find a place for her mother and sister at the bottom of the world, and so, I had the vial in the pocket of my red parka. I dug a small impression in the snow with the heel of my boot and with my hands still in the ungainly mittens, I fumbled the vial open and sprinkled ashes into the hole. I covered the spot and stamped it down, thinking that in weeks, months, next year, the ice would move on, taking the ashes with it, westward; one day they'd make it out to the continent's edge, fall into the sea, melt, be taken up by the circumpolar currents and make their way around the globe. Then they would be everywhere. I bowed toward the marker, toward the center, and I said a prayer--for my friend who lost her mother and sister, one to a heart attack and one to suicide; for me, whose sister also took her own life; for all of us, for all of our grief, for all of our delicate, human suffering.
Afterwards, in the dull, stinging cold, I stared for a time at the words on the survey marker. "Planet Earth. Geographical South Pole." The geographical South Pole. The other end of the world from the place I lived. Everywhere I looked from here, from this exact spot, was north. If I walked around this spot, I walked around the world, through all the time zones, from one day to the next, into the future, through the past and out again . . . . I did it. I put my mittened hand on the head of the marker, feeling the impression of the continent through the leather and lining, and I walked around it. I walked around and around and around the world, my steps creaking in the dry hard snow. I had never felt so riveted in place, so exactly located, so precisely in one spot, and everywhere at once.