Antarctica – Looking Back
I have been to the Antarctic twice. The first time was in January 2004 as an Antarctic Arts Fellow through Antarctica New Zealand. I returned in December 2005 as a tutor with the Graduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies group from Canterbury University.
My novel, Degrees of Separation, written in response to the first trip, was published by Penguin in 2006.
Thirteen year’s later I think about five things that stick in my memory:
(All quotes are taken from a draft of Degrees of Separation.)
My awareness of the Antarctic began as a child, I suppose, growing up in Christchurch. I loved aeroplanes and I remember going out to look at the Starlifter and Hercules – bulky grey machines parked at the airport. My first desire to go to the Antarctic had less to do with the place than wanting to see inside the aeroplane.
Located in the roof of the aeroplane, high above her, was a door marked ‘emergency exit’. Sally couldn’t take her eyes from it. Leaning back with her head resting against the red webbing of the seat, she imagined the circumstances in which the door – which had to be at least eight metres above the floor – would come into use. She glanced down the length of the plane, looking for more exits but there weren’t any. Instead she registered the four rows of people — men and women dressed in red, black, blue or yellow — seated along the length of the Starlifter. Her eyes went back to the exit. Remained there.
As an adult I read a lot of Antarctic literature when I was doing a Masters in Creative Writing at Victoria University. Bill Manhire was my tutor and we shared a common interest in Antarctic fiction. I wrote a short story set in the Antarctic called The Piper and the Penguin (Sport 20, 1998. Wide White Page ed. Bill Manhire, VUP, 2004). It was the first thing I ever published. It’s a story about a composer who travels to the Antarctic as the first NZ composer in residence and discovers silence. Later, it formed the basis of my novel Degrees of Separation. The character Sally travels to Antarctica to make a sound map.
Recording sound, for her, had always been an extraordinary experience – one she never grew tired of. To sit quietly, listening to the environment, its sounds filtered through headphones, was completely absorbing. In some ways, it brought to mind the experience of being underwater — the way sound became at once exaggerated and other worldly when heard through water. Even the most inconsequential, common place noise was amplified. Like a dripping tap heard from where one lay in bed during the early hours of the morning, it held the power to obsess. She felt compelled to locate the source of the sound, and yet, more often than not, its exact location remained elusive, obscured by other fragments, a constant detritus of noise which she visualised as swarming particles of light seen behind closed eyes. At times she had become so engrossed in what she was recording that she lost all sense of time or place, creating for herself a new world, one that was sensed aurally, indefinable by size or shape; a landscape which existed within its own time scale – one that was only recognisable in retrospect, as it passed by, not one she could ever anticipate or predict.
Her impression of the Antarctic had been different from any other environment she had recorded. The moment she distanced herself from the camp she was aware of an absence of background noise. Even the wind, which had always been a problem in New Zealand, was often strangely absent – the air around her cold and still, the air currents undetected by the microphone. She recalled that feeling of being in a sound vacuum when she replied to Craig, ‘Whenever I use the recorder I’m faced with the problem of there being so little to record. There’s almost no sound.’ She paused, wiped her nose which had begun to drip, then said, ‘It’s silent.’ Neither of them spoke but stood watching each other while straining to hear some distant noise. Sally raised her hand once more to her nose and the rustle of her jacket seemed explosive in the motionless air. She saw Craig frown and realised that he was intent on listening. After a short while he seemed to relax, his shoulders dropped and he said, ‘You’re right, nothing. It’s almost spooky, isn’t it?’
There are two ‘silence’ quotes I really like:
Captain Reginald Ford writing of the silence after a storm:
“…transcends the silence of the most silent sea. There is not a cry of a bird….nothing but a deathlike and fathomless quiet. It is almost overwhelming.”
Norwegian, Carsten Borchgrevink:
“The silence roared in our ears, it was centuries of heaped up solitude.”
In 2003 I applied for the Artists to the Antarctic fellowship. I had four novels published by then and was accepted and travelled down in January 2004. My original idea was to expand the Piper and the Penguin into a novel but I had a suspicion there wasn’t enough story to fill 250 pages. It would be too interior with not enough action or forward momentum.
I began to look at other options, alternative plots. A friend suggested skuas so I began researching South Polar skuas and the idea of a second plot-line and character was born. I spent three “nights” at Cape Royds watching Adele penguins and the skuas that fed off the dead and the chicks.
The skuas work in unison; one bird holding the fluffy brown chick’s flipper as the other tugs at its breast. From time to time they pause and glance around, watchful, keeping track of the other skuas which hover nearby. Only when another bird comes too close do they cry out. For the most part they remain quiet; intent on feeding and on attracting as little attention to themselves as possible. In less than a hour, the chick is nothing more than a bloody red rib cage and a pair of pink legs still attached by the pelvic frame. In time its legs will fade to a pale yellow, the colour of parchment, but for now they rest on the ground like rose petal decorations on a wedding cake.
4. Scott Base
I liked Ursula le Guin’s story Sur about a group of women who made the first trip to the South Pole. They do things like housework…it’s funny and smart…and the women don’t advertise their expedition or the fact that they were ‘first to the Pole.’
I wanted to write a domestic story of the Antarctic, as I didn’t like all the heroic stuff. I wanted to write about someone stuck in Scott Base who hates the place: the absence of green, the absence of friends, the absence of colour and movement and sound. Also, the lack of organic detritus: dead insects, leaves, sticks…stuff that is very noticeable by its absence.
The character Marilyn operates the radios at Scott Base and she is lonely and homesick.
She had drifted off to sleep, she recalled, dozing until mid afternoon when she had finally woken but remained in her bed looking through the window. As she gazed, she became increasingly aware of the window itself, the glass pane and the metal frame surrounding it. There was something odd about it, something unfamiliar that she could not quite place. A large brown seagull flew by, distracting her, and in that instant she discovered the answer to the problem which had been puzzling her. There were no dead flies or moths on the windowsill. There were no tattered shreds of spider’s webs dangling from the frame. She glanced back at the room, searched the corners of the ceiling and again there was nothing. No daddy longlegs rested in the corners where the walls met the ceiling. She got up from her bed and, kneeling on the floor, bent down, searching beneath the bed for anything that might signal life. In her bedroom back home she might have found a fly or a moth or even the occasional weta but here, in this room, there was nothing at all. There were bits of fluff, black felted slugs of wool, but nothing else. The room was empty. She was its only breathing creature.
I remember being so, so happy in the Antarctic during that first trip. I camped at Cape Royds and later at Bratina Island, on the McMurdo Ice Shelf. I joined a group of glaciologists at Bratina Island. They were measuring the movement of the ice shelf – locating poles they had placed the previous year and measuring how far they had travelled. The area around Bratina island is dotted with hummocks and melt-ponds. The landscape is black and grey (volcanic) rather than pristine and white.
Five more things that stick in my mind:
The warmth of the tent at night because the sun doesn’t go down. In New Zealand it usually gets cold during the early hours of the morning but in the Antarctic it stays nice and warm.
The amount of time spent collecting ice and then melting it for water. This seems to take hours and hours – because it does.
The lack of landscape features (trees, bushes, streams etc.) makes you very aware of shadows created by clouds moving across the ice. Being in the Antarctic is a bit like being at sea.
Sometimes the view of the ice and the vast landscape is similar to the view from an aeroplane when flying high above clouds…a limitless white landscape that goes on and on, as far as you can see.
The sound of Adele penguins walking. Thump, thump, thump. Also, the feet of the dead penguins scattered across the colony.