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Informed by Indifference: A Walk in Antarctica


The longest flight I ever made—the metaphysical distance between points, not the hours aloft—was from Christchurch, New Zealand, to McMurdo Station, Antarctica. It was aboard a four-engine, propeller-driven cargo plane called a C-130, flown by the Royal New Zealand Air Force. It took eight hours to broach the pacific with two dozen passengers and a full load of freight.

Once airborne, most of us found a niche among the cargo pallets. With earplugs firmly in place to moderate the engine noise, and cushioned by our heavy clothing and parkas, we all dozed and read. Some stared into space. It was too noisy to talk. Every hour or so I moved to a small porthole window and gazed at the vast ocean. In those moments above the cloudless sea, my body vibrating with the plane, I began to feel how remote Antarctica was.

We landed on the sea ice at McMurdo, and then the group of us—scientists,technicians, several official visitors—were driven across the ice to Ross Island, to our respective billets at the American station at McMurdo and at nearby Scott Base, the New Zealand station. I checked in with my host, the National Science Foundation, which runs the American scientific program on the continent; introduced myself to several scientists; and joined a small group for dinner.

It was hard to get the laconic, heavy-shouldered rhythm of McMurdo, the contradictory air of scientific earnestness and military lassitude. When we disembarked the plane I stood for a few moments, bags in hand, staring into the Royal Society Range on the far side of frozen McMurdo Sound. Sunlight pooled there in the glaciers like molten manganese. I did not want the pressure of time to build again; one goes through so much to leave the hammering and hawking of civilization behind. But then the jitney was there, insistent.

The next day I flew with several other visitors in a Navy helicopter to a place called Lake Vanda, about forty-five miles northwest of McMurdo, in the Wright Valley in Victoria Land. The New Zealanders have an advance base there, a cluster of five or six small buildings chained to the ground against the wind. The New Zealanders were gracious but demure. It took only a few minutes to show us around their station—spartan, solar-powered, snugly arranged. Our hosts then served us fresh scones and potato soup. Their hospitality, the cordial welcome that New Zealanders customarily extend to visitors in this peregrine region, is an Antarctic tradition. The richness of those moments is in vivid contrast to the wildness of the land. The pale green buildings are like a pod of dories alone on the North Atlantic.

I asked the station manager if I might return, if there was room. Marvellous, he said. A week later, after visiting with a score of scientists at research bases and field camps, after a tour of Shackleton’s historic base camp at Cape Royds and Scott’s base at Cape Evans, both in a state of eerie, near perfect preservation, mesmerising inside in their heroic gloom, I returned to Vanela.

The Wright and half a dozen other valleys at the northeastern end of the Transantarctic Mountains are collectively referred to as the dry valleys. It has not rained here in two million years. No animal abides, no plant grows. A persistent, sometimes ferocious wind has stripped the country to stone and gravel, to streamers of sand. The huge valleys stand stark as empty fjords. You look in vain for any conventional sign of human history—the vestige of a protective wall, a bit of charcoal, a discarded arrowhead. Nothing. There is no history, until you bore into the layers of rock or until the balls of your fingertips run the rim of a partially exposed fossil. At the height of the austral summer, in December, you smell nothing but the sun-beaten stone. In a silence dense as water, your eye picks up no movement but the sloughing of sand, seeking its angle of repose.

On the flight in from New Zealand it had occurred to me, from what I had read and heard, that Antarctica retained Earth’s primitive link, however tenuous, with space, with the void that stretched out to Jupiter and Uranus. At the seabird rookeries of the Canadian Arctic or on the grass-lands of the Serengeti, you can feel the vitality of the original creation; in the dry valleys you sense sharply what came before. The Archeozoic is like fresh spoor here.

I took several long walks in the Wright and adjacent Taylor valleys. I did not feel insignificant on these journeys, dwarfed or shrugged off by the land, but superfluous. It is a difficult landscape to enter, to develop a rapport with. It is not inimical or hostile, but indifferent, utterly remote, even as you stand in it. The light itself is aloof.

The dry valleys are breathtakingly beautiful. The air is so clear the eye can fasten effortlessly on the details, the sharp break of shadow creases, in distant mountains, making binoculars curiously redundant. The hues of yellow and brown, the tints of orange and red that elevate the sedimentary rocks above the igneous layers of granite, take the starkness out of the land but do not alter its line, which is bold, balanced, serene. Classic.

The stillness that permeates the valleys is visual as well as acoustical. On foot, traversing a landscape that is immense but simple, your point of view, looking right and left at the mountain walls or up the valley, changes only very slowly. I had sought this stillness; but unlike the stillness I’d found in similarly austere and deserted regions of the Earth—on the tundra of Ellesmere Island, in the Namib Desert—this stillness had an edge to it. I felt no security with the Earth here, no convincing epiphany of belief in the prevailing goodwill of human beings, which always seems in the offing in these irenic places. However the Earth consoles us in the troubling matter of civilization’s acquisitiveness, its brutal disregard, this was not the landscape for it.

To say that nothing at all lives here is not true. Algae and other minute marine organisms have evolved in a handful of permanently frozen lakes (the ice of which insulates them from the cold and passes light for photosynthesis). And some yeasts, bacteria, blue-green algae, fungi, and lichens—a group of micro-organisms collectively called crypto-endoliths—live inside the rocks, beneath the first few crystalline layers. A skua occasionally flies this far inland. But the long months of twilight and darkness, the intense cold, the failure of any but the most primordial forms of life to gain purchase here (and so serve as food for others)—these conditions and the wind militate against biology.

During the brief summer, it is warm enough for a few days or weeks to create meltwater; a few inconsequential streams tumble down from the glaciers above the Valleys. The sparkling surface of the water is aberrant, a false promise, the land’s irony. The only really animate force here is the wind. It blows, always, from the interior, from the west—often, in the spring, at well over sixty knots. It wallops and scours the mountains, eroding and fracturing, sweeping clear the debris. It is this beast that has, too, made these huge, empty valleys the driest ground on Earth.

Uplifting in the Transantarctic Mountains took place so quickly here, apparently, that the mountains formed in this place along a rampart against the East Antarctic ice sheet (which is the size of the United States). Cut off, the ice cannot flow down these valleys to the sea. Since then, each year’s scant snowfall has been shattered and evaporated by the dry, incessant wind before it can accumulate. Only here (and at two other less spectacular sites on the Antarctic mainland, in the Bungerand Vestfold hills in East Antarctica) is the land open to the sky, not buried under ice and snow.

The wind, a katabatic or gravity-driven wind, enters the valleys after falling vertically nearly two miles from the summit of the East Antarctic ice sheet; it comes into the valleys with a discernible hunger, and its effect on the land, which it abrades and lacerates with bits of sand and ice, is often peculiar.

In the Olympus Range on the north side of the Wright Valley, high up on the slope near a place called Bull Pass, I found a thin vein of dolerite, a drab, coarse, grey-black igneous rock similar to basalt. At this outcrop it had broken into pieces, and each piece, sitting on a sand base like a stone on a jeweller’s dop, had been polished by the wind to the smoothness and lustre, if not the density, of marble. Yet it was not this, really, that gave them their character; it was how the wind had cut them. They had the faceting, the angularity and curve, the impervious facades, of modern buildings. Even at this scale—hand-size—what lay before me was an imposing field of dark monoliths.

They are called, after the wind, ventifacts.

Insofar as the dry valleys of Victoria Land are known to the outer world, they are known for four things: for these rocks, the essence, in their form, of modern sculpture; for a mineral, antarcticite (calcium chloride hexahydrate), discovered in local ponds so heavily laden with salt they do not freeze in winter, when the temperature rests at -60 degrees and -70 degrees Fahrenheit; for their similarity, it is widely believed, to the rainless deserts of Mars (the Viking lander would have found no life on this ground either); and for a scattering of mummified creatures on the valley floors, mostly young crabeater seals and, rarely, a penguin or skua.

No one is certain why the seals come up here. A good guess is that they are inexperienced. They wander up from the coast, sometimes travelling as far as forty miles inland, hunching their way over the gravel fields with—to judge from a few, fresh trails that have been found—intractable determination. But it is travel utterly in the wrong direction.

They succumb eventually to starvation on these errant journeys; but an animal dead for a decade may be so well preserved that it looks, as one approaches, as if it might move off. A seal more exposed to the wind might over several years arch up in a curve like half a car tyre, head and rear flippers high in the air, its eye sockets bored out, its mouth agape, a goblin.

The taut skin of these desiccated animals feels smooth under the hand and hard, like water-polished stone. The wind freeze-dries their flesh. No predator bothers them. The faces, if they can be said to have an expression, are distraught, catatonic with a sudden, horrible misunderstanding of geography. (It seems reckless to insist that only endocrine secretions and neural structures are here, that naught else abides.) The peculiar cheek teeth, ornate with tiny, interlocking cusps, stand out boldly in their highly evolved but useless efficiency.

Whenever I encountered these animals I found it difficult to leave them. And when I left, often as not, I turned back. They were inconsolable. They had made an error. Their lips parted in some final, incoherent noise. They had, most of them, died alone. Some lay with the clouded eyes of the blind, preserved for years in abject disbelief.

In a week of ambling, of looking among mountain boulders hoodooed by the wind, of sitting in windless bights amid glacial debris, of lining out like a Dinka on the heels of my hands and one knee to taste the salt ponds, I found the dry valleys unfetchable. Whatever one might impute to this landscape, of beauty or horror, seemed hardly to take hold; my entreaties for conversation met almost always with monumental indifference. I have never felt so strongly that unsettling aloofness of the adult that a small child knows, and fears. It is hard to locate the reassurance of affection in these circumstances. And yet this land informs, some would say teaches, for all its indifference. I can easily imagine some anchorite here, meditating in his room of stone, or pausing before a seal shipwrecked in this polar desert.

Over the years, one comes to measure a place, too, not just for the beauty it may give, the balminess of its breezes, the insouciance and relaxation it encourages, the sublime pleasures it offers, but for what it teaches. The way in which it alters our perception of the human. It is not so much that you want to return to indifferent or difficult places, but that you want not to forget.

If you returned it would be to pay your respects, for not being welcomed.


This article was first published in Westerly 36:4, December 1991.

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