Wilderness With a Cast of Thousands

This review of five books on Antarctica appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 26 April 2013.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the dream of discovering a lost southern continent, more bountiful than the Americas, had died an icy death. James Cook, who spent much of the 1770s zig-zagging the Southern Ocean in search of the fabled Terra Australis Incognita, concluded that no-one could make it further south than the Resolution’s hard-won 71°10’S, and that whatever “inexpressibly horrid” land might lie beyond the pack ice “would not be worth the discovery.”

Though Cook’s prediction proved incorrect, those who did venture beyond the sea ice were inclined to agree with his assessment. “Great God! this is an awful place”, observed Captain Scott of the Geographic South Pole, which he reached – too late – in January 1912, while his ship-mate Apsley Cherry-Garrard described polar exploration as the best means humanity had yet devised of having a wretched time.

But, as these five books plainly attest, the century since the death of Scott has seen such views of Antarctica transformed, from a howling wilderness to an ice-bound utopia, a kind of transnational Eden devoted to the pleasures of research. “A science playground”, as Gabrielle Walker describes it in the introduction to her “intimate portrait” of the frozen continent, “a place where modern humans can write themselves afresh.” For Gavin Francis, it was the “cold purity” that impressed him most, “the simplicity of that world of ice and light”, while for David Day, the place supplies an object lesson in international agreement, the Antarctic Treaty of 1961 having so far guaranteed peace on the continent, while serving “as an example of cooperation” that the rest of the world might heed.

Day’s Antarctica is an impressive piece of work, an impartial and deeply researched account of the politics of polar annexation. It is, of course, an ongoing story, of which the British government’s recent decision to name a sizeable section of British Antarctic Territory “Queen Elizabeth Land” is only the latest installment. The Argentine response, condemning Britain’s “anachronistic imperialist ambitions” is typical of the bad-tempered rhetoric that has dominated the question of Antarctic possession for much of the past two centuries, many examples of which enliven the pages of Day’s book. I was particularly struck by the angry exchanges between the explorer Douglas Mawson and his ship’s captain, John King Davis, over what the latter called “that bloody rubbishing business of raising the flag ashore.” (Though sometimes Mawson didn’t even go ashore: he once claimed British sovereignty over a 1,000-kilometre-wide section of the continent by planting a flag on the summit of an offshore island that overlooked the newly annexed land.) It was the Antarctic Treaty that brought such antics to an end, but as Day points out, the signatory nations continue to wrangle over their Antarctic possessions, bolstering their claims through the preservation of historic monuments such as Scott’s and Shackleton’s century-old huts: emotive relics from the age of exploration that also serve as strategic reminders that “we” were here first. In this context, it is interesting to note that Day is the only one of the five authors who has never set foot on the continent. “Like Cook”, he writes, “I have been slowly circling the Antarctic.” It seems a curious omission, given how accessible the place has become; every (southern) summer sees more than 30,000 visitors arrive, swelling the resident population of some five thousand scientists and support staff, though in winter that number drops to just over a thousand, many of whom apparently regard themselves as the luckiest people on earth.

One of those lucky ones was Gavin Francis, who spent a year working as the base-camp doctor at a remote British research station on Antarctica’s Caird Coast. Empire Antarctica is his record of that year, an intense and lyrical portrait of the slowly changing polar seasons, at the heart of which lies the cold monotony of the lightless southern winter. At first, as the sun gradually dipped below the horizon, Francis felt he was adjusting well to the coming of the polar night. But by the end of the second month, he writes, the frozen darkness had lost any beauty it once held: “it became a pause, a limbo, a drawn breath between history and the future”. His colleagues on the isolated station grew listless and forgetful, while tempers frayed due as much to the lack of privacy as the lack of natural light. Some even developed the notorious “Antarctic stare”, brought on by months of isolation, as though zombified by the pitiless dark. And then, one morning, the light of the returning sun offered its first chromatic inklings:

The sun was rising in my blood. I felt the promise of its return. One day while out skiing I saw the whole horizon spread with carmine and crimson; a widening garden of roses sprang up between the ice and the stars. Then a mirage started to flicker in the frozen air. The line of the horizon was obliterated, and the roses were replaced by a forest fire of black and scarlet flame. The prismatic air shifted the light depending on the height of the observer: if I crouched down the whole blaze moved to the east, if I stood up it rolled to the west. I stood silent witness to a beauty that was suddenly precious.

This shines with a clarity and lyricism descended from Thoreau; but confessional rhapsody is a risky venture, and there are moments in the book when Francis’s emotions overwhelm the telling of the story. At one point, for instance, during an account of an afternoon spent huddling with the penguins on the Brunt Ice Shelf, he rehearses the Transcendentalist idea that birds live more joyfully than humans, existing, he writes, “in a series of almost discontinuous eternities.” This is an interesting, if anthropomorphic, idea that neatly counters Cherry-Garrard’s better known (and equally anthropomorphic) contention that “nobody on earth has a worse time than an emperor penguin”. It would have been good, perhaps, to end the passage there, but instead Francis goes on to tell us that in “sharing their winter incubation, becoming one with their huddle, I felt as if I was taking part in that great joy”, a sentiment that seems both intrusive and spurious, given that he has no way of knowing what emotions, if any, a wintering penguin might feel. Indeed, the male emperors’ annual feat of endurance – a winter-long fast, spent silently incubating an egg that must never touch the ice – is mysterious to us precisely because it is unfathomable.

But Francis is not the only one to have succumbed to the cult of the penguin. Gabrielle Walker recalls that she began her time on the ice determined to resist these “clichés of Antarctica”, distrusting the way their cuteness is used to reduce the continent’s alien vastness to a manageable human scale. She would write about them only “because there was interesting science to tell. That was all.” Her vow did not last long, however, and the day an Adélie penguin played statues with her – “each time I turned it was motionless. Each time I walked, it walked with me” – was the day she finally lost her battle with the anthropomorphic impulse. Needless to say, an Adélie penguin features prominently on the cover of her book.

Penguins, though, are not the continent’s only walking clichés. Most of the resident scientists and staff that Walker encountered during her five Antarctic trips seemed to fall into a handful of predictable types: usually hairy (one has “an untamed shock of white hair”, while another has “a shock of tight black curls that fall frequently across his face”); often taciturn (“I had been warned that he wasn’t so good with people”); and always obsessed (“he spends as much time as possible out here in his field camp, among his penguins”). Their work, however, is invariably fascinating, and Walker’s book is at its best when exploring the intricacies of Antarctic science. At one remote station on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet she visits a simple snow chamber dug into the ice, through which sunlight is filtered into the purest colours possible on earth, as much art installation as scientific instrument. At the bottom of the chamber she finds an intense violet glow, shimmering at the furthest limit of the visible spectrum, “the end of the rainbow, the last colour that human eyes can see” before light slips past us into invisible ultraviolet. At the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, meanwhile, she visits the site of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a vast instrumental array designed to detect the particle debris left over from some of the universe’s most spectacular events (exploding stars, colliding black holes, gamma-ray bursts): an instrument so expensive that it merited its own line in the American Congressional budget. Buried more than a kilometre deep, where the ice is at its purest and most transparent, IceCube’s strings of detectors have effectively transformed the entire continent into a kind of prospector’s sieve, angled to capture those elusive neutrinos as they rocket their way through the icy depths with tell-tale bursts of blue light.

IceCube is an enormous structure, and one of the more disquieting revelations of Walker’s book is the scale of human industry on the continent. There are now hundreds of buildings and motorised vehicles, distributed mainly around the coast, with McMurdo Station – “Mactown”, Antarctica’s unofficial capital – resembling a 19th-century mining town, a sprawling, unsightly mess “with no ice and little romance.” The continent is becoming a managed environment, not just in the stations, with their cashpoints and bowling alleys (the one at Mactown uses stuffed penguins for skittles), but out on the ice, too, where every Weddell seal wears a prominent coloured tag, and every adult penguin is well used to the sight of people. And though science, not colonization, remains the official justification for the establishment of Antarctic settlements, colonization has indisputably begun: on the Argentinian base, at the tip of the Peninsula, a school has opened to educate some of the dozen or so children – “citizens of Antarctica” – who have been born on the continent since the 1970s, in defiance of the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, under which children and dogs are banned. It sounds, writes Walker, “like a wonderful childhood”, but unless (or until) the Treaty is overturned, such unofficial settlements are unlikely to thrive.

But if the scale of current activity on the ice comes as a surprise, so does its historical reach. This is the subject of John Harrison’s Forgotten Footprints, an account of the first adventurers to make landfall on Antarctica, many of whom had gone in search of the abundant seals and whales described in Cook’s reports. As Harrison points out, it hardly matters who was the first to set foot on the continent, though he devotes a fair few pages to supporting the priority claim of a forgotten English merchantman named William Smith. In February 1819, having been blown off-course while rounding Cape Horn, Smith made landfall on what are now the South Shetland Islands; the following year, he was commissioned by the Royal Navy to survey the new islands, in the course of which he discovered the Antarctic Peninsula.

Well, maybe; there have been plenty of other claimants, notably American sealers, though as Harrison notes, annual fur seal harvests remained steady until Smith’s reports were published, after which the catches increased so sharply that within two years the Antarctic fur seal had been hunted almost to extinction. In 1821, the Russian explorer Gottlieb von Bellingshausen arrived at Deception Island to find eighteen ships already moored amid scenes of wholesale slaughter. Though seal and whale numbers have now recovered, evidence of the industrial carnage is preserved at the “historic site” of Whalers Bay, where, as Harrison’s photographs show, the shoreline is littered with the ruins of vast barrels abandoned in the 1930s when the price of whale oil slumped, while off-shore lies the century-old skeleton of a Norwegian factory ship: a reminder of the long and crowded history of Antarctic exploitation that preceded the heroic age of the explorers, whose “race to the Pole” forms the centrepiece of Chris Turney’s 1912.

Turney’s book is named for Antarctica’s annus mirabilis, when no fewer than five state-funded expeditions were active on the ice. Scott and Amundsen’s tandem mission is now a familiar story, but Turney is good at retrieving the kinds of telling details that make it read afresh, such as the fact that Amundsen’s logistics were so well managed that he and his men actually put on weight during their return from the Pole, in contrast to the slow starvation of their doomed British rivals. But the most surprising revelations concern the Japanese team, led by Nobu Shirase, a Buddhist priest turned polar explorer, whose disorganized mission stands in comic contrast to the achievements of Amundsen and Scott. At one point Shirase’s ship nearly ran into Amundsen’s, the Japanese having mistaken the startled Norwegians for pirates. The only words in common that the two teams possessed turned out to be “nice day” and “plenty ice”. As Turney observes, it’s an extraordinary thought that two expeditions should meet by accident “at the bottom of the world”, even though Antarctica was awash with explorers. By this stage Shirase had abandoned his plans for a rival dash to the pole, and while Amundsen’s team headed south to victory, Shirase’s ventured instead into an unexplored sector, claiming it for Japan with a bamboo flagpole and shouts of banzai (“ten thousand years of life”). They nearly didn’t make it out, however, as the offshore sea ice was beginning to break up, putting their ship in danger from drifting floes. After several attempts, Shirase and his men were finally hauled aboard, but they had to leave their dogs behind on an uninhabited ice-shelf. The animals’ howls of distress at the sight of the departing ship proved a traumatic end to the expedition, and Shirase apparently remembered the dogs in his twice-daily prayers for the rest of his long life.

“Antarctica has little time for humans”, as Gabrielle Walker observes, yet each of these books has a cast of thousands, who between them have ventured over all but a fraction of this once forbidding continent. Even the South Pole remains the focus of an extraordinary amount of human activity, with “dormitories, offices, trucks, pool tables, shower blocks, saunas and science”. Antarctica, it seems, is no longer the world’s last wilderness, but what is clear from these five highly readable books is that its enveloping, elemental whiteness continues to cast a spell on those who, in Shackleton’s words, “burn with a strange passion for the South.”

Richard Hamblyn


1 Comment

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One response to “Wilderness With a Cast of Thousands

  1. scott ward

    Hi Richard please do forgive me for contacting you in such a manner but I’m working on a BBC production and would really appreiciate it if you could email me please. Many Thanks

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