“From here you can walk to the South Pole.” Although it is perhaps 1,700 miles as the skua files. Noah Strycker, author, ornithologist and Associate Editor of Birding magazine, who once spent three months with 300,000 penguins at Cape Crozier, is showing us the sights. We are perched with Noah on a ridge some two-hundred feet above an infrequently used Argentine base at Paradise Bay.
Looking to the west and dominating the foreground, clouds blanket Bryde Island. Its humpbacked peaks seem poised to dive into the sea. Lemaire Island is to the right, and the Ioffe is docked in the shadows of clouds over Paradise Bay. Wiencke Island is visible beyond the strait – its nearly five-thousand foot peak stands bright and clear above a strata of clouds. The rocks speak of long extinct volcanoes.
Interspersed with the geography tour, Noah has been delightfully regaling us with bird stories. In his latest book, The Thing with Feathers, The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human, he writes that “penguins untied my shoelaces, hesitatingly preened the sides of my sleek pants, and fell in line behind me in a drawn-out game of follow-the leader.” It is impossible to watch a penguin and feel anything but complete joy.
But the charred edges of the station below tell a story that is other than joyful. The name of the Argentine base is Almirante Brown Station. The original base was constructed in 1951 and burned in 1984, allegedly by a member of the scientific staff who did not wish to “winter over.” From the very first expedition to spend an entire winter in Antarctica, the long Antarctic night has had a reputation of pulling minds into dark corners.
When Adrien de Gerlache’s Belgica stuck fast in the ice in 1898, the bosun refused to work, fearing that other crew members were plotting to kill him. He was like a “wild creature” in a cage. The expedition’s doctor wrote that “…we are at this moment as tired of each other’s company as we are of the cold monotony of the black night…”
During Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ 1980 crossing of the Antarctic continent, base commander Ginnie Fiennes “…heard babies crying in the darkness and someone whispering incoherently from close behind her.” She told her husband “…there’s something there…” when of course there was not (The Third Man Factor, John Geiger).
The Boss himself (Ernest Shackelton) spoke of a presence while crossing South Georgia with Worsley and Crean – “…during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.” Shackelton wrote about the experience that “…there is much that can never be told…we had pierced the veneer of outside things.”
This very same glittering, blue and white landscape that is now before me does not reconcile with such ancient impulses and fears. And yet, my sense is that these experiences are part of the draw of this cruelly beautiful landscape. It is unsettling to be stripped of the familiar references and distractions of civilization – to have no compass.
I find these feelings accompany me at night when I am alone in the desert, since our overly bright cities shield us from the empty immensity of the universe. I lose my bearing and become lost in the stars. Enveloped by blackness so dark, I become fearful of what I might see should a light suddenly illuminate the unknown. And when the full moon is at my back casting shadows, its seemingly imperceptible gravitation tug is like an unrelenting and unshakeable presence just out of sight.
Antarctica is technically a desert. So it is without surprise that I revisit these most wondrous and strange friends here. Some people uncover great religions in deserts. I discover little bits of myself in their vast emptiness. I begin to appreciate my imperfections, and my demons soften when light shines through the cracks. That is of course, the purpose of cracks and of perhaps Antarctica – to let the daylight in upon darkness (Leonard Cohen) – whether those cracks be personal, or those that threaten the very survival of humans on this planet.
The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today… The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.
– Lucius Seneca (ca. 4 BCE – 65 CE)
See Part VI – Wilhemina Bay