Katabatic I

The wind irons ripples
into the snowy expanse

Forever doing housework
and sweeping away loose snow

Who Am I? Ice Edition

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Image: Anne Noble

 

Antarctica. The word often conjours to mind images of eery icebergs, immense glaciers, classical symphonies, and penguins. Lots of penguins. For most people it exists on the very fringes of their existence, as that white smudge protruding from the bottom of the world map, or an exotic location ventured into only by explorers, scientists, photographers and madmen. For others it is the face of climate change, projected onto screens in living rooms throughout the globe, where it exists as a symbol but is disconnected from its physical presence of 14,000,000 square km of ice.

Antarctica is much more than the ice at the end of the world, or a convenient location from which to shoot footage of calving glaciers to accompany reports on the state of the environment. Instead it is a continent, host to many dynamic ecosystems, diverse environments, and a sprinkling of scientists who live and eat and sleep and go to the bathroom sheltered in the haven of their Antarctic bases. That’s right, I just used ‘bathroom’ and ‘antarctica’ in the same sentence. It’s a side of the continent we don’t often think about, but for the 5000 summer and 1000 winter workers who live there, it is far more ‘real’ than pan shots of emperor penguins or the brilliant reflections of icebergs under the midnight sun.

Antarctica has been cast in many ways over the past 100 years – so many, that if the continent were a film star it would be guaranteed an Oscar or two by now. The Ice, as Antarctica is known by those who live or have spent time there, has been used to stand for many different ideas. Whether or not they represent reality is another question, but some of the most prevalent associations are below:

Untouched Wilderness. This is the version of Antarctica that is typically accompanied by a soundtrack of howling wind and panning shots showing snow, ice, more snow, and maybe a wee small man in the corner, where he remains dwarfed by the expanse of white. You know the typical man-never-set-foot-here-before kind of a heroic pose, featuring the subject leaning into the blizzard, and typically presented in grainy black and white even though it was shot in full colour high definition in billboard resolution? Yeah, that’s this idea in a snapshot, capturing the moment the untouched becomes claimed. And this leads us on nicely to…

The Last Frontier. Once upon a time California was the wild west, a place where cowboys roamed, gold was abundant, and adventure guaranteed. These days you’re more likely to see film stars than bareback riders in LA, but down South the romance is alive and well. Antarctica may be the most surveilled place on earth, but satellite imagery doesn’t hold the same sort of appeal as flesh and blood, traipsing just that little bit further in order to stand where no man has ever stood before. The untapped oil resources (which will remain untapped under the current provisions of the Antarctic Treaty System) just add to the mystique. Then there is the visual side of things, namely…

Beauty, or The Sublime. These two concepts have a rich history, and have been distinct since the eighteenth century. Beauty is pleasing and pleasurable, while the sublime is overwhelming and too much for the senses to handle. Sublime goes beyond beauty, extending into the realms of terror. Traditionally, the Great Ice Barrier and the tempestuous weather of Antarctica have been associated with the former, but these days the line seems to be getting blurred. When travelling to Antarctica involves a 5 star cruise liner rather than a wooden sailing vessel, fear tends to take a back seat and aesthetics take the lion’s share of the emotional response to the landscape. That’s a pity really, but just in case you were thinking the dangers had all been conquered, just shift your gaze to the next version of Antarctica, where the melting ice is used to…

Personify Climate Change. You know the images: The Larsen B ice shelf breaking up and departing from the Antarctic Peninsula, as viewed from space; chunks of the Pine Island Glacier tumbling down into the sea below. Because we believe that melting looks a certain way, we seek out images to match. Forget the invisible effects of ocean erosion as the sea gnaws out the ice from below, and leave the complicated dynamics of the ice cap to one side, lest anyone ask questions that require technical knowledge to answer: calving glaciers tick the box. Antarctica may be located at the end of the earth, but we are slowly realising that our whole world is driven by an interconnected system. Plus all photos taken in Antarctica are automatically photogenic enough to make the cut come prime time news.

Photos may make Antarctica seem closer and more familiar to an everyday audience, but its geographic remoteness holds the key to its appeal for those travellers wanting to tick off all seven continents. For those who have been to Africa, Asia, Europe, Australasia and the Americas, a two day crossing of the Drake Passage is all that stands between 85% and a full seven out of seven. Visiting Antarctica is a pilgrimage that allows such travellers to ‘collect a set,’ as it were.

So, there you have it: five sides of Antarctica. The continent is not a pentohedron by any means, and there are many more sides to be explored. 900 words is barely enough to make a dent, but at least the icebergs, symphonies and penguins have been given a nudge to make room for the new perspectives that are waiting in the wings.

On Penguins and Polar Bears

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New Zealand, or ‘Godzone’, is often characterized by its plusses: rivers, forests, beaches and birdlife. It can also be defined by its lacks: no snakes, bears or hungry predators out to get you every time you head bush. There is no bush to speak of in Antarctica, but it shares some similar traits: provided you don’t freeze to death, fall down a crevasse, or get on the wrong side of a hungry leopard seal, it is fairly safe as well.

Penguins are the epitome of the benign wildlife of the south. Dressed like little waiters and sporting the IQ of your average chicken, they are synonymous with the South Pole and have been used to promote everything from open source software to salt and vinegar ships. We encountered several varieties on our trip, each with their own quirks and customs.

Adelies look like they have had five cups of coffee too many, constantly darting left and right with a slightly crazed look in their glassy eyes. These are the downtown commuters of the ice, making their way to the edge of the bergs in packs that resemble crowds on a railway platform, then spilling into ocean en mass, mirroring the five pm office exodus.

Gentoo penguins are somewhat larger, with white patches over their eyes that resemble chic noise-cancelling headphones. They could do with such accessories too, as their call has the timbre of braying donkeys. During the summer months much of the cacophony comes from the chicks, triangular fluffballs with bottomless stomachs that are constantly pestering their parents for a feed.

You can see the penguins, you can hear the penguins, but what the postcards and nature documentaries don’t tell you is that the birds could do with an industrial-scale drenching in coco chanel. In short, they stink. The guano combination of fish and krill that coats the rocks throughout the rookeries can be seen from afar and smelt from even further.

This aroma did not deter early scientists from getting up close and personal with the wee waddlers. The ‘Fit for a FID’ cookbook details researchers’ recipes from the 1950s, and has a whole section dedicated to penguins. The author prefaces the section with the admission that ‘when cooking penguin, I have an awful feeling inside of me that I am cooking little men who are just that little too curious and stupid.’ These days penguin is off the menu, and we photograph penguin nests instead of devouring penguin breasts. Nevertheless, some people come up with interesting new ways of communing with the colonies. Turning around to find two human-sized penguins posing with their Lilliputian relatives was a surprise, to say the least.

Antarctica is much more than penguins and photo opportunities, but no trip south would be complete without a mention of both. Sure, if you lie still photographing the penguins for long enough a southern giant petrel may decide you resemble a tasty snack, but at least there are no roaming polar bears to finish you off. In that respect, it’s just like home after all.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Frosty Reception

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So far I’ve enjoyed the South Island so much that I’ve decided to take things to a new level. I’m heading as far South as possible, to a place that makes Invercargill look positively tropical: Antarctica is in my sights.

When my partner first suggested I return to the frozen continent, my first response was ‘am I really that terrible to live with?’ As it turns out, I had been bringing it up rather often in conversation, so he thought it must be time for a fix in order to allow other topics to penetrate the sphere of scintillating dinner time talk every now and then.

It wasn’t always this way. A few years ago, my contact with Antarctica consisted of little more than wrestling with the part of the blow up globe where you put the bung in. Since moving to the South Island that has changed. On my first flight from Auckland to Christchurch I found myself sitting next to an Alaskan cook who was en route to McMurdo Station to work for the summer, and he was just the first of many people I’ve come across who have an Antarctic connection. There’s the husky dog driver whose father used to be a dog handler at Scott Base, the anesthetist who also does summer jaunts South as a doctor on tourist vessels from Bluff, and the engineering student who spent a summer restoring Scott’s hut at Cape Evans (As it turns out, he was also neighbours with my partner’s Godmother in Timaru – but that’s New Zealand for you). Having spent a summer studying the continent at Canterbury University, I was well and truly hooked.

Canterbury has strong Antarctic ties, with the United States Antarctic Programme (USAP) basing its South Pole logistics out of the city, and their off casts often found in surplus stores. My man’s distinctive red USAP jacket is not the only one in town, as we found out last June when we ran into his doppelganger on the main street of Methven. Perhaps they should have headed through the snow-clogged streets for a beverage together at the aptly named ‘Shackleton’s Bar and Grill’?

Right now it’s the wrong time of year for snow and ice: All the window dressers have scrubbed of the fake snowflakes to make room for the cheeping birds that symbolize Easter and Spring, bang on the dot of Autumn. Still, last year’s ski season has reawakened a hunger for the cold that not even a raft of unseasonal southerlies can sate. (Said southerlies have meant that my ‘Antarctic’ tomato plant, which is suited to colder weather, has done very well over Christmas…)

So, as I write this I find myself Southward bound – again – but the latest experience has taught me that there’s nothing to shy away from, only millions of moments (and perhaps an old neighbour alongside the odd penguin) gathering at ever-higher altitudes and waiting to be discovered.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

Ice Songs

“O penguin, have you ever heard the bagpipes play? Have you ever watched knees freeze beneath a kilt of Scottish pride? Have you ever been tethered and sung for your freedom and inspired headlines far across the globe? Go. Collect your stones. Remain ignorant of the nuances of tonal music. Raise your beak in salutation so the photographer can pretend that he, too was really, truly THERE.”
 
While this sort of behaviour may not be condoned in Antarctica anymore, music is still very important down on the continent. From homegrown band nights to trippy wildlife soundtracks, there is far more for the ears to discover than the famed Antarctic silence.
 
Before leaving Christchurch I asked my musical friends to recommend music that would enhance the Antarctic experience. One thing I’d noticed was that all of the films of the continent were accompanied by sweeping orchestral tracks, designed to tap into one’s emotions and make one really feel in awe of the sights. In light of this, I decided I needed a soundtrack of my own in order to maximize the experience. Pieces suggested included Sibelius, Nielsen, John Cage’s string quartet, Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica’, and, more bizarrely, ‘Antarctica’ by the Weepies.
 
Despite having lofty aural aspirations before taking off, Bryan Crump’s suggestion of an “Anti ice atmospheric track” featuring Abba, A-Ha, Aqua, or JPSE turned out to be closer to the mark. Upon landing on the ice and boarding Ivan the Terrabus to be ferried over to Scott Base we were serenaded by the Beatles’ good old Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. Not exactly the coldest of tunes, but it set the scene for what would be an aurally interesting few weeks.
 
In our group we were lucky enough to have Sue Ferrar, who is not only the granddaughter of the geologist from Scott’s Discovery expedition, but also an accomplished musician. Her desire to travel to Antarctica was motivated by her family connection and she wanted to play her violin in the Discovery hut as a tribute to her grandfather. Listening to the violin articulate her version of the setting as the strains wafted over the hessian curtains at Hut Point was spellbinding. An improv musician, she let the violin tell the story she could see, and while she did so, people hardly dared to breathe.
 
The rest of our cohort were not so musically talented. The lad in charge of Christmas carols was not accustomed to celebrating Christmas on the summer side of the globe either, so while he was belting out the words to ‘Winter Wonderland’ we were all scratching out heads and thinking of the Beaurepaires ad. Sure, ‘Christmas on the Beach’ would have seemed a bit out of place on the Ross Ice Shelf, but the majority of us had had no experience whatsoever of ‘roasting chestnuts on an open fire’.
 
The local wildlife put our own caroling ambitions to shame, with the song of the Weddell seal trumping even the best of our Chrsitmas choristers. Whales sing underwater symphonies, but Weddell seals out-zane Led Zeppelin. Shooting stars ricochet under ice, strobing and zigzagging and bouncing off your eardrums inside of your brain in ways that the drab speckling of their blubber and rock-pool shine of their eyes would never have you believe. Rock-stars in disguise, they party to the underwater trace, enticing those more accustomed to the whales’ sigh to change the channel, dare to experiment, live a little. Next time we’re playing a party game and I have to choose an animal that knows how to party, lemurs are out and Weddells are in, baby.
 
All in all, Antarctica offers a very interesting soundscape and one quite far removed from the one I imagined before going down there. While it’s not really the done thing to force penguins to listen to our musical preferences these days, I will be tuning in to see what else comes out of the ice in years to come.

M(Ant) Progress Report

(i)
On the top floor of the library
a book lies sideways
on the top of the shelving
losing its identity
under layers of dust

(ii)
Without the disguise of a dust jacket
aging fabric yellows
as the worlds inside the pages
batter against the spine,
afflicted by locked in syndrome
of the literary kind

(iii)
Paperback versions
of the end of the world
congregate on my dresser
like a jenga tower.
Ice sandwiches knowledge
in seasonal layers,
waiting to be drilled
and perilously close to collapse.

(iv)
$4.25 may not sound like much
but for a grad student
who has just dodged a fine
for late library books,
it’s a small victory.

Riding the Mountain

Picture 21

Living in Methven has meant that I’ve got up close and personal with an awful lot more pieces of large machinery than I ever did up in Auckland, from sitting in the cab of a rutbuster to parading behind a traction engine. Last weekend was no exception, although the machines were bigger than most and the event was celebrated with fireworks, just for effect. We were up Mt Hutt to celebrate the skifield turning the big four-oh, and while the skiing was good fun, the rides at the end of the day were the icing on the cake.

First up was the Hägglunds, a machine native to Sweden and commonly found in snowy habitats. ‘Hägglunds’ is also an antonym for comfort, and one loop around the carpark was quite enough contact with a hard board seat for one day. While the yellow beast was capable of conquering impressive gradients, it harboured no pretensions of ever being promoted to lazy-boy status. Nevertheless, waving at cars as they departed and eliciting smiles from weary skiers was a great prelude to the grins that followed.

The Husky dogs were a great hit, but we had our sights set on a more modern mode of Antarctic transport – the skidoos. Complete with working headlight and ample opportunities to toss one’s hair in the wind, these snowmobiles offered the ultimate opportunity to be at one with nature through by virtue of windchill and throttle. The transformation on my friends’ faces was remarkable, from downright terrified at the beginning to smiles so beaming you could be forgiven for thinking that that fireworks had already begun to illuminate the mountainside. Whether those smiles remained frozen in place because of delight or frostbite I’m not sure, because my attention had turned to the biggest machines of all – the groomers.

As soon as the red behemoths appeared, no one had eyes for anything else, and I was no exception. Gazing up at the towering ‘Pistonbully’ lettering on the side of the machine, I felt like a seven year old whose elaborate meccano creations have suddenly sprung to life. Mum’s Volvo may be built like a tank, but a quirk that makes the speedo needle have a fit and oscillate violently between zero and 120km/h upon starting the parked vehicle just doesn’t compare to a cab with a movie screen sized window and multiple moving parts manoeuvred by what resembles an xbox control stick. It was like climbing into a 3D version of the film ‘avatar’, only with fewer blue people and more snow. It was also the only machine I’ve been in that has its own inbuilt abseiling system. Power, style and a sense of adventure… if it were to place an advert in the lonely hearts column, that groomer would be snapped up in no time.

Post rides and light show came the obligatory chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’, and while I have to admit that it was the only time I’ve ever sung greetings to a geological feature, it was also the best birthday party for a mountain that I’ve ever been to. Bring on the next decade’s worth of skifield engineering!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Departmental Party

By the time we start making the third round of Caipariñas
The glaciologists have gathered in the kitchen
And started showing interest in the ice we crush
Grinding it glass by glass to smithereens like stones on a shore.

“Tell us,” we tease “What is the history of this cube?”
They rub their chins in consideration
and lament the absence of their machines that go ‘ping’
“The blue core,” says one “indicates a quick freezing.”
PhD students are summoned to provide further commentary
and an argument ensues over dominant chemical isotopes
Before it is agreed that, given all visible indicators
and the taste of the cubes when added to the South American concoction
– We’d better try another, just to be sure –
the likely source is the petrol station on the corner.

(They swear this educated guess
is reached by powers of deduction
and has nothing to do with the labeled bag of ice in the chilly bin by the door.)

“Impressive” we say, as we fill our glasses and slide the crusher over in their direction.
“You sure know your ice. We’ll leave things in your capable hands.”
Needless to say, the fourth round’s on them.

Cape Evans

Light slanting through the window
Colours the room
Like a sepia photograph

Highlighting the jars of pills
And powdered eggs
From the days when the world
Was black and white

Now it’s black and white and blue
Blue like the china in a faraway parlour
Blue like eyes as they blink farewell
Blue, fading sepia with every click of the lens

Leaving history a stain
On a blank canvas