#antarcticalphabet: B is for borders

Europa travels slowly between the hills and islands of the frayed western end of the channel between the Atlantic and Pacific. The pilot squints at his screen on the bridge, scrolling through references, checking every detail. His concentration doesn’t waver as crew step in to watch the radar show where danger lies.

Yet the greater risk is unseen. We  are in contested waters, Chile and Argentina both claim the area and foreign flagged vessels very rarely come this way. I ask Rudd, the mate,  why we are here. “An adventurous pilot,; he says and stalks away. His discomfort is reinforced by the bristling masts perched on atolls beneath the cliffs.

Fur seals arc past, as fast as dolphins but without fins, sleek, black humps in the waves. Petrels and steamer birds fight upwards, half-a-dozen clumsy, splashing steps before they reach the sky, only to dive again, swooping between air and water. Our first icebergs scatter the still surface of the fjord, calving from the mighty glacier at the end. Some are flat, striated plates while others rear into fantasias carved in the melting  from ancient weaknesses in the ice of the cordillera. The water itself is milky-thick so the bergy bits are reflected in the surface while the larger section remains submerged and  invisible. No boundaries are fixed.

Here, in the channel named for his ship and loomed over by mountains that now bear his name, the young Darwin gazed around, his mind groping for the new heresies, the upending ideologies of evolution and selection by environment. He crossed a  border of change which, once passed,, cannot be retraced. Some still try to continue the belief in dinosaur footprints left to fool us, or  numerological hints buried in immutable, translated sacred texts, but they are doomed to fall away.

Sea rises  and falls, daily and across millennia. Counties arise, artificial figments of collective imagination. All borders move but those of our own understanding are the hardest to see in advance, become clear only when looking back. Some  insights, once seen, cannot be lost.

Wittgenstein was once accosted by someone who commented that it appears as if the sun goes round the earth, so we should not be surprised that people believed it. He gently asked her what it would look like if the earth went round the sun. Perspective, the place we choose to stand, is also and always a border.

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