Antarctica and the South

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean have a relatively short history of human exploration but a dense presence in human dreams, in literature, pictures and myth. Preparing for this voyage is taking me to new places.

As I start this blog (September 2015, with five months to go), my ‘to be read’ pile is mounting. This page is a short surf around some highlights which will be covered in more detail as my journey progresses. There are many ways to think about the few centuries of writing about the continent and the millennia of imagination about the ocean. Inevitably, in this context, I can only scratch the surface. I will be focusing on women’s experience and records. If you have any suggestions of photographers, writers and other artists that I should know about, please let me know.

The Idea of South

My title for this page seems presumptuous, an impossible hint at the breadth and wisdom of Peter Davidson’s wonderful The Idea of North. (He gives a fascinating lecture about the light at sub-polar latitudes here.) Of course, the north is inhabited, a known place by comparison. From Homer onwards, literature has looked to the back of the north wind.

I do not know enough of the long mythology of peoples in the south (the Dreamtime, Maori mythology or the cosmology of the indigenous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego) to say whether anything similar is true for them. Maori history tells us that the seventh century navigator Ui-te-Rangiora  sailed south and encountered ice floes and icebergs in the Southern Ocean. He called this area Tai-uka-a-pia (sea foaming like arrowroot) because the ice floes seemed similar to arrowroot shavings. It is said that Ui-te-Rangiora reached the Ross Ice Shelf although he did not land on it.

In 1886, lapita pottery shards were discovered on the Antipodes Islands at 49.6° south, indicating that Polynesians did reach that far south. Otherwise I have found little to suggest the indigenous peoples of the South turned their imaginations to the ice and they did not found any permanent settlements there.

For the European imagination there has been a long hunt for the terra australis, the counterweight continent. As long ago as 600BCE Greek astronomers theorised a spherical earth with polar regions, a notion only empirically proved by Magellan’s expedition in 1521. In 150CE, Ptomely’s Geographia suggested that there was a Terra Australis Incognita. The picture shows Descriptio terra subaustralis from Petrus Bertius’s 1616 Tabularum Geographicarum Contractarum.  Time after time explorers thought they had found it, only to realise this was another scattering of desolate islands. Cook found New Zealand, which is far from desolate but no continent. When Europeans found Australia, it was not the easy land they had envisaged, although they persistently project their own familiar history onto its deserts. When Europeans did find Antarctica at last  it was as different as could be. In the meantime, concoctions of Shangri-La hidden behind the gales persisted, a place of surpassing strangeness.

As the spray parted to show the majesty and miseries, the far south became, and remains, a place of heroism. Indeed, it’s early exploration is a key part of the Heroic Age, stories of a place where men were men, yet of a strange innocence. For many decades, the recorded, slow deaths of Scott and his men have been the quintessential boys’ own adventure. Even today Oates’ words I may be some time smack of quixotic self-sacrifice in the name of a stiff upper lip. For many Britons, the idea of south is inextricably linked with extreme bravery in a foolish cause, become risible with distance and safety.

And of course, for the northern hemisphere, the south is the home of warmth, ease, at the least wine and siestas and more, the racially-biased Gauguin images of compliant women and white beaches. Yet spend any time in the planetary south (even those parts that are part of the economic north) and ‘south’ is quickly the source of the cold, the breath of ice that begins in March. Kéikruk, cosmological south to the Selknam people of Patagonia, meant winter.

Politics and science

‘South’ is a political construct too. Antarctica itself, below the 60° parallel, is subject to an international treaty which means no one nation (at the moment) lays claim to its resources. It is removed, at least for now, from the complex debates about wealth, space, faith and nationalism that infect so much political discourse. A key concern must be for how long this fragile relationship can be maintained, especially as the ice melts.

At the same time, the notion of patriotism and nationalism in the south is beginning to change. Australian Kevin Murray addresses the challenge head-on in considering Tony Abbott’s description of a ‘Great South Land’, arguing that such a narrative remains steadfastly European. … it is more about the remorseless extension of the familiar than engagement with the new. The challenge … is to find a South … which is genuine – a South that does not contain within it a European exceptionalism, but offers instead a point of connection with other Souths across the periphery – Great Southern Lands.     

Primarily, today, Antarctica is a pre-eminent home for scientific investigation. This is overseen by the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research, SCAR, who have a very transparent website. The Committee describes its role asadmap_line

[t]he study of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean and their role in the global Earth system [which] has never been more important as the region is experiencing dramatic changes that have global implications.  The Antarctic region is a matchless 'natural laboratory' for vital scientific research that is important in its own right and impossible to achieve elsewhere on the planet.

 SCAR encourages excellence in all aspects of Antarctic research by developing transformational scientific programmes that address compelling topics and emerging frontiers in Antarctic science of regional and global importance.

 SCAR initiates, facilitates and coordinates international cooperation in scientific research conducted in and from the Antarctic region and on the role of Antarctica in the Earth system. 

The splendid map, only possible with current technology, is from the Antarctic Digital Anomaly Mapping Project.

I am no scientist, nor am I naïve about the backbiting competition of academics. All the same, I believe passionately in the importance of science and the scientific method. Research in the Antarctic not only contributes to solutions to global problems but in and of itself models a different approach to problem solving through collaboration between nations and communities.

Not a place for women

The Antarctic continent is mostly desert, defined by scientists as a region receiving less than 250mm precipitation a year. The Southern Ocean gets more of course. It is the only ocean which encircles the Earth, with no land to break its movement so storms can build up ferocious momentum. At its narrowest point, the squeeze of Drake’s Passage between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula, the waves and wind are legendary. (Yes, this trip does include crossing that zone.)

Like all deserts and wild places, the far south has inspired poets, explorers, scientists, photographers and painters, but very few of them have been women. At least one reason for this has been the belief that the Antarctic is too tough for us. And women’s presence has not always been well recorded: the first woman known to have seen the continent is anonymous, one of four castaways rescued from  Campbell Island in 1839 by the whalers Eliza Scott and Sabrina, who was presumed lost at sea before returning north. Her name, nationality and history are unknown.

Overall, the history of human exploration and exploitation of Antarctica has been overwhelmingly male. Women did not set foot on the main continent itself until Caroline Mikkelson in 1935. There was, and in some quarters still is, resistance to women on the ice, particularly over-wintering in the remote stations. As late as 1970 senior military personnel in the US were actively blocking women (as reported by Irene Peden in Women in the Antarctic). And, of course, until recently women tended to be under-represented in a range of relevant scientific fields and that scientific research has been a key draw to time in the south. So getting to and staying in the Antarctic continent is itself a recent effort and still not as easy for women.

Maybe because of this sparse history there is less writing by women about the experience of Antarctica. Sara Wheeler wrote the wonderful book Terra Incognita, based on her two long stays there, starting as the first Writer-In-Residence for the US Antarctic Survey. Jenny Diski cruised from Chile to the Peninsula and recorded the experience in Skating to Antarctica. I recommend both those books to anyone. For the history of women in the South, I have immensely enjoyed Beth Chipman’s Women on the Ice and the academic study edited by Rothblum, Weinstock and Morris entitled Women in the Antarctic. Gabrielle Walker has provided an excellent and insightful laymen's guide to scientific life on the ice in her Antarctica.

There’s more of course about some of those early experiences. In the last decade the increasing availability of internet on the ice and the growth of social media has led to more blogging, sometimes accompanied by spectacular photographs. With the exception of Wheeler and Diski, though, I would say that much of the writing by women is history, memoir or journalism – or of course science. This picture shows the first summer flight arriving at a remote station in November 2013, from Marie's blog, and she records her feelings as the winter isolation ends.

First flight of summer

Women on the ocean

Women have been longer in the Southern Ocean, residents in the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego of course, and also living and working in sealing and whaling stations on the sub-Antarctic islands. Women sailed there alongside men on exploration and hunting ships and have now become  professional racing sailors, most recently in the Team SCA Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15.

Notoriously there is relatively little ocean literature by women.  There are a lot of books about specific women’s journey’s, many of which are very interesting. Indeed there is an important sub-genre of books about long-distance sailing in small yachts with a wealth of practical advice, in which women such as Annie Hill, Lin Pardey and Beth Leonard have been dominant. The latter two have sailed around the Horn.

The best written memoir of small boat sailing (unsurprisingly) is Gwyneth Lewis’s Two in a Boat: she was National Poet for Wales after all.  Sadly, her wonderful poem Sea Virus is not included in the National Trust anthology Favourite Poems of the Sea. Indeed of the 59 poets in that collection just 7 are women and it is striking that several of their works are poems in which the sea is but a metaphor, or tell of a woman’s longing gaze from the shore.

marylacy-01Women did sail on tall ships, both naval square riggers and merchant clippers. In the former case, few women wrote directly about their experience, although Hannah Snell who served as a marine and was wounded at Pondicherry published her sensationalised autobiography in 1753, as did ship’s carpenter Mary Lacy who published in 1771.   The wood cur is from  Suzanne Stark’s Female Tars in which she uncovers a lot about these women. A wonderful late example is Pamela Eriksson’s book The Duchess, in which she tells of first working her passage  on Herzogin Cecilie and then marrying the four-master’s skipper.  The ship was wrecked off Salcombe in Devon in 1936 after an illustrious career in the grain races.

Writing the extreme

Maybe men and women write differently about extreme environments, whether that is desert, ocean, ice or mountains. Robert Macfarlane is his lovely new book Landmarks suggests just that when  he writes about the Cairngorm writer Nan Shepherd. He speaks of male mountaineers’ focus on the summit, the ‘narrative of siege and assault’ comparing it to Shepherd’s ‘repeated acts of traverse, which stands as a corrective to the self-exaltation’ of seeking an ultimate point. (I would love to see another chapter to this book, capturing words for the sea used in the British Isles.)

If that is true then the narratives of a Pardey or Lewis tell us as much about the experience of being at sea than the mysticism of Moitissier or uplift of Masefield. In my own voyaging, on much smaller boats than Europa, both are true. There is a glory to achieving something that, if not history making, remains a peak adventure in your own life. A glorious sea in a well-found boat is a wonderful place to be even in the noise and crash and unceasing motion of the storm. Exploring the ways to write about that environment is one of my ambitions for this voyage.

The blank slate and the imagined Antarctica

Again and again in reading of the far south the tabula rasa comes to mind, the blank slate on which the writer and reader project their own narrative. The emptiness, the noise (wind, ice, penguins) and the silence, the elongated days and everlasting nights all invite complex narratives. From very early days, the South has been the site of wild imagination. Gulliver was taken far beyond Australia to visit the Houyhnhnms, as told in his Travels published in 1726 and the anonymous story of Peter Wilkins (1751) has a fantastical race of flying humans who live at the Pole. He marries one, who bears his children, before returning home.

More recently Ursula Le Guin wrote the delightful Sur which imagines a women’s successful overland expedition reaching the Pole in 1909-10, the year before Roald Admundsen. It is interesting to note that in 1969, when the New Yorker covered the first six American women on the ice, an unnamed veteran is gloomily quoted as saying ‘the only place left now is the moon.’ Indeed many of the tropes of the Antarctic have been transposed to space, to which Antarctica is the prelude. NASA conducts space preparations missions there. Kim Stanley Robinson used those experiences to train the colonists in his Mars trilogy. The physical demands, isolation, group dynamics and scientific ambitions mean that the remote stations on the ice remain fertile places for the creative imagination.

Lights, sound, actionMcWhinnie1974_MAM_MOC_DS_sp

I’m a writer, I will always look first at the word. The far south has also been an important place for photography, music and even dance. Indeed, Alexandra Harrison’s choreography of The Idea of South harks back to Wilkins’ flying bride.

The history of exploration in the south closely parallels the development of photography. The first recorded sighting of the Antarctic Peninsula was by Edward Bransfield in January 1820, while the first daguerreotype was produced in 1839. Both Scott and Shackleton (besides being excellent writers themselves) took professional photographers with them to chronicle their adventures. Preparing for this voyage, I am taking a course to help me take better pictures, as part of which I will make a presentation on photography in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean which is a separate blog post. The story of Antarctic exploration in intimately linked to the use of the camera, to record and promote the expeditions and capture both the scenery and the lives of those who are gradually opening its secrets. This shot is of Mary Alice Mawhinnie and Sr Mary Odile Cahoon, who was the first women to overwinter in Antarctica, on a major programme investigating krill, for which Mawhinnie was the senior investigator.

There are many ways to think about the few centuries of writing about the continent and the millennia of imagination about the ocean. Inevitably, in this context, I can only scratch the surface. I will be focusing on women’s experience and records. If you have any suggestions of photographers, writers and other artists that I should know about, please let me know.




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