Life is the drop of water running through the freezer. Antarctica is the only major terra incognita ever discovered by Europeans. No native waited on the fast ice as the first wooden ships limped south. No culture predates us. The implications are both staggering and unrealized. Neither material nor spiritual world waiting here for us. No gods to clash against each other, or to give us meaning as we struggle with the land. No supernatural for us in this proto-nature. No vertical axis in the human mind connecting underworld to skyworld.
No cosmology, no fear, no epiphany, no genuflection. Scarcely four cardinal directions, and no natives to draw religion from the convex paths of the compass. We newcomers are the parishioners, the altar, the material and spiritual elements. We are world and worldview. No one has ever come to East Antarctica by accident.
No one has ever stood on the ice cap intending to be somewhere else on earth. No one has ever arrived without intent. A glacial continent moving outward from itself, out from the center with imperceptible but unstoppable momentum.
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Ice miles deep sloughs off at the edges what once joined at the center. A metaphor for transformation? Yes, though an impossible one. A spiritual guide? We are asking the question, and we are the answer. We are the question mark looking for enough words to prop us up.
The textures of the snow under the closest inspection by the naked eye are exactly the same as its textures when seen from the window of a plane. A scuffed whiteness, rich with erosion, like a bleached bone. Now I know: white is blue. Antarctica is not white. Look closely at the snow at your feet, even more closely at the snow out beyond. Where I say white, think pale reflected grays and incremental blues.
When you ask which blue, think bruise behind lace. When you think hue, think oblivion. There are countless textures, visible even in a short walk away from our little human operations. From small ridges the thickness of a fingernail to sastrugi like dolphins, the cold ground beneath us rises to meet the wind. Sastrugi are the large-scale hard waves of snow that rise amidst a frozen ocean of ripples, lines, edges, ridges, lumps, slopes, pitches, and basins, making true flatness a rare island amid hard turbulence. Layers and textures are born from complexity: direction, speed, and duration of wind play their roles under variations in temperature, amount of available blowing snow, and the old surface features.
Distractions and attractions are so absent in this icescape that our language responds with negation. Eventually, however, we must try to appreciate the infinitely complex and its relationship to the infinitesimal.
Does the large-scale monotony or the small-scale variety capture the imagination? What scale feeds fear? Which feeds beauty? It takes minutes or years for these textures to form. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. How do we respond to this nature?
There is scarcely enough creation before us to imitate. What have we seen together and what social hope can be derived? We have already chosen to live in an alternative world just to see this place.
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The phenomenon of the ice cap does not offer glimpses of nature. Either you see nature exposed at its root, or you do not find it here at all. There is no middle ground. So it little matters that you observe the emptiness through the small window of a plane or the cramped door of your tent. As long as the intent to respond springs from the observation and not from the window itself, a fragment of nothing will serve as the whole, if we can only find a way to speak to it.
Look at the map.
I. Mortal Danger
Just look at the white mass that is the Antarctic. Look at the nothing that fills the map. Even mapmakers regard the white space as just white space. In atlases, they cover the ice over with paragraphs that describe a few famous journeys and a few famous facts about storm and cold. But under those words is a mute continent of ice, the essential Antarctic, that which estranges this enormous place from all others on Earth. Interior Antarctica is a barrier that predates our species.
And though we have crisscrossed and inhabited this harshest of all landscapes, the wall remains essentially intact, exactly because there are no walls. We bring our own thin walls and hide behind them.
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The ice is a mental barrier, a wall of indifference. Incandescent, generous with light, even fulfilling? From the dust on the edge of the lit bulb we step up, shield our eyes, gaze inward. Up in the air, a small speck in the blue, we sometimes sail over immense crevasse fields along the inside edge of the Transantarctics. Serpentine swaths of gigantic cracks shatter areas of many square miles, often with their snowbridges mostly intact. They look wide from feet up, wide enough to swallow ships.
Many smaller crevasses run at right angles to the large ones, like a midwestern street map from hell. Route-finding on the ground would be impossible, and I imagine the early explorers wandering on foot or ski trapped in these purgatories. We fly over them in only a few minutes. That I am free to imagine the early days of Antarctic exploration from my droning Olympian vantage point in a plane speaks volumes about our easy temporary invasions of the Antarctic interior.
Though we cannot easily stay for long, people like me are free to teach ourselves to be expert at coming and going.