Monthly Archives: January 2007

Literature: FREE BOOKS.

On the Road AgainSome things must go. In less than four weeks, I’ll have to leave McMurdo, and we’re only allowed 75 pounds of cargo. Books are heavy, and they don’t do well traveling in large numbers, so the following are up for grabs.  If you want any (or all), please leave a comment with your email address in the dialog box, and I will email you to arrange delivery. I’ll ship them to you in the U.S. for free, but please know that all of these are used, some dog-eared or scratched with notes. Please reply by FRIDAY, February 2, 2007.

Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings (1999)—the most painful of these to give away. A gem. (link takes you to previous “Down and Out” post on this topic)

George W.S. Trow’s My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998 (1999)—dig this book; it’s like talking to some old guy in a pub, and he helps you understand your parents.

Susan Orlean’s My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere (2004)—a great book to take on the plane—or any adventure.

James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1939)—crazy lyrical madness; if a painting, it would be a Monet.

Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (1980)–A Wrinkle in Time author L’Engle writes about writing.  Inspiring, thoughtful. 

Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories (1993)—Mitchell’s collected writings; basically four books in one. I spilled wine on this one, but it just adds character to the copy, eh?

John McPhee’s The Curve of Binding Energy (1973)—McPhee’s writing on the life of nuclear physicist Ted Taylor. Thought-provoking, in light of current events.

David Dorsey’s The Force (1994)— a good read for someone into business, or anyone on the outside who wants an intimate peek into corporate America’s trenches.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003)—I simply ran out of time to read this one, but it came to me highly recommended. Maybe someone can read it and then send it back to me after I get out of here.

The Jonathan Schell Reader (2004)—A collection of Schell essays whose subtitle pretty much says it: “On the United States at War, the Long Crisis of the American Republic, and the Fate of the Earth.”

Thanks, folks! I’d love to give these books a home.

Tracing the Sun–Days until next sunset: 21


Landscape: Tracing the Sun

The last entry was more lengthy than usual, so I’ll keep this one short. Basically, I’ve got an experiment in landscape going on: for the next few weeks, I’ll be tracing the sun until it dips behind Mount Discovery for its first sunset on February 20, 2007. Last night’s image:

Scott Base

During the summer in Antarctica, the sun swoops around the sky like it’s a ball on a tether. Because it’s light outside twenty-four hours a day, we wear sunglasses every time we step outside; we sleep with thick wool blankets covering our windows; we put sunscreen in our nostrils and on the tips of our ears. After a while, it gets annoying, not seeing the stars.

Before December 21’s summer solstice, the sun lifted higher in the sky each day, and each day since, it has been dropping closer to the horizon. I have not seen the night sky since arriving here the first week in October, so seeing a sunset—a sky full of color—in a few weeks will be HUGE. Way exciting, and I want to document its arrival, so I’ll be going out at the same time in the evening to take a series of photographs, which will hopefully trace the sky’s rapidly changing light. This all—of course—depends on the weather, and last night’s photo shows a sky half-blanketed with gray clouds, but I hope to catch (and share) some better photographs of the sun’s retreat. Stay tuned for the countdown…

Days until first sunset: 24

Literature: Writers on Writing

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.” –Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life (1989)

Writers on WritingOne of my pals recently asked me if I had any recommendations for books on “craft.” Craft, I think, is one of those nebulous and slightly annoying writerly words, but I knew what she meant. She wanted to know if I had read anything good about the writing process, the tricks of the trade, the where-the-rubber-meets-the-road of it all (as if any of those clichés are less annoying than the word craft). I tend to think that reading knock-out books and writing every day are the most helpful learning tools, but I also enjoy reading what other writers have to say about their work. These four “writers on writing” books are the ones I shared with my crafty friend—even though they offer little in the area of technical writing approaches or strategies:

1. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life (1989):

Of these four books, The Writing Life is the one I would recommend above the others. Dillard keeps her discussion of the writing process alive in this series of essays by drawing upon a rich stock of metaphors and owning up to her struggles. She emerges as a captivating (yet quirky) lady who somehow gets a lot of work done—between learning how to chop wood on a secluded island and watching her typewriter go up in flames. In a pinch, how does Dillard eek out those final few lines? “I drank coffee in titrated doses,” she says. I think we’d be friends.

2. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994):

More inspirational than practical how-to, Lamott’s Bird by Bird offers several nuggets of wisdom about the writing life, the most important perhaps the source of the book’s title. Lamott tells a story about her brother trying to complete a report on birds. Even though he had three months to write the report, he waited until the day before it was due and became immobilized by the immensity of the project. Lamott’s father comforted him by saying: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

3. Joyce Carol Oates’ The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art (2003):

I read this book not because I am a big Joyce Carol Oates fan but because I think that if a woman can crank out a list of works longer than a roll of toilet paper and win a few Pulitzer Prizes, then she might be worth listening to. Even though I still think people that prolific must be mutants, Joyce Carol Oates came off as a near-human, saying things like: “Write your heart out. Never be ashamed of your subject, and of your passion for your subject.” Oh–and she admits that she takes breaks…running breaks!

4. Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (1980):

Of the books-are-meaningful camp, I found myself interested in L’Engle’s musings about how her writing process is wedded to her belief system. L’Engle both calls herself a “Christian artist” and shies away from the categorization. Inquiring into the meaning of the phrase “Christian art,” L’Engle most eloquently expresses the book’s premise that “Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.”

Anyone out there have others books to share?? Writers on Writing? Craft? Knock-Out Books? The Process? If so, do leave a comment…

Upcoming: FREE BOOKS. Seriously. I’ve got to give some away. List to be posted shortly.

Landscape: Pressure Ridges

IcescapeIn case you haven’t noticed, this site is—in part—an exploration of place. And since I’m currently in Antarctica, this place has a lot to do with snow and ice. February marks the beginning of my twentieth month on Ross Island since 2003, but I’m finding myself endlessly fascinated with its surrounding landscape, which is really more of an icescape since Antarctica is 98% snow and ice.

By now, snow and ice could be so passé, but on a recent walk through the pressure ridges in front of Scott Base, I again remembered how seductive this place is. A pressure ridge is an ice feature that forms when tidal waves ripple a frozen ice layer that sits on top of the sea. Pressure ridges usually occur where the sea ice bumps up against an ice shelf. Sometimes the ridges become so pronounced that their crests break and create geometric displays of ice fanning out in all directions.

Scott Base Pressure Ridges

During the summer season in Antarctica, the pressure ridges are a dynamic landscape feature. Unlike Observation Hill, which just sits there—static—on the edge of town, the pressure ridges change shape from week to week, and revisiting them is like going to an art museum that frequently rearranges its galleries. Because warming temperatures cause the layer of ice on top of the sea to thin, the ridges become more pronounced as the season wears on.

Crackly ridges

Yesterday, as I ran on the Ob Hill Loop past an area that rippled with pressure ridges a few weeks ago, I noticed that the ridges had broken, and cluster of seals had come through the cracks to warm themselves in the sun.Pressure RidgesWhen I turned my back on them to head up the hill, I heard a woooosh of air and looked back to see a whale spouting breath through a pool of open water. It was one of those moments when the disparate aspects of this place all came together—the pressure ridges like ice sculptures shining in the sun, the seals—overgrown slugs—spread on top of the ice, my calves burning as I forced myself to scurry up a scree-covered hill.

Life: Neighbors

“It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” –Sir Edmund Hillary, New Zealand polar explorer and mountaineer  

Scott Base that wayBesides McMurdo Station, Antarctica’s Ross Island is the location of one other lonely outpost: the New Zealand Antarctic Program’s Scott Base, population: “LOTS,” as the sign at its border reads. At this time of the year, “LOTS” means that around fifty-five happy Kiwis live snugly within a central building that looks like a space station…and otherwise puts McMurdo to shame. Less than three miles away from McMurdo, Scott Base has benefited from forethought in both strategy and design. The entire settlement could fit within an area less than a half a football field in length; by comparison, McMurdo’s hasty beginnings and its heedlessness to aesthetic principles make it an unsightly case of suburban sprawl.

Scott Base

The Scott Base structures are uniformly painted lime green, a color that looks out of place on a continent that has no native vegetation, but its matching palette makes the station look neat—almost sleek—in a way that McMurdo never will be. Attention to detail and design-consciousness are Scott Base’s signatures—from its glossy turquoise fire extinguishers to its Euro-designed dining chairs, which are the colors of autumn leaves.

Love the Green

Named after polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott, the New Zealand station is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this week. Scott Base Skirt PartyNew Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark is currently on Ross Island for the celebration, along with the 87-year-old Sir Edmund Hillary, a Kiwi mountaineer and explorer who has attained celebrity-type status. I wonder if we’ll see them over the hill at McMurdo, but if they knew what was good for them, they would stay at Scott Base.

Life’s better there.

(The food, the parties, and the bar are also better.  Scientists in drag in the Scott Base Skirt Party, above). 

Literature: Raban’s Passage to Juneau

“I had a boat…a cargo of books, and the kind of dream of self-enrichment that spurs everyone who sails north from Seattle. Forget the herring and the salmon: I meant to go fishing for reflections, and come back with a glittering haul.” –Jonathan Raban, in Passage to Juneau (1999)Raban's Passage to Juneau

The recent “Down and Out” discussion of the Polar Sea has had me thinking more about the sea…and its meanings, which brings to mind Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings. Raban’s book tells the story of the author’s journey in a 35-foot sailboat from Seattle to Juneau via the 1,000-mile Inside Passage. But it also shows how that journey becomes a canvas within which nature, history, literature, person, and place are all at play.

Besides recounting the physical aspects of the passage—its tides and winds, its whirlpools and the telephone booths stationed at its docks along the way—Raban manages to narrate a history of place that is as natural as it is personal. The balance is remarkable—one moment Raban describes what it is like to find the morning sky “paint-white veined with streaky pink, like the inside of a mussel shell,” and in the next moment, he tells us what it’s like to be “an experienced deserter,” a “rat” who leaves behind his family for travel.

Framing the entire narrative is Raban’s retelling of Captain Vancouver’s explorations of the area in the early 1790s, and readers are assured a good summary of “Captain Van’s” Voyage of Discovery by the time Raban reaches his destination. In Passage to Juneau, British Romantic poetry also makes a good showing, as do Indian legends, along with advice from fellow travelers and books like Wrinkles in Practical Navigation (1881).

“To put oneself afloat on a sea-route as old and heavily traveled as the Inside Passage was to join the epic cavalcade of all those, present and past, who’d found some meaning in these waters,” says Raban. After reading his account of the journey, I’m convinced that Raban more than stayed afloat with the “epic cavalcade” and that he, too, found some meaning in those waters—maybe even “a glittering haul.”

Landscape: Erebus

“During the afternoon we were nearly becalmed, and witnessed some magnificent eruptions of Mount Erebus, the flame and smoke being projected to a greater height; but we could not, as on a former occasion, discover any lava issuing from the crater; although the exhibitions of to-day were upon a much grander scale…” –polar explorer Sir James Clark Ross, in A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions During the Years 1839-43

Mount ErebusThe world’s southernmost active volcano, Mount Erebus is perhaps the most alive of McMurdo’s landscape features.  From a distance, it sometimes looks like an old white-haired man reclining with his head tilted back and cigar smoke puffing from his mouth.  This is how I imagine it, at least, but Erebus does smoke, and he still sputters lava bombs (yes—he.  Landscape features often seem to have a gender, and Erebus is most certainly male).   

With gill-like crevasses opening on its sides, Erebus doesn’t simply look dangerous; the volcano has also proven to be a killer.   When a 1979 New Zealand sightseeing flight carrying 257 people lost its bearings and slammed into its side, Erebus became the site of Antarctica’s most tragic plane crash. 

Mount Erebus from Scott Base

With a summit elevation of around 12,450 feet, Erebus is the highest point on Ross Island and a topic of interest to several scientists here who keep close tabs on its rumblings.  The National Science Foundation’s Antarctic publication, the Antarctic Sun, reported last week that Erebus erupted as much as six times a day in the second half of 2005.  Erebus from Ob HillWe’re not in danger of becoming the next Pompeii, however, as most of the eruptions are closer to a burp than a full-on spew. 

Estimated to have been active for around 1.3 million years, Erebus doesn’t seem like the kind of volcano to cool off anytime soon.  Named after one of the sons of the Greek god Chaos, Erebus will more likely keep living up to its name.