Monthly Archives: February 2007

Life: Out Climbing

True LoveHello from Wanaka, New Zealand. Population: 3500. We are currently sorting gear and then heading out this evening into Mt. Aspiring National Park. We will be climbing, and we plan on returning within the week. We=yours truly, the fantabulous Cece Mortenson, and Tim–the Brit she picked up in Christchurch. (BTW, the pick-up wasn’t completely random. We both met Tim at McMurdo, and–poor guy–had been cooped up at Rothera, a British Antarctic base, for 18 months before working a short season at McMurdo. Ouch.) See you back at “Down and Out” soon.

Life: Cheech, New Zealand

(Sorry, folks. No photos today! I’m at a computer kiosk…)

Greetings from Christchurch, New Zealand, or “Cheech,” as I like to call it. If “Down and Out” were a book, here begins a new chapter. Within five hours of leaving McMurdo Station, Antarctica on Saturday afternoon, I arrived here. It was Saturday night in a big city, and everyone seemed either on holiday or under the age of twenty. With a large student population, Ceech central stays lively until much later than I’ve been used to (bars here don’t make last call until 3 a.m.), and I was feeling overwhelmed–but glad to be back in a place where I didn’t have to wear a parka.

Imagine the contrast. On Saturday morning, we boarded the plane, a C-17, in a 25-below-zero windchill, wearing our required extreme cold weather gear: bulky red parkas and five-pound boots, balaclavas and fleece underlayers. We carried bear-paw mittens and goggles on board.

But today, I wore a tank top and flip-flops and dozed on the grass in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. It’s still summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and I’m sitting on a terrace right now watching people jog with their dogs through the park across the street. I hear cicadas in the trees, and children laughing. Things are so, so green.

After an easy afternoon, I’m feeling rather revived and ready for some travel in Kiwi territory. Tomorrow afternoon, my dear pal Cece will pick me up here in a rental car. We’re heading to–where else?–the mountains, which happen to be pretty impressive in New Zealand. We think that we may have a free place to stay (bonus); otherwise, we’re happy to camp–and climb.

Upcoming: Literature, Landscape, and Life…on the road.

Literature: Do Not Go Gentle

Hut Point PeninsulaWelsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) wrote “Do not go gentle into that good night” in 1951 for his dying father.  Loving it when I first read it (who knows when?), I find now that this poem has just sort of stuck with me, and I like to revisit it every now and then.  In moments lacking inspiration, it seems to reignite the fires.  Since I’m not old or (knowingly) on the verge of death, I read the poem as a powerful plea to live each day fully, and I’m thinking of it now particularly as I think of McMurdo Station, Antarctica’s winter-overs, who will officially start their winter season today.  In just a few hours, I will be flying north with the remaining summer contract workers, and for four of the next six months, those who remain at McMurdo will be living and working in the dark.  I thought that Thomas’ words might lighten their steps:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

A note on the poem’s structure:
It’s a villanelle.  This poetic form follows a pattern that has only two rhymes, and its first and third lines get alternately repeated as the last line in each following stanza (and forming a couplet at the end).  Other rules: nineteen lines total, arranged into tercets (three-line stanzas).  So, no, Dylan Thomas wasn’t just being repetitive because he couldn’t think of anything better to do.  The repetition, as it turns out, is what I like most about the poem.  By the time I reach the end, I feel like I’ve really been bombarded with the message, which is a good one. And simple: people, do not go gentle!

P.S.–Hey, folks, so that’s it.  I’m so outta here.  In a few hours, I will leave McMurdo and will be in New Zealand for the next few weeks.  Hopefully some non-frozen adventures upcoming…

Landscape: The Results

Feb 21 SunsetSince the end of January, I’ve been watching the horizon. Weary of the Antarctic summer’s 24-hour sun, I started wanting to see some color in the sky and announced that I would be “tracing the sun” until it set on February 20—for the first time in four months. This little experiment has had me dashing outside in the evenings to photograph, with the hope that I would catch some of the late summer’s rapidly changing light.

And the results? Well, not all experiments run as smoothly as planned. Obstacles included stormy weather, flat light, and a strong desire to sleep. Some photographs turned out looking more like vanilla shakes than landscapes. Others were blurry or just plain bad. But in the following three images, I think that you’ll get the point.

January 27, 2007. Mean temp: 36°F.

Jan 27 view of Mount Discovery

February 12, 2007. Mean temp: 18°F.

Feb 12 view of Mount Discovery

February 21, 2007. Mean temp: 4°F.
Feb 21 Sunset at Mount Discovery
Obviously, when the sun hits the horizon here, everything changes. In less than four weeks, the mean temperature has dropped over thirty degrees. Until I checked the weather stats for this post, I hadn’t realized that it had changed so quickly. Now my recent desire to eat junk food and take lunch-break naps makes more sense. Maybe it’s a good thing that I’ll be back in New Zealand in less than 48-hours…

Life: Southern Exposure

Southern Exposure Pool TableOf McMurdo Station, Antarctica’s three bars, only one will stay open for winter: Southern Exposure.  The 120 people who will live here had a vote to decide this because only a skeleton crew (well, more skeleton than usual) will remain on station this year during its darkest and coldest time, and budget cuts won’t allow for three bars. 

Even though the winter season will not start at McMurdo until the last plane flies north on Saturday (with me on it), the other two bars have already been closed.  Therefore, Southern was the only social space open this weekend.  Generally, on a Saturday night, it looks like this: 

Southern Exposure Bar

Dimly lit and so stinking smoky that you could cut the air with a knife, Southern is little more than a small-town bar, a place where you can go, and everybody knows your name.  I’m no expert photographer, and I was disappointed when I looked at these photos.  But then I decided to post them anyway because I think that in their awfulness, they accurately represent the place:  dark and fuzzy and a little out of control. 

Now, here’s the same view but taken with a flash:

Southern with Flash

Basically, the same thing:  fuzzy and still a little out of control, but the flash illuminates the smoke that can’t be seen in the dark.  It’s scary, I thought, to know how much muck we’re breathing in.  But friends were there, and over one hundred summer workers departed the next day, so the last-night-in-town antics were a source of amusement.  Even though Southern isn’t the best small-town bar in the world, it’s ours, and—well—when it’s your only option, there’s no use in complaining.     

Literature: Killing Dragons

“Exploration conjures up images of obsessive men—typically British—doing mad things in strange surroundings. The Alpine explorers were no different.”                —Fergus Fleming, in Killing Dragons

Killing DragonsA lively history of early exploration in Europe’s Alps, Fergus Fleming’s Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps (2000) gives us an unforgettable cast of characters who were, as Fleming says, “always fixated and sometimes peculiar.” Although some of these men (and nearly all of them were men) hardly seem heroic—fearing heights and suffering from indigestion or insomnia—their explorations challenged the once-popular perception of the mountains as places of terror and superstition. As a result, poets, artists, climbers, and tourists began to invent new ways of thinking about them. Reverence for and fascination with the mountain landscape developed; obsession soon followed.

Prior to the eighteenth-century, the upper slopes were thought to harbor dragons or demons or an unknown humanity. But when early scientists set out to uncover their secrets, they not only demystified the place but also sparked an interest in mountain climbing. Soon, this new passion overshadowed scientific interests. Instead of wondering what kind of creatures were resting in their mountaintop lairs, people in the valleys started wondering: who would be the first to climb Mont Blanc? and then the Matterhorn? the Meije?

Besides captivating us with the stories of an eclectic group of early explorers, Fleming’s book is well-researched and contains loads of good schol butt (a.k.a. scholarly buttressing). For anyone interested in Alpine history or climbing, the book is a must-read. And for anyone else wanting to know more about these things, your time reading Killing Dragons will be time well spent.

Tracing the sun—Days until next sunset: 3.

Landscape: Low Light

Just a bit of revelry in the natural world today—nothing too heady or sappy.Low Light over McMurdo Sound

As you all know, I get excited about watching the sun swirl lower in the sky at this time of the year in Antarctica. The process is simply stunning. After weeks and weeks of nothing but the sun’s blinding whiteness, we’ve got color returning to the sky and sea. Right now, McMurdo Station is still getting its twenty-four hours of daylight, but on February 20, the sun will dip below the horizon for the first time, and then the following day, we will already have lost two hours and twenty minutes of daylight. That much light, gone.

Purple Sea

I said I wouldn’t get heady, but I changed my mind. I can’t help but think about how the sun’s rapid departure mirrors our own. It is in some ways comforting to know that a place and its people can sometimes move together like this: in sync.

Tracing the Sun—Days until next sunset: 6.

Life: McMurdo News, in brief

We miss you, Erik!On Friday, 139 scientists and contract workers departed McMurdo for Christchurch, New Zealand on a C-17, a burly matte-gray plane that can land on ice. Today, the same, and the mass exodus will continue until the last week in February, when the final plane (which I plan to catch) leaves a population of 120 to stay in Antarctica for the winter and work in the dark.

Sandwich on tuba.It’s not all depressing, saying good-bye, and so far the resulting gatherings have been a riot. The first of last week’s post-departure socials erupted into a party in our dorm’s common area, complete with spontaneous singing, tuba playing, and guitar jamming late into the night. People signed each other’s ass-cheeks with permanent marker and exchanged email addresses.

In the meantime, the ice-worthy vessels have offloaded enough cargo and fuel (over six million gallons) to keep this place operational for another year, and Sea Shepherd is stalking Japanese whale poachers in the Ross Sea. The temperature is back in the low-twenties, and the open water channel already has a thin layer of ice forming on its surface, sort of like the filmy milk that you sometimes have to skim off the top of your latte.

Paul Buck fuel tanker

All of the helicopters have been loaded up into big planes and flown north, and the last of the Twin Otters departed on Saturday. Within the past two weeks, the scientists have vacated their field camps, which means that I’m back at work listening to nothing but radio static, punctuated by the occasional call from South Pole to relay weather observations for the cargo flights still shuttling gear across the continent.

And of course, I’m reading and writing and running around outside to relieve the stress of it all. I got teary-eyed while watching a rock video last night—simply because people were wearing tank tops while outdoors—but also got excited about the prospect of living life elsewhere, hopefully as fully as it gets lived here at McMurdo. Thanks, folks. That’s the news.

Killing Dragons, and other adventures

Literature: In Search of Flannery O’Connor

McMurdo SkyAh, yes, the literary frame: writing guided by an extended reference to another writer or writers and/or their writings. That’s a simple definition of what I call the “literary frame,” and while academics probably call it meta-something, we can just call it what we want here at “Down and Out.” The point is that we know it when we see it. The last post (“Abbey on Thoreau”) was about an essay with a literary frame, and I generally get jazzed when run into this kind of stuff, so I have to mention Lawrence Downes’ article “In Search of Flannery O’Connor,” which ran a few days ago in The New York Times. Click here if you’d like to read it online (as I did).

In the article that appears in the Times travel section, Downes sets off to explore Milledgeville, Georgia, which was the hometown of Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). Downes’ telling of this place gives us the usual—some history, geography, industry, people, etc., but Flannery O’Connor steals the show. Besides Downes’ tip about where to find “impressive sushi” in Milledgeville, we discover the lively details of its most impressive resident. When Downes visits the library that holds O’Connor’s papers and books, he tells us that she kept “a daunting array of fiction, classics and Catholic theology. The book of Updike’s poetry looked well read, but not as much as the Kierkegaard (“Fear and Trembling” and “The Sickness Unto Death”), whose binding was falling off.”

Seriously. Interesting. Thank you, Mr. Downes. And I’d like to see more of it. The two best “literary frame” books that I’ve read in the past year are Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) and Emma Larkin’s (pseudonym) Finding George Orwell in Burma (2005). Lovely books, both of them. Others? I welcome anyone to leave a comment about other books or articles that you think fit into this category…

Tracing the Sun—Days until next sunset: 11

Literature: Abbey on Thoreau

Best of Edward AbbeyI can’t stick to my own reading list, so when I saw The Best of Edward Abbey (1984) sitting on a friend’s desk, I swiped it after scanning the table of contents, most interested in reading “Down the River with Henry Thoreau” from Abbey’s Down the River (1982).  A golden find, I thought, since both Abbey and Thoreau are writers I admire. 

 The moral of the essay is this: if you haven’t ever read Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)–or if you haven’t picked it up recently–read it ASAP, but read it like Abbey does: on a river trip, or in the park, or anywhere outside the confines of your everyday life. 

Abbey chooses to pack a “worn and greasy paperback copy” of Walden with him on a trip down the Green River in southeast Utah.  He hasn’t read Thoreau in thirty years even though, he says, “Thoreau’s mind has been haunting mine for most of my life.” 

 In this essay, we get Abbey’s best exploration of his natural surroundings, and in the process we get to see him grappling with the ghost of Thoreau, whom Abbey counts as the sixth member of his river-running crew.  When Abbey considers the results of a recent election, Thoreau is there.  When Abbey thinks about border control and immigration, Thoreau is there.  And when Abbey contemplates the nutritional value of his breakfast, Thoreau is there, disapproving.  “To hell with him,” says Abbey when he thinks of a raw vegetable eating Thoreau frowning on his breakfast of bacon and eggs…and the usual breakfast beer.

 On the river, Abbey gets increasingly annoyed at Thoreau who gazes at him “through the flames of the campfire.  From beyond the veil.”  And Abbey reacts by bad-mouthing “Henry,” calling him a “poet-spinster” and telling him to “go make love to a pine tree (all Nature being your bride).”  But as much as he tries to escape Thoreau’s haunting, Abbey can’t shake his ghost. 

Instead of dismissing Thoreau, as he would have us believe he’d like to do, Abbey manages to explain why Thoreau “becomes more significant with each passing decade.”  Over two decades ago, Abbey gave us this reason why: “The deeper our United States sinks into industrialism, urbanism, militarism–with the rest of the world doing its best to emulate America–the more poignant, strong, and appealing becomes Thoreau’s demand for the right of every man, every woman, every child, every dog, every tree, every snail darter, every lousewort, every living thing, to live its own life in its own way at its own pace in its own square mile of home.  Or in its own stretch of the river.” 

Are you still reading this?  Grab a greasy copy of Walden and get outside!