Sometimes place only makes sense within the context of a person—
Last night when the fabulous Cecelia Mortenson, my gymnastic roommate and friend, decided to do a headstand on a newly frozen pond, her act supercharged the scene. Without her there, the place would have been beautiful enough—the light is rapidly changing now, and the ice has been reflecting all shades of an early evening’s purple-orange. But with Cece in the frame, I found that the landscape had a new depth, reference, and dimension.
It’s easy for me to go off about the beauty surrounding us here at McMurdo. Alone, the place is stunning. But the life-givers are the ones who appreciate it, play in it, and care for it. Or maybe the relationship is more symbiotic than that. This cracked pond, this ridge, this channel that just opened up to the sea—these are as much the life-givers, the sources of our sustenance and joy.
Tracing the Sun—Days until next sunset: 16
…the whippings will continue until morale improves…
While I thought that taking a “morale cruise” last weekend on the U.S. Coast Guard’s Polar Sea would be a nice exploration of McMurdo’s surrounding seascape, it ended up being more personal than that. I can see how going out of town on an icebreaking vessel could seem like a morale booster—we would see whales and breathe salty-fresh air and hang off the bow of a big ship for few hours while ice floes snapped and cracked as we slid through—but it actually caused whatever morale I had remaining to plummet, reminding me of the beautiful things outside of McMurdo and stirring my longing for those other worlds only a cruise or flight away. But I’m here to work for at least another month, and since the morale cruise, I have started counting down the days.
Beauty can do that, just rattle you at your core. While I stood on the upper deck and took in the sky and the sea, the flat light muted the icy mountains and dulled the blue-black water so that it reflected all shades of gray. It softened my mood, and—well—it made me sad. Or lonely. Or just way too pensive for my own good.
But there’s joy in beauty, too.
When a ship moves through car-sized slabs of floating ice, the pieces clang against the bow in a strangely melodic way. It’s like hearing a new kind of percussion—an unexpected metallic sound—and it’s a whole-body experience; you watch the floes tip and sink when they go under the boat, and then you feel a thudding in your feet at the same time you hear them start scraping down the ship’s sides.
Most of us could have been entertained all afternoon just watching the churning ice, but then “Starboard side, whales on the starboard side!” came over the ship’s loudspeakers, and we crowded over on the deck to see a pod of minke whales spouting breath into the air near the ice edge. They surfaced and then dove and then were gone, leaving ripples in their wake.
When I got back to McMurdo in the afternoon, I felt more serious talking to my roommate about what kind of climbing we will do in New Zealand when we leave. I started thinking about drinking that first good latte in Christchurch and about eating made-to-order pizza with fresh mushrooms and tomatoes. I wondered which movies would be showing and what new books I’ll add to my list. And then I felt guilty for wanting so badly to be somewhere else. But this is what it’s like once you start thinking that it’s time to go.
Tracing the Sun–Days until next sunset: 18