Literature: Mathiessen’s End of the Earth

“I am awed by these creatures and their adaptations, as I also am—please forgive my digressions—by icebergs, whales, the sea and ships, circumpolar currents, geologic time, the origins and evolutionary histories of life-forms, the quirks of birds, birders, and explorers, antifreeze in fish blood, the blue in ice, human folly, the ozone hole, and the earthly balances upset by global warming—in short, the mysteries of the natural world in their endless variations, the myriad petals of creation that open up and fall away in every moment.” –Peter Mathiessen, in End of the Earth (2003)

Voyaging in AntarcticaEarlier this year, I spent five months working in communications at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Antarctica is a place that has seriously gotten under my skin since I first went there in 2003, but I was ready to leave by the end of this year’s contract. After those five months, I found myself missing things that you can only get above 60-degrees South latitude—things like spring flowers, gas station coffee, road bikes, and microbrews. But—funny—now that I’m back in a place where I can find those things, I find myself thinking of The Ice. I take little journeys there in my mind, and a recent read, Peter Matthiessen’s End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica (2003), has also helped revivify my memories of the place I love.

Matthiessen is also the author of The Snow Leopard (1978), which is about his work with zoologist George Schallar in the Dolpo region of the Nepalese Himalaya; The Snow Leopard is a classic in the natural history category, The Polar Sea and End of the Earth is characteristic Matthiessen in that it also involves a journey interspersed with history and the author’s acute observations of the natural world. In End of the Earth, Matthiessen actually takes two journeys, both to Antarctica and both by sea. In the first, he sails through the stomach-churning Drake Passage from the tip of South America in order to view wildlife on the Antarctic Peninsula. On his second journey, Matthiessen sets off from Hobart, Tasmania to Antarctica’s Ross Sea, still hoping to see the emperor penguin that has so far eluded him.

Even though seeing the emperor penguin was one of Matthiessen’s objectives, he admits that this singular goal simply “was not good enough” to justify the voyage when he still had many things undone at home. “I might mutter uncomfortably that Antarctica is monumental, an astonishment,” Matthiessen further explores the reasons for his desire to go back, “…More than any region left on Earth, I plead, Whale sightings Antarctica is immaculate, inviolable, a white fastness of pristine air and ice and virgin glacier and the farthest end of Earth, where frigid seas abound in marine creatures in a diversity still marvelously intact—all true, all true. Yet there is something else.” Matthiessen, in the end, doesn’t tell us outright what that “something else” is, but a person can’t read this book without getting at least an idea of the incredible allure of this place.

For more “Down and Out” on Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, click here.

For more “Down and Out” on Antarctica, see the December 2006 through February 2007 archives.

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