Thursday, January 7, 2010

Land of Ice

When I woke up on the fourth morning of the journey, the fjords and mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula surrounded the ship. This is a new world, a wonderland of ice. Ice covers every non-vertical surface, topping ridges that drop off into cliffs, spilling over, carving new valleys, covering rises and making their summits into icy nipples, ice cones. The ice approaches the water’s edge, splitting into cracks parallel to the shore, each block stepping down further and revealing the pale but brilliant, glowing blue. The closest analogy I can think of is the glowing of coals within drab ash. This white and blue world is alien, inhospitable, inhuman. I understand now what the chief scientist meant on our last day in Punta Arenas when he said “Today is our last day in the real world.”

This place seems like it must have been made up, maybe in a dream. I try to find words to describe it but all I can think of is that words were never meant to describe what I am seeing. Language feels more comfortable describing agriculture, cities, emotions, politics, history, and it never had to describe Antarctica until recently. It seems inappropriate to use words to communicate my feelings. I imagine that an astronaut trying to describe space, or a deep sea diver might have similar frustration. I can take photographs, but again there is a problem that my camera was not designed to capture a white world so it also does a pretty poor job.

You might be thinking, “Well, I’ve seen a mountain and a glacier before. Antarctica just has a lot of them. How is that so surreal?” It is the scale of the icy landscape that is so unbelievable. It goes on and on without any other color than blue. No green, no brown tucked away in a valley. Behind each mountain range are more ice-filled peaks and valleys, a far-off glacier shining white through a break in the clouds.

Another surreal aspect of standing on the deck of the ship that first morning was the menagerie of marine animals all around us. Minke whales were spouting left and right. Seals lounging on icebergs slid off into the water as we approached. Penguins jumped out of the water in groups like dolphins, their small plump bodies a flash of black and white. It was like an illustration of a forest in a picture book, with every animal showing itself.

I still can’t associate myself with the landscape around me, I can’t believe that my body is in the same space as the glaciers covering the land. Now that I am here, I still can’t imagine being here.

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