The East Antarctic And The Emptiness Within: Absence (Part II)
The second of a four-part meditation on the interior emptiness of the East Antarctic ice cap. In "Absence," a reflection on how emptiness feeds a strange beauty, an oblivion of white.
We are asking the question, and we are the answer. We are the question mark looking for enough words to prop us up.
The textures of the snow under the closest inspection by the naked eye are exactly the same as its textures when seen from the window of a plane. A scuffed whiteness, rich with erosion, like a bleached bone.
Now I know: white is blue. Antarctica is not white. Look closely at the snow at your feet, even more closely at the snow out beyond. Where I say white, think pale reflected grays and incremental blues. When you ask which blue, think bruise behind lace. When you think hue, think oblivion.
All we see is surface. What we say is white, a paper cloud.
An error on my part: nothing on the ice cap is "flat," just as nothing is "white." I can't fail to recognize the infinite variation of the surfaces up here. There are countless textures, visible even in a short walk away from our little human operations. From small ridges the thickness of a fingernail to sastrugi like dolphins, the cold ground beneath us rises to meet the wind.
Sastrugi are the large-scale hard waves of snow that rise amidst a frozen ocean of ripples, lines, edges, ridges, lumps, slopes, pitches, and basins, making true flatness a rare island amid hard turbulence. Layers and textures are born from complexity: direction, speed, and duration of wind play their roles under variations in temperature, amount of available blowing snow, and the old surface features. It's only our literary and conversational habit on the ice that describes a continental surface furrowed by wind as sheer and featureless.
In 1957, Paul Siple noticed in his survey of the area around the South Pole a pattern of extremely low rolling hills, "which reached crests 50 to 100 feet high every five or ten miles … and were apparently large-scale migrating snow dunes." That's only five to twenty feet of slope per mile.
Distractions and attractions are so absent in this icescape that our language responds with negation. We don't see anything we know, so we say there's nothing at all. Eventually, however, we must try to appreciate the infinitely complex and its relationship to the infinitesimal. Follow the erratic stitch at your feet, though it's only several snowflakes high and doomed to be erased by the next gust.
Does the large-scale monotony or the small-scale variety capture the imagination? What scale feeds fear? Which feeds beauty? It takes minutes or years for these textures to form. When I say "flat" in this notebook, I'm thinking of a wilderness of minor textures, wind-driven, sculpted, in flux.
How do we respond to this nature? There is scarcely enough creation before us to imitate. What have we seen together and what social hope can be derived? We have already chosen to live in an alternative world just to see this place. We can try to amplify its emptiness, as this writing does, but I'm still not sure what there is to confirm.
The phenomenon of the ice cap does not offer glimpses of nature. Either you see nature exposed at its root, or you do not find it here at all. There is no middle ground. So it little matters that you observe the emptiness through the small window of a plane or the cramped door of your tent. As long as the intent to respond springs from the observation and not from the window itself, a fragment of nothing will serve as the whole, if we can only find a way to speak to it.
+ Read » Part III: Navigation
A version of this essay was originally published, in different form, in the Seneca Review.