The East Antarctic And The Emptiness Within: Navigation (Part III)
In this third essay from a four-part meditation on the interior emptiness of the East Antarctic ice cap, the author and explorer navigates the inner life, an elusive and meandering journey, as he contemplates the solipsistic continent.
Look at the map. Don't look at the coast, don't look at the text. Just look at the white mass that is the Antarctic. Look at the nothing that fills the map.
Even mapmakers regard the white space as just white space. In atlases, they cover the ice over with paragraphs that describe a few famous journeys and a few famous facts about storm and cold. But under those words is a mute continent of ice, the essential Antarctic, that which estranges this enormous place from all others on Earth.
Interior Antarctica is a barrier that predates our species. And though we have crisscrossed and inhabited this harshest of all landscapes, the wall remains essentially intact, exactly because there are no walls. We bring our own (thin) walls and hide behind them. The ice is a mental barrier, a wall of indifference.
Incandescent, generous with light, even fulfilling? From the dust on the edge of the lit bulb we step up, shield our eyes, gaze inward.
Up in the air, a small speck in the blue, we sometimes sail over immense crevasse fields along the inside edge of the Transantarctics. Serpentine swaths of gigantic cracks shatter areas of many square miles, often with their snowbridges mostly intact. They look wide from 3000 feet up, wide enough to swallow ships. Many smaller crevasses run at right angles to the large ones, like a midwestern street map from hell. Route-finding on the ground would be impossible, and I imagine the early explorers wandering on foot or ski trapped in these purgatories. We fly over them in only a few minutes.
That I am free to imagine the early days of Antarctic exploration from my droning Olympian vantage point in a plane speaks volumes about our easy temporary invasions of the Antarctic interior. Though we cannot easily stay for long, people like me are free to teach ourselves to be expert at coming and going.
We navigate the somewhat circular Antarctic, especially its interior, precisely by imagining the continent as square. "Grid direction" was established back in 1957 during the scientific colonization of the Antarctic. Grid direction ignores Antarctica's relation to the rest of the planet, and instead fabricates a grid much like the roads of a planned city. On aviation maps, this grid is superimposed over the ice. In this orientation, the South Pole is the central point. Grid North runs along the Greenwich meridian, while Grid South follows the International Date Line. The names West and East Antarctica indicate their direction from the Greenwich meridian.
The real geography is neither round nor square, and its qualities are infinite in their monotony. Our artificial constructions are both difficult to see on the ground and absolutely natural to our minds. Everything we say about the ice is part of the palace of consciousness that travels with us.
+ Read » Part IV: Impermanence
A version of this essay was originally published, in different form, in the Seneca Review.