The East Antarctic and the Emptiness Within: Arrival (Part I)
The first of a four-part meditation on the interior emptiness of the East Antarctic ice cap. In "Arrival, the author explores the dance between ice and idea, wondering how the ice cap "challenges our notions of place and self."
Beyond the penguins and icebergs, far behind the stony coast, larger than the United States and deprived of life, is the East Antarctic ice cap. This blank space is the vast bulk of the southern continent, a world of ice inconceivable to anyone who has not traveled over its emptiness.
Hours are spent flying over a small portion of an undifferentiated white icescape. Ice, up to three miles deep, swells up from a drowned continent and overflows its several thousand miles of coastline. Nothing interrupts the blank face of the interior except a few research stations and a handful of temporary camps set up each Antarctic summer. As I found in eight seasons of Antarctic work, to meet this place on its own terms is to begin a dialogue with perception. The ice cap challenges our notions of place and self.
Antarctica is the aesthetic ledge from which we leap into space, the antibiotic portal to all that nothing we cannot conceive. A serengeti of snow-dressed ice rejects life across its millions of square miles. From our cluster of tents we touch great emptiness and greater cold with naked lungs and hands, something no astronaut or cosmonaut can do.
What do we understand about the essential Antarctic, this interior emptiness? What notions and emotions survive the context of this icescape with its funereal cold?
Here, as elsewhere, science makes thin reams of data, numbers in streams to be set aside for analysis. We cultivate absences, especially here in the great frozen petri dish of the ice. Antarctica is the meditative white gate to all the darkness we cannot know. We don't understand this local quietus, much less the black universe beyond it, but here we go.
Is it possible for one imagination to explain the Antarctic interior? Here are countless variations of a frozen limbo in the form of a white-on-white desert. Here is silence practicing scales under its breath. A newly-introduced mind, eclipsed, sees all this in an instant.
But will familiarity teach me to classify the undulations of ice under a blank sky? At what point does one person fail to maintain the awesome singularity of it, the wonder of standing on the wide white cusp between life and space?
This is where the "dialectic between idea and ice" takes place. Do I fail if I speak only to the variations, or do I fail if I romance the monotony?
The air is eternal, pre-existence. The scene is pre-human, post-human, a spiritual plane unidentifiable with faith or culture. What we see here is what we cannot know, and what we know is what we cannot see.
The emptiness is not coated with a single silence. Instead, it is littered with silences, the invisible rags of soundlessness that are blown about by the rough perpetual wind. When the wind stops, absences unfold over the desert snows. When I find myself wrapped up in one, I note that the continent's blue lid has shut for a while, that things are hesitated, muffled.
Life in the clouds. The same vast white surface, the same rough impermanent ground, and the need within us to marvel at what mystery lies beneath the sameness.
No object here to alienate us, nor any sign that we are unified with this emptiness. If we find otherness in the ice at our feet, how do we cope with its scale? What do we do with a landscape that we call empty but is in fact an earth, an earth which is a monument to a cold unity that may not include us?
No landscape is more inexhaustible, less embraceable, than the Antarctic. Life is the drop of water running through the freezer.
Antarctica is the only major terra incognita ever discovered by Europeans. No native waited on the fast ice as the first wooden ships limped south. No culture predates us. The implications are both staggering and unrealized.
Neither material nor spiritual world waiting here for us. No gods to clash against each other, or to give us meaning as we struggle with the land. No supernatural for us in this proto-nature. No vertical axis in the human mind connecting underworld to skyworld. No cosmology, no fear, no epiphany, no genuflection. Scarcely four cardinal directions, and no natives to draw religion from the convex paths of the compass.
We newcomers are the parishioners, the altar, the material and spiritual elements. We are world and worldview.
No one has ever come to East Antarctica by accident. No one has ever stood on the ice cap intending to be somewhere else on earth. No one has ever arrived without intent.
A glacial continent moving outward from itself, out from the center with imperceptible but unstoppable momentum. Ice miles deep sloughs off at the edges what once joined at the center. A metaphor for transformation? Yes, though an impossible one. A spiritual guide? Perhaps: if we live to shed the excess of thoughts and feelings, shed them like an ascetic's outer rags, and if we strive, however feebly, to make our selves expressionless and featureless, upon which the accretion of days means only an affirmation of the transience of things, then surely we approach in our person the lunacy of this place. Icebergs calve off in megatons what was gathered in milligrams…
Here is the Great White Buddha: the self's migration in the wheeling of a translucent earth, the metamorphosis of a continental material that is both here and gone.
A version of this essay was originally published, in different form, in the Seneca Review.