A hill of beans

A hill of beans

Yesterday afternoon we staged the most comic of our portraits, based on Ponting’s product-placement shot of a crew member perched on a crate labeled “Heinz Baked Beans” and doing a bite-and-smile with a spoon and a can of the same.  When I was in Cambridge last year at the wonderful Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Ponting’s papers I turned up a long letter to Scott–never delivered, since it was written when Scott was already dead, unbeknownst to Ponting and the world–that contained a reference to photos like this that implied Ponting hadn’t been informed in advance of the expedition that he would be required to take such crassly commercial photos; he clearly felt they were beneath his dignity.  So why would we re-enact such a photo?

For me, 3 reasons: 1) Antarctic exploration and science ain’t cheap, and someone has to foot the bill, even and perhaps especially for items as banal as beans to feed the troops, be it Heinz or the American taxpayer, and there are all kinds of ways those pressures surfaced for Scott et al and for McMurdo now. See also Cherry-Garrard on shopkeeping.  We had a long and twisting conversation about what our contemporary portrait should have emblazoned on the crate.  NSF?  NO–we didn’t want anyone to make the equation Beans = NSF. What then?  We liked the challenge of figuring it out.

2) A wonderful guy called Max, a contract worker in Supply, turned up out of the blue wanting to get involved with our project in any way, and he reminded us of the young guy in the Ponting photo–both project so much likability through the lens.  Max was perfect, disarming and forthcoming.  We loved his enthusiasm.  He helped us set up another portrait too.  Max is setting out from McMurdo in April to travel the world–an adventurous young person, like others we have met here.  I wish him all the best.  The world should be his oyster.

3)  It drew us into an area of McMurdo a bit off the beaten path of central town, uphill into the outdoor warehouse storage racks and rows known as “Mustache” since to keep track of the inventory the rows are organized according to mustache types:  Handlebar, Imperial, etc.  There are witty signs for these.  It was Vince’s idea to shoot Max’s portrait up there.

Instead of just one crate of beans, Max perched on a 3-4 tier multicolored stack at the end of one mustache row.  Stretched our behind and to either side of him were rows upon rows of crates of various shapes, sizes, and hues.  In the background of the shot, since Mustache is up on a hill, you can see McMurdo Sound, and it just so happened that the British ship Protector was in the sound and a helicopter was ferrying freight around the sound to the heliport below us.  So there was an opportunity to open up the image beyond the full shot of Max and show how the cargo and thus the materiality of Antarctic exploration had expanded.  It now takes a lot more beans.  We replaced the beans with a sandwich.  We brought 2 so we could do multiple takes.

We also approached the shot differently than most of our portraits.  We traded slow motion for stop action, opening the shot on Max taking his first bite of sandwich similarly framed as in Ponting’s image, then using the continuous burst mode to travel from him, handheld and purposefully herky-jerky, around the rows of cargo, returning full circle to Max finishing the sandwich.  We were so happy when we thought it up.  The reality was that it was really hard to do because it was a very cold day and the wind whips through the Mustaches dreadfully, and there were gusts of up to 40 mph that day with wind chills down to -17 F.  And to hold the continuous burst, you have to keep pressure on the shutter button which pretty much requires either a thin glove or no glove or a fingerless one (I experiment with a lot of gloves, and have never been satisfied with any of them).  Running along the racks increased the wind chill, and the wind decided to grab my hood at one corner and pull it off my head, reducing my headgear down to one hat, and my gaiter also slipped down so my face was exposed.  I only did one run of this shot.  Vince did 2, and I think he had even less luck with clothes.  When I got to the end of the shot my face was so frozen I couldn’t speak, and my hand was so cramped around the camera I had to pry the exposed hand off with the other.  And Max was out of sandwich but Vince said, “Just stuff the crumbs in your mouth, no one will notice” (the wind was also whipping sandwiches apart) and poor Max was stuffing sandwich shreds in his mouth and turning blue up there on top of the crates–we at least were able to run around to try to stay warm.  Every time I tell this story now when I get to Vince’s line about the crumbs I crack up and can’t finish telling it.

I still don’t know what this shot looks like, because we can’t immediately take cameras out of bags when we get back inside lest we get condensation, so we left everything in our lab in its insulated bags and went our separate ways. Somewhere up there in Mustache land I lost one of the most successful of my inadequate gloves (a dress glove, of all things, from Madova in Florence), and I was otherwise fond of these gloves so I bit the bullet and hiked back up the hill to look for it.  By then it was blowing so hard and I was having so little success that I decided to use the old method of having the remaining glove do some work.  I dropped it on the ground and instructed it to “Go find your brother.”  Whereupon it sailed off down toward the sound and it took me a vigorous chase to get it back.  I think it was trying to tell me to give up, its brother was long gone.

Time to go look at the shot.  Wish me luck.  We are all out of sandwich and down to one glove.  Each  reenactment presents its own set of challenges.  I’m quite sure Ponting had wind chill and glove issues too.

This one was a lot of fun.



Out of the blue, into the black

Out of the blue, into the black

(Image: from our trip to the Dry Valleys, the helo cresting a glacier)

Much earlier in our adventure the generous and thoughtful James Madsen from the University of Wisconsin and member of AMANDA (here we go: Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array) and Ice Cube projects returned from Pole and gave us his (for us) precious cargo: the shots he supervised in our GoPro re-enactments of the Amundsen and Scott South Pole photographs.  I was so impressed not only with his ready and interested agreement even to do the videos in the first place, but also with the footage itself.  He led no fewer than seven groups through the portraits and accompanying audio recordings.  I’m not going to spoil the unveiling of these in our project by previewing anything here, gentle readers.  That must wait for the opening of the installation in the HopKins Black Box theatre in about a year’s time.

But I want to say now that the reenactments at Pole were a great success in their doing.  Let me explain. I nearly leapt off my barstool in the Coffee House when over a glass of wine Dr. Madsen described his pleased and surprised reaction to how expressive the movements and positions of the re-enacting bodies were, even under all the layers of clothing and the various levels of attachment/detachment of the actors to the images and stories they were re-enacting, all of which might have muffled the effect.  Please understand, this is the kind of realization a performance studies person lives for.  This is also the overlap of what Diana Taylor has so famously and so well described as the archive and the repertoire that together dance our knowledge of history.  The archive in this case would be represented by the original photos, and the repertoire the body’s memory and experience of how it is to move in a very cold climate, vulnerable and suffering despite the bundling up, small spots in a vast whiteness, aware of the need to minimize exposure and maintain the thin lines of attachment to one another, to one’s base and comrades, in order to survive.  But one goal of our project’s use of video portraiture is to fuzzy the line between archive and repertoire, to recover the one in the other.  The bodies that saluted their Norwegian flag proudly; the British bodies that a few weeks later struggled to find a way to pose for a photo with that same flag–those movements are in the photos, too.  Because they seem to us frozen and fixed, we sometimes forget how photos are like texts the way Bakhtin understands them: events, eventful.

Back in our evening at the Coffee House, our conversation had drifted to how Antarctica worked on one’s mind and body, and Madsen spoke about how the constant daylight or something made people’s minds function more slowly or–this is not his word, but my impression–mushily.  One forgets simple nouns.  For me it’s been proper names (which is a very bad thing when one is meeting so many wonderful new people) and making alphabet soup hash of acronyms (is it LDB or LBD?  I have been suffering from a weird pseudo-dyslexic acronym thing ever since I got here–also a very bad thing when one is exposed continually to them in conversations and bulletins and presentations and signage here). One of my coping mechanisms for this had been to write down names and acronyms in my “brain”–a small notebook Katy presented each of us with at our orientation.  I’ve seen others carrying them around. Part of their utility is to replace the electronic or cloud-based devices we are dependent on at home, but I think it’s also at least a tacit recognition of Antarctica mush-brain syndrome.  But I couldn’t even manage my paper brain.  Nothing like greeting someone one has already met with a big, “Hi–hang on…” and searching through the 11 pockets of one’s Big Red (another mush-brain thing for me–which pocket is my brain in today?) then flipping through the notebook to try to find the page with the person’s name on it.  So I gave up, in a way, or at least gave over to trying to construct little rhymes or silly private acronyms for people in order to remember names.  It’s not all my mushy brain fault:  I have met and interacted somewhat regularly with no fewer than four women named Liz here, each very different and lovely and singular, including my new roommate who just arrived.

Flashing forward to yesterday:  we had visitors in Town from the Italian base.  I rode over to Scott Base on a shuttle with some of them (Vince with others just ahead of me).  We were going to visit one last time with Anthony Powell to conclude his portrait with an audio interview; the Italians were sightseeing and shopping (Scott Base has a much higher-end store for souvenirs and warm socks–and yes, I went shopping too:  got myself an autographed blu-ray of Antarctica: A Year on Ice).  I used to have a smattering of tourist Italian, but it was lost in my mush brain, and all I could fish out was to point to the seals lolling around the pressure ridges near Scott and ask, “Come si dice seal in Italiano?” which was just making conversation, but the guy I asked kept saying Mare, mare–so he thought I said sea, and then it just went downhill from there because apparently those spots of loll didn’t register as real animals to the Italians’ eyes until that point.


Back at McMurdo, one of the Lizzes–the wonderful one who organizes our travel and manages the Hut Point volunteers as well as volunteers for many tasks herself (like driving the Sunday shuttle) organized a musical evening with two of the Italians, on guitar and keyboard.  After they played crowd-pleasing favorites in Italian like O Sole Mio they began to play some American popular music, and the strangest thing happened.  They could be excused for not quite knowing the lyrics, but most of us in fact had heard these songs 8 million times on the radio and stateside could sing them full out in the car or the shower.  And we just could not produce the song lyrics.  To me it seemed an extraordinary demonstration of the collective effects of Antarctica mush brain.  It produced some hilarious improvisations, especially one in which a woman in the back seemed to know lyrcis for something they were playing, and the keyboardist started singing about how he really wanted the woman to come up and sing, he needed her, he had spent all these months at the Italian base without seeing a woman, and so on–and she was singing back that she didn’t know the lyrics, etc.–.  The concert went on despite this kind of thing for some time.  The guitarist was actually really good, and he went into a stretch where he was playing Neil Young and a lot of things I listen to frequently, and my mush brain dialed in a non-mush part and I came up with Hey hey, my my; Rock and roll will never die/More to the picture, than meets the eye/My my, hey hey–etc. in some semblance of the proper order.  I have a terrible singing voice so I didn’t even try, but it was good to sing along mentally and quietly, to organize some of the mush. Later I took a good long walk down by the sound and coaxed the whole song out of the cold and the bright sunlit night:  a beautiful night, balmy in the teens, which (amazingly) no longer feels that cold to me.

This morning I woke up with the opening chords in my head, and so this is for you, Italians, Lizzes, Dr. Madsen, Pole reenactors, good townfolk whose names I’ve repeatedly butchered, fussy acronyms I’ve screwed up over and over.  My my, hey hey.




Yesterday we shot another video portrait–one of possibly ten, I have lost count– for what we anticipate to be an “office mosaic.”  These are based on some of Ponting’s photos made during his winter over of men in the hut doing indoor winter things:  Cherry at his typewriter working on The Polar Times; Wilson making watercolor versions of his pencil sketches made in the field (watercoloring not an option in the field; the paints would freeze); Teddy Evans working over what looks like a map; the famous shot of Scott at his desk. These are all “desk work,” and we’ve kept them separate from the other Ponting winter interiors of household tasks like mending sleeping bags or cooking.  There is a lot of contemporary desk work at McMurdo due to the complexity of running a whole town, two airstrips, a helo port, a shipping port, a cutting edge research lab supporting scientists of many stripes and an artist or two, and many field camps both semi-permanent and temporary–all of this in as remote a location as it gets–and due to all the various contractors and sub-contractors employed in doing all of the above.  There is a flow chart of all of the administrative layers and it’s less a chart than a tangle.  Even if one masters all the acronyms (and I have not) one could get lost in the forest of who does what.  And they come and go–administration from afar, with periodic visits–or not–from administrators.  Every department has its own administrative tasks as well–for example fuels, which we also visited yesterday, though administrators of these are more like Scott, combining outdoor work and accounting and planning for it back at one’s desk. There are as well visits from linked agencies like NASA and NOAA who have major ongoing projects here.  So the few portraits of Scott or Evans doing desk work have grown into a mosaic of video portraits that is only a synecdoche of the administrative work going on every moment to run McMurdo.

I have to admit these are not my favorite images to shoot.  Many of the office spaces at McMurdo are tight and a little…boring.  I mean, outside is far more interesting.  Often the window, if there is one, is useful as a light source but if we expose for the view we would lose the subject.  Shooting at 120 fps has meant we lose some of the range available with the full sensor of the camera.  So the challenge has been to find the shot and make it work technically as well as interesting as a video portrait.  And what is the movement in the shot?  Typing?  Dull. But we’ve found some ways to meet the challenges, sometimes better than others.  Hopefully the force of all of the office portraits in a mosaic will create one larger image that speaks well.

Back to the portrait yesterday. It was of Bev, the young and very smart and personable woman who runs Crary lab.  We first met her when she issued us our keys and showed us our space in Crary, then took us (along with interested visitors) on a tour of Crary, a regular Sunday event.  Like so many others we have met, Bev has worked her way through many positions at McMurdo, but she first came here as a grantee working on her Masters degree and studying sediments for the fossil record.  She returned and has worked her way up to her current position.

We posed her in a position echoing Ponting’s portrait of Wilson watercoloring.  There are some large display cases in the first long corridor entering Crary from the main door, and the artifacts in these cases were the basis of the start of the Crary tour Bev gave us.  I liked how animated she was talking about them, and how she used the artifacts as the agents of stories.  Lava bombs from Erebus; preserved specimens of a sea spider showing polar gigantism; various gizmos used by scientists in eras past; a full facsimile edition of the Polar Times (how I ache to get that out of the case and look at it); a stuffed Emperor penguin and chick; a sculptor’s interpretation of a toothfish (and boy does that have a story:  see http://priceonomics.com/the-invention-of-the-chilean-sea-bass/ and http://ecowatch.com/2016/02/11/sea-shepherd-illegal-fishing/ and please do not order anything called “Chilean Sea Bass”ever ever ever because you are likely eating Patagonian toothfish which is threatened by irresponsible and even illegal fishing).  But the artifact that initially drew my eye and hooks it every time I walk by it is a copy of Wilson’s Antarctic Notebooks.  I have a reprint back home but this looks to be an earlier edition.  In the case it is propped open to a page of his Emperor penguin illustrations.  Here is a short video clip from the Natural History Museum, narrated by David Wilson’s nephew, explaining Wilson’s watercolors and their value to scientists:

It includes the Ponting image we were using for Bev’s portrait.  We asked her to take Wilson’s book out of the case and look at it for her portrait, substituting the book for the watercolor over which Wilson is bent in the Pointing portrait.  It’s my favorite thus far of the office portraits because it so directly connects Wilson to Bev, and therefore Wilson’s work as a naturalist and biologist to Crary.  In her audio interview, Bev also talked about her favorite object displayed in the Crary cases, the glossopteris fossil, and how a fossil like this was among the relics found in the tent where Scott, Wilson, and Bowers died.  This was hard evidence–the first of its kind–connecting the fossil record of Antarctica with the supercontinent Gondwana.

This got me thinking again about the work of the heroic age explorers and about how research in general can be very pointed, but can also be full of unexpected surprises.  Sometimes it feels like projects people describe are tantamount to looking for the lost contact lens under the streetlight.  But even in doing so, maybe you find something completely unrelated under that streetlight.  Doubtless there are a lot of dead ends in research–otherwise, it’s not really honest.  Getting folks to realize the effort and patience real discoveries take to make seems increasingly difficult in times that are increasingly dictated by what Cherry-Garrard called “shopkeeper” thinking.  For me Cherry, Wilson, and Bowers’ “worst journey in the world” to fetch penguin egg specimens that proved to be a dead end is a parable of that effect.  Accommodating research means accommodating dead ends, failures, contingencies and surprises.  One has to look beyond the immediate to understand the value–not a cash value–in these. No matter how many administrators parse expense sheets at their desks, there are some things that just can’t be accounted for. And for me, not just the penguin eggs, but the “incidental” beauty of Wilson’s paintings is is a related boon beyond the utmost balance sheet.

Here is another video from the Natural History Museum in which a curator shows us the eggs and narrates the story.

On the town

On the town

Tonight there is a special presentation about AIMS (yes, another acronym:  Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science).  Basically McMurdo (along with Palmer) has outgrown itself and the next phase is being designed.  The movement has been away from doing research in a lab at the station (collecting specimens and bringing them inside) to studying phenomena in the field, so McMurdo can get leaner and meaner (more efficient) and more focused on supporting field camps.  On my way between Crary and 155 today I overheard a clump of folks who had an engineering look about them.  They were walking along a pipe and one of them stopped and said, this is where the door will be, and the others stood as if looking through an imaginary door.

If this makeover takes place it will take a very long time, and somehow they have to figure out how to keep research going during the reconstruction. Here’s the website: http://future.usap.gov/

So while we are re-enacting the past, McMurdo is on the cusp of a different kind of future.  The plans look…. futuristic, sterile, and devoid of the cultural stuff that has made this place so wonderfully strange.  I have no doubt that will stay, however.  You can’t keep it down. And one of the very best places to find it in Old McMurdo is the building known as BFC for Berg Field Center, supplier to remote field camps, where yesterday we spent a pleasant afternoon making video portraits of 2 of the wonderful staff repairing Scott tents (the same design as in Scott’s day) and sleeping bags.  BFC feels like a great loft apartment crammed full of stuff–only the stuff in this case is tents, ice axes, backpacks, field kitchen supplies, etc. ad infinitum.  And lo and behold, on the wall of the BFC were copies of the very photos we were reenacting.  BFC is the opposite of the new plans as far as aesthetics go, and as far as soul.  But the people are the soul. That has to stay.  They are also hard-working and seem to do a lot with what they have, some of it limited.  They repair everything they can, and use every bit of their gear well.  They are resourceful.  They just happen to have a cool loft and a great view over the sound and a giant scrabble board on their floor (and someone recently made them some tiles so they could really play).

Tonight at the same time (and we may be running between them a bit) is the Mardi Gras party at Gallagher’s (and yes today is Wednesday but it’s still Fat Tuesday in the US).  We were just finishing helping to decorate the bar when someone came in and said, “penguin in town.”  And so there was.


The best journey in the world

The best journey in the world

Much of my Antarctic fascination is rooted in Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World and in the stories of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition.  I’ve branched out quite a bit, but my imagination about Antarctica has always seemed to return to this narrative and this place:  Cape Evans, where Terra Nova was based.  Going there …. I can’t begin to say how important it was for me.

When you are an NSF Antarctic artist, you generally rely on the good will of science teams to get out into the field.  They may let you accompany them on a trip, or they may donate some leftover helo hours to help you get to them.  It does have to be worked out well in advance, but as we discovered with our trip to Cape Royds, it might change.  I think and hope many of the scientists realize the potential outreach value of inviting an artist to see what they are up to.  But this trip was different; it was all ours.  We had 4-5 hours on the ground.  And we had the best company:  Katy, an experienced and generous Antarctic traveler and our support person throughout this entire adventure, to whom we owe so much I couldn’t begin to enumerate it all, and filmmaker Anthony Powell who was kind enough to take time away from Scott Base and a busy schedule to come with us to pose as Herbert Ponting (how perfect is that anyway–the new Antarctic filmmaker reenacting photographs of the first Antarctic filmmaker?).

Antony Powell’s website for Antarctica: A Year on Ice: http://frozensouth.weebly.com/

In the shoulder season Cape Evans can be reached by sea ice, and many McMurdrians visit via snowmobile.  But as the summer progresses the ice becomes unreliable, and one must go by helicopter.  During the short hop, I thought about how members of Terra Nova or later of the Ross Sea Party from the Aurora–the other half of Shackleton’s Endurance–made this journey on foot by sea ice.  Thirteen miles.  It could be hazardous.  When the ice got unreliable, there was no helicopter then, although for awhile on Terra Nova they rigged a telephone between Cape Evans and the hut at Hut Point.  The remnants of both ends are still in the huts. Going into shore to walk between the huts meant a perilous pretty much impossible climb through cliffs and the heavily crevassed Erebus glacier ice tongue.  Sometimes they risked the sea ice when it was not quite reliable; it could blow out very quickly, as it did in the harrowing story of the ponies trapped on floes in Cherry’s book, for instance.  After a second year of sledging to stock (futile) depots for Shackleton and losing a man to scurvy, Mackintosh and Hayward of the stranded Ross Sea party, still suffering the lingering effects of the deprivations of their labors, simply couldn’t take the blubbery squalor of Hut Point another day and decided to risk walking to Cape Evans even though a storm was approaching from Minna Bluff and the ice was not yet sure.  They were never seen again.

Scott learned from his mistakes.  Discovery was frozen in at the site of our present wharf (with no Polar Star to break her out) and the Hut Point hut was just all wrong for the Antarctic.  It was built pre-fab on an Australian model with a veranda running round it that, despite insulating it with felt, was designed to keep out the heat.  It certainly does that.  When we shot inside the hut a few days ago, my hands got colder than they have ever been on this whole trip.  We were inside and I did the stupid thing, got engrossed in what we were doing and forgot to care about my hands.  You go inside out of the wind, you take your gloves off to adjust all your gizmos.  I can’t imagine living in that hut.  I was in there for under and hour and was chilled to the bone even with Big Red on (and my gloves off).

He chose Cape Evans for his next expedition because it had a reasonable anchorage (though not in a gale, and lacking protection from the major movements of the sea ice, as the Aurora was to learn) and a low beach; it was located right next to an entry way to what they called “the barrier” and we now call the Ross Ice Shelf (they were not quite aware it was floating on the sea) that led to the Beardmore and the “gateway” Shackleton had discovered to the central plateau.  And he brought a much better hut, designed to keep heat in, and lined this time with a material woven from seaweed.  After restoration by the New Zealand Heritage Trust, it looks snug and fine, and it was both fascinating inside and a welcome respite from the biting winds of the cape.


We had a fine sunny evening–we went at night because of Anthony’s schedule but also because of the light; it would be worked around so that the sun shone on Erebus rather than was shielded by the volcano.  As we were landing I had a lump in my throaty the size of Tennessee.  There it all was–Erebus, the hut, the “ramp” leading to the water, the cross (for the Ross Sea party dead: Spencer-Smith, Mackenzie, and Hayward), and on the other side of the cape, the edge of the ice shelf.

We were greeted by a few Weddell seals lolling on the beach and several swooping skuas.  I remembered that Scott referred to the site as “the Skuary” for awhile before he renamed it for Teddy Evans, his second in command on Terra Nova.


Here is the hut’s history provided by the New Zealand Heritage Trust:


We made our portraits of Anthony outside first, posing him in the position of 2 separate images of Ponting.  I was having a fine old time and I hadn’t even entered the hut yet.  But eventually, we all did.  And there it all was:  the long dining table, Ponty’s darkroom, Scott’s walled-off officers’ nook, the kitchen with its crockery and food tins, the bunks with various personal items–stockings, magazines, a comb–all stuff belonging to these men about whom I had read so much.



I am standing next to Cherry’s bunk, in the “Tenements,” the lower left one.



Later tenants–perhaps from the Ross Sea party?–had glued collages of kitty cats and dogs to the bed boards in the tenements.  Too many textures and details to list here.  It seemed to me that Ponting’s photos had been employed in the restoration of the hut–in a way also re-enacting his photos, as we were doing.  The positions of the bodies in the huts we could not, however, directly re-enact.  Visitors used to touch all kinds of things.  Sara Wheeler writes about lying down in Scott;s bunk, for instance.  Some folks would even steal artifacts, but now the huts are strictly protected and one must touch nothing.  But being there is enough.  I didn’t need to lie down on Cherry’s bunk.  I had Ponting’s image of him peering out in my head. The presence of the former occupants is palpable–for me at least partially because the photographs haunt the emptiness.  But mostly the stories.

Back outside to take some landscapes, and we hiked over the ridge with the cross because Katy had come back from there and said there were a couple of Emperors over there, 5 minutes’ walk.  And so there were, posing in front of Erebus:  a gift, a miracle, an indelible image.  It was that kind of journey.



McMurdo miscellany

McMurdo miscellany

Photo from the road at the end of town leading down to the sound, taken in our first week here

Hard to believe we have only 2 more weeks here.  I am preparing an entry about our trip to Cape Evans–a trip that was more brilliant than I could have hoped for on so many levels–but the photos are refusing to load so I’ll put that one on the back burner for a bit and just write a bit about McMurdo life.  I’ve had the “McMurdo crud” for a couple of days, a virus–not too bad, the kind of thing that circulates when people come and go from the outside world constantly and live in close quarters whilst here.  We also probably don’t sleep enough.  The constant daylight has been both amazing and a challenge to the body’s logic of when to sleep and when to wake.

I am lucky enough to have a dorm room window that looks over McMurdo Sound to the Royal Society mountains, and if I peer around one end, to Mt. Discovery on the right, and the other end, Hut Point and then the wharf and ice pier.  At the pier right now  the refueling ship, the Maersk Peary, is anchored, filling McMurdo’s coffers with 2 year’s worth of fuel. I’ver stayed in a bit more than usual lately to get over the Crud, so I’ve been watching out the window.  Over the last week or so the summer thaw has happened in the sound and there’s quite a bit of open water, so I see a twisty maze of navy blue sea and busted up sea ice, and across the sound, the mountains.  I am fascinated by the way they change appearance during the course of a day as the sun moves in its never-setting arc, and from day to day.  Because the air is so dry the diffusion we are accustomed to doesn’t happen, and the mountains consequently appear quite close, much closer than they actually are. Herbert Ponting had a terrible time with that aspect of Antarctica in his photography, and it changed his aesthetic.  He had a kind of look in his work in Japan in which he used a long lens to make the distance between foreground subjects and background mountains to collapse.  He couldn’t make it work here, it turned to mush.  So his landscapes, which I find very moving, tend to focus on the shifting textures of the water and ice.

The mountains appear to advance and recede, and they change colors and moods.  When one is walking in the hilly town the browns and rusts and drabbish building colors and lava grey-blacks of the ground lava and dirt roads take over, but look toward the sound and one sees the sea and ice and mountain vistas.  For all the photos and video we have taken, I feel hopeless to show what this feels like to see–but then I always feel that way, just not to this degree.  Following Ponting, we’ve focused more on the humans and animals  in this landscape.  I wonder now if Ponting intended to do as much of that as he did. Mt. Erebus is so very present at the Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans, and though there are several Ponting photos of it, he did not make a detailed set of images, a study of it, as one might have expected from him.  Meanwhile, Wilson painted it over and over.  There’s a curve ball in the common wisdom about photography as technology of representation.

Also under my window is a sign for McMurdo Station at the corner of the road, and there seems to be always someone down there, taking a selfie with the sign or watching the pier action or just staring out over the sound at the mountains.  I’ve seen orcas several times now on helicopter trips, but none yet in the patch of open sea out my window.  We’ve been told by the dock workers that last year during resupply penguins came and wandered around the wharf, but none that close so far.  This afternoon we are going to Hut Point for a shoot, and I hope to see some critters around there.

From looking to hearing:  the sounds of McMurdo are of the heavy equipment operating periodically; the thrum of helicopters coming and going, ferrying researchers to and from their field camps; the clatter and chatter of the galley in 155, the crunch of one’s boots on the cindery roads, the change to the clang clang as one walks across any of the many footbridges that span the exposed pipes and cables that carry McMurdo’s power and water and heat and waste; the wind whistling past buildings.  I am aware of the absence of sounds that trees make in the wind, of animals–someone woofed like a dog on the street a couple of days ago and everyone around looked sharply in the direction of that sound.  Occasionally a skua squawks but otherwise no birdsong.  If you get out from town, sound seems to carry much further.  I’ve read that in certain conditions you can hear a human voice from up to 2 miles away.  At night (which looks like day) the streets are more deserted. Town looks the same, and there are certainly folks at work on night shifts, but it’s pretty quiet.  The light does not match the quiet in town at times like these, and McMurdo feels a little melancholy then.  Or at least strange.  It’s bright out, there are at least 1000 people here now, where is everyone?

The tastes:  let me take you to the galley for lunch or dinner.  We stop first at the bays where one hangs one’s parka–no parkas in the dining room, please–and then at the 2 large multi-fountain handwashers before entering.  McMurdo is obsessed with hand-washing.  We don’t want to spread any pathogens.  Then off we go to collect our trays and plates and cutlery and then choose our food.  We have a lot of choice.  You can hit the grill line and get a burger (including vegetarian or chicken patty options) or sometimes this is the Mongolian grill with lots of things to have grilled up; or if you are headed to a field camp or day out you can hit the coolers with pre-made sandwiches; or you can hit the fresh sandwich line and have your own choice of meats and cheeses; or you can grab some pizza from the warming oven (this is available all the time, even outside of meal times, and you can also have it delivered between 10 AM and 10 PM); or you can hit the hot food line, soup at one end, vegetable, starch, and meat and meatless mains–often there is a cuisine theme here, like Indian or Thai or American south.  Then there is the rotating special counter where one might have a taco assembled or something else special.  There’s usually a pasta dish at its own small station. I usually hit the hot food line.  There’s also a station to make waffles any time, an always-full warm cookie oven; a salads bar that includes cold salads and yogurt and fruit (we’ll come back to that), a counter of desserts and fresh baked breads–we’ll come back to that as well–a drinks line with ice, water, and juice, and a hot drinks line with coffee, tea, and Frosty Boy at the end.

So no, I am not going hungry.

Lately there have been 2 or 3 large bowls of fruit at the entrance:  apples, tangerines, once kiwis, once or twice pears, and once a miracle of bananas.  A couple of times the salad bar has had fresh greens and last night, even tomatoes.  These are the coveted “freshies” and they tend to go fast because they are only there when someone brings them in on a plane or in limited quantity on the resupply ship.  McMurdo can go for months without freshies, especially in winter.  There was a scarcity this summer because of scrubbed and delayed flights and other cargo that had to be brought, so the first time we saw fresh fruit it was a big old deal.  It’s rude to take too much, especially if you are a short-timer (are you really going to take a banana when you can have one in 2 weeks, and the person next to you won’t for several months?) and people do notice.

The food here is really good.  The baked goods are outrageous–I’ve actually asked for recipes.  Last night for dessert there was sticky toffee pudding, vanilla flan, and lemon bars.  (OK, I think the splash-out had something to do with the Distinguished Visitors).  The breads are way better than (sadly) what is generally on offer in BR.  In sum I’ve been eating like a lord here.  I do miss good strong espresso, but I make McMurdo lattes (or as I learned recently, Frosty Joes) by putting a dollop of Frosty Boy in my coffee.

Frosty Boy is a legend in his own right, an ice cream-type food dispenser.  To me it’s an acquired taste–to me a little….pre-fab.  Some people adore him.  I like him in my coffee, in a small dose.

The kitchen staff is delightful and they work very, very hard. The mood of McMurdo can be set by the food.  People perk up when there is something really wonderful or freshies are available.  Take as much as you want, but eat it all.  We try not to waste food.  On the way out, bus your tray and scrape your orts into the appointed food waste receptacles, deposit cutlery, plates, cups, mugs, and trays in the proper places for dishwashing, and say hello and smile at the hard-working folks who are washing the dishes.  Marvelous not to have to go buy food, plan meals, cook them, clean up.  It frees up a lot of time, but you are here to work.  The main thing is to see the value in everyone’s work here.  We rely upon one another.  The kitchen workers are known as “stewies” I suppose short for stewards.  I like to think of their stewardship in the broader sense, of the whole station.  Good people.

I am watching a zodiac out in the water at the moment.  A piece of the old ice pier needs to be moved, and they are bringing in divers to figure something out, I’ve heard.  Time to go investigate, and then it’s time for lunch.


McMurdo Dry Valleys

McMurdo Dry Valleys


taylor glacier.jpg

Above, Taylor Valley now and then (a photo that is in poor shape made by Frank Debenham, who was on Taylor’s expedition)

Ever since I read about Scott’s Discovery team blundering into the strange snowless arid part of Antarctica now called the Dry Valleys in 1903 and finding there also ancient lakes and drinking out of them, and then poet-writer William L. Fox’s account of his NSF Artists and Writers visit there (Fox’s Terra Antarctica is a huge inspiration in my interest in Antarctica–see http://www.wlfox.net/) I have dreamed of seeing this part of Antarctica, perhaps even more than the parts that are covered with ice and snow (i.e., most of it).  It’s a strange place, a place that slips through all the categories I have for conceptualizing space, and that may be why.  It is also the case that a good writer like Fox makes one want to see what he saw, feel what he felt.  And if Antarctica doesn’t need us, here is a region of it that doesn’t even play by the scripts we have for conceiving of landscapes.

Here is Scott: “… we have seen no living thing, not even a moss or a lichen; all that we did find… was the skeleton of a Weddell seal, and how that came there is beyond guessing. It is certainly a valley of the dead; even the great glaciers which once pushed through it have withered away.” I seem to recall Scott was impressed by a lake, and that he didn’t need to melt snow to make tea, but I can’t find that quote at the moment.  And somewhere else I read there was a bacterium that gave them diarrhea from drinking the water.  So there were living things….

On Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, a party led by Griffith Taylor (hence, Taylor Valley and Glacier) explored the valleys. With Taylor begins more of the human history of the valleys, though it is still, in the scheme of things, slight.

The valleys are among the most arid places on earth–supposedly now the place most like Mars.  It did feel like another planet.  The mountains here are high enough to make the glaciers just sort of peter out, stopping in folds that made me think of tablecloths, or of marble billows of cloth chiseled in the Renaissance. They do move, but (ahem) glacially–extra glacially, only inches a year.  In some accounts they are growing, ever so slightly.  Time here seems to move more slowly, if at all.  But Scott was wrong about the lifelessness there.  There is life, just not, as Fox writes, the kinds of life we can readily perceive.  Earlier in the season we heard a lecture about the “extremophiles” that inhabit the lakes, focusing on the nematodes, which can apparently survive extremes by freeze-drying themselves.

We flew out on a beautiful day and spent it hopscotching the Taylor Valley by helo with the “stream team,” hydrologists who are measuring the flows of the streams (yes, streams) and lake levels (yes, ancient lakes).  We visited Lakes Bonney and Hoare and Lawson and Bohner Streams.  The Stream Team went about their work and kindly consented to pose for various video portraits.  I spent a good bit of time walking around in a state of awe.  At the end of our day we had a tour of the Lake Hoare camp, including tents beside the Canada glacier, the skeleton of a wrong-way penguin (date unknown) and a seal carcass estimated at 8-10 years “fresh.”  How or why either of those creatures wound up so far away from the sea is mysterious, I would say especially the seal if one watches them for any amount of time; they just don’t move very efficiently on land.

A few photos from our day follow.  Some will have to be fixed–the helicopter stirred up all kinds of dust and dry valley dirt, and it was a nightmare trying to keep it off the lenses in the bright sun.  We were taught to crouch down when the helo landed to fetch us or we would get sandblasted.

Canada glacier


XLS of Vince shooting an XLS near Bohner stream


LSU plugtrishDV


Dry Valley links:

Dry Valleys LTER: http://www.mcmlter.org/

Working in the DV then and now, a NY Times piece:  http://scientistatwork.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/21/exploring-the-dry-valleys-then-and-now/?_r=0