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.



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