We’ve had some beautiful skies lately. Fire red. What’s another word for sky?
That whole space, dome, all the air, that void around you, the entire thing,
the bell, the hemisphere is seems, fills with red. Excess light from a sun that
is still focused on Spain and far below our horizon. When the globe is visible,
it’s so bright we just get white. So I like it shaded, this way we see the glory
of the red. The sun’s overflow of light.
It’s not every day: just on clear days. Cloudy days are dark. So dark you trip
over your feet. Which makes me realise – it’s the cloud that makes days
dark, that obscures the light, not the lack of sun. There’s a moral in there
somewhere. Like when you fly above the clouds in a plane and suddenly it becomes
a glorious day despite the grizzliness below. But here, when you clamber above
the clouds, the stars and sometime moon are waiting. That’s the best bit. The
night sky is so full of stories.
I’ve had a few emails lately from friends and colleagues. ‘I hope you’re not
too lonesome down there’, ‘you must be pleased the light is returning’, ‘rest
assured the worst is over’, ‘you’re very brave’ and so on and so forth. I appreciate
the concern but feel like a bit of a con. Gnarly hard-core antarctic heroes
and all that. One hundred and five days of darkness, temperatures so cold it
doesn’t matter whether you speak in Farenheit or Centigrade (they cross at -40), blizzard conditions, isolation, the extremes of communal living. It is
all that, it is all that and more, but it’s easier for me than navigating the
streets of Manhattan, far less stressful, much simpler. There’s no questioning
what’s happening when it’s blowing a hoolie outside. More than that, the winter
is comforting somehow. I know some of my companions are struggling a bit without
the sun but so far it’s been my favourite time of year. And when the clouds
do part, well, there’s nothing close to it that can touch on it. The entire
sky is sunset light. The snow reflects pink. You realise that the sun, far away,
really truly is a ball of fire. And you get to see the stars. I’ll miss them
most when the light returns. But like the clouds, I just have to remember that
they’re there, even if I can’t see them.
I’m reading a book at the moment about the first international antarctic expedition
in 1949-52 (Foothold on Antarctica by Charles Swithinbank). So far, it is all
very familiar: the work, the weather, the struggles and highlights, even the
clothing and equipment. Sixteen men wintering for 2 years to study science.
It makes me smile when there are translations for words I use daily: sastrugi,
dunnage, mirage. However much our society develops, some things here will never
change. Dogs may leave, women and internet may arrive, but the place is the
same, the conditions will always be the same, and, to a certain extent, so will
the people who come down here. He talks about the different jobs – the
scientists and techies, the doctor who works all night and is never up for breakfast,
the meteorological observers who work shifts, record the weather every three
hours and launch daily met balloons.
It makes me see my job as a scientist down here in a new light – as part
of a long tradition. Gives it more purpose and reason somehow, something to
be proud of. The tents are identical and so are the supplies boxes used on a
field trip: tent box, pots box, personal box. We even have manfood boxes still,
all the same size, all designed to fit on a sledge and laid out inside the tent
according to the same tried and tested system. They even use the same stoves,
lamps and pots and keep the snow on the same side of the tent for melting. I
like it. It feels very familiar. I haven’t been very interested in reading about
past antarctic adentures until now because I wanted to form my own opinions
first. But now that I’m here, it seems to me that in some ways not much has
changed in the past 50 years and not much will change, however hard we try.