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Antarctic Convergence


ISSUE:  Winter 1999

Most men in my family have gone into business but my great-great grandfather sailed round Cape Horn. He had skippered a merchantman in the Malay Archipelago and off the coast of China. A sense of something yet to do nagged at him, though, and in 1848 he left his Washington desk job, meaning to make landfall on the last of earth before you got to ground zero. Along the way he lent a hand to other travelers “in peril on the sea,” the job he signed on for asking him to do this. He was Alexander Fraser, first commander of the Coast Guard, and a saying of his gave a motto to the service he founded. “You have to go out,” he told them, “but you don’t have to come back.”

Having crossed the Equator many times over, he was a “shellback” but younger than I am when he stood out for the Horn. He sailed on the brig Lawrence, among the last of the clipper ships in an age already yielding to steam. Built of white and live oak, cedar and mahogany, she crowded on a lot of canvas, both fore and aft. The captain barely found his footing on her maiden voyage, jumping aboard as she slid down the ways. Before they got home again, she tested him hard. In heavy seas north of Rio, the cranes went over the side, after them the chain slings on the lower yards and the bobstays securing the bowsprit. Lightning struck the masts, and evil-looking vegetation sprouted in the sodden foresail. By early May, winter below the Line, provisions ran short. Rationing water, the captain kept going.

The Coast Guard Academy has a painting that gives his likeness, heavy lidded eyes, not sleepy but considering, touched with a fractional smile. The dark full head of hair, thickest at the temples, crowns a high forehead, and the thick dark mustache falls away in a half circle above the sensuous lips. His jaw, though it doesn’t jut, says he had a sticking point. Twice he clapped a man in irons for insolent behavior, and on the Pacific Station flogged a sailor for shirking his duty. But he bore down harder on himself than his men. Squally weather off the Falklands found his junior officers snug in the fo’c’s’le while he walked the quarterdeck, keeping an eye to windward. “I will cheerfully relieve any officer who from indisposition cannot do the same,” he said. Not easily shamed, they took him at his word, and he stood all the watches alone. His face in the painting, leaping over generations, is the face of my son, Alexander.

For both of us the glass is running, but mine hovers on empty, and much of my life is like a ship’s wake on the water. For years I taught famous authors, most fallen out of favor. I still quote them at the drop of a hat, disconcerting younger friends of mine who think the dead should bury their dead. Sitting in the ashes of the world I grew up in, I do a good imitation of Job. My body as it used to be, legs like tree trunks and a heart of oak, has gone with the Andrews Sisters. Not enduring, it isn’t likely even to prevail.

But I have been reading Captain Alex. His ship’s log, still there in the National Archives, makes a good prophylactic, and getting out of the doldrums, I follow him down to the bottom of the world. Flying most of the way, I keep going at land’s end, finishing the journey in a Russian icebreaker. The Admiral Bellingshausen, out of Murmansk where they dispense with frills, lets you know where it comes from. A broken VCR takes up half its library, and the tiny gym below the water line has a pair of barbells and a stationary bike. Working with the barbells when I poke my head in, the Russian sailor has given up baths and shaving. Our tour director, not Russian but American, from Colorado, however, wants us to restrict ourselves to a single set of sheets and towels, an “act of generosity” toward Mother Earth. The first meal aboard, served by one of those grannies who swept the streets and ran the cloakrooms in the Soviet Union, is borscht.

Most of my fellow passengers are high on the inner self. I like to get dolled up and they take me for a phony, perhaps a Republican. When you meet them, they look through you to the underlying reality, so have a hard time remembering names. Many teach school or used to. In the classroom they favor sweatshirts, lumberjackets, and corduroy pants. Their sneakers, though expensive, are apt to be scuffed, but their hearts, if you could see them, are pure.

The Romance languages instructor from the state university at Ann Arbor, Michigan, an exception to the rule, wears stick-on lashes and blood-red polish over long nails. This seems promising. The legend on her T-shirt tells us, however, that Fur Coats Are Worn by Beautiful Animals and Ugly People. “Junior” Hotchkiss, who shares the same table at dinner, likes the sentiment but not the “Dragon Lady” or her black leather trousers. An instructor in Phys Ed— Kinesiology, he calls it— at John C. Calhoun College, a feeder for the Citadel, he hails from the Bible Belt. Though the best Russian food is Argentine beef, Junior is death on animal products and sticks to the veggies and fruit juice.

Travel in Antarctica isn’t for the underprivileged. Most aboard are oldsters with money in the money market. Youngsters, pre-Yuppy, bunk together in a cabin without a porthole, share a “head” in the corridor, and carry all they need in a backpack. One, who teaches English at Miss Roper’s Country Day near San Francisco, carries a laptop, however, pecking at it after dinner in the lounge. Active in the Sierra Club, she chose our tour because it advertized on recycled paper. The rape of the planet dismays her, and she pins her hopes to Antarctica, still an “unravished bride.” Seniors on the tour, having been to the Galapagos, Isles of Greece, etc., look forward to more of the same.

“Terra Australis Incognita” old mapmakers called the unknown southern land. Something was down there, marked P.D., Position Doubtful, on their maps. Legends of Polynesia spoke of a “frozen ocean,” but not until Capt. Alex’s young manhood did a Yankee seal hunter set foot on its shores. Caught in the pack ice almost in sight of land, Capt. Cook turned back and never saw it. He had a vision of “the horrible and savage aspect” of Antarctica, however. “Here be dragons,” his sailors said, giving it plenty of sea room. It turned out that you brought the dragons with you, though it took me a while to learn this. Real they were but lived in the mind, like the Hell the poet tells of. “Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it.”

As the Lawrence drove south, dolphins hugged the bow, farther off whales sounded, and the ship sliced through kelp, tons of it torn from beds in deep water. On April 3 the log records the first albatross, then, at latitude 54, longitude 56, Macaroni penguins. The ship is east of Cape Horn, and in the night the Captain says he has “heard” them. Raised in the East Indies Trade, no tougher finishing school, he knows about hurricanes, the Horse Latitudes, and Zulu pirates, but nothing prepares him for the terrors of Cape Horn. There are even pirates lurking north in the Straits—Patagones or Big Feet, Magellan called them, Indians shod in enormous boots of fur. Navigating the great paso three hundred years before, he saw their camp fires, never extinguished, and called the shore to the south Tierra del Fuego.

High above it and above the straits that separate island and mainland, sailors look for twin galaxies, beacons to sail by. Light, traveling from these Magellanic Clouds, left the heavens when Magellan left his strait to cross the Pacific. Still traveling, it won’t come to earth for another 795 centuries. The flames Magellan reported are still visible from shipboard. No longer warming the natives, they burn off waste gas in the oil fields. To reach the continent of ice, you have to pass the land of fire, a ritual testing like the one Mozart’s hero undergoes in the opera. At the end he wins the girl, etc., but more important comes to terms with himself.

Tierra del Fuego’s seaport, Ushuaia, lies inland on an arm of the sea. Named for a tribe of Indians wiped out long ago, it can’t have changed much from their day to this. The naval base is new, flying the blue, white, and gold flag of Argentina, but the glacier was there before Captain Alex passed it to starboard, and the mountain it covers is the same Darwin saw from the observation deck of the Beagle. Melting snow on the mountain collects in fresh-water ponds, still a habitat for Alpine geese and grebe. The box-leafed barberry that grows beside the ponds bears fruit, dark blue berries, at the end of summer. Mirrored in the water, the beech trees have shiny, button-like leaves, and some of these “lenga” trees, the bigger ones, are evergreen.

Scott of the Antarctic knew them at first hand. He had a yen for classifying, and his passion for the look of things played a part in his terrible death. Avid for knowledge more than glory, he and the others paused to gather plant fossils on their journey back from the Pole. At the top of the Beardmore Glacier, embedded in a coal seam, they saw the clear impression of layered leaves and thick stems with the telltale cellular structure. A little after this they died, but beside the frozen bodies, the fossils, packed on sledges, waited until the search party found them. Identified as specimens of the southern beech tree, the same that grows in Patagonia today, they were two to three million years old.

The yellow earth movers are strictly 20th century, like the plastic litter, mixed in with garbage in Ushuaia’s town dump. Scavengers, blue-eyed shags, sort out the garbage, and across the road is the World’s Southernmost Golf Course. Houses in town huddle close together, though they have all the room in the world to spread out in. Many are quonset huts, gray and white metal with corrugated roofs, but others, concrete block or board and batten, imitate Swiss chalets. The land of ice, even its fringes, does a number on man’s spirit, and locals seem indifferent to the look of things. Like most of my travel mates on the Admiral Bellingshausen, they think that what’s up front is a snare and delusion. Down by the water, though, a natty brown bungalow tries for a flower bed, and under the windows red lupin poppies are growing.

A decade or so before Captain Alex, Darwin sailed past Tierra del Fuego, gathering data on the descent of man. Horrified by the native Fuegians, he thought about the difference between civilized and savage. Human nature, left to itself, seemed amorphous to him. It needed licking into shape, the way a potter shapes his clay, until the lump beneath his hand turns into an artifact. In the Voyage of the Beagle, he said “The more civilized always have the most artificial governments.” He wasn’t a bully who meant to keep the natives down, and his “artificial” regime meant to free them.

Captain Alex bypassed the Beagle Channel but our Russian ice breaker takes it to the sea, through the last of Argentina and Chile. Mountains on the port bow dwindle to hills, and at last there are no more of either. Long shouldering rollers hoist the ship, then let it fall. Standing upright is an act of will, shaving an act of courtesy, strained, however, and I dab the blood from my chin. The open sea calls to us hoarsely, and dropping the pilot, we begin to “make our Easting down” from Cape Horn. First, though, we have to get round it.

Cape Stiff is an old name for the Horn, not an easy-to-negotiate headland. A last peak of the Andes, it sits apart on its island at latitude 55° 59′ south, longitude 67° 12′ west. Offshore, the continental shelf falls away to abyssal plains 16,000 feet deep. Ragged teeth, left over from ancient volcanoes, churn the water, known to Darwin as the Milky Way of the Sea. Contemplating it, he dreamed at night of death. High on the flying bridge, I see a petrified wave looming over the world. Dutch sailors almost 400 years ago saw a crouching lion. Captain Alex is laconic and notes his ship’s position in the log.

Between the tip of South America and the Antarctic islands 600 miles below is a roller-coaster drop, the Drake Passage. Sir Francis Drake sailed through it the “wrong” way, from east to west, Atlantic to Pacific, and it took him 52 days. Coastal mountains in Antarctica rise to a dome shape, almost the “dome of many colored glass” Shelley dreamed of. From the rounded top, winds sweep down and outward, gusting at 100 miles an hour, Westerlies blow at twice that rate, and between them they blow up a storm.

A big sea is running, abetted by “williwaws,” short-lived squalls but violent. In a rare burst of hyperbole, Captain Alex calls them “tremendous.” On May Day, the haunch of winter, he orders his men to haul down the foretopmast sail. When the summer sun sets, a long night begins, and prudent sailors furl their wings, like the petrels. A giant sump pump, the Drake Passage sucks up gale-force winds funneled south by the Andes, then, exhaling, turns them loose on the sea. In the Roaring Forties and Screaming Fifties, between latitudes 40° and 60°, it moves against itself, forcing up Cape Horn Rollers. Some of these “graybeards,” a mile from crest to crest, reach heights of 50 feet. Behind a double thickness of glass, I watch while the ship’s bow cuffs one of them, shudders, and prepares for another. We have two days of this before we reach the Antarctic.

Captain Alex, beating about near the Horn between its parallel and the meridian of Cape Pillar, had more than a month. Recording the blow-by-blow in the log, his entries are matter-of-fact. Sometimes, however, a man shows through them. “With a commander or his subordinates,” he wrote, “relaxation from duty is to be considered a privilege, not a right.” The time I live in looks askance at duty, a four-letter word. But for him it meant more than spit-and-polish or shaping up when you heard the bosun’s pipe. Devoted to duty, he preserved the forms that kept life intact, and he ran a trim ship in its interest.

II

The Bellingshausen’s Happy Hour is like a revival meeting, where patrons, their tongues loosened, come forward to testify. Our second day out, the English teacher from Miss Roper’s School—her name is Cassandra, shortened to Cassie—testifies for the Adélie penguin. Inquisitive and full of fun, plus a model of decorum in its black tie and tails, it could give all of us a lesson in behavior. Adélie chicks group together in “créches,” protecting the weakest among them from cold. Mothers will lay down their life for their young, and she has seen males and females in San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium encouraging a timid neighbor to jump off the simulated ice floe. Whirring their flippers, they seem to say: “You know you can do it!”

Rudi Windt, “the Professor,” smiles at this and polishes his glasses. Instinct drives mother penguins, he assures her, and it’s a wise one who knows her own child. What “you, my friend,” witnessed was self-preservation larded with animal cunning. Under the water a sea leopard might be lurking, and one way to find out was to push an unwilling comrade in first. Cassie’s word “crèche,” suggesting a nursery school, pleases the professor. “Whereas,” he says, “lesson one in the penguin school is survival. Only the fittest get to be grown-ups, the stronger forcing the weaker to the edge of the group. There the skua waits, his beak like the nose of an Arab.”

Windt isn’t the professor people take him for, but owns and runs a wine bar on the Kudamm in Berlin. “Windt’s Vins,” he calls it, pronouncing both words with a “V.” When he opens his mouth, Latin proverbs tumble out, “In vino veritas” is his favorite. A silk foulard is tucked into his shirt, setting him apart from the others. Though he can remember way back when, he has just begun to gray at the temples. Wincing at Cassie’s verbal slings and arrows—”racist” is one of them, “Fascist” another—he is pleading no contest when the intercom stutters, signaling the end of round three. “We have a humpback,” it tells us, “two points off the port bow.” Tree buggers and litter bugs rush for the exits, ideology forgotten.

I make out the distinctive profile, black knobby head and the dorsal hump that gives it its name, in the lee of Nelson Island. One of the South Shetlands, pips from the sorb apple that was once a single land mass, it sat unnoticed in the freezer until Captain William Smith opened the door. In 1821, landing to the east of us, he raised the Union Jack while his men cheered three times. “Hip hip, hooray!” they cheered, and the hills echoed “Hip hip, hooray!” Penguin bones, picked clean, and broken birds’ eggs litter the stony beaches. In the distance the Antarctic Peninsula leans away from the wind. Look at the map and you see it do that. Together with the offshore islands and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, Antarctica included, it was “Gondwanaland,” but a jealous God wedged the pieces apart. The southernmost piece is bigger than Europe and the U.S.A., higher than the Alps, drier and emptier than the Sahara. Forty years ago, explorers, uncovering the stone igloo Scott used for a bivouac, found a packet of salt left inside. It ran through their fingers like water from the tap.

The dry place is cold. Wearing longies will keep the cold off your bones in the “Banana Belt,” the professor’s witty phrase for the islands and peninsula. Further south, however, temperatures go down to — 126°F, and life reduces to simplified forms. Germs don’t make the cut, good news for me, but my dinged-up lung wheezes in protest. For half the year, darkness covers the earth. Mountains like Erebus, 13,000 feet high, reach for the sun but don’t find it. At their base is the ice shelf, scored with bottomless pits out of nightmare. They might have dropped Scott’s Terra Nova into one and not filled it, said Cherry-Garrard. In The Worst Journey in the World, i.e. Scott’s second and last, he looked back across a lifetime, recalling the best of it, the time he spent in Antarctica. His account of the expedition makes an epic like Xenophon’s. But the price was an overdraft on his vital capital, one he could never pay off.

Below the Horn and above the Antarctic Circle, Atlantic and Pacific mingle their waters, and polar water, coming north, slides underneath them. This is the Antarctic Convergence, marked by mist like dancing bedsheets. At sea in the Lawrence, Captain Alex felt the temperature drop. Battened down against the wind, he couldn’t sail west and wouldn’t sail east, but weather permitting kept his men at their stations. Davey Jones’s locker waited to claim the unkempt and unwary, and they caulked every surface, painting the lifeboats and scraping and slushing the masts. One entry in the log has them packing seams with oakum, the sailor’s definition of make work. The captain wasn’t a martinet but knew how free-and-easy put his survival at risk.

South of the Horn, day and night lose definition, the sky empties except for “mare’s tails,” a scattering of cirrus clouds, and earth sinks to the bottom of a thermometer. Not steamed up by life, the air is clearer than it ever is where people refract it, and the uncanny light, like a halogen lamp’s, fools the senses. Things look bigger than they are, or look close when far off. Promenading on the distant hills, penguins dwarf the men beside me. The summer sun, dropping only briefly beneath the horizon, never shuts its eye, hard on peccant mortals. Dawn follows dusk like spring that begins again as soon as the harvest is over. Standing on deck at 10 P.M., I read the ship’s daily bulletin, sans electric power, then turn in for the night. But night is a convention, and sleep doesn’t come. “Sleep after toil,” the old poet says, “port after stormy seas.” Not in the Antarctic.

Aristotle, guessing at a southern continent, thought it went by contraries. The constellation Arktos, Greek for the Bear, identifies the Arctic, but Ant-arktokos, a negative, is only the place that isn’t. Older than religions, it stays when we go, absorbing the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount. Demarcation is nil in the crystal desert, oppressing Scott with “the terrible sameness of gray.” Ice, melting, turns into water, and water, sublimated, into air. In 1898, Belgian explorers, trapped in the ice, wintered over, driving two of their party insane. Captain Stokes of the Beagle shot himself in winter quarters. Fitzroy, who succeeded him, cut his throat with a razor. Some of this rubbed off on Darwin, in training for the ministry when he agreed to go south.

Plants, men, and animals, it seems to make no difference. On the islands off Antarctica, vegetation withers, and “the hungry sheep look up and are not fed.” Herds of them scrape a living in the Falkland Islands, above the Antarctic Convergence. On South Georgia, in the same latitude but below the bounding line, they die.

Crossing into Admiralty Bay between Nelson and Roberts islands, we slow from our sea speed of 35 knots. Out of the fog floats an iceberg, shadows at the water line hinting at more than meets the eye. Terns swoop around it, patrolling the heaving sea, and in the middle stands a Macaroni penguin, his yellow plume, a dandy’s, blowing in the wind. Beak open wide, head in the clouds like Leonard Bernstein, he is conducting a Romantic crescendo. Some bergs are cathedrals, splendid with pinnacles, some are ships of the line, and a few have been recorded up to 60 miles long. Sooner or later, time melts them all, says the professor, “Sic transit gloria mundi.” This one, tabular shaped, not jagged, resembles a loaf of bread dusted with confectioner’s sugar. Though harrows indent its white “biscuit” of ice, the wind that creates them is like the Invisible Man. Nobody sees him when he moves through the drawing room, but the china cups smash on the floor.

Antarctic wind, an efficient snow-blower, always blows from the south. Facing into it, the windward shore doesn’t look like a Christinas card, no drifts of white powder banked against the family homestead. But in low-lying swales, snow lies deep enough to emtomb both the old clapboard house and the barn. Rocky tors above the shore, unlovely in their nakedness, seem put there on purpose, so many stones in a dolmen. Some are glamorized with mineral outcrops, red and rusty orange, or carpeted with greenish-gray lichen. In these upper shelves of the icebox, life still puts out feelers. Look long enough and heathenish faces look back from the rock, like heads on Easter Island. British explorers, roaming the planet, came home with one of the heads, and I used to see it in the British Museum, occupying a niche in the stairwell. Ages ago, a native carver set his chisel to the rock, but in the Antarctic no hand has touched it.

When the wind drops, fog builds, thick enough to stand on. Then it parts again and we see Half-Moon Island, coming into focus like the fabulous island that rises from the sea in King Kong. On the foreshore lies the broken hulk of a whaling boat, behind it a range of mountains as stupefying as the Andes. Volcanic dust in the air and pumice sand on the shore says what will happen to them. Blue carbuncles bump out the snowy surface of the mountains, like those plastic bubbles that cover a basement window well, keeping out the leaves. Air is trapped in the bubbles, turning them blue, and Captain Smith may have breathed it the day he raised the flag for King George.

“Bergy bits” and “growlers,” chips off the old block, bob in the bay, and giant petrels called “stinkers” follow our wake, eyes peeled for garbage. A black seal swims with us, and a covey of penguins arcs over the water, like stones skimming the pond’s surface in back of the family cottage in Maine. Homey images like this one come naturally to most of us, eager to put the best face on the business. Icebergs don’t split from the glacier, they “calve,” and Ross the explorer, whose name is remembered by an island, a sea, and an ice shelf, thought when he saw the ice of the White Cliffs of Dover. I think of my mother, and the poem she recited when I was a boy. It began with an “if” clause: “If I were drowned in the deepest sea,” or maybe “hanged on the highest hill.” One way or another, she wasn’t about to let go her hold. But no mother’s love comes down to me here. Nature, red in tooth and claw, keeps an eye on my doings, however.

Wanting to come back in one piece, I take defensive measures. I choose a scrap of verse to say to the winds, or burst into song if sure that no one can hear me. Sometimes I do The Magic Flute, seeing myself, a younger version, in the heroic tenor’s part. He isn’t fledged yet but will be, as soon as his trials are behind him. My favorite text is Figaro. When the Countess puts a question to her skirt-chasing husband, I come in with apologies but try to maintain perfect pitch.

Scott and his “band of brothers” give me my cue. “Brothers” was how they saw themselves, often quoting Shakespeare, one of my dead authors. But they lived at close quarters in a savage environment, so kept the natural man at a distance. This didn’t mean wearing hair shirts, it meant reordering priorities, “me second, you first.” Calling themselves to order, they set themselves free. For meals they cleared their work surface, sweeping charts, books, and instruments into the corner. “Table, please,” said Hooper, who had the housekeeper’s job, and covered the surface with a blue linen cloth or white oilcloth.

Before dinner at night, they drank formal toasts. Saturday nights they toasted “sweethearts and wives,” drinking to “absent friends” every Sunday.

Some find their pieties childish. In our alfresco time, if you are on best behavior you are likely repressed, and there is even a recent novel, highly praised in the Sunday papers, that zeroes in on the formal way they kept birthdays. “Lost boys,” the author calls them, remembering the childhood classic by Scott’s friend, J.M. Barrie. “Get hold of “Peter Pan,”” she says, the clue to Scott and his “merry men.” My fellow passenger Samantha Castro, the linguist from Ann Arbor, takes a gloomier view of the “band of brothers.” Love of family obsessed them, a dead giveaway, according to her, and she notes especially the affection each felt for his mother. As to their male bonding, what was it but “the love that dared not speak its name”? Living in a puritanical age, they never owned up to this. Dr. Castro, the title she prefers, is glad to do that for them.

III

It is Christmas Eve on the Bellingshausen but almost no one takes notice. Sprays of plastic mistletoe hang on a few doors, and old Professor Windt tries to strike up a chorus of “Heilige Nacht.” Response is half hearted, even disapproving. Why Christmas if not Chanukah, Ramadan, etc.? As the holiday drew near, Scott and the others began to talk about it, celebrating with a feast of pony meat on the day itself. Captain Alex celebrated red-letter days too, pouring “from his own stores” a tot of whiskey to each of the men. The ship’s doctor shook his head at this spendthrift behavior. He would have sold the ointment that washed the feet of Jesus and given the money to the poor.

Struggling into my Robert Bly suit, ordered from the he-man pages of the Eddie Bauer catalogue, I am a heavy breather making an anonymous phone call. In the queue by the gangway, I practice sang froid. Ste.-Mee Église coming up fast. Little problems drive out big ones, and I have all I can do to cope with the smell of diesel oil or the guano smell from Paulet Island. Its rookery, they say, is world class, and I believe it. Rubber bunkers, keeping us off the hull, cushion the smack of the Zodiac boats. Dropping into the boats, we use “the sailor’s handshake,” right hand gripping an extended forearm, left arm held out behind us for the next man. The fly-boy at the tiller pulls out the throttle and we hydroplane across Hope Bay, just at the turning point between water and ice. Spray from the water, ropey like shave ice, catches me full in the face.

Sending up green spouts that threaten to capsize us, the glacier is easing its load. Snow on the hills is streaky with grime, but when we circle closer the streaks turn into thousands of penguins. Waddling on pink webbed feet, pear-shaped, pointy-headed, they go back and forth, up and down, skaters on the rink at Rockefeller Center. The Gentoos have red bills, monkish cowls, and beaver’s tails sticking out like a flag. Chinstrap penguins wear First World War helmets. The strap under the chin holds the helmet in place. Atop a raised circle of pebbles, female penguins brood eggs or offspring. Males tote that barge, seeking to build up the levee. In their beaks they carry pebbles, part of the ritual of courtship. “Hooligan” penguins steal the pebbles the courtly lover deposits, however. Though the levee gets no higher, he fails to notice.

The lime-green hull of the Bellingshausen rides at anchor behind us, and getting down from the Zodiac into a foot of water, I head for Captain Larsen’s stone hut. In 1902, hunting seals in the Weddell Sea, he and his men wintered on Paulet Island when their ship sank in the pack ice. The hut they built, roofed with canvas and caulked with guano, was only three feet high, but tent poles pushed the canvas higher and in the center a man could stand up. Outside they killed and stacked 1,100 penguins, much of a muchness but it got them through the winter. Spring brought a rescue party. By then, however, the damage was done.

In his captivity, Larsen saw the future, “vary big vales and I seen dem in houndreds and tousends.” In no time at all, whale hunters came down like the wolf on the fold. First to go was the right whale, hunted to extinction, next the humpback and the great rorquals. Larsen lived a long time, enjoying the fruits of the harvest. At age 60 he killed the largest whale ever known, a blue over 100 feet long. Laxity in faith and morals nettled him on his religious side, though, and out of his own pocket he built a church on South Georgia with a high steeple and white wooden walls. The church didn’t last but his stone hut, a magnet for tourists, still stands.

Around Larsen’s hut the going is tricky, cumbered with “brash” ice, chips off the old block, i.e. the pack ice, and stones left behind by volcanoes. Some are lemon-size, some grapefruit-size, and some as big as VWs. Penguin droppings, hardened like concrete, make pathways in the snow. Over this surface hop the Gentoos and Chinstraps, athletes in a race run by one-legged men. The tidal pool they drink from is awash with slime, but they appear not to mind this. Drinking deep, they excrete the salty bit into the bloodstream, sneezing it out through the nose. Oily feathers hang on them like fur, and they ruffle their feathers when they want to cool off. “Ruffled” as in “angry” is another matter. Taking aim at the offending party, they eject their feces with velocity and skill. Under the black tuxedos, their white shirts are stained reddish green.

Assessing the penguin scene, Cassie has her camera out but keeps a respectful distance, not wanting to upset “the balance of nature.” Her half-glasses straddle the tip of her nose, and squinting through them she captures a brooding female on film. “Tuned into nurturing,” as she puts it, it pays her no notice. Offshore a sea leopard, its long neck and reptilian head propped on an ice floe, considers us, thinking of dinner. From a pouch in the penguin’s gut like a kangaroo’s pouch, a ball of light gray fluff pokes up toward the light, its beak already open. The female’s beak envelops it, emitting a stream of white krill. Satisfied, the chick wriggles free of the nest and explores the ground beneath it. Bigger birds claim this turf, though, and squawking like grumpy oldsters, push the latecomer aside.

For the cruising skuas, opportunity beckons. On a one-to-one basis, an adult penguin is a match for a single skua. Two-on-one is a mismatch, and this pair has worked together before. The first, peeling off, divebombs the nesting female, driving it in panic away from the nest. The other, in sync, takes the chick in its bill. Now you see them, now you don’t. Aware that something has happened, the Professor hurries up on the double. “Was gebt?” he asks, lapsing in German. Cassie doesn’t answer but her mouth opens wide, and behind the glasses her eyes are enormous.

IV

Showing the flag, Argentina has a toehold on the Antarctic Peninsula, Esperanza Base, Spanish for Hope. Soldiers and scientists, including some women, rotate in and out all year round. Kelp, called “Holdfast,” tangles the foreshore, holding on to the rocks for dear life. From the Zodiac boats you can pick out the mountains in the interior, ridged like a brontosaurus in the Natural History museum. The capilla or chapel overlooking the water follows the Catholic communion. A plaster statue of the Virgin guards the front door, paired with it a monkish saint with a tonsure. Identifying St. Francis of Assisi, the inscription calls him a fool for Christ’s sake. “Estamos de acuerdo!” says Samantha Castro. “We are in agreement.”

Pushing in past me, she cocks her head sideways, looking with disbelief at the statue of St. Theresa, familiar to Catholics as the Little Flower. A painted scroll in Latin has the saint saying, Deus Est Nostra Spes, “God Is Our Hope,” if we can believe the professor. The wax flowers at her feet are more vivid than nature’s, and votive candles flare and gutter in a tray by the altar rail. The wafers you light them with cost 50 centavos. Over the altar, little more than a table covered with cloth, the painting of St. Francis shows his stigmata. Like Didymus called Thomas, the Doubting Apostle, Samantha wants to probe the wounds with her finger.

“Better not, Missy!” says Junior Hotchkiss. His voice, surprising in a big man, is highpitched, almost girlish. Junior doesn’t hold with graven images himself, but when in trouble dials a prayer to the Big Guy Upstairs. At JCCC they have a saying: “No atheists in foxholes.” The church of your choice doesn’t matter to him. Siamese cats or alley cats, who cares what you call them if they catch mice? All of us are children of the one God, he says, “Catholic, Protestant, even Jewish.”

Batting her long eyelashes, Samantha lets him have it. “Children” is right, lining up behind the Pied Piper, and she tootles scornfully on an imaginary flute. An atheist who had coffee once with Madelyn O’Hare, Samantha bows her knee to no one. As for prayer, she saves her breath to cool her porridge. Junior is sorry to hear this. Hoping that one day the scales will fall from her eyes, he smiles his Jimmy Carter smile and promises to remember her name in his prayers.

Behind the chapel, warring winds fight to a standstill. “Nunataks,” like buttes in a Western, poke up through the glacier, and a cluster of prefabs accommodates the mess hall, sleeping quarters, and work shops, also a gift shop for tourists. Low warehouse-like buildings, buttressed by iron girders and yellow pine “4 bys,” they won’t discredit your travels if you don’t get to see them. But somebody built Esperanza Base, and it cheers me. “Man begins where Nature ends,” says one of my dead poets.

Scott’s people read poetry, some of it “mnemonic” like nursery rhymes, easy to keep in their heads. On the cross in his memory they inscribed a poet’s line, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” This was their choice, said Cherry-Garrard, the women preferring something religious. Scott himself went faithfully to church, not caring to distress his mother. But he wasn’t devout, and the journal he left records no turning to God at the end. Like most who are young and all who went south with him, he had youth’s assurance, and prided himself on his physical toughness. Of course, his body betrayed him. But in place of muscle, he summoned strength of will, and toning down assurance, learned to bend the knee. In Antarctica, he wrote, “the “gods” dwindle and the humble supplant them.”

Weak by nature and subject to depression, he might have been a petty tyrant. He cried more easily than any man Cherry-Garrard had ever known. I used to think that womanish, and still think the habit bears watching. What got him through was character, and his conquest of the Pole impresses you less than the victory he won over himself. It meant living with fear and transcending ambition. When two men ride a horse, one must ride behind, and Amundsen won the race to the Pole. But though it is folly to talk of prevailing, you can make up your mind not to yield.

“You’ve got it in the neck,” they said to themselves, and had no choice but to “stick it.” (You have to go out but you don’t have to come back.) Stick it they did, cracking jokes, some poor but they pretended to smile, singing songs off the gramaphone, finding words for others’ troubles, remembering the Please and Thank You. They had a grace about them, not made in heaven but earned. They kept their tempers, even with God.

“For what?” says Samantha. “And why go to the Pole in the first place?” The professor considers this, then lays a donnish finger next to his nose. Before Scott, he tells us, there was that Frenchman, but the name escapes him. Exploring Antarctica, he called the ship he sailed in “Pourquoi Pas?” Wit, Gallic or otherwise, wins no points with Dr. Castro, and the Professor fits another string to his bow. In 1903, Scott, en route to the Pole, found a seal carcass 5,000 feet up. Seals are aquatic, living in the sea or near it, and why was this one all that distance from home? The Professor is willing to tell us. A “rogue male,” old and cantankerous, it had left the herd, he thinks, traveling on alone into darkness. Before death took it, it wanted to know what was out there.

Up on his podium the old man looks inward, addressing himself. Something about the dark side of the moon and our need to map it and bring it into the light. “Is there not a land of fitness,” he asks, “in doing what hasn’t ever been done? Are we not men in wanting to arrive at the answers?” Darwin, winding up his travel book, believed this. Though he had satisfied “every corporeal sense,” a craving still possessed him to discover the truth. Man, he said, was the thinking creature. “Homo sapiens,” the Professor says, putting this in Latin for us.

Truth is a word that doesn’t roll off my tongue, and I leave its sonorities to others. But I like living at full tilt, and some I know remember the War as the happiest time of their life. “Why not?” seems to me a question worth asking. Considering what we might do, line our pockets or be nice to the neighbors, it strikes the right disinterested note. Why not ask how effects relate to their causes? Most never raise the question, said Cherry-Garrard, asking instead, “What is the use?” Contemptuous of his nation of shopkeepers, he went away on his own to sledge the Antarctic. However, he said, “those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers,” and that meant a good deal.

North of the Bransfield Strait, a big storm takes our measure as we journey homeward, snow pelting the sea and shredding the sky outside the portholes. For a day and night we hold our ship’s head into the wind, then an albatross alights on a stanchion up forward, and the sea that meant to destroy us turns friendly. A type of the survivor, killed by a poet’s crossbow but returning to life, the great bird flies the oceans for years at a time, finding what it needs in the destructive element, fish and squid for food, water from their bodily fluids. Murderous but innocent, it slides down the wind, dipping gracefully when it marks out its prey. A pod of killer whales, hunting the same waters, swims alongside us. Their black and yellow torsos are the color of fever, but ice is the element they live in. With their massive heads they ram it from below, catching the sleeping seal unawares.

Hereabouts mist rises, and Captain Alex, making for calmer seas, swung the wheel over hard. In California where the gold was, men were killing to get it, and when he reached San Francisco, his job was keeping the peace. The Lawrence, ready to do this, bristled with armament, twin 32 pounders, carbines, pistols, and pikes. But like Darwin’s Beagle, she sailed to discover “the causes of things.” The captain heaved the lead, monitored water temperature, currents, and trades. Bureaucrats back home said this data showed tax dollars spent for a purpose, but he gathered it up for its own sake.

Though “complete” in Navigation and Nautical Astronomy, the way his file in the Archives puts it, he liked doing without instruments, and determined latitude by looking at the moon. Sailors who sailed by the book got the scornful edge of his tongue. He had a tongue that needed bridling, and more than once it ran him foul of politicians. When the Civil War began, this wrecked his hopes of a naval command. The web of his life mixes sad and happy, and in his last years the man my son looks back to looks forward to me, old enough, though not an old salt, and ready to go down with the ship. He didn’t end that way himself, dying disappointed, away from the sea. But while others eyed the bottom line, he rounded Cape Horn in winter, battling westerly winds all the way.

Seen from far out, the Horn is a cowboy’s ten-gallon hat, its crown the island in the middle. Smaller islands left and right fall away like the brim. Before you hear the surf, familiar shapes define themselves. Unlike cloud shapes or ripples in the water, they aren’t accidental but tell of the hand that made them. A lighthouse stands on the bluff, behind it what seem to be ranches. The wind blowing off the fields says summer is beginning south of the Line, and the earth, freshly planted, smells the way it ought to but never does in the Antarctic.

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