Posted by: Genevieve | October 11, 2013

A Sordid Love Story

I love Antarctica.

I really love Antarctica. As in I. Love! Antarctica. I love it with swooping soaring leaping inexplicable uncontainable joy.

I probably loved it before I met it. I yearned for it for years. And when I got here, I fell irrevocably overwhelmingly hard in love at first sight.

I didn’t even know what love was or how to love until I came here and fell so hard. I learned how to love without expectation, without an echoed feeling of love. Because, fuck, Antarctica only just barely tolerates me and with a flick of a blizzard could kill me. And I’m OK with that.

I recall my first sight of this place. I was a late hire to replace a last minute drop out. I was well past the first of the Mainbody season, and the large planes weren’t coming down. Just the Hercules LC-130s. There were only four of us contractors on that flight as passengers. I was the only FNG. Though a Herc trip from Christchurch to McMurdo is over 8 noisy hours long, I thought I was the luckiest person on the planet. I was going to Antarctica for my first time.

Being a FNG, and yes, being female, meant I got invited up to the cockpit of the Herc. With a larger number of people, it’s usual of them to give a few curious souls a glimpse into the cockpit to see out the windows. But they don’t get to stay long.

I got to stay a very long time. Indeed, when we started passing over solid ice, and mountain peaks, the usual passenger would’ve been booted from the cockpit. I wasn’t. They strapped me in to the seat behind the pilots and I stayed that way right up to landing at Willie Field.

By the time we spotted the sapphire and sparkly white-clad Mt Erebus, and the navigator had pointed it out to me, with its puff of white smoke and long tail in a blue sky on a small island surround completely by white ice, we were coming in to land. I was that close to my dream of Antarctica, I was so close I was barely able to breathe, let alone see clearly through the tears of excitement, joy and love that were streaming down my face.

We could have flipped ass over nose and died upon contact and I would have died happier than I’d ever been in my life.

Yeah, love at first sight.

A FNG season can be a very very hard season. There is so much to learn, from new acronyms to a new job, new people, new social expectations, a new environment. It is exhausting and stressful and bewildering. But I was in love. My exhaustion and the happiness I felt being here were probably the main reason why the relationship I started early in my FNG season with a lovely funny person, did not last. I felt I had to choose between loving Antarctica and getting enough sleep so I could survive the season and perform my job safely, and my partner lost out. I had to break up. I chose Antarctica. I chose to be safe and do a good job so I could come back here. No human could have measured up to that.

FNGs are sometimes frustrating to be around. We are so excited and energetic and have so many questions. We are needy. And the social norm, the peer pressure here is very heavy on returnees to Not Show Excitement. Or to not act like a FNG. It is laughed at, dismissed; the subtle cues, the overt sarcasm when you go into paroxysms of joy over the view from Ob Hill or Castle Rock, are not welcome no matter how sincerely felt. It’s just not cool.

Part of that is also a kind of etiquette the lucky follow around the unlucky. Not everyone has a job that takes them outdoors here. My second season was entirely indoors, without a window, in an office dealing with unhappy people trying to make them happy. I often volunteered to do any task (cleaning toilets was an opportunity I never turned down) that would get me out of there just to go between the buildings in town so I could catch glimpses of my beloved. To remind myself of why I was here. To make that office small in relation to the vast splendor of Antarctica.

If I was lucky enough to catch a boondoggle (a trip out of town by plane, helicopter, whatever vehicle got you off station and away from town) then I reveled in it. But learned quickly to do so quietly–mostly in writing on my blog–not in person to the less lucky.

As a FNG you are a mostly blithering amazed idiot, but you learn to dampen your public ardor to fit in.

Sometimes a hardened returnee will reveal to another hardened returnee–or take advantage of a FNGs innocently expressed joy–their abiding love for the place with a sudden unexpected paean to the views, the harsh whites, the snow, the skies, the volcano, the opportunities, the wildlife. Those moments still excite me: To know I am not the only one here who loves so utterly, to feel so deeply still.

Even when the job (whichever of the many I have had in 10 seasons) is hard, dirty, boring or frustrating, with hateful co-workers cliquish, juvenile and judgmental; disrespectful bosses, insecure lying fuckers who make every interaction a misery that can go far in destroying a season and leaving me shattered afterward; I know that every time I step outside in Antarctica to do the hard, frustrating, or dirty work, that I will get a shot of energy, a feeling will swirl through me as I look out the window on the way to a task at the airfield–which has a co-worker all grumpy pants about missing break or working overtime–that makes everything all right. The bad shit in relation to the Being Here of Being Here is shuffled off and I have to smile (to myself) and maybe tentatively point out to my companion how fucking lucky we really are and how fucking gorgeous is the environment we are passing through.

Doesn’t always work for all people. Too uncool, too FNG of me. But when it does, it is a noticed beauty shared, and maybe a better mood.

If I am alone…well, sometimes I cry with one of those magnificent emotional rising swirls of emotion I call the “Holy Fuck I’m In Antarctica!!!”s. My Holy Fuck moments remind me where I am and how lucky I am, even when my job has become rote. I have been known to do it in a loader at the South Pole, leaning on the window of the Batcave at Palmer as the freezing rain splats against it making the icebergs shimmer and dance, and while between McMurdo dorms on my way to clean toilets seeing a red flame sunset over the Trans Antartics, standing stunned for so long that my jean-clad thighs become senseless with cold.

The hardest thing about coming here, for me, is the people. Oh no, not the individuals, but the aggregate. I am an introvert tried and true. Groups exhaust me. Meals exhaust me, every meal is a social occasion. This place expects extroversion, and many people, when I walk away to be alone do not understand, and react as if rejected. It is not rejection. I just need to be alone. Indeed, there are so many unique and amazing people in this program that I am always falling in love with their lives, the choices they have made. Each new life lived until Antarctica, or between seasons, is a window into possibilities that may never have occurred to me. I solo hiked the Annapurna in Nepal because I heard a woman my age describe it with excitement. She made it possible to dream it, plan it and do it, simply by virtue of sharing her experience with me. There are role models and heroes and adventurers to put most of us to shame: with their summits of Mt Everest, their decade spent sailing around the world, their purchase of land in Alaska and building their own cabin over the years slowly, and the countries they have ventured into sans language or companions or sometimes even visas through the cracks in borders, the horse trek across Mongolia, the biking from Chile to Alaska. They are endlessly fascinating. I learn so much from them.

Even the simple quiet in a shit storm of rumours and stress modeled by one person is an education and an example of how it is possible to be in the world, in this place that is so difficult for me.

I have had some shit seasons. Only ever one shit job (the indoor one), but frequently even with a job I enjoy and love, there are shit colleagues, shit roommates, shit supervisors, shit food, shit seasons.

I recall once after a shit season, an epically shit season, hard on the heels of a previous shit season, a lovely Kiwi, a perceptive feminist friend of decades observed: “You sound like you are in an abusive relationship with that place.”

Yes. Wow. There are seasons where the PTSD of them comes out in rants and furies and silent extended hunkers of grief and hurt, and it takes me months to recover, unbundle, unclench, unfurl and allow the memories and feelings of joy and love for the place to come blazing up again when some innocent stranger asks me what it’s like down there. I am always able to excuse the shit, forgive the bad, and return to the love and joy Antarctica brings me.

The emotions of this place are strong and often raw, and often bring me to tears describing it to people. Fellow travelers and friends around the world–in India, New Zealand, Chile, Nepal, Italy, Canada, Bolivia, where ever–can be caught in the blaze of my passion for this place when I am describing it. My love is fierce and strong. I wear it on my sleeve.

And sometimes it is that love that makes me hurt so powerfully.

Like now.

I did not make the cut to stay this season. I am leaving soon, until the never certain next year, next season, next deployment.

And I am in a world of hurt. It hurts so much. Too much.

And I am in a deep deep rage over what has been done to this program, this community, this internationally cooperative scientific endeavor, the people who work so hard and sacrifice so much to be here, who do the jobs of two and three people when the budget cuts a colleague, because that is what we do. We step the fuck up to our responsibilities. We do our jobs up to and way the fuck past our abilities to do them. We suffer for our work ethic, our can do attitude, because we keep on trying even when it is humanly impossible to succeed.

To those left behind in this “caretaker status”, this season of reduced staffing comes with correspondingly increased responsibility. Your season will be long and hard. I wish you well. You will step up. That’s what we do here in Antarctica. Be safe. Take care of yourselves.

I just wish the Republican members would step up to their responsibilities, would do what they are supposed to be doing. I am sick of this crisis, where the American people and its proud country have been taken hostage by a minority group ruled by fear of change and the loss of their traditional bastions of power and profit.

Grow the fuck up. Get back to work. Roll with the fucking changes in our country.

Because, Fuck You.

I love Antarctica. And you are stealing it away from me and so many people, you are fucking up our jobs, our science, our futures, our lives.

Get the fuck back to work.

You are breaking my heart.


Responses

  1. Is there any chance of being able to join another country’s Antarctic research team since the US program has been fucked over?

    • I wish. Mostly Antarctic positions for non-scientists are restricted to the stations of the country where you can legally work.

  2. Amen.

  3. Wonderful post. You could come to Alaska for a bit of solace. It’s not Antarctica, but a cousin, and with some of the same glory of pure long white, exhilaration, and breath-taking, heart-raking beauty. The very best of luck to you.

  4. Any chance you get to go now that the shutdown has been ended?

    • I am staying for the season. The weather conspired to keep me here long enough that the USAP started back up again while I was still here.

  5. ^ .. and you say Antarctica doesn’t love you back. ;)

    . . .

    I believe that it is the very way that we exchange value, that is
    the root of modern economic woes. Seems to me, that since
    Pres. Richard M. Nixon went to China, that people (globally)
    have returned to commerce as the primary economic driving
    force, and that commercial development is what leads to long-
    term investment (in the generic sense of the term: to commit
    resources).

    Shipping, transportation, and communication keep things going,
    as is so clearly evident at McMurdo. The US Government is
    there, I think, mostly for national security interests; Antarctica
    is a key strategic location, in the same way that orbital space
    is (and Luna — the moon — for that matter).

    While we’re there, what are you going to do, knit sweaters?
    Lick and stamp envelopes? Process tax returns?

    You do science there, because it’s the obvious thing to do there. ;)

    I have no idea why President Eisenhower’s administration thought
    it was a good idea to propose the Treaty, but they did. Maybe Ike
    was truly afraid of an armageddon scenario. It’s really interesting
    that the Treaty has held up, for as long as it has, and that it seems
    to be functioning well.

    . . .

    I wonder if USAP 2013-14 summer was ever in jeopardy. It’s so
    strategic; in most any other scenario (Antarctica without a Treaty)
    it would have been militarized (heavily). I’m fairly shocked that
    USAP was on The List, or that NASA or USGS was scaled back, in
    any way, for any number of days (or the FCC for that matter).

    NOAA seemed functional (though I did not look in on them,
    recently; the text data was flowing, and radar was up, so I
    figured everything NOAA was A-OK).

    Still, these are all political matters, at heart, until private
    industry, for its own reasons, wants to compete. You kind of
    have to have a NOAA, and an FAA, and a USPO, and so forth.

    Any one of them could in theory be privatized, but I think a
    more interesting model would be more functional — I just don’t
    know the name of that model, or how it should work. ;)

    Maybe the University will be the more stable model — research-
    driven commerce. Basically that’ll just mean the Devil wears
    a different uniform. Power is power (and so is prestige, and so
    forth).

    Some of us are just more attracted to the power of experiences,
    seeing, knowing, learning, and inquiring — for their own reward.

    . . .

    A friend on the Internet once mentioned he had a friend down at
    McMurdo, so I looked into it (briefly). Maybe twelve to sixteen
    years ago. I didn’t know; I was stuck in the glancing-blow-article
    mentioning Adm. Richard E. Byrd mode of understanding
    Antarctica. It didn’t help that Birds Eye sold frozen food; I
    managed to conflate the two! Byrd=frozen place Birdseye=
    frozen food. I swear, those icons were floating in my head
    for an impressively long interval, even as I read about Everest
    in National Geographic.

    It’s funny what you don’t enquire into, until you do.

    Because of Linux, I assumed Finland had penguins. ;) Like that.

    . . .

    You (personally) are changing ignorance into apprehension. So
    be of good cheer. I read Kim Stanley Robinson (/Antarctica/ is
    available on the Amazon Kindle!) because of you. I experience
    what I know of the Ice, largely through the lens of your blog.

    Antarctica couldn’t have a better friend than you’ve been to it.

    (Selfishly) very glad to hear you’re staying. You are my
    Hemingway for that region of the world. I’m also considering
    telling a few select younger people, in detail, why Antarctica
    is important (and how exciting it is). I agree with the recent
    comment on your blog that mentioned it’s the next best thing
    to going into (interplanetary/orbital) Space, though the bottom
    of the Sea is equally .. compelling, as a largely still-unknown
    place to explore and wonder about.

    I don’t think we can possibly afford to ignore any of these spaces.
    Anything we can reach, we should. But, like the Galápagos
    Islands, I think it wise to leave few footprints.

    . . .

    Disclaimer: I probably wandered, and almost certainly said
    contradictory things. I write what I think; what I think is
    a bit muddy. ;)

    • The science is already in jeopardy. For many science groups it is already too late in the season to restart the science. One large science project, ongoing for many years, the LDB (Long Duration balloon) has been cut altogether for the season. And that is just ONE project I can name, there are many others and more to be decided upon in the next week.


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