While the Antarctic provides a vision of a better world, the Arctic is where our past and our present are catching up with us.
I am not a winter person. The only good I can say about each passing chilly day is that it brings me that much closer to the end of the season. And if, like me, you find that winter is just too over-romanticised in north India, it may be a good idea to visit the northernmost and southernmost ends of the earth to get some perspective on what it is like to bide time in truly cold zones. Sara Wheeler, a British travel writer now in her fifties, is a veteran of these journeys, and has documented them vividly in her books, Terra Incognita (1997) and Magnetic North (2010). Sure, Antarctica and the territories in the Arctic Circle are freezing cold and mostly snowy white, but it is interesting to be told how, other than that, they are poles apart.
Wheeler had spent seven months in Antarctica with the US National Science Foundation in the mid-1990s, yielding Terra Incognita. (I recently lost my much-read copy of that book and so revisited that journey in essays collected in Access All Areas.) The desire to visit the southern continent struck her during a visit to Chile, when she noticed that a triangular chunk of territory was shown along with the coastal South American strip on every map — while international protocols entertain no national claims on Antarctica, it seems Chile has no qualms about asserting its claim to 1.25 million square kilometres of its territory. To cut a long story short, Wheeler was soon enough in residence in an igloo in Antarctica, and as you may imagine, it was not exactly idyllic: “When camping in the Antarctic, you take so many items into the sleeping bag to prevent freezing that there is barely room to get in yourself. You always need your waterbottle in with you, and in a crowd the babywipes (the polar substitute for washing), camera, batteries for the tape recorder, underwear ready defrosted for the next day, and any odd scientific equipment that happens to be lying around. It is like sleeping in a cutlery drawer, in a deep freeze.”
However, she followed up that description of her ordeal with the view that would greet her outside the next morning: “When I scanned the 360-degree horizon, and I saw the curvature of the earth, as if I were in space, and the sun a white stain on the blue, then, at that moment each day, I thanked God out loud for bringing me to the most heartbreakingly beautiful place on earth, and I forgot about the igloo.” And how cold was it those months? “When we threw a mug of boiling water in the air outside, it froze before it landed.”
Or, as she wrote in another essay: “The mean annual temperature is minus 49 degrees C. Nothing works in that kind of cold. Metal snaps. I have seen scientists in tears when the humidity barometer flutters between zero and one and all their instruments die. Yet many people at the Pole work outside, bulldozing ice to make water or maintaining equipment.” All of that for the sake of science, with the visitors forced to live by their wits and improvisation — there is a story, for instance, of a doctor who removed his own appendix. The cold, isolation and darkness (in the winter months) can be devastating for one’s spirit, with well over half winter residents reporting severe depression and complications arising out of “hostility and anger”: “During one Antarctic winter, a Russian at Vostok station killed a colleague with an ice axe during a row about a game of chess. To ensure it doesn’t happen again, the authorities banned chess.”
The other Pole is quite different, and for Wheeler that difference revealed itself too in her motivations for venturing northwards more than a decade later. As she wrote in The Magnetic North, where Antarctica’s “geographical unity and unownedness” attracted her younger self, she was “prejudiced against the complicated, life-infested north.” But as she travelled around the Arctic, “fragmentation, disputed ownership, indigenous populations immobilised on the threshold of change” appealed to her older self: It was “an elegy for the uncertainties and doubts that are the chaperones of age”. And its experience involves us all — it is where our planet’s fragile equilibrium is most dramatically being put under strain. Climate change is manifesting itself in these northern reaches, with melting ice threatening to rapidly raise sea levels earth-wide and the toxins we release into the environment being carried northwards and contaminating marine life. (“In the northern hemisphere, the people who live furthest from pollutants are the ones most affected by them. A leading public health expert has said that in the 1990s, many Greenlanders were so toxic that they would have qualified as hazardous waste.”)
Where in the south is a mass of land (and ice), a continent surrounded by ocean, up north there is the Arctic Ocean surrounded by territories belonging to the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia, lands inhabited by indigenous people in varying degrees of adaptation to their larger political affiliation and to the rapid changes that have cast them adrift from their traditional ways. Also these are territories where a frenetic scramble has picked up pace to exploit natural resources of hydrocarbons and minerals (with the melting of ice, due to global warming, newly exposed rock is revealing more such riches).
Where the southern continent is heartbreakingly beautiful, Wheeler’s accounts of folks she meets along the way and the stories she discerns are often simply heartbreaking. The Inuit in Canada’s Arctic struggling with their new life and its side-effects of obesity and alcoholism (to the extent that local supermarkets will not even sell vanilla essence). Greenlanders working out routes to independence after having swung home rule. The Solovki monastery in Russia, forcibly rid of its monks by the Red Guards in 1923 and turned into the gulag famously visited by Maxim Gorky, who wrote of finding “no resemblance to a prison” and mystified readers for generations to come.
Once again spending part of her stay with American scientists (specifically in Greenland), she found that the Arctic attracts a different sort of person that the Antarctic: “Polar environments attract the type of support staff that used to be called “alternative”… The Arctic drew in not outsiders but misfits, people who would not submit to the routines of the south.”
Or as she put it more poignantly in Access All Areas, while the Antarctic provides a vision of a better world that could be, the Arctic is where our past and our present are catching up with us. Chilling.