Peter Pierce reviews two books on Antarctica
A History of Antarctica
State Library of New South Wales Press
pp 272, rrp $65.00hb
The Home of the Blizzard
Sir Douglas Mawson
Wakefield Press, pp 438, rrp $24.95p
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Aristotle chose the name Antarktikos for the extreme southern region of the world, because the north lay under the constellation of Arktos, the Bear. What was found to be the coldest, driest, windiest continent was dreamed into being long before landfall was made. Sailing with Cook in 1773, George Forster thought icebergs ‘the wrecks of a shattered world’. Cook believed that this was ‘a country doomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, but to lie buried in everlasting snow and ice’. Nevertheless these forbidding accounts charged other imaginations, notably Coleridge’s, in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Poe’s, in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
Neither of these grand and strange literary appropriations of the continent is mentioned in Stephen Martin’s A History of Antarctica . His book evokes by superb illustrations and statistics the marvels of the place. An instance of the former arrests the reader at once. A colour photograph of icebergs in the Amundsen Sea, golden in sunlight, faces one of Frank Hurley’s pictures of the interior of the hut at Commonwealth Bay during Mawson’s expedition of 1911-14. The contrast of scale is stunning. Self-marooned, living out their own Crusoe-style survival narratives, buried against the weather for many months each year, forced into irksome proximity with their fellows, the Antarctic sojourners dwell in a land of wonders, albeit invisible for much of the year.
In Antarctica have been found the fossils of the age when it was warm enough to support conifers, reptiles, giant penguins. (The latter, incidentally, were named by Welsh sailors on Drake’s Golden Hind, pen gwynn, ‘white head’.) Now the average depth of the ice covering is 2000m. Seventy per cent of the world’s fresh water is frozen in the continent. Katabatic winds blow unhindered from its centre at velocities up to 320 kph. There are valleys where it has not rained for two million years, yet in another the Onyx River sometimes flows. Martin grippingly evokes the climate and topography of Antarctica, but the history of human incursion concerns him more:
“All we know of Antarctica is based on the experiences, observations and perceptions of visitors. Over the history of human presence, the stories are those of travellers, told in the form of a journey, experience and return.”
These stories begin with the skirting of Antarctica in the heroic age of global seafaring. Gradually the continent’s perimeter became known, as sealers and whalers pressed south, national flags followed. Durmont d’Urville (who first won fame by acquiring the Venus de Milo for the Louvre) began the French presence; Wilkes that of the United States. Their names live on in a vast land mass where, miraculously, an amicable settlement of the territorial claims of more than a dozen countries has been reached. Before that occurred, the swastika had been planted in the ice and — earlier — the Norwegian Amundsen was vilified in the British press when he beat Scott to the Pole. Or to one of them: Martin informs us that there are four: Geographic and Geomagnetic South, the South Magnetic Pole and ‘the Pole of Inaccessibility, the place in the centre of the continent furthest from any coast’.
A History of Antarctica is a comprehensive, judicious record of scientific discovery and — recently — of international co-operation. It is, he insists, now a story of women as well. No longer are they likely to be harassed by finding pornography as part of the dinner setting. Concerned especially with the evolution of the Antarctic Treaty, Martin does not devote excessive space to ‘the heroic age in Antarctica’, that is, the first two decades of this century in which Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott and Mawson led their expeditions south.
It is a matter of celebration that the most distinguished of these explorers’ witnesses, Mawson’s The Home of the Blizzard (1915), has now been republished. This is a polyvocal narrative. The testaments of a number of Mawson’s colleagues, detailed to explore different parts of the continent, are included. But his is the commanding presence, organising the provisioning of his party, surviving his ordeal on the ice after his companions died their emblematic Antarctic deaths: Ninnis down a crevasse, Mertz by eating the poisonous livers of sled dogs. While he was interested in ‘the probability of mineral wealth beneath the continental ice-cap’ and in its scientific yields, Mawson also saw Antarctica as a challenge to art.
There is some perfunctory bluster at the start about men ‘of a young country’ rising ‘to those traditions which have made the history of British Polar exploration one of triumphant endeavours as well as tragic sacrifice’. Elsewhere Mawson tests the powers of his prose to render that which awes him in ‘this glacial world’. Here are ‘caverns of ethereal blue; Gothic portals to a cathedral of resplendent purity’, ‘Majestic tubular bergs whose crevices exhaled a vaporous azure’, ‘Seals and penguins in magic gondolas were the silent denizens of this dreamy Venice’. But in blizzard this world is ‘a void, grisly, fierce and appalling’: “We stumble and struggled through the Stygian gloom; the merciless blast — an incubus of vengeance — stabs, buffets and freezes; the stinging draft blinds and chokes.”
The excess of active verbs summons the catastrophic potential of Antarctica, after the lyrical enchantments which Mawson first evoked. The Home of the Blizzard is one of the greatest Australian books not only for the story that it tells, but for the exertions and experiments of its telling.
Across it, across the other Antarctic expeditions of the time, falls the shadow of the Great War. Annotations to the list of Mawson’s staff show that two had already been killed in action when the book was published. When he returned from Antarctica in 1916, Shackleton promptly issued A Call to Australia . This was bellicose rhetoric of a kind that the war would forever discredit, but a notably pure example:
“I speak to you men as one who has carried the King’s flag in the white warfare of the Antarctic and who is going now to serve in the red warfare of Europe …The blood that has been shed in the burning hills of Gallipoli and the sodden fields of Flanders calls to you.”
And if it doesn’t, womenfolk had better put on the hard word. The death of Scott is of portentous importance. His party’s fate was due to poor preparation and over confidence, yet he became the type of a new kind of heroism — passive endurance of suffering — apt for trench warfare.
An Australian physical presence is maintained in the Casey and Davis bases, the first of which was recently the site of a mutiny. Antarctica is the subject of two of Thomas Keneally’s novels, The Survivor and A Victim of the Aurora . In the former, Antarctica is described as ‘a sacrament of the absolute, the same as all deserts are. It’s a place for the prophets’. Mawson would have recognised the sentiment, declined the role.
Peter Pierce is the Professor of English at James Cook University
This review is extracted from the February/March 1997 issue of Australian Book Review