Science on Ice: Discovering the Secrets of Antarctica, by Veronika Meduna (Auckland University Press, 2012), 225 pp., $59.99; These Rough Notes, by Bill Manhire, Anne Noble, Norman Meehan, and Hannah Griffin (Victoria University Press, 2012), 64 pp., $40.<
A Canadian band I once loved sang an unlikely song about an Antarctic explorer meeting Foucault in Paris. The explorer, having noted Foucault’s resemblance to Shackleton, concludes the meeting with the lines:
thank you for the flowers and the book by Derrida
but I must be getting back to dear Antarctica.
This was my unlikely refrain as I kept returning to these two books, which approach dear Antarctica in very different ways – both trying to haul forth its expansive, freezing mass, its strange inhabitants, searing winds, and wild force of questions.
Veronika Meduna’s book tackles the continent through the science. It’s always been a strange combination – between the coldest, windiest, most hostile of worlds, and the people who spend their time there, often careful scientists wielding data-heavy computers, with an ability to endlessly discuss the implications of the various thicknesses of the sea ice.
Science on Ice is particularly focused on New Zealand science, and the Ross Sea region (‘though she also wrote a broader version for an American audience). Meduna is patient with her scientific explanations, and she has an eye for precise, peculiar details. This is a continent, she tells us, where lichen grows at an average rate of one millimetre per century, where we might encounter Antarctic hairgrass and flowering Antarctic pearlwort, where ‘fungi are cosmopolitan, and their lineage also includes rusts, smuts, puffballs, truffles and yeasts’. And that’s just the plant-life.
She shows us scientists who dig up subfossil penguin bones to compare ancient DNA with that of living birds, or how a giant iceberg called B15 can teach us more about penguin breeding between colonies, or how scientists attach depth recorders to emperor penguins, to track their 500 metre dives. Her descriptions are accurate but not dry; there’s plenty of room for lyricism. Watching video footage from a diver’s adventure beneath the ice, she describes:
masses of bright pink starfish, giant worms and purple urchins… the seafloor was teeming with colour and life. Seen from below, the ice looked like a pre-dawn sky with soft light emerging between patches of pastel colours drawn by algae on the underside or snow above. The divers’ air bubbles gathered under the ice to form giant mirrors.
In Meduna’s hands, scientists become risk-taking explorers, always about to stumble upon something crucial, like a fragment of fossilised jawbone from a salamander-like animal that lived in the early Triassic period. That scrap of bone, picked up in 1967 by geologist Peter Barrett, proved that once, in a much warmer Antarctica, land vertebrates had wandered the continent – and also provided evidence for both continental drift and the supercontinent, Gondwana.
Meduna’s book begins with Antarctica’s climate history. She goes on to cover marine life – including the now familiar story of penguin breeding (see Frozen Planet or March of the Penguins), carrying on to the lesser known (and thus more exciting) quest to understand the antifreeze properties in Antarctic fish. She then turns to the tiny, terrestrial life on the continent; the microscopic creatures that nestle in lakes and under seal carcasses; and concludes with a brief wrestle with astronomy and physics.
As you might expect, the threat of climate change looms over this book. For the penguins alone, scientists predict that if temperatures rose just 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, three in four Adelie colonies in the Ross Sea region would decrease or vanish entirely. For emperor penguins, because they need ice to feed as well as to breed, the impact would likely be even more serious.
Throughout the book, Meduna takes care to stress why Antarctica could well be crucial to understand our past, to understand life on other planets, and for our survival in the future.
The book is gorgeously produced by Auckland University Press, dripping with photographs: of Antarctic icescapes, scientists at work on the ice, and the occasional penguin. It’s worth opening for the photographs of lichen alone – strange blossoming colour in such an unlikely world – or of the mummified seals of the Dry Valleys, with their sometimes mottled, sometimes sleek carcasses. Many of the photographs were taken by helicopter pilot Rob McPhail, who has spent more than twenty summers on the ice — about as close to a local as you get. (Writer Matt Vance once advised me that the most reliable Antarctic weather forecast could be found by watching Rob’s drink. Weather is notoriously hard to predict on the ice; but if Rob had only one can of Heineken, you could usually bet the weather would be fine. If he had two or three, however, you could be sure that nobody would be flying in the morning).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the least interesting parts of Meduna’s books are the summaries of how the scientists themselves came to study their particular area. This is for two reasons, first because scientists don’t tend to lead far-fetched, spontaneous lives — they often begin at a university, and go to the ice, and patiently commence their studies, accommodating the occasional surprise in their data along the way — and secondly, because in this book, the scientists are competing with one of the most fascinating worlds imaginable.
One of my favourite sections of the book describes the tiny inhabitants of Antarctica. While penguins and seals belong in the ocean, Meduna looks to the microscopic populations that spend their whole lives on the ice. ‘The highest form of terrestrial animal life,’ she tells us, ‘is a wingless midge that grows to 12 millimetres’. That’s big for Antarctica; you can’t see most of the life further inland without a microscope. But the most astounding thing about these minuscule creatures is their ability to shut down when conditions are bad. Terrestrial life in Antarctica can function for just a few days a year, and not reproduce for several years:
Usually any creature that ceases all metabolic function is considered dead, but Antarctica’s minute animals enter a dormant state on death’s doorstep – a latent life. Biologists terms the process cryptobiosis, or hidden life.
This ‘complete shutdown’ can last for years; a nematode was revived after being latent for 39 years. Microscopic rotifers have been revived after 120 years. This is the kind of behaviour you come to expect in the world’s largest desert.
These Rough Notes is another gorgeously produced book, a collaborative collection of accomplished artists’ approaches to the continent: Manhire’s poems, Noble’s photographs, Meehan’s music, Griffin’s clear, glistening voice. It also could be a glimpse of what’s to come for Victoria University Press, which has recently acquired music label Rattle, and may well continue to wander around this new territory.
It’s interesting to see Manhire slide closer to songs in this project. Some of these lines you’ll recognise from his earlier Antarctic poems, but all are doubly made new, first in the juxtaposition of Manhire’s words with Noble’s glossy photographs, and secondly, in the accompanying CD with Manhire’s songs put to Meehan’s music.
Robert Hass once said that song lyrics are poems ‘that have to behave in tandem with the music — like the difference between dancing alone and dancing with a partner.’ If this is true, Manhire’s task is brave indeed; his words dance with a partner while they also dance alone. But in some ways, this is the kind of doubling that fits Antarctica perfectly. It’s a place that seems to often lead those who describe it to make metaphors and reject them, only to settle uneasily on paradoxes (Melville wrote that there was ‘a dumb blankness, full of meaning in a wide landscape of snows’).
Manhire’s songs help to ask the question that the continent asks: What is it we want from a place like this?
As we wait in the silence
of promise after promise
you want to hear
the clatter of the helicopter
I want to hear
the frozen sound of bells.
Manhire’s stripped-back songs toy with ballad and hymn metres; they frequently adopt lilting tetrameter lines, and regular rhyme or half-rhyme. There is less irony and playfulness here than in his other poems; this is serious work, and although it is a series of separate poems, it can also read like an elongated, elegant song of the ice.
The book is in two parts: the first ‘Beneath the Ice’, covers the history – the story of the Scott expedition and the story of Erebus. The second, ‘Notebook Songs’ is situated in the present, containing longer, looser songs of scholars and scientists. Noble’s photographs are a fitting accompaniment, and ‘Phantasms’ is a particularly effective series, with ominous, dark masks and jagged teeth.
In Meehan’s compositions, the listener is coaxed through an initially sparse soundscape — through the drift of the piano, the slide of the cello’s strings — into Manhire’s words. In both the words and the music, repetition is used to great effect; the themes loom over the horizon again, in the same way that the ice shelf repeats and repeats. The world changes while it stays the same.
Manhire’s text indicates a reaching:
I found the planet’s axis
and stood beside the pole
I felt the great world turning
trying to be whole
(‘The Scholar’s Song’)
Because of its indifference to anything human, Antarctica may be particularly difficult to capture in an instantly emotional medium like music. At times, there is a tonality to Meehan’s work, a tendency away from dissonance and towards safety and even cheerfulness (particularly in tracks like ‘Every stone a traveller’), which for me, misses the chance to grasp the irreverence, strange awe, and difficulty that the icy continent inspires. But overall, this project is always ‘turning/ trying to be whole’, bringing together diverse, accomplished work on one subject, and the result is lovely and rare.
Unlike my Canadian band, these books may not name-drop Foucault or rhyme Derrida with Antarctica; but they do one better – they haul dear Antarctica right in front of us, whether we’ve ever been there or not. Maybe it’s in a tiny nematode, in a blown-up image of Bowers’ face, or a clatter of tetrameter lines. Maybe it’s in a woman’s bell-like voice, a drifting theme over the piano, or by transporting us to the mountain, the place of human error – but here we are, standing on the ice-shelf, as Manhire puts it, ‘feeling undersized and overawed.’
ALICE MILLER is an essayist, fiction writer and poet currently living in Vienna. Awards include the Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize and the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award, and her first collection of poems, The Limits, will be published by Auckland University Press and Shearsman Books in 2014.