Read: The Crystal Desert

Sometimes all it takes is the first sentence of a book to make you want to read it. This book’s first sentence, however, was not quite so inspiring:

“I spent three summers in Antarctica, in places beyond the horizon of most of the rest of my species.” Perhaps this might have captured a reader’s interest back in 1992 when it was published, but not so much these days.

My eyes drifted down the page as I wondered if The Crystal Desert – which I found out about from Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita – were worth picking up.

“I was as lonely as an astronaut walking on the moon. But at other times, during the short, erotic summer along the ocean margins of the continent, Antarctica seemed to be a celebration of everything living, of unchecked DNA in all its procreative frenzy, transmuting sunlight and minerals into life itself, hatching, squabbling, swimming, and soaring on the sea wind.”

Sounds promising enough.

And it was, quite.

David Campbell is a biologist who spent three summers in Antarctica in the 1980s, his last visit spent at a Brazilian research station nicknamed ‘Little Copacabana’, where days were spent in a near-freezing biology lab and nights partying.

“We were scientists who had to come to study more enduring things: fossils and glaciers, the ebb and flow of seasons, wind and albatrosses, metropolises of penguins, and the crowded, unseen Antarctic underwater realm, which brims with life as no other sea on Earth. We were pilgrims in the last new land on Earth.”

Campbell has written a good travelogue, with a biological and historical (I learnt a lot about the history of whaling!) slant. He has a keen eye and a good sense of balance – not too much on the science and the details, a nice blend of  observations of the  natural life in Antarctica and personal anecdotes. It is thoughtful and at the same time, entertaining. Perhaps I haven’t read many books written by scientists before (and I’m not talking about secondary school science textbooks) so I was a bit unsure of what I was getting myself into.

But how can you not like a biologist who writes about the ship taking him to Antarctica in this way:

“She is a clamorous vessel. The hydraulic steering mechanism, located behind my cabin, whines and clinks every few seconds.”

This is my second read for the Antarctica leg of the Reading The World Challenge (challenge page). It made a good contrast to my first read, Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita, which was more about the human life in Antarctica.

Book provided by my library

Read: Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler

The very gungho writer Sara Wheeler spent 7 months in Antarctica, the first foreigner to be accepted by the American National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists’ and Writers’ Program (isn’t it great that they actually have such a programme?) and Terra Incognita is the result of her time there.

Wheeler, whom the scientists and support staff call Woo thanks to the W-002 tag the foundation assigns her, spends time not just with the Americans but also ventures out to stay with the Italians and the New Zealanders on their Antarctic bases. To get to the British though, she makes an incredibly roundabout voyage to the Falklands (via London) in order to catch a British Antarctic Survey plane to the Antarctic Peninsula. Forgive my ignorance but I had no idea that that Antarctica was that huge! So in case you, like me, are not too knowledgeable about this continent, here are some did-you-knows.

– is 1/10 of the earth’s land surface
– is 1 1/2 times the size of the US
– has about 90% of the world’s ice
– is on average, three times higher than any other continent
– never rains and rarely snows

Now that was already a huge eye-opener for me. And it was just in the introduction!

But Terra Incognita isn’t about the facts and the figures. This is a very personal journey, it is a lifestyle, a community.

“Antarctica was my love affair, and in the south I learned another way of looking at the world.”

This book is a great mix of personal travelogue, science and exploration, and history. The reader learns quite a far bit about the Big Four (explorers that is): Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, Douglas Mawson and their indomitable spirit. I finished the book wanting to read more about these early Antarctica explorers, and luckily Wheeler affixes a good list of further reads, both fictional and non-fictional. I’m definitely adding many of these to my TBR list!

I found myself constantly admiring Wheeler and her hardiness (she roughs it out in an igloo despite the fact that she constantly needs to reseal it and finds her things covered in snow), her gungho-ness (she seems quite willing to go anywhere, do anything) and her ability to connect with people (in the British camp though, she initially finds it hard as the all-male camp has a very all-male attitude). It made me admire the people who live and work on this continent, especially those who winter there and spend time outfield.

A good sense of humour definitely is an important survival skill there, and the observant Wheeler entertains the reader with the occasional chuckle-worthy insights such as the McMurdo weather department’s broken windometer mounted on plaques, with inscriptions such as ‘Damaged by wind, 95 knots, 25 October 1987’. The last in the long line said, ‘Dropped by Bill Sutcliffe, 23 March 1990. Winds calm.’ I laughed out loud now and then while reading the book, never quite expecting a book about this icy continent to be that funny.

Definitely a recommended read.

Book provided by – my library

This is my first read for the Reading the World Challenge, for the Antarctica leg. It was a great way to kick off the challenge.

Reading Terra Incognita

“When we landed and a crewman opened the door, it was as he had lifted the lid of a deep freeze. Bloodless icefields stretched away to mountains below softly furred cumulous clouds, and ice crystals came skittering towards us through the blistering air. The Hercules has landed on the frozen sea between Ross Islad and the Antarctic continent, and along the wiggly island coast land met solid sea in a tangle of blur-shadowed pressure ridges or the pleated cliffs of a glacier. I began to readjust my perception of ‘land’ and ‘sea’. Not far off, a tabular iceberg was clamped into the ice, its steep and crinkled walls reflecting the creamy saffron sun. The sky was a rich royal blue, marbled up ahead by the volcanic plumes of Mount Erebus, and a paler blue sheen lay over the wrinkled sea ice like a filmy opalescent blanket. A spur reached from the island toward the continent, and on a hump t the end I saw a wooden cross, man’s tiny mark. It was Vince’s cross, erected in 1904 by Scott’s men in memory of a seaman who fell down an ice cliff during a blizzard. When I looked, it gave me an almost Proustian rush: I had been here so often in my dreams.”
– Sara Wheeler