Source: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
Date: December 1997
Max's visit in the setting of the 1997/98 season
Max experienced the Antarctic Peninsula and the BAS Rothera station in the summertime (December 20 1997 to January 8 1998). The environment at Rothera with extensive sea ice around the station reflected the absence of winter /spring and summer storms which would normally have broken up the sea ice. Sea ice surrounded Rothera, although by the end of December it was stagnant and rotting with melt-water pools dominating the sea ice. Max's visit to Rothera coincided with the first main input of cargo to the station carried by RRS James Clark Ross. The ship spent four full days at Rothera discharging cargo. The ship had to break ice to reach Rothera which had been enjoying warmer than normal weather, high sunshine and little wind. The lying snow was also melting quickly and the route up onto the local ice cap had become dangerous because the snow was very soft and old crevasses were becoming prominent. This problem was accentuated by the lack of snow overwinter and the warmth of the summer.
15 December 1997
On board a late morning British Midland flight from Edinburgh to Heathrow - my ideal kind of flight, blissfully smooth, with few enough passengers, so that you can clutter the next two seats with papers, while a friendly staff plies you with abundant free alcohol. Wonder about the next flight, tonight, from Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, courtesy of the RAF, down to the Falkland Islands - vague forebodings of military discipline and style. And the next leg, by ice-strengthened boat from there to the Antarctic - I have signed my life away for five days, declaring that I shall Obey the Master in All Things. Nervous laughter at the thought of three days physical training and life-preservation instruction at Rothera, the main UK Research station in the Antarctic, in preparation for living in a tent in the "field" - nagging memories of 'Scott of the Antarctic', the film whose music, by Vaughan Williams, and the Symphony he later fashioned out of it, I am meant to be celebrating in a work of my own, commissioned by the British Antarctic Survey people in Cambridge and the Philharmonia Orchestra, London. This is no usual composer's commission - part of the deal is that I have to embrace the Antarctic in fact. When you sign a contract for a piece of music, the reality of writing it is still two years or more away: now I have to face up to an intimidating and probably hilarious reality, as the Antarctic materialises with a vengeance. Faded long memories of incompetence in gym classes at school resurface, along with a chilling recall of my lack of skill, tolerated by commander and fellow islanders, co-opted as a ten-year Auxiliary Coastguard on Hoy, Orkney.
Everyone has been saying how life on Hoy will have hardened and prepared me for proximity to the South Pole. Nonsense. I shall crave the warmth of the stove, the presence of books, musical scores, compact discs, the home bread-maker, fresh fruit, the wine-rack, garlic - but, hardly think such excuses would convince anyone if I turn back now.
16 December 1997
Collected at Heathrow by Judy Arnold, my manager, and driven to Oxford, where we spent the afternoon with the Woodgates, a retired professor of atomic physics, and his wife - old friend from the Dartington Summer School of Music. Judy was not going to be left out of this adventure, and, even though we're both over 60, by which time one is strictly no longer eligible for employment by the British Antarctic Survey, we passed all the compulsory medical tests, and are left now, over cups of soothing tea and wadges of comforting cake, to regret our foolhardiness. Talk about anything but the adventure to come, with lots of rather forced, hollow hilarity.
Brize Norton, - all sinister floodlights in the freezing darkness, with vaguely intimidating military protocol - rigorous filling in of forms, issue and showing of passes. Queue for check in with Falkland Islanders returning home for Christmas - they manhandle vast amount of excess luggage, looking remarkably like Orcadians and Shetlanders checking in at Aberdeen - the same gestures, clothes, facial expressions. Feel somehow a little comforted by this - a tad less fish-out-of water. RAF Tristar - more legroom than in your usual commercial cattle-class stall, but with tacky-looking ad-hoc repairs, in fat strips of silver sticky tape, to any damaged seats, and reading lights that refuse to work. Ah well, a good excuse to try to sleep. The stewards efficient and friendly, though you feel it would be very unwise indeed to cross them.
After eight hours of flying through darkness, arrival at Ascension Island - 25 degrees Celsius, the heat hitting you like a blowtorch as you descend the airplane steps. Barked at like a recruit by an RAF-type, to take off your sun-hat - an unexplained bit of military lore. We are herded into a huge mesh enclosure, part roofed over, part open, and padlocked in, while ordered not to take photographs. The airfield is hideous with the brutal scarring of landscape and the whine of stationary jet-planes. Dark volcanic lava, with surreal white antennae, dishes and spheres superposed. Everyone takes photographs. In the distance a most appealing mountain, its summit forever appearing from and disappearing into cloud, with what look from here like oak trees along its ridge. Perhaps a life would be possible in Ascension after all, out of sight and sound of the air base, beyond that magic mountain.
The last part of the flight to Mount Pleasant, Falkland Islands, we are accompanied by a pair of RAF Tornado Fighters, parallel at each wing-tip - magnificent and disconcerting. In the queue for immigration Judy and I, along with Julian Paren, assistant to the director of British Antarctic Survey, are called away to a VIP lounge, where an army officer makes apologies - they knew we were on the flight only two minutes before, so there's no coffee, and no limousine to take us into Stanley - but our luggage is brought out specially, and our passports dealt with while we sit in easy chairs. Eventually we carry our bags to join the other 33 BAS members, already waiting on the bus.
Drive through an immense lunar landscape, with outcrops of rock like pale dragons' backs, jagged hills sticking up abruptly. Light luminous greys shot with purple and pink. Names familiar from the '82 war - Tumbledown, Wireless Ridge, Mount Harriet. Along the road are frequent signs displaying skull and crossbones, with the word MINEFIELD. The mines, it seems, will never be removed - it would cost too much. Some beaches near Port Stanley are mined, and due to shifting sands cannot adequately be cleared - there is a great resentment still at this. As you enter Stanley there's a Thatcher Drive, and further along a monument to thank the liberators - all strangely moving in this context, a town not even as big as Stromness in Orkney.
The Royal Research Ship 'James Clark Ross' sits in the harbour, partly painted a strident red, looking curiously unfathomable and impregnable, bristling with cranes, gear, complexity. She is the BAS ice strengthened ship which will take us down to Rothera, the main British Antarctic base - this should take five days or so, though we are threatened with a possible air ferry for the last section - Rothera is icebound, with the sea ice beginning to break.
A splendid cabin all to myself on the Bridge Deck - net plastic wadding already in place on surfaces, bars across open shelves, in readiness for heavy seas. A reassuring welcome from the Master, Chris Elliott.
17 December 1997
A day of sightseeing, courtesy of the organisation Falklands Conservation - gentoo penguins above Bertha's Beach, in a stately group of seventy or so, feeding their young, squabbling, some offering a mate a present of a small piece of stone or carefully selected fragment of wood. One magnificent solitary King Penguin standing slightly aloof, observing calmly. As a newcomer to penguins, outside the zoos of childhood, I'm surprised they are so undisturbed by a few humans crouching so close, clicking and whirring away, and then amazed at the Jekyll and Hyde routine, when they enter and leave the sea - on land performing a slightly comic balancing dance on tail and splayed feet, with outstretched rudimentary wings working on overdrive, and in the water a lethal torpedo, an arrow of deadly speed and power. At Gypsy Cove the Megallanic penguins stand sentinel before their burrows, with another huge congregation on the shore, meditating before or after feeding in the sea. Evidence, in collapsed burrows, of sea-lions taking the chicks. Becky, our guide, is extraordinarily skilled at the wheel, driving us over bumps, tussocks and rocks, speaking volumes for the preferred vehicle here - the old-fashioned Land Rover, which takes enormous punishment, and which you can still repair yourself. The beaches infinite windswept white, alive with petrels, sandpipers, plovers. Winds merciless and chill - balaclavas, gloves, scarves, layers of thick wool. Turkey vultures, with black crooked wings, like a secret and sinister military plane: military starlings, with red fronts. A paradise for birdy folk - indeed there are special bothies for them on the outer isles, which the Falklands Conservation encourages them to visit.
Dinner at Government House with the Governor, H.E. Richard Ralph. Pleasantly unstuffy - a fine building, partly mid-nineteenth-century, with three foot thick walls, all in the process of sympathetic restoration. Scottish view from the flower-filled conservatory over the harbour - a scene heartachingly peaceful. The retainer who serves me a gin and tonic relates how he survived in the house when the Argentinians took over, of corpses in the garden. James Peck, a Port Stanley artist who just exhibited his Falklands war paintings in Buenos Aires, tells of the sympathetic reaction to his work in Argentina. A great joy to see Tom Eggeling and Megan - the former planning officer for Orkney, now working here; she is a former stalwart of the St. Magnus Festival in Orkney. Full of admiration for the courage of such a move relatively late in one's career.
18 December 1997
Breakfast aboard RRS James Clark Ross - so many scientists, consuming full English Breakfast, with a kipper option, beneath huge signed photographs of the Queen and Prince Philip. The Queen launched the vessel on Tyneside in 1990 - must have been one of the last such shipbuilding undertakings.
The widening gap between the ship and shore: departure by boat is the archetype of that experience. Here it expresses perfectly the finality of the Antarctic's onset - no opportunity, now, to change one's mind, and jump ship. The bridge is a roomful of discreet controls and computer displays: Chris the Captain manoeuvres us through the Narrows: Port Stanley fades. A gentle swell, cold sun, giant petrels and small albatrosses circle. With Linda Capper and Pete Bucktrout make the first tapes for radio and television coverage of the trip.
An hour-long drill on safety and survival, which includes wearing lifejackets, boarding and strapping ourselves in a lifeboat, and learning how to operate the watertight doors deep in the ship's bowels - those doors which separate the vessel into different compartments, to prevent flooding throughout, in case of holing. Felt distanced, as from every marine disaster movie. Imagination refused to contemplate the fumbling, ashen reality.
19 December 1997
Up on the bridge at 2 a.m. to see the collection of an oceanographic device which had been gathering information at the bottom of the sea for a year. Its precise whereabouts are well recorded, and the "capture" is plotted, eventually with satellite help. The whole procedure takes a couple of hours, as we slow down and close in: the two-thirds waxing moon sheds enough light, together with on-deck illumination, to dramatise the lurches of the sea and foam smashing over the fore-deck, out of all proportion to the relatively mild bucking of the boat. The hushed bridge, controls and computer screens flickering in the dark, emanates a tight sense of tense urgency. Once located, the device is automatically released, and takes about 20 minutes to surface from a depth of only 1000 metres or so. Julian is the first to spot its flashing light - in a laboratory on lower deck its radio signal is monitored - and Captain Chris and Robert Paterson hold, and gently control the dancing ship - grappling irons appear on deck, and the round object, over 1 metre across and a metre deep, bristling with apparatus, is winched on board.
We return to our cabins in a grey-white bruised-blue dawn, to sleep as we may until we gather again at 7.30 for a full breakfast of egg, bacon and sausage.
The ordinary morning rituals of showering, shaving and dressing demand hitherto unknown skills. At 6.30 am the boat was heaving all manner of which-ways, trying to make the floor vertical in wild uncharted directions. No cupboard or room door could be left open, unless locked open - it crashes back, probably knocking you over with stunning aim. Any item, like a shaving gel canister or a deodorant stick, flies through the air with a will of its own. In the shower, you learn to hold on with one hand and soap with the other, or wedge yourself against the wall, while water squirts all around as from a demented hose-pipe. You aim a foot at a sock and fall off the chair to spread-eagle across the shuddering floor.
Judy, my manager, spends almost all the time in her cabin. This is a pity - she would have loved videoing the oceanographic recovery mission, and now the seabirds swooping parallel to the boat - we are well down in albatross regions. Sea and sky a brutal iron grey. The wind whistles from the north, already cold and slappy enough.
20 December 1997
Linda, a keen bird-watcher, was sending an e-mail to the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, and was unable to finish, overtaken by a sudden seasickness. A few moments later an e-mail came back, alerting her to a particular kind of albatross, to be seen out of the porthole. The wonders of modern science - BAS has a programme to track the albatrosses by satellite, as their movements are still shrouded in mystery. This specimen, at that moment, was trailing on the computer screen in Cambridge, exactly parallel to us, starboard side. Linda left much cheerier upon being able to confirm the sighting.
The thrill, the childish sense of pure, innocent wonder, looking out at 5.30 am, and seeing one's first iceberg. This one looks as if the Sydney Opera House has broken moorings and gone AWOL.
21 December 1997
A procession of icebergs, mysterious and deeply awe-inspiring. Of course it is we who are moving faster, but in calmer waters one has the illusion of a stately mannequin parade, as the model's outlines modulate, revealing new and secret shapes and colours. Contours suddenly glow with an irridescent blue of an unimaginable intensity: this is the best exhibition of abstract sculpture I ever saw. All that one has read of fractals and the Mandelbrot set floods the brain, perhaps as some kind of bulwark against the wonder, which I quietly admit is overwhelming, even transcendental. Some icebergs pick up and maintain the upward surge of wave motion: some repeat and develop the forms of clouds: others, seen against a backdrop of snow-covered cliffs and hills, take up the forms and energies characteristic of these, while the best combine all of these features with a capricious dynamism that constantly modifies and transforms as we pass. A whale, travelling at a furious fifteen knots, faster than the ship, briefly surfaces, its back confirming a neighbouring iceberg's. Another iceberg suddenly appears as a gigantic swan. Another reveals a Norman arch, fifty foot high, with ice packed above this for another hundred feet - a broken-off fragment of a medieval abbey.
Sometimes I find mealtime conversation quite baffling - top scientists talk shop, their jargon bristling with acronyms. They are very patient when I enquire about their particular speciality and any possible future practical application.
22 December 1997
The engines stop, and 33 scientists, Judy and I file down a rope ladder into a launch already bulging with boxes, barrels, crates. We are delivering supplies to the tiny station of Port Lockroy, and dropping off Dave Burkitt and Rod Downie who will man the place, alone for three months. It was established in 1944, and abandoned in 1962. In 1996 it was restored by the U.K. Antarctic Heritage Trust, and now boasts a small museum and post office, to open in summer for visits by cruise ships and private yachts.
The pack ice has broken up enough for us to land without problems - a very small, rocky island, with gentoo penguins nesting everywhere, so that you must take great care not to disturb them, right away upon beaching. The smell of penguin guana crinkles your nose - all pervasive bad fish. Everybody carries the cargo into the store-shed or up to the house: each case is clearly marked, and checked on a tally by Dave, who semaphores the operations. The privilege of raising the British flag to the top of its mast, at the highest point by the house, falls to Linda, on behalf of BAS, and me. Such an unaccustomed honour makes me very nervous, as I fumble with intransigent ropes, tugging ineffectively and desperately. A great relief when the flag ascends and unfurls.
A magical spot, an island surrounded by mainland cliffs, monumental white mountains. The all-pervasive sound is of broken packice lifting on and off the shore rocks - a Gargantuan cocktail shaker. Add to that the gentle buzz of conversation among the ubiquitous penguins, with the occasional raised squawk as a sheathbill - a small grubby white seabird - lunges towards a penguin egg - and that's the island's sound spectrum.
The mainland is only 100 yards away from one point, but safety regulations determine that the keepers are not allowed to have a boat. Their accommodation is sparse but solid - there is plenty of coal still from the forties - and the museum has relics evocative of that time - ancient cans of food, oatmeal packets, tools in situ, all with excellent explanatory displays.
Once we have determined that the radio link to the main station at Rothera is operative, we pile back into the launch and return to the RRS James Clark Ross. This was the first time I had worn any of the Antarctic gear issued by BAS - it was surrealistic being kitted out at headquarters in Cambridge last July, pulling on the layer after layer of thermals and waterproofs on one of the hottest days ever - but here we would not survive without these. It is a great relief to take them off for lunch - particularly the huge guana-smeared boots. There are strict dress codes for meals on board, to be transgressed at one's peril.
This afternoon we glide through the Lemaire Strait - a narrow passage between the almost vertical sides of mountains jutting thousands of feet up into cloud. Apart from the gentle hum of the boat's engines - the JCR is extremely quiet, to facilitate very precise sonar experiments - the silence is profound. There is hardly any talk, either on the bridge or on deck - everyone is so over-awed by the grandeur, the power of the unfolding spectacle. My words can give no suggestion of the self-transendence invoked, and I fear, too, that any music I eventually write can only give the palest hint. One of the most serendipitous moments came when a snow avalanche poured and billowed down the mountain directly to starboard - imagine the mightiest, gentlest, longest whisper ever - we were enveloped for a space in mad, dancing flakes, a white-out - a moment that will last a lifetime.
Shortly after 4 p.m. a small party descended a very long rope ladder into a very small launch, to take Christmas mail to Vernadsky, the Ukranian Antarctic Expedition base. This base was formerly British, named Faraday after Michael Faraday, the Physicist and was handed over to the Ukrainians in 1995. John Harper, the mate of the JCR, was in charge, standing tall at the stem, shouting instructions and semaphoring to the wheel-house, to ensure a safe passage through the ice-flows. Even the unfrozen sea-water was like oil, thickly viscous. A gaggle of long huts on a small rise, where we tie up, welcomed enthusiastically, and are helped through deep snow to the Christmassy domestic warmth of the settlement. Such a joyful, beautiful welcome from the dozen or so men and women - we take off our boots and layers of gear, and troop up to the bar. This is the biggest and most famous bar in the Antarctic - a riot of decorative carving, made by over-enthusiastic British joiners, who, for the waste of time and wood, were promptly sent home.
Delighted hosts and guests, excellent black coffee of the kind that dissolves the spoon and scalds your tonsils, chocolate, generous globes of Ukrainian cognac. A welcoming speech from Vladimir Okrugin, the head of the team, and we are shown round the base by Svetlana, a meteorologist, climbing champion, guitarist and computer expert. Many things - equipment, notices, photographs - have been left as they were when the British ran the station. Up a ladder into a loft office, where we met Daphne, a Dobson spectrophotometer, the piece of scientific equipment, from 1957, which was the means of discovering the hole in the ozone layer. A speech by Julian Paren, generous vodka all round, stirring Ukranian music, and we are bobbing our way through corridors of ice back to the RRS James Clark Ross. A huddle of figures waving on the jetty: one wonders when anyone will visit them next. Pete Bucktrout, our official photographer, asks why all international and diplomatic relations can't be like this. Why indeed?! I sport the badge of the Ukranian Antarctic Expedition, and clutch a book about their homeland.
23 December 1997
A final day on the RRS James Clark Ross, of a splendour to outshine even these extraordinary days. We ploughed through the ice fields in brilliant sunshine, wrapped up on deck in our windproof multi-layers, any exposed skin liberally smeared with anti-sun goo. Everyone balaclavaed and anonymous behind intensely black BAS issue goggles, with essential black side-flaps - sea ice and distant snowy peaks thrust millions of crystal needles into any unprotected eyes.
Disconcerting, in the infinite silence hushing the hundreds of gleaming square miles around us, to hear ice crack and split before the bow, then roar along keel to the stern in a tumultuous clatter of slabs and shards. Even more unnerving to hear this ice-break, and feel the judder and grind, deep inside the hull - several of us were treated to a guided tour of the ship's bowels. The GEC engine, made in Rugby. The thrusters. The biological filtration system for sewage. The stabilisers. The water supply, to which calcium must be added to modify its purity. Everything operating-theatre clean - no dust, no grease, though I would hate to have to effect repairs, with so much packed as small as possible, wires and tubes at crazy angles, disappearing into the difficult spaces. This must be the most advanced and well-kept research vessel there is.
At midnight I was still up on the top deck, in brilliant sunshine, watching for occasional penguins and huge seals to flip gently off the ice, out of the boat's way. In a huge stretch of unfrozen sea, a sudden pod of Minke whales, spouting, leaping and pirouetting out of the water.
The ice is sometimes several feet thick: it would have stopped any other boat. Eventually we park for the rest of the white night, before starting engines at 6 am, for the final approach, and our delicate, tricky berthing, at Rothera Station.
Paul Rose, the base commander, comes on board to greet us, and give a pep talk about safety on the base. No smoking indoors. Gear. Boot rooms. Gash duty. Training. Behaviour in the Field. He is so enthusiastic you feel a nagging guilt about harbouring any fears or doubts at all.
24 December 1997
A day spent on radio interviews, and getting to know my temporary home. In winter there are 20 or so people here - in summer the number jumps to over 100, and one senses that the original 20 subliminally resent the incomers... The base loud with tractors and general clangour As the RRS James Clark Ross is unloaded, and compressed waste is on-loaded, for landfill near Port Stanley.
The setting magnificent, man's contribution stark and unlovely - a barracks of a place. In another incarnation it could be a penal boot camp. I share a tight room with two others - there are four bunks, two by two, facing the door, with a small window between the bunks, directly opposite the door. I am designated (MAXWELL P) the top left bunk.
Twenty years ago, after the ultimate drunkard, snorer and sweaty socks experiences in railway sleepers, I vowed never again to share accommodation with strangers. However, I persuade myself this is all in a good cause, and for the good of my soul - here are some of the world's top scientists, sharing with intrepid engineers, pilots, medics, cooks, - a whole support team - so what kind of wimp am I? (I later discover that the acoustic properties of the building amplify any snore or fart from distant "pitrooms", and when the fellow in the lower berth innocently turns over, the whole world resonates tinnily through the metal tubes of the bunk). Toilet and showering facilities are communal - horrible memories of compulsory sport at school. I suppose, in such a base, with a heavy British Military hangover, this is supposed to produce male bonding of the approved sort. (There are women here, but you feel they must somehow fit themselves in: if they become pregnant, they are sent home.) This all in stark contrast to the Chilean base, where I'm told there are families with children, a small school, and a more ordinary civilian atmosphere. However, I can well understand the British - one must take care where there is such a high risk of accidents, what with vehicles, machines, air traffic so close by, the fire hazard of wooden and plastic building, laboratories - not to mention the perils of ice and snow.
I am given a "laboratory" for my work - a sideways extension of a corridor, where doors bang open and shut and prepossessed people rush by demoniacally. I am very privileged to have such a space to myself - everyone else has to share. Eventually the rock music pulsing through the thin walls drives me to join Judy, my manager, with her computer, plus Linda, BAS publicity offer with hers, plus Julian, assistant to BAS Director Cambridge, and Pete Bucktrout, with his mountain of photographic gear heaped up, in a windowless cubicle of a "laboratory", where the incessant tramping across the ceiling, the clamour of voices from all around and about, and the noises of machinery are preferable. Sudden subversive thoughts of an Anti-Antarctic symphony, featuring the antiphonal bleeps, revs, roars and skids of frenzied vehicles, a scherzo caricaturing broody scientific boffins on closely adjacent nests, based on Vaughan Williams' penguins, and a grand finale featuring myself as an automaton on speed hanging on to the phone through dozens of frantic publicity interviews to Britain and elsewhere.
But, but, but... one has only to glance outside to put all this in proportion. The sky is a dizzy blue, the intensity of the whiteness is breathtaking. It dwarfs into insignificance our best efforts to trivialise and brutalise the landscape - at least thus far, so long as the International Antarctic Treaty of 1959 holds. This is re-enforced by a flight around the immediate environs - the base looks tiny, neat, even pretty, with its grey building and sculptured dishes, domes, and antennae from far up on high, and the wonders of the land and seascape occupy the attention absolutely. (as we step from the twin otter, base reality takes over again - pop music floods the whole station, resonating between cliffs and sea, with the hangar acting as loudspeaker).
Everyone is taking enormous trouble to accommodate a person the likes of whom they would normally never encounter. The whole Rothera team appears to perform in cheerful harmony - hardworking and loyal. I am allocated a minder, or "General Assistant", Rachel Duncan - a young lady so energetic, fulfilled, radiant, healthy that again I feel such a wimp, imagining her rescuing me from cliff ledges and crevasses, or scolding me gently for putting my tent up incorrectly.
28 December 1997
Spent a morning in the new Bonner Laboratory, learning about algae, lichens, moss etc.- much emphasis on the causes and results of global warming and ozone depletion, as regards Antarctic wildlife with implication for life everywhere on the planet. David Wynn-Williams, a leading scientist here, showed us the small "greenhouses" - a foot wide, two long, which are set up on field site, with either ultra-violet opaque or UV-transparent perspex, either with or without walls, to manipulate and observe the effects of radiation in different ways; experiment are conducted in the field and in the laboratory to observe the results of an estimated 3°C rise in temperature by 2050. There is a laudable, exemplary awareness of and sensitivity to the fragility of certain polar environments - some areas are not allowed to be interfered with at all, for fear of destroying them, others are to be touched only most carefully, while a few are designated for heavy research. We were shown controlled environment cabinets (CECs), for experiments with and observations on photosynthesis, humidity, carbon dioxide presence in the atmosphere etc. As genuine sunlight cannot be simulated in these CECs, experiments exposing microbes to the worse-case scenario of ozone deprivation will be conducted on a space shuttle shortly.
We discussed the ominous polar amplification factor in relation to global warming - when a little ice melts in response to a small rise in temperature, the surface of the ground is exposed, which heats up in the warmer atmosphere as it never did while under the ice, which in turn affects and melts adjacent ice, starting an ongoing meltdown, out of all proportion to the initial small temperature rise. (The main continent of Antarctic ice is isolated still by the surrounding ocean, and is mostly between 6000 feet and 12,000 feet thick, but a change in ocean currents could eventually trigger off melting here, with globally catastrophic results). The one species of Antarctic grass, Deschampsia Antarctica, is spreading alarmingly already - it is suggested this, too, is due to regional warming. The scientists are very proud of their Bentham spectrum radiometer, with a bundle of light filters, that sees the UV change, and plots this second by second.
The equipment for microbiology must be absolutely sterile - any impurity or foreign organism whatsoever is fatal. There is a freezer, for instance, which stores material at - 80° C, a low enough temperature to preserve chlorophyll - also most impressive dark and illuminated incubators for moss etc.
A small compound microscope, connected to a computer, measures micro-organisms in soil - every detail of their position, distribution, volume, weight, diameter, all you need to know about each thread, nodule - and everything about the surrounding soil. This is invaluable in terms of UV radiation effects - one can observe micro-organisms, either through the lens or on the screen, magnified 1000 times. In a soil core at extreme Antarctic conditions, cells can grow at 10 units of light, as opposed to 18,000 units of sunlight: there are even endolithics - extremely simple organisms, that live up to ten millimetres down in the coldest Antarctic rock, which have the slowest metabolic rate I have ever heard of - they take 10,000 years to transform a miniscule amount of carbon dioxide into proteins etc. What a lifespan, and what a life! Will this have some implications for the time structures in the new Antarctic symphony?!
Ron Lewis Smith is a plant ecologist specialising in moss and lichen - he is particularly interested in the effects of UV radiation (UVR) change, along with temperature rise, moisture availability, etc. on hitherto unvegetated ground, with the implications for growth and reproduction cycles: we see a wonderful array of specimens from Charcot Island, a newly discovered site with a most varied spectrum of plant life. Again, it is the shapes of the lichens which are fascinating, their growth lines, dynamism, modulations: perhaps I identify too readily with the old-fashioned "pathetic fallacy", but they do open up whole worlds of design and form - memories of D'Arcy Thomson's volume on 'Growth and Form' avidly read as a supplement to arid school biology. Ron also talks about mites, nematode worms and tardigrades, and how these survive extremely low temperatures. Nematode worms, for instance are the most successful and populous animal in Antarctica - they produce eggs which contain a very large proportion of anti-freeze. There are even small concentrates of lichen, measured in millimetres, over 6000 feet above sea level, and, most interestingly in relation to increasing UVR levels, there is a common black moss here on Rothera Point which contains, naturally, pigmentation to screen out any harmful radiation.
A walk around Rothera Point takes you into a world light-years away from base. The silence is as absolute as possible, the sight of sea ice, icebergs, distant snow-covered mountains, rocks with algae and moss, snow still covering some of the rock, part tinged green and rose with snow-algae - all just heartrendingly beautiful. I did a very strange interview for the BBC television programme 'The Weather Show', in which I talked with John Turner, the British Antarctic Surveys Senior meteorologist. Felt extremely stagy. Selected bits of rock for Eric Guest and John Rothera, as requested, at the top of the hill by the wooden cross - a monument to people who died while serving here. Odd how Eric, who must be my oldest friend, was talking to John Rothera, one of his oldest friends, and at whose wedding he was best man, just before I phoned him to tell him that I was coming to Rothera. I had no idea that this base was named after this John Rothera, who did cartography in the early days.
A splendid mulled wine party, hosted by Christ Elliott, on board his vessel the JCR, Christmas eve, all on base and all the JCR crew present - plenty of room on the after deck for all, now that unloading was well under way. Cold enough, but brilliant sunshine - everyone quite merry and loud - Christmas carols discreet in the background floating from discreet loudspeakers. My last chance to see quite a lot of the crew I had grown to rely on, respect, and even like these last days.
Peter B is staying in accommodation worse than mine - a very small cubicle, with no window. This office where the five of us work also has no window, and is overheated - you have leave the door open. (They claim here that it is more fuel-economical to constantly overheat the base than to regulate the heating).
Christmas Day. A traditional dinner, with all the usual stuff. Compliments to Nigel the Chef. Laddish behaviour - all round: the presence of a family element would mitigate that. (This office is as difficult as the corridor base I abandoned - constant conversation, constant huge thudding of feet on the ceiling, sound from the giant video machine upstairs in the dining room - usually hollerin' football crowds - and pop music from the gym next door.)
Boxing Day. A trip by Snow-cat along the ridge of snow above Rothera, below the ski run. Except that the Snow-cat, driven by Ian Marriot, got stuck: there are new crevasses, down which it seems we could easily have plunged - the fore starboard caterpillar lunged into a crack and almost spilled us. Ian reversed the snowcat gingerly up and out and back, while we continued until the base was out of sight and sound, Rachel prodding the snow constantly for crevasses. A good walk - lots of loud cracking of ice and rock and a rushing of snow and scree from the rock-face above, and a wonderful outlook over the frozen sea. The ridge is now, due to the crevasses, officially out of bounds, until further notice. Ian Marriot is from Bolton, with a gentle musical voice and accent: a poet, with a lightning but quiet sense of humour.
28 December 1997
No less than two Twin Otter aircraft to ferry me and my minder, Rachel, to the Jones Ice Shelf, about fifteen minutes flight from Rothera. Andy Alsop is our pilot, Geoff Porter flies the other plane. Andy lives in Kirkwall, and the last time I sat in the co-pilot's seat next to him must have been on a Loganair Islander hop to Hoy, over twenty years ago. The other passengers are Judy, my manager; Linda, BAS publicity and press officer; Julian Paren; Pete Bucktrout, BAS official photographer and Kurt Farkas, general field assistant. I am filmed helping load the plane, jumping up to the co-pilot's seat, etc. not just once, but with retakes, until Pete and Linda are satisfied. It is a perfect day, as we glide over black and white peaks, and look down into cavernous gulleys, whose bombazine blackness seems to reach down into an infinity below the Earth's crust.
The landing rather alarming for the uninitiated - when landing on skis in ice and snow, one is duty-bound to test the surface for crevasses, marking it at a first run, with engines running full, then landing only if the ice is deemed firm and smooth enough. We touch down within inches of a giddy, blue crevasse in the ice shelf.
There is little time to take in the surroundings, except to notice that we are ringed by craggy mountains and glaciers. I know we are on a floating expanse of ice, trapped in this location, twenty yards or more thick, which is expected to break up and drift away within the next hundred years or so. I am filmed helping unload the plane, and setting up the tent - this is embarrassing, as I'm a green novice, and have to be carefully rehearsed. The bright orange-red tent is eventually up and firmly anchored to the ice, the ground-sheet laid, the boxes of provisions, medical aid, etc. in their regulation positions, the sleeping bags set up, the Tilley between them on its platform in order, the radio working, and, at last, the planes take off, leaving me alone with Rachel, my minder.
Then, a real silence, in glorious sunshine, with the Heim and Anteus glaciers to the north, where the scene is totally dominated by the huge bulk of Mt. Rendu: to the south-east the Bader and Bucker glaciers, Mt. Kershaw and the Koshiba Wall, and to the south-west Blaiklock Island, Mt. Arronax and Mt. Verne, on Pourquoi Pas Island. All these place-names are new to me, and it is only because Julian pointed them out just before he took off that I remember them at all. Many features of the landscape commemorate explorers and others who rendered good service in the Antarctic, while many names are unexpected and far-fetched. A range of features by the Larsen Ice Shelf is tagged with characters in Melville's Moby Dick, while on Alexander Island, there's a rag-bag of musical composers. I feel with respect that these are not real names - they haven't been lived, and have no significant and specific human associations or resonances, and could, frankly, be interchanged. A few names are good enough - Mt. Kershaw itself commemorates a pilot who was killed and buried at its foot, and Fossil Bluff gives a fair foretaste of that place - but most seem less permanent, even, than those squares and streets called after politicians in France or Italy, which changed according to the political climate. In sum, some of these Antarctic names lack the numen and magic associated with real place names.
This does not imply that all that these Antarctic places themselves lack numen and magic, which is of a very different order to that of even the remotest place in Europe. It is the absence of mankind and his ugly baggage that enables one to enjoy, here, on the ice shelf, the impressions of ear and eye totally uncorrupted by mechanical and electronic sound pollution, or the occluding mists of industrial dust and gaseous waste.
The cliff faces are alive with the crack of ice, the whoosh of tumbling snowdrift, the rustle and clatter of falling scree. Occasionally there is a really startling boom, reminiscent of the one o'clock cannon above Edinburgh's Princes Street - or an even more spine-tingling deep, deep gong stroke, as a small geological event changes the landscape just one iota, in the course of its eternal metamorphosis. There is almost no wind, but occasionally an astonishing sound whistles gently from the peaks to the south, almost subliminal at first, but growing into an alto-flutish lament that resonates somewhere between your ears, then reveals its true origin when a high and complex counterpoint, suggesting ghostly oriental flutes, creates a sonorous wandering difference - tone, softly pulsing across the whole ice shelf. The towering, very close pinnacles of rock, with deep clefts, must engender this phenomenon, to which any little local breeze adds the whirr of ice splinters, scuttling across the shelf's surface, displaced by your mukluks, each step a dry scrunch in crystal sugar.
There are long gashes, some many hundreds of feet, where snow and rockfall have scooped the mountainside - gigantic clawstrokes. Above, the peaks form monumental, sharp, jutting triangles, and within these are multiple smaller triangles - within these, again, criss-crossing outlines, but always maintaining proportions, lesser triangles: it is often difficult to make out which are outlines defining a peak or eminence, and which are just cracks and splits within these shapes. (In contrast, the low hill directly south-east is worn to a hump by glacial erosion - it looks, with its yellow-red-brown stains in the snow, like the slag heap by a long abandoned mine.) Across the triangles of the mountains, crevasses make curvy undulating crossway gashes - a mighty contrasting repeated rhythm, taken up and developed right across the ice shelf, where loose light snow blows into crystal outlines, whose contour floats somewhere between that of cloud, and that of crevasse. As the sun moves lower, the crevasses in snow on Mt. Rendu make an illusory ripple effect, implying the motion of a choppy sea, magnified hugely and freeze-dried instantly. The sun's position also affects patterns in those sections of glacier closest to the frozen sea - the crevasses merge, and slowly blend into a stippling of dynamic cross-hatching.
It is impossible to tell where the top of the glacier ends, the cloud begins - their colour and texture are identical at the join. Where the glacier bulges out, magnificently, tumbling in a frozen sweep on to the ice shelf, it threatens with such power you subliminally feel the scouring of rock through your boots - hear the long scrape, as the stone is displaced. But the time-scale of even a small displacement is more than my life-span, its wavelength way beyond my threshold of hearing and understanding. The sun moves even lower behind the glacier, making a continuous line of glitter between it and me, and as I move about, the line follows, the glare of ice crystals becoming as intense as the booming sun itself.
Rachel has stayed at the tent to write letters - when I return after many hours of walking, she cooks a regulation BAS fieldwork meal on the primus stove. This is selected from a Manfood Box (as distinct from a Dogfood Box of the good old days) which contains ten days supply for two people. Dried curry, poured into a little boiling melted snow, simmered for ten minutes, plus boil-in-the-bag rice. These survival-kit meals are universally known here as "munch", and with lime and mango chutneys, this one hits the spot exactly.
Eventually it is bed time, the sun still blazing. The loo is a pit dug in the snow, with a wall of displaced snow forming some kind of wind and modesty shield. This arrangement, in the freezing conditions, encourages unaccustomed speed, but when I get back to the tent, Rachel is fast asleep. Undressing, squirming into the sleeping-bag liner, and the sleeping bag itself presents dreadful problems within the extremely limited space of the tent, and I am terrified of disturbing Rachel, kicking over the primus, and in general causing mayhem, as I struggle with intractable moleskins and windproofs. Tent-sleep is the soundest, deepest, calmest yet in the Antarctic.
The design of the tent has hardly changed since Scott's day: it is exactly right for its purpose. It is easy to imagine living in it for months - certainly it would take a degree of heroism to do so in the worst weather conditions, and I realise my stay is simply unrealistic - very well looked after, spoiled by the best midsummer weather - but little insight is required to understand what a field worker for BAS must endure, and how invaluable the presence of a general assistant like Rachel must be. I have the luxury of being able to enjoy the landscape, and think about a symphony, in sympathetic conditions, while they must do science in appalling circumstances, where the smallest everyday task can become Herculean, with inconceivable discomfort.
At seven in the morning I tentatively stick a foot out - there are regulation ways of getting through the tent flap - and quickly pull it back again, into the relative warmth. It is minus something, and I discover that last night's footprints outside the tent are hard and unyielding. Once dressed I take a walk - the whole feel of the ice shelf is transformed; low cloud obscures the sun.
There is no sense of perspective at all in the blue whiteness, and distance is impossible to judge. The opposite rockface pushes right up to your eyeballs, while the intervening flat snow could extend to infinity. This, compounded by the alienation of landscape seen through the essential snow-goggles, makes it hard to relate even to one's own height - feet seem to be much further down than usual. Today's underfoot crunch is harsher, more grating. The distant red pyramid of our tent becomes a beacon, a reference point in the featureless ice-shelf, and a way of judging how far one has gone. As the sun mounts, and penetrates the cloud layer to better effect, it imparts to the high snow flanks around a platinum and silver sheen, in places suggesting the gooey texture of giant rounds of marshmallow. (The blackness of clefts and crags belongs to another, quite unconnected visual dimension.)
In this lowering light, a distant glacier looks like a raging torrent. A letterbox of cobalt blue suggests better weather to come.
Back at the tent, Rachel and I are disturbed by the sound of a plane - there is a BAS Twin Otter plane flying over - we think good of them to make a little diversion to check that we're alright -but, after circling again, the plane lands. The weather is deemed to be deteriorating, so that we could be stranded here for days. Camp is quickly struck, and Rachel and I are scooped up, back to the safety and comfort of Rothera.
That letterbox of blue expands and takes over: the evening brings cloudless skies and the brightest sunshine, with a gentle, tingly breeze.
I regret not having heard the air at Rothera rent by the calls of huskies; these dogs were banned in the winter of 1993. Even in imagination, the sound is evocative. The last Rothera dogs were flown to Labrador, the idea being to reintroduce there a pure strain of husky - but the Antarctic refugees were unprotected against Canadian viruses, and died shortly after arrival.
It was deemed wrong to have any species of animal in Antarctica not native, which meant getting rid of all dogs. (An exception was made for humankind). The thirty Rothera dogs needed 130 seals per annum for food - these were killed over a wide area - there are 60 million or so seals in Antarctica; the remains not consumed by dogs were discovered by gulls and skuas, which, encouraged also by the dumping of food waste from the Rothera kitchen, grew unusually populous. When dogs and dumping were banned, these gulls and skuas starved, their population now being most dramatically reduced.
Dogs were replaced by skidoos - small, extremely efficient vehicles, suitable for pulling sledges, easily navigable in poor snow conditions, and much faster than dogs. However, they do pollute the atmosphere by burning a diesel oil and petrol mix, and their noise is horrible. Rothera is indeed generally extremely dependent upon fossil fuels - there are no wind or solar power generators, and if energy and pollution levels are ever to be reduced to 1990 levels, as specified at the Kyoto convention, this most difficult but worthwhile aim will have to at least be considered, despite the comparative smallness of the station in 1990. A small point in favour of dog teams - when the leading dog fell into a crevasse, the other dogs and the human driver survived. Moreover, the dogs instinctively knew, most of the time, where crevasses lurked beneath the snow surface, and either refused to budge, or avoided them. Skidoos certainly do not know, and plunge straight down, with their human driver.
29 December 1997
A Twin Otter flight to Sky-Blu and Sky-Hi - two remote tents in the wilderness, four hours south of Rothera, including a refuelling stop at the Fossil Bluff skiway en route. Anthony Tuson is our pilot: we are flying out a geologist and his assigned general assistant to Sky- Hi, and uplifting a pair from Sky-Blu - only fifteen miles or so from Sky High: Sky Blu will be abandoned for the present, although the pyramid tent will remain in situ.
Again, I am co-pilot. The sea-ice around Rothera is fracturing. The cracks suggest, from up on high, field patterns, roads, tracks, with ruined houses, chapels, byres - these are fragments of embedded iceberg. There are fissures which run for many miles in a straight line. Patches of mottled ice, where small pools of water form, black, so that the ice-sheets look like slabs of speckled rock. Further south, the ice is a continuous shelf, then there are azure pools of snow melt, tear of kidney shaped, scattered across its surface. Coasts are defined by a strip of black or aquamarine water, between frozen sea and cliff.
Striped mountains - bands of different coloured rock. Some stripes run vertically: one can imagine the seismic upheaval that twisted the mountain through ninety degrees.
At Sky-Blu there is driving snow - it's not that it's snowing - the sky is indeed a clear pale blue! - but the powdery snow covering the plateau whips up, and across, and about, making landing tough, and, once we have disembarked, chilling us to the bone, despite warm clothing. We warm ourselves by loading everything into the plane, including a Nansen sledge, and make the short hop to Sky-Hi.
Here, where the wind encourages the snow into even more furious whiplashes, there is a unique permanent round-roofed tent - that is, permanent until, one winter, a storm carries it off - for which reason it is forbidden to use it as sleeping accommodation - pyramid tents are much more secure. It forms a small sitting room, with a splendid Danish stove, originally designed for the roughest conditions on fishing boats. The space is soon toasty warm, and all six of us sit, rubbing limbs, or stand, stamping feet, nursing scalding cups of tea and wolfing chocolate. Many tons of chocolate disappear each year in Antarctica - it is free, and always available, like toothpaste, soap and suncream. The pair picked up at Sky-Blu after weeks in the field - a geologist and his minder - are unshaven and ruddy, except for white eye rings due to wearing goggles: their eyes always seem to focus on far distances, as they anticipate lovingly the hot food - not munch! and fresh fruit at Rothera, and hot showers unlimited. We are shown a particularly impressive geological specimen - black rock flecked with glinting garnet.
Upon leaving, we circle to wave to the two left behind, who stand by their red pyramid tent, waving until they have diminished to two black dots. They expect to see nobody for many days.
As we fly over the Monteverdi Peninsula, Anthony tells me about mirages, how snow and cloud can suddenly flip, and change places, what was in the sky revealing itself to have been a cover of snow on the ground, and the "snow" proving to be cloud: I daren't even think about piloting under such conditions. One would have thought nothing could be more intense than this cruel glare of snow reflecting the sun, but a line of cloud defining the coast opposite the sun is reflected in the sea-ice, creating a dazzle intenser than anything I could have imagined: it is simply unbearable, even for one second, without the goggles.
30 December 1997
At Rothera, all on base are required to join, on a fair rotation system, in cleaning, working in the kitchen, washing up. etc. One such job is that of night watchman, and I join Lloyd Peck on his tour of duty, in this capacity; he is a distinguished marine biologist. Basically, he ensures that fire is impossible, particularly in the joiners' workshop, the hangar, the travel store (camping equipment), any battery-charging installations, the generating station, and around fuel tanks. The high point of the tour, for me, is going up on Rothera Point, above the base, to note the weather, particularly regarding cloud cover and horizontal visibility for the pilots. From here, the view across the sea ice to distant mountains is stupendous, and Lloyd hopes that, as it's the right time of year, we might see killer whales teaching their offspring how to catch seals: they flip a sheet of ice so that the seal slides into the water, catching it, then releasing it, so that they scramble back on to the ice. It is tipped off again, allowing the young to catch and worry it while, and again, and again until the seal at last dies of its wounds. I am quite relieved not to have to witness this.
A day out with Anya, a young seismologist, and a very competent cellist, and Rachel, who for today is Anya's field assistant. We are piloted by Andy, a hundred or so minutes north of Rothera, to Pequod Glacier, above the Larsen Ice Shelf. This is a flight of crystalline, emerald wonders. We trail the plane's skis on a plateau of snow packed over hundreds of feet of ice, five thousand feet up, and eventually land smoothly enough, into a strong head wind, where no-one ever landed before. Anya is quite upset we are not nearer to her experiment site - Andy explains that he daren't land closer, on a slope, because the wind is wrong, so Rachel and Anya trudge off, roped together in heavy-duty harness, across a howling expanse of snow and ice.
They are away for well over two hours - the red of their waterproofs gradually loses its colour, as their size diminishes, and they are just two jet black dots creeping across a dazzling white ridge, behind which they eventually disappear. Anya will download information into her laptop, about earth tremors over a period of time, which enables her to calculate new information about thicknesses of the Earth's crust.
The plateau upon which we stand is ringed with peaks - so dramatic they have a hallucinatory quality, their sharp and intensely integrated geometry having something of the surreal, or unreal aspect of those computer-generated landscapes you see in Space movies. One peak is blackly strident under a perfectly sculpted half-sphere of snow-covered ice - you just cannot work out if there is a hollow under the ice, reaching back to the mountain top, or if the mountain top bulges out from beneath the ice: it is alarming to feel the ice and the mountain move in their spaces, as the eye interprets and re-interprets the visible evidence.
Andy looks concerned, as the wind freshens, and lashes the snow up around the plane's skis - but eventually, before it becomes critical, two black dots split the junction of dizzy white and powder blue, slowly becoming toiling red figures, and at last we learn of the success of Anya's findings. On the return to Rothera, we make trial landings on ice, with a view to establishing a place to deposit barrels, to refuel Twin Otters on flights to a proposed far distant experimental site.
The Bonner Laboratory again, this time to be shown the aquarium and related experiments, by its designer, Lloyd. The analytical facilities are second to none - there is much effort, for example, in pollution research (gas chromatograph to examine oil in a polluted animal), in changes in reproductive efficiency over ten years (starfish gonad analysis), comparative metabolisms (brachiopods exhibit the lowest metabolic rate), etc. A clam stuck with electrodes fascinates me horribly - its heartbeat is being counted at 0°C, 3° and 6° ( at 6° it is 8½ beats per minute) - the creature is expected to die when it cannot extract enough oxygen from the water at about 9°C. New to me the sea urchins, sea cucumbers, huge sea spiders with digestive and reproductive systems in their legs, chitons and sea-lemons: this last is most odd, with its shell covered by a rubbery yellow mantle. The huge sea squirts do just what you'd expect.
02 January 1998
Twin Otter flight to Fossil Bluff. My minder this time is Ian Marriot.
I had seen the station - a mile or so from the landing ski-way - en route to Sky-Blu. It overlooks the ice shelf, with a great hill rearing up behind it, and views out front to distant snow-covered mountains. Already it reminded me of home on Hoy, on the clifftops, with Morefea rearing up behind, and looking out over the Pentland Firth to the mountains of Caithness and Sutherland - but as it was ten thousand years ago, at the end of its last ice age.
We land on the ice, against the odds - the conditions are deplorable, but Andy touches down so smoothly one wouldn't notice. Greeted by Jenny and Seamus, meteorologist and radio operator manning the station and recording the weather, who drag Ian and me to Fossil Bluff behind their skidoos. We stand on the back platforms of beautiful ash sledges, heaped with our bags, connected to the skidoos by a short length of rope.
We rattle and bounce over lumps in the ice at 60 mph - well, perhaps 30 - and I have never been so uncomfortable, ever. I soon realise that you can steer the wretched sledge by learning from side to side, and that less rib-cage damage is inflicted if you bend your knees and crouch in anticipation of the severest ruts and ridges. After what felt like five hours - it must have been all of five minutes - we arrive, and I try to look in possession of my senses, as I jump ever so nonchalantly down, ready to lug kit up the last hundred yards, where snow and ice have melted. Ian is not fooled - he laughs and says he thought I was having a heart attack. I shall wear the bruises as trophies for weeks.
The position of the station is magical - from the surrounding verandah the views are even better than expected: the looming hulk of hill behind enfolds and protects. A Union Jack flutters over what is basically a one-roomed house, which retains most of the features from 1960, when it was built. Four neat bunks, two by two, at one end. A rough wooden table with four chairs. A generous, all-dominating Raeburn. A galley with water tank, constantly topped up with fresh snow brought in, steel sink, and primus stoves. Shelves of tinned food, books, the station records, and radio equipment. A small bootroom, a storeroom with chemical loo, and a second tiny bunker-room complete the building. A short way away, uphill, where the snow begins, a wooden caboose mounted on a sledge, containing two bunks - this was constructed by a member of the founder team, who, tired of sleeping in pyramid tents, had it dragged by dogs, along with everything else, hundreds of miles across the ice. It is his permanent monument. A further store storeroom and a generator, and that's it.
We celebrate Hogmanay twice - once at GMT, then, three hours later, at midnight local time. Jenny and Seamus cook, the wine is Crozes Hermitage, and there's the whisky Judy gave me. Ian and I get on well - he has blue eyes, the colour of an ice-melt pool, which quiz you and laugh, and he's built like a bullet. His poems show great awareness of the natural world, particularly of wild animals - I think of Lawrence's insights, in his snake poem. An adventurer, a loner - climbs rock-faces, dives, does all those sporty things I'd never dream of attempting. He's supposed to 'mind' me, so he leads me up the shale slope behind the house, across the ice of a decaying glacier. Here there are crystal columns and fans, cakestands, armchairs of icy snow, all speckled with the grit of constantly fragmenting rock, and adorned with convoluted ice frills and laces, necklaces of unimaginable intricacy and delicacy. It's a place of hushed glory, alive with the twinkle of falling fragments of ice, the crisp crackle of larger splits, the background rush of swift, narrow water channels, each trapped in a tight, solid conduit of white ice, until it plunges under the shale. It is very difficult to mount the scree slope - no soil or vegetation binds the powdered, shattered stone - each bootfall triggers a small avalanche, and grip is hard - but eventually we gain a firm rock, to sit upon, and contemplate.
There is a sulky yellow-cream glow down below, hovering above the edge of the ice shelf, contrasting the iron-ore brown-yellow-purple rock and the painful brilliance of snow and ice. High above, forming and reforming around the summits, wispy clinging grey-blue fingers. Each individual fragment of rock an engrossing world in itself - of stripes, layerings, mottlings, stipplings of various colours - lumps of quartz, fossils - of leaves, molluscs and tiny invertebrates - scattered everywhere. There is a fossilised forest close by - the climate must once have been rather like south New Zealand. I select a few shards and lumps, to put on my desk when I write the symphony; I had such tokens around me when I wrote The Doctor of Myddfai, to help keep in touch with the spirit of the location of that opera, a magical lake in Wales.
The next day is Ian's birthday. Again, we celebrate with wine and whisky: he is 30, and very sanguine about being so very old. There is a media invasion in the late morning - Andy brings down from Rothera the whole circus - cameras and microphones - together with Judy and Julian, and I am filmed, doing the same action, saying the same lines, ad nauseam, so that it can be shot from different angles from various distances. Eventually, after hours of this, I refuse to be shot steering a sledge behind a skidoo. Enough is enough. When they have all left, Ian says, in the sudden total hush, "it's just like this when the in-laws have gone."
I spend a few hours walking by myself, in peace, along the edge of the ice shelf, up the bluff and among the ice sculptures of the dying glacier. It would have been worth coming to Antarctica, just for this. Jenny bakes excellent bread and her pancakes are the best.
03 January 1998
Back at Rothera, great excitement about the imminent firing, by a team from Germany, of a rocket, to record information about the mesosphere. Nigel, the cook, whose chief interest is wildlife, is really concerned about a broody skua whose nest is very close by the launch site. I accompany Nigel on his four-hour-long check-up of all the birds around the Point, which he does every two days, notebook in hand. He examines each skua nest, where the eggs are still unhatched, and the two kelp gull nests, where chicks are either imminent, or have hatched already. I find it difficult to feel protective towards skuas, whose population at home on Hoy increases alarmingly each year - they are violently aggressive creatures, dive-bombing anyone on their patch with a most alarming and persistent determination. Here, too, they make a squawky fuss, and perform their usual dive-bomb act, but Nigel ignores all of this, and even lifts a couple of nesting birds, ever so slightly and gently, to check the presence and condition of the eggs.
The sea is full of ice again, but free ice that has wandered here now the former rigid cover has split and in part melted - this, consisting of icebergs and floating bits, freely comes and goes, bunching up here, and leaving the sea free there. For the first time the sea smells of sea, and there is enough open water for Weddell Seals to nose about, and bask on ice floats. Not at all discomfited by our very close approach, they briefly open one eye, turn over langourously, and snore on. Penguins wander around the rocks: they must be very poor-sighted on land, the way they approach and examine you, perplexed - and extremely well-sighted under water, to successfully hunt their prey. An elephant seal, a long way out. A Minke whale blows and flips. The ice is luminous to the farthest distance. Broken sheets of it creak and moan - polystyrene sounds, as the sea mildly rocks and nudges them along. Penguins on distance ice honk, their sound carrying for miles in the stillness. An unidentified distant whale blows. The seals demonstrate their considerable vocabulary, as gentle snorts, wheezes and warbles sound from all directions.
04 January 1998
It is only now, with the full support of British Antarctic Survey that the likes of me can experience Antarctica. The environment is absolutely and fundamentally hostile to our presence, and, outside very expensive and limited specialist adventure holiday companies, visitors simply cannot exist. Tourist ships only allow their customers ashore briefly, and they are herded and supervised within small areas, for their own well-being, and for the sake of the environment, and these vessels generally cannot cut through ice into the less accessible frozen areas. However, the polar regions have for centuries been active in our imaginations, ever since the earliest heroic explorations. Antarctica is simple THERE, weaving its history, myth, and magic into the fabric of our awareness, and, even if few of us ever see it in fact, it is enough to know that it exists, just being its miraculous self. Most of even the little I have seen and experienced must, by its very nature, be closed to any wider public - there can be no general access, except via film, literature, and by leap of imagination. It reminds me of the hidden artwork in medieval cathedrals, at the tops of pillars and in the vaulting, which only now can be appreciated through photography, created by sculptors and painters to the greater glory of God. In Antarctica one is unaccustomedly hypersensitive to the act of Creation itself as never before, and of the fact that this continues, and that affects us, and that we affect it. Elsewhere on Earth, man is the most successful mammal: here he has only a precarious toe-hold: his presence is minimal, when compared to the many millions of perfectly adapted seals. It is a terrible, hostile wonderland, where we can only just survive with the help of cocoons of alien clothes, tents, heated huts, ships, aeroplanes. And even then it's dicey.
© Peter Maxwell Davies
This is a copyright text and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.