Imagining Life at the South Pole

South Pole thumbnailLoving most movies, books and blogs about Antarctica, I was strongly attracted to South Pole Station on a best books of summer reading list. I read about 4 nonfiction books in a row and needed something fictional to absorb my attention. Picking up the book yesterday I found myself reading it obsessively until I finished it a few minutes ago.

The NPR book review recommended reading South Pole Station a debut novel by Ashley Shelby on July 4, 2017. As Heller McAlpin writes:

“In this unusual, entertaining first novel, Ashley Shelby combines science with literature to make a clever case for scientists’ and artists’ shared conviction that “the world could become known if only you looked hard enough.”

I enjoyed the vivid detail of the life inside the small community of 105 beakers (scientists), nailheads (construction and maintenance) and artists. The world and the oddballs who inhabit it was so precise that I thought perhaps the author overwintered herself on an NSF fellowship. Apparently her creativity was supplemented by a sister who worked as a cook and a lot of research. Emails with her sister may have been the inspiration for the heroine’s emails with her sister Billie. I especially liked how she provided the backstory for main characters and still moved the plot forward–the mark of a good storyteller.

The story is driven not by the extreme environment as much as the people and their passion for science and for the strange community they create at one end of the world. It resolved a couple of things for me. I really want to go to Antarctica. I don’t want to go to the South Pole or work overwinter for pay or fellowship. Though I do admire the people who have.

Bluff, NZ: End of the World?

IMG_5113Well, obviously no. Stewart Island is visible and the South Pole is 4,810 kilometers away. Once upon a time, if you were traveling on a ship from Scotland, Ireland or England, it felt like the end of the world.

One morning around 10 a.m. I enjoyed a coffee and piece of cake at Land’s End restaurant and inn at Stirling Point, at the southernmost tip of South Island, New Zealand. Cake and my own thoughts at Lands End

At the moment the sea is rough and a shower just passed through. Last night in nearby Invercargill it hailed–laying a temporary white carpet  on the parking lot. Now I am second guessing myself. Am I being sensible or a wuss for not getting on a small plane and spending the day on Stewart Island? (I do not even consider the ferry. Read Trip Advisor–it is all compliments for the crew putting up with passengers vomiting all round.) I tell myself, given I will be cycling 27 miles the next day, I cannot afford to get seasick or airsick. And the helicopter service relocated to Stewart Island and I could not reach them via the website.

So I sit by the window and enjoy a flat white and watch as a procession of people drive up to Stirling Point and take selfies with the sign. What pose shall I strike?

In the 2014 edition of The Best American Travel Writing, editor Paul Theroux sneers, “…in general what they call travel is in most cases a superior and safe holiday.” As I gaze at the sea and its white caps, the “open” sign flapping the in the wind, I am tormenting myself. Am I on a safe holiday or am I an adventurer?  The previous morning I was sitting on a drenched beach with the rain dripping off my nose onto my camera, patiently waiting for a Fiordland penguin to emerge from the rainforest. The following day I plan to set off from Clyde to mountain bike 150 kilometers to Middlemarch (over 4 days). Today I choose to conserve financial and physical resources and have a second flat white and slice of lemon cake.

The people who are posing at the end of the world: are they tourists or travelers? I prefer not to judge. Instead I smile at their choice of pose.

Bluff, the tip of South Island, New Zealand