Reading: Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler

Delving into the literature of Antarctica, it takes little time to conclude that each and every one of the visitors to this least visited of continents found somewhere within themselves a book about their trip. Anyone who has been there invariably seems to feel that the experience, their experience, is worth recording. (This is why today there is no scarcity of Antarctic blogs, like this one). The literature ranges from the initial voyages of discovery, from Amundsen’s triumphant The South Pole and Scott’s last words, written in his tent as he froze to death, to contemporary attempts to characterize the emerging McMurdo ice culture of booze-soaked fraternity boy high jinks and bureaucratic excess like Nicholas Johnson’s Big Dead Place. One of the very best of the books I’ve read so far is Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita.

Wheeler has read not only every one of the famous accounts of Antarctic exploration, but also the most obscure, including the unpublished diaries of minor figures on the early voyages. She cites memoirs by Russians playing catch-up at the dawn of the Cold War, discusses her near-obsession with Apsley Cherry-Garrard, survivor and principal chronicler of the doomed Scott expedition, and mentions countless other sources. Her account is already serving as a most useful bibliography of all sorts of Antarctic memoirs.

Beyond this, she has seamlessly integrated these literary excursions into the history of Antarctic discovery with her own personal narrative of the seven months she spent bouncing from one Antarctic camp to another. In the course of hitch-hiking on helicopters, skiing and snowmobiling to the historic ruined huts of great explorers, and flying southward to the scientific frontiers of geologic or meteorological discovery, she confronts some grand ideas and comes, it seems, to be permanently altered by the experience. Antarctica emerges as a spiritual utopia so far out of the world that on a visit there the petty concerns of life on planet earth fade into nothingness. “The sublime grandeur of nature can strip away layers of the ego,” she writes, and describes New Year’s on the ice as special because she “was spared the sickening realization that once again, despite the passing of another year, nothing had changed except the things that had got worse.” At times she tries to come to terms with the differences between us, with our Sno-Cat all terrain vehicles, frozen peas, helicopter landing pads and fully equipped laboratories, and the likes of Amundsen, Mawson, Scott, and Shackleton, who were abandoned on the ice with no infrastructure and had support only when and if the ice obliged, permitting the return of a ship. Ultimately she concludes that ours is a different, demented era, compared with that inhabited by those men: “We are living in an age that doesn’t give a fig about the spirit, an age fatally compromised by ambition and worldly success.”


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Marti said...

Agreed -- it's a terrific book. I'm going to read it a second time if I ever get it back from a friend I lent it to.