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Book Review: Antarctica

Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continentantarctica

by Gabrielle Walker

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

“They have spiders the size of dinner plates! Giant slimy worms twice as long as I am tall! Creatures with flailing legs and crushing mandibles that are bigger than my hand!” … there are times in Gabrielle Walker’s new book Antarctica when it’s momentarily difficult to remember the author has a PhD in chemistry from Cambridge University. But readers should always make allowances for enthusiasm to unbalance gravamen, and if there’s one quality Walker (author of the delightful An Ocean of Air) feels free to display in her writing, it’s enthusiasm.

That quality would fit perfectly with the other snowbound planetary pole, as readers of a certain antiquity may recall from the great Sally Carrighar’s 1953 bestseller Icebound Summer, in which she writes with such grace and beauty (and, yes, enthusiasm) about the North Pole; every year in the Arctic, after the annual thaw, life and color explode everywhere, hungry to take advantage of such a narrow window for existence. But when the snow is on the land things are quite different. “One discovers infinity,” she writes, “not as a philosophical concept but as a daily experience, almost as tangible as the dogs’ baying or the slow-swinging overhead draperies of the Aurora.”

That invasive impression of infinity is not just a seasonal thing at Earth’s other end, as Walker and a long line of researchers and explorers and simple visitors have discovered before her. Antarctica has often been likened to another world, to Mars (indeed, Walker herself wastes no time making the same comparison), and with good reason. The air is thinner; the specific gravity is lighter; the day-night cycles are closer to science fiction than anything most people have ever experienced; the sawing wind never silences; the interiors are the most arid places on the planet; and everything, every last detail of geography and topography, is shaped by the mind-boggling cold. In New England, a chill snap in which temperatures go down to 8 degrees Fahrenheit is fodder for apocalyptic outbursts on the evening news. In Antarctica, it’s common for temperatures to go one hundred degrees lower, for days and weeks on end. It’s as close as Earth gets to simulating its nearest planetary neighbor.

And yet, almost beyond imagining, there’s life. Not just transplanted life, not just the 1500 or so humans who cluster around a handful of bases during what passes for the continent’s warm season, but indigenous life. Necessarily, Walker reserves some of her finest-grade enthusiasm for these super-hardy creatures, who’ve adapted to live where no life ought to be possible. The most famous members of this exclusive group – Antarctica’s telegenic crowd of penguins – get predictable amounts of time in her spotlight. But she also tells her readers about the seals who patrol the dark passages under the ice, the fish whose blood resembles antifreeze, and the whole host of bizarre creatures living in the below-freezing waters surrounding the place – including a tribe of predators called foraminifera – forams – each one of which is as long as your fingernail, vicious, and, incredibly, a single cell. In what is surely a viable blueprint for the most likely kind of extraterrestrial life, there are even types of fungi living inside rocks.

It’s all been protected for decades by international treaties that exempt Antarctica from ownership by any nation and impose far-sighted ecological rules (as Walker tells us, “the wildlife is protected, and everything brought in must eventually be taken out”). Various countries have established footholds for scientific research – in a gambit that’s clearly meant to be more amusing than it is, Walker tours these bases and makes impish comments on their different national characteristics (the French have the best food, and that sort of thing) – and some of that research is conducted in the terrifying conditions of the inner continent, the Antarctic Plateau, a barren, lifeless, wind-scoured wasteland of staggering cold before which even Walker’s playfulness is quieted a little. In the days before satellite communication, to be barricaded in an upland station – under that screaming wind, in that half-year of unrelieved darkness – was the exact terrestrial equivalent to being quartered in a deep-sea habitat: step outside unprotected, and you’ll live just long enough to realize how little nature cares about man.

Men hazarded these conditions, of course, and Walker dutifully talks about all of them, the Amundsens and Scotts, the explorers who went there and strived there and starved there. She spends a good deal of time with their modern-day counterparts, the men and women who risk the Antarctic year-round at places like the U.S.’s McMurdo Station (where there’s “no ice and little romance”).

All of it is engagingly written, in large part because it has to be. The flat, alien permanence of Antarctica imposes strenuous adaptations on its annalists no less than on its animals. Like other writers before her (James McClintock in last year’s Lost Antarctica, for instance, and going all the way back to that greatest Antarctica book of them all, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World), Walker is confronted with a place whose signature is a monotony of monstrous proportions: if she doesn’t dole out generous helpings of rhetorical showmanship, her narrative would freeze to death on the page.

This is certainly why the truly engaged parts of her Antarctica are the parts dealing with change – specifically, climate change. The unprecedented speed with which the polar ice caps have been melting in recent years is a fixture of modern environmental news; Walker describes in vivid terms the consequences for the South Pole, where the flooding of subterranean channels with huge influxes of ice-melt could cause the entire continent quite literally to dissolve – and in the lifetime of Earth’s current generations. Her sections on this very real threat the book’s most passionate and least scripted … made all the more moving because the reader comes away believing what Walker clearly won’t allow herself to believe: that the fatal turning-point has come and gone, that the enthralling wasteland she’s chronicled is already doomed.

She refuses to succumb to gloom, and this is such an arm-tuggingly happy book that her readers will end up feeling just what she wants them to: joy in the presence of so much that’s so strange, and awe at how it dwarfs its onlookers:

The most experienced Antarcticans talk not about conquering the continent but about surrendering to it. No matter how powerful you believe yourself to be – how good your technology, how rich your invention – Antarctica is always bigger.