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Ice Diaries - Jean McNeil

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Ice Diaries


Also by Jean McNeil

From the Library of Graham Greene

Hunting Down Home

Nights in a Foreign Country

Private View

The Interpreter of Silences

The Ice Lovers

Night Orders: Poems from Antarctica and the Arctic

Note: This is a memoir and in order to protect others’ privacy many people in this book are creations — characters, in other words. I have used first and last names only when they represent an actual person. Base R and some other Antarctic place names used here are pseudonyms; however, the names of landmasses and bodies of water are those you will find on a map.

Snow mountains, more than sea or sky, serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, a void, an Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an ‘I’ who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror.

Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

I think sleeping is a waste of time.

Max, aboard the James Clark Ross, Drake Passage, Southern Ocean


It was Simon, the base commander that summer at Base R, who first told me about it. A strange little book was tucked away in the base library, he said, a list of all the different forms of ice, written for mariners, in the tradition of the identification manuals carried on ships: those glossaries of knots, or wind, or seafaring terms.

I’d encountered ice terms on the ship, a lollipop red-and-white polar research vessel which had conveyed us to the end of the world: I knew about frost flowers, polynyas, growlers — all words for the kinds of ice you encounter at sea, and had taken an instant shine to these gnarled, revelatory terms. How many more kinds of ice could there be?

After some rummaging in the dustless library (no mites means no dust — the Antarctic is heaven for neat freaks), I found the book. It was a thin paperback with stiff blue paper covers, worn but not foxed, as they say in the book trade — those singed edges and brown liver spots which accumulate around the edges of papers and bindings — because there was no moisture in the air to fox them.

A Glossary of Ice Terms. The text was typed out in the blocky Courier of old typewriters. Ablation, black ice, candle ice, first-year ice, frazil ice, glass ice, growler, hummock, ice gruel, pressure ice, rotten ice, sastrugi, serac, stamukha, tarn, winter ice. The glossary listed over sixty ice words, in English. (There was a separate annex for Greenlandic terms.) There would be more to learn about ice than I had thought.

I signed the book out of the library using the outmoded index card system — a certain John Struthers’s name, with the date 1978 and a book named God’s Mammoth Tasks still shone in bright blue ink on the register, as if it had been signed only that morning. The slim ice glossary sat on my desk in the two offices I was assigned, Lab 7 and Lab 5, during the months I was in the Antarctic; by the time I left I had memorized the contents as you would conjugate verbs, committing to memory a language I never expected would be mine.

Ice has a life cycle, just as we do. We talk of it being born when an iceberg calves from a glacier, of its living and its dying when it melts. But actually ice is immortal; it never quite dies but is reincarnated, through melt, into water, into vapour.

The Antarctic is by far the largest accumulation of ice on the earth. The Ice, as the continent is sometimes referred to — a term of affection — is, along with Greenland, the most complete frozen archive of our planet’s past. It is also an oracle, however reluctant or accidental. Through the chemical residues it traps, ice provides a precise record of the atmospheric past, and in particular how the planet has responded to past episodes of warming and cooling. Through analyzing this data, scientists become augurers: they can offer a likely scenario of how climate cycles and gaseous emissions will affect the future temperature of the planet.

Ice has also long been associated with another kind of divination: crystallomancy. The crystal itself has been used for future-telling through what in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was called scrying — looking into an object to divine a likely outcome. If we peered into it, mystics of the era believed, ice would reveal our future. Whether molecular or esoteric, ice promises revelation.

In the last ice age, the great ice sheets of the northern hemisphere were called the Laurentide, Fennoscandian, and Greenlandic and, in the southern hemisphere, the West and East Antarctic sheets. Of these, only Greenland and the Antarctic still exist. We remain in an ice age, but in a phase called an interglacial, when the ice sheets do not advance. This is an important point: shrinkage is not the key to an interglacial, rather lack of expansion is. So it has been for much of the planet’s history. The next ice age was expected to begin sometime in the next ten thousand years, due to naturally occurring cyclotherms — subtle alterations in the Earth’s temperature.

But now for the first time in the planet’s long history, this natural cycle has been disrupted by man, and it is possible the polar ice sheets which wait so patiently for expansion may never again begin their advance. The Antarctic Peninsula, where I was based for several months, is an apt place to contemplate this interruption; the peninsula is the fastest-warming landmass in the world; at 2.5 degrees Celsius each year, it is heating up at approximately six times the global average rate.

The realm of ice is a mysterious world, underpinned by several persistent and little-publicized scientific mysteries, even conundrums. Before I went to Antarctica I knew little of the cryosphere, that sphere not of tears but of ice, apart from having grown up in a cold, still-glacial landscape. People from my background — North American welfare class — do not generally go to the Antarctic, or at least not the British Antarctic, and certainly not as writers. I had never dreamed of going there. The majority of people who go to Antarctica are scientists who work in the cryospheric disciplines: glaciology, oceanography, marine biology, terrestrial biology, atmospheric chemistry, physics, and astronomy, along with the engineers, technicians, mountaineers, pilots, and mariners who support the science programme on the frozen continent and who are the modern-day equivalent of polar explorers, carrying their cold studs of knowledge of the fickleness of ice, the harshness of the light, the topsy-turvy world which awaits there, where all your expectations and beliefs of how the planet ought to behave are overturned as the sun performs strange revolutions in the sky.

In the years I have spent teetering between the tips of the world since my first trip to the Antarctic, years spent in spells in Greenland, Svalbard, Iceland, Norway, the Falkland Islands, or shuttling between them on ocean-going research ships, everyone — scientists, seamen, pilots, electricians alike — has spoken of Antarctica’s unique cultish allure. Once you’ve lived there for any period of time, you can’t get the place out of your head, Tim, an eloquent English builder I met on base, told me. The Antarctic has been described by the Australian writer Thomas Keneally as not so much a physical place as another state of being. The white tractor beam it exerts upon the consciousness of people who have been there, pulling them back, operates on a power beyond its obvious allures — its cold charisma, its pristine wildness. Could the lump of rock and ice that ballasts our planet at the bottom have qualities nowhere else on earth possesses? Could it be something akin to a consciousness? There, I felt the press of an external consciousness on mine, and not for the first time; as it turns out I had felt it as a child growing up in a cold corner of Canada’s eastern seaboard, but had forgotten it.

Ice Diaries completes my trio of books on the polar regions. It is not a systematic account or explanation of the phenomenon of climate change or of the science behind it — other books, some of which I quote here, have done that far better. It is a less ambitious artifact: a witness statement, a travel narrative and a diary of a journey to the most inaccessible of the seven continents. It is also a study in the thermodynamics of our lives. Like the earth we also pass through cycles of cold, hot, and the middling temperate zones in between. Some years are spent in a cryogenic slumber. Some are incendiary and dissolve everything we thought was real — our homes, partners, families. How we weather these personal climate changes may determine the course of our lives.

Memoirs thrive on an overheated currency of self-transformation along the lines of I was profoundly changed by this experience. I’m not sure I can deliver on that promise with this book. Although I do go excavating for signs of change in my life, even as I live it; writers are avid archaeologists of the present. I find that after years in the polar regions my inner landscape is an altered state. Things flourish in cold in a way they would never do in heat; you have made a career out of your sadness; I don’t say goodbye, I don’t look back; we aren’t, after all, very good at imagining the future: these are more than phrases uttered by those I met in Antarctica — they have a capacious intent to their tight explanations. They mean more than they appear to. They haunt me, still, which is a way of saying they have stayed with me, without resolution.

What is it about journeys? Aristotle said it best: In the beginning, everything is possible. In the middle, one or two outcomes are likely. The end is inevitable. Aristotle was writing about narrative, rather than travel, but the two have much in common. A journey has a clean narrative arc that most of our lives — those 25,000 or so days between the gaunt endpoints of birth and death — lack. There is a beginning, and an end, and in between is what happens.

But journeys are not so simple, in my experience. My seven-year-long journey through ice was dogged by the future. During these years, in a way that would come to a dramatic culmination, I became more alert to what was going to happen. I took up scrying of a sort, and entered into the perilous world of trying to read the intentions of the future. I learned human beings cannot take the future, just as they cannot absorb much truth. The future and the truth are inexplicably intertwined, I discovered, so that they might be the same substance. At the same time, the polar ice caps have become synonymous with a particular vision of the future: of human civilization ruined, or at the very least profoundly altered, by climate change.

I thought I knew extreme cold from a hardscrabble upbringing on Canada’s eastern seaboard. I thought about those years as little as possible; it was as if they had never happened. In going to the Antarctic, I believed I was journeying to a completely different place. The only thing it would have in common with my early life was that it would be cold. I might remember how to put on snow boots after fifteen winters in balmy England; I might have the advantage of knowing the signs of frostbite and how to prevent it. But that would be it. I was going to the Antarctic less as an individual with a past than as a writer, an official envoy from the future, to see what I would make of it.

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS)/Arts Council England International Artists and Writers residencies existed from 1998 until 2010; I was lucky enough to be part of this programme, which sent many talented visual artists, and a few writers, to the continent. We didn’t have to sign a contract or otherwise pledge what we would do. We were understood to be witnesses. The expectation was that our resulting work would further the public communication of science, and in particular, of climate change science. We would make abstract entities and numbers appreciable to a more general audience than scientists could reach, through humanizing and personalizing them. People would care more: about science, about the polar regions, about climate change. As the English nature writer Robert Macfarlane has written, We will not save what we do not love.

This undoubtedly happened, through the work of the writers and artists who were deployed to the continent. But writers are unreliable communicators. They bristle when told what they must say, what they should see. Not that BAS did, to its credit. The fault is with the sensibility of the writer. We automatically set about sabotaging the official line, consciously or unconsciously, even when it barely exists. We can’t resist it, because one of the tasks of being a writer is to examine reality as it is shipped to us, preordered and prefabricated, for our consumption: what I call consensus reality — what everyone agrees, for convenience’s sake, will be real. But look underneath the surface of the moment, and you find a roiling tension, not unlike the southern Atlantic Ocean in autumn and winter: a dynamic conflict so complete and vast it is hard to believe it remains intact. We are constantly on the verge of being torn apart by our realizations, and that is one reason why we deny them.

This book dramatizes what many readers may think of as science, but actually the science — information, observation — is indivisible in my mind from what actually happened, and what I felt. They are a single entity, like water, or even ice. To not have the science would condemn this book to solipsism. In Antarctica, information, experience, and endeavour are welded together; the Antarctic is a giant outdoor laboratory. Apart from a few high-priced tourist adventures, the continent is completely dedicated to science.

Science is a way of seeing things clearly, a process of revelation. A writer tries to see things clearly too, to perceive immutable truths that lie beneath the surface of the decoy we take to be reality. This can be an act of revelation but also of sabotage, because it might upset other vested interests in curating the truth. To discover these truths, things normally concealed — to the self as much as to others — must be brought to light. In the Antarctic I first learned that the original meaning of apocalypse (apokalupsis in Greek) is to uncover, to reveal.

I did learn a great deal about the science of climate change in Antarctica. However, climate is a flexible concept, and the book is an exploration of an inner as much as an outer landscape, and an account of the emotional effect of my rediscovery of winter that year — in essence, a kind of self-ambush. There is a winter of the heart, and winter of the mind, and these can be more chilly than any external temperature you might encounter. This book probes winter as a concept and an experience. Now that I live for part of each year in a tropical monoseason on Kenya’s Indian Ocean, it seems to me a necessary season, a fallow lying-in, of regeneration and renewal of trust. Winter people are resolute and resourceful. We need these qualities to get us through lean times.

I do miss winter, the season of snow and ice, and the inner fortitude it summons. We could all learn from its austere glamour. What follows is an account of a life spent in ice of one description or another, and what my fascination with cold has bequeathed to me, and to the people who made me, as well as an account of a voyage of discovery — not of new lands or riches, but an interior lucre I was about to discover for myself: how the mind, the imagination, and the heart can be set on fire by ice.




sea smoke

Steam and fog over the sea formed by very cold air moving over warmer water, typically in the Antarctic in spring, when sea ice is thinning or disappearing, but land temperatures remain low.

March 25th

Before the cold, heat. I am back in the Cage. I never expected to see this place again after my pit stop here on my way back from the Antarctic two years ago. But I’m back, flying not to the white continent but to the Falkland Islands with the Royal Air Force. So close, but yet so far.

We sit at picnic tables sipping weak, salty coffee made with the island’s desalinated water. I eavesdrop on tight-lipped conversations spiked with words like deployment and operations. While the officers sit in their neat pressed chinos and designer shirts, the squaddies stand around in boisterous groups, arms crossed over their chests. I see paunches, tattoos, outdoor-rugged footwear, and a high bald-head count. We are all listless. We have made that hasty transition, enabled by the age of air travel, from cold to heat in eight hours. Our eyes squint at the affront of light. Our backs sweat. We read magazines, or stare at some gadget or other, try to get signals on our mobile phones, even though everyone knows there is no signal on Ascension.

This is my second time on the RAF express. I find I’ve joined the Army again, although I can’t remember enlisting. Ascension is a military airstrip, so any rules governing civil aviation and passenger rights can be smoothly cancelled. While the aircraft is refuelled we are all locked under guard in the Cage — this is how everyone refers to this half–indoor departure lounge, half–outdoor picnic area shaded by a corrugated tin roof and sealed with wire fencing.

Warning signs are wired to the Cage: THE DANGERS OF FODs one sign blares, followed by childlike drawings of penknives, corkscrews — Foreign Object Debris. Another sign says Photography Prohibited, so I immediately take a few of the unmarked aircraft on the tarmac (there is no proof that renditions flights have landed on Ascension, but it isn’t completely beyond the pale, as only the US and British military really know what happens here): murkily incriminating images that look like they belong on the Amnesty International website.

It’s back, the childish rebellion. Every time I am in an authority structure, I want to take it down, or at least disobey. But also it’s reassuring to be back in a world whose workings I understand.

The scrawny palm trees rasp in the wind, just beyond the fence. A bougainvillea bush leans toward us. If I could only cut one of the fence chain-links, I could pick a flower.

I’d last been on Ascension two years before. Like many places I’ve been, I never expected to return. The island is not unlike the Antarctic: unless you are RAF, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office appointee, or an Antarctic scientist, everyone says you only get one shot at it.

Ascension is part of the quirky commute from the UK to the Falkland Islands and British Antarctic Territory. Before it was taken over by the UK and US military to be used as a mid-oceanic satellite/runway, its main use was as the Atlantic Relay Station for the BBC World Service, broadcasting to West Africa via vast electromagnetic installations that still stretch across a cindered lava field on the southern tip of the island. Nowadays it functions as a refuelling and spy station for the British and American governments. The island bristles with so many antennae, satellite domes, and giant wire contraptions like outsized dream catchers, I really did feel my cells buzz with microwaves.

Along with Tristan da Cunha and Easter Island, Ascension is also one of the most remote islands in the world. It lies nearly eight degrees south of the equator, on longitude 14°36’ W, a desolate meridian only shared, roughly, with Dakar, Senegal, and Tristan da Cunha. It is almost midway between Africa (1,600 kilometres away) and South America (1,400 kilometres away). The nearest landfall from Ascension is St. Helena, 1,300 kilometres to the southwest, and we had another 6,000 kilometres to fly to the Falklands. As I sat in the Cage that March morning, I wasn’t sure those distances defined anything at all. We were just very, very far away from anywhere else.

Two and a half years before, at Conference, as the yearly predeployment British Antarctic Survey gathering is called, I’d met a meteorologist who had done a six-month tour of duty on Ascension some years back. We stood clutching the stems of wineglasses in the cavernous dining hall at Girton College. I took to this met man: he was mischievous and slightly dishevelled. He wore professorial glasses and a striped polo shirt. He swayed in a way that suggested the glass in his hand was not his first of the evening.

What goes on there? I asked.

You know, even though I was forecasting the weather for the UK and US military, I didn’t have security clearance. He paused. But there were flights nobody knows about coming in from the States to Botswana, Kenya, and Senegal.


Apparently. I didn’t even know Botswana had an army.

He proceeded to tell me another few choice anecdotes about the military ops on the island. And now, he said, doing a little sashay of his hips and taking a step back from me, I’m going to have to shoot you.

My last trip to Ascension was two years before I landed up back in the Cage that March morning. Then, I’d spent five days on the island as part of my homeward journey from Antarctica, out of curiosity more than anything. You should definitely do a layover there, Paul, the director of the communications division at BAS, had advised. It may be your only chance to see it. In fact you need permission from the governor to visit, but we can sort that out for you.

On Ascension I hired a car and drove around the island’s forty kilometres of roadage in circles, in spirals. There were hardly any places on the island apart from military bases. The shabby conglomerations that did exist were called One Boat and Two Boat villages — Three Boats, it seemed, did not exist. I went to the gym at the RAF base, Travellers Hill, which looked like the summer camps I’d attended in Canada as a child, with flimsy wooden huts and beach towels hanging over the rails. Then I would drive down to the altogether more solid-looking American base, swinging by Wideawake Airfield on my way back into town, back to One Boat, then out to the BBC World Service radio transmitters with their signs warning of radiation. I convinced myself to drive up Green Mountain, the rainforested peak, and the only truly green landscape on the island’s ninety-eight square kilometres. I wound around the serpentining road, passing through eerily quiet pine forests full of giant boulders, until a lava flow blocked my way. If Ascension ever got tired of being a spy station it could make a good living as a film set for movies with titles like Volcano Apocalypse. Certainly this was what the genesis of earth must have looked like: a wasteland of lava flow rubble and cinder cones from its forty-four volcanic craters.

I tried to parse the land; just as the island has no native population, it has no native species. The trees and flowers of Green Mountain were planted here beginning in 1850 when deliveries of nursery trees, flowers, and plants arrived from the hothouses of England, Argentina, and South Africa. Now the forest atop Green Mountain captures the moisture of passing clouds, enticing it to fall on its flanks as rain.

The greening of the top of Ascension’s crater has been a great success; if it hadn’t happened, the island would look like Lanzarote. Buffeted by dry, sand-laden winds from the Sahara, it needed a long-term freightlift of trees to create enough rainfall for anything to grow. Ascension now has enough rainfall to support a menagerie of interestingly named species: the blushing snail, the bush cricket, babies’ toes, and bastard gumwood.

I walked the sand-blown streets of the capital (actually a collection of jerry-built sheds) Georgetown, spooked by the island’s remoteness, not caring whether I got sunburn on my Antarctic-white back. On the beach, giant green sea turtles tumbled ashore at night. I saw the tracks made by their flippers in the morning, the craters which they dug laboriously during the night to deposit their eggs. Nothing ever appeared on the horizon. The water and gas tankers permanently stationed offshore in case of shortages pirouetted on their anchors, and bored St. Helenan port guards slumped in pools of shade on the docks. Despite the heat, I couldn’t even muster the energy to swim in the municipal pool by the docks — the only place to swim on the island, as the surf was too rough, patrolled by suctioning breakers, or fringed with knife-edged basalt reefs. If these were not deterrent enough, the island’s waters fizzed with hammerhead sharks.

At night I sat on the floor of my room, accompanied by the bottle of Chilean shiraz I’d bought in the West Store in the Falklands, watching the single British Forces Broadcasting Services channel on an ancient TV. It wasn’t only my shrieking anxiety that kept me awake, but the coughing St. Helenan man in the cubicle next to me, as well as the feral donkeys that roamed the streets of Georgetown, squealing their banshee hee-haw call all night.

The only other guests were St. Helenans waiting for the ship home. A group of ladies addressed me. Dressed in Sunday church attire — neat polka-dotted dresses and blue hats — they sat on the veranda, watching the wild donkeys wander down the road.

Hello, they said amiably. Are you married?

I — well. I decided to lie. Yes.

Oh, they grinned. Good!

I went to walk away, then returned. Why did you ask me if I was married?

Well, that’s what everyone wants to know on St. Helena.

I didn’t say, You’re not on St. Helena now. I only smiled and basked in their approval.

Now, sitting again in the Cage, drinking my salty coffee, I realized every man looked like Tom: checked shirt, outmoded jeans, shoes a cross between hiking boot and trainer, complicated watches on their wrists. Their balding, often greying hair sheared sharply at the neck, their faces speckled with age spots from flying too close to the sun.

Sometimes I actually see Tom, or think I do — in the street, in train stations, airports — when in reality I saw him last two years before, on the apron of the aircraft hangar at Base R. Another Antarctic ghost.

I struggle with an aspect of my life which I can only term phantasmal. People come and go inexplicably, like badly announced characters in Elizabethan drama. They stand rigid in the spotlights, compelling, seemingly eternal. Then they vanish. I don’t kid myself I am innocent, nor do I think it’s a particularly unusual experience of life — that people are transitory, unreliable, unfathomable.

Still, on that morning on Ascension, I felt the return of a sensation I had in the Antarctic during the months I spent there two years ago. It was the impress, faint but unmistakeable, of a larger, nameless intelligence. I was under its jurisdiction again. Outlandish places not subject to the usual safeties of life make us feel more aware of the vulnerability and arbitrariness of our existences. Here I was on an island with no mobile phone signal, no cash machines, no cash for that matter — apart from the raucous St. Helenan currency, with its blue wirebirds and pink anemones. I was in a place that supports the Global Positioning System that tells us where to find a petrol station on our mobile phones, but which the UK and US would keep secret from the rest of the world, if they could, in an age of satellites and flight tracker airport codes. I felt the newness of the land there; it was still working out its level of commitment to the planet. It could be sucked back down to the ocean floor in an implosive volcanic burp, and all us with it.

Start from the beginning. I’ve learned this as a novelist, and it’s almost always good advice. But often a story begins in the middle, or even at the end. Just as the iceberg, once calved from the continent, revolves restlessly, caught in the gigantic gyre of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, we also turn round and round. We are not caught in a single line, a narrative, a parable that lurches from A to B, nor a circle, but in a spiral.

An announcement came over the tannoy. A snappy voice issued our orders.

Attention, everyone; would squadron leader Christian please report to the Air Movements NCO. Would passengers replane the aircraft in the following order: officers, civilians, followed by personnel.

On the RAF plane there was a new hierarchy, quite different from the über-businessmen or Home Counties Brahmins you see in first class on British Airways. Here the people in the front of the plane were the officers, while the squaddies and civilians travelled in steerage. There was a square for rank on the boarding pass (mine was Ms). Then there were the Falkland Islanders and the St. Helenans, who everyone calls Saints. A couple of Saints stood in front of me, sleepy in the early morning, slumped against each other, their hands around each other’s waists. This was their patch of the planet, our two-hour wait in the military lockup as unremarkable for them as a Heathrow transit lounge.

We filed toward the aircraft; I had the impression we all dragged our feet, reluctant to leave the tropical sun behind. In the southern hemisphere the planet had tipped into autumn. I could already feel its taciturn, enigmatic presence. Everyone in the British Antarctic crowd calls it simply South. As if everything else plunked south of the equator were drowned in the dazzling reality of the ice continent that needs no name, only a cardinal direction.

I remembered what Tom told me about the continent’s allure, the magnetic pull it exerts on you. We were sitting in the fuselage of the Twin Otter in a mild whiteout, waiting for the visibility to clear so that we could take off and return to base.

I’ve been working South for twelve years now, he said. In the beginning, when I first flew down here, I couldn’t get it out of my head. In the winter I’d be working in the Falklands, or flying in the UK, and suddenly I’d have to stop what I was doing. I’d just see it: a solid plain of white. And need it somehow. I always felt reassured, knowing I was coming back here at the start of every new season.

And now? I asked.

I don’t know. He shook his head. He looked … I don’t know what to call the expression. Defeated. Possibly guilty. Now I see only the deprivations. Now, once I leave, it doesn’t seem real. Why do you imagine that is?

Maybe because your family isn’t there. No one you really love is there.

All I know, he said, is that once I leave it now, it stays behind me.

Seated on the plane, an ancient DC-10 — a gas-guzzling 1970s model flown only by cargo companies these days, chartered by the RAF — I turned my face toward the day’s first rays, and felt the ghostly appeal of