Friday, October 31, 2008

A flag returns to me after 22 years

In 1986, I designed a flag. It flew at the Karen McKerron Gallery in Johannesburg for the duration of my second solo exhibition. Karen came up with this great idea that everyone who exhibited in her space that year should create a flag that would in some way encapsulate the energy and content of that particular body of work and time. At the end of the year, the twelve or so flags would then be auctioned off at a special celebratory event. 

In 1986, I was fresh out of university, newly-wed, an earnest 26-year old mother-of-one making intense work about intense things. The political situation in my home country was in a state of profound dis-ease and demanded my response. Amongst my image titles from that time were At the still point of the turning world is the dance A slow unravelling Somewhere between intuition and reason  Even in the unfallen Adam was all of the fallen man  Eroded to Beauty... The work asked questions rather than made statements or suggested answers. It was on the edge of abstract, challenging - even provocative - in its own quiet, meditative way. I was exploring the nature of paradox, reading T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Joseph Campbell, Bertrand Russell, Freud, Jung... 

Just before coming back down to Antarctica, my Uncle Jonnon ('Masters Squash' entry) told me he had a surprise object for me in his suitcase. I was amazed and delighted when he handed me the very flag I've just been talking about - 22 years later! (22 is a number of some significance in my life, so that part was unsurprising.) What was a little odd was that I'd mentioned the flag to a friend just days before, having not thought about it for well over a decade. A benevolent family friend bought the flag at that auction in 1986 - Roger Keene is his name - and upon learning that Jonnon was planning to come across to New Zealand to play squash, felt prompted to return the flag to me. At the time, he had no idea I was coming back to Antarctica, or that flags had grown in significance for me over the years.  

Today, whilst various team members were carrying out a range of tasks in the lab or outside in the Dive Jamesway (the closest of seven dive holes to our camp), Sam and I mounted five flags onto bamboo poles and set them flying on the roof of our shelter. This is an annual camp tradition. Here are a couple of pics of me setting up and unfurling the 1986 flag (thank you, Roger)... 

We're in contact with several primary schools during this coming season, answering their questions about life and work in an Antarctic field camp and sharing some of our experiences with them in their faraway classrooms in NZ and the US. Three of these schools gave us special flags to bring down and fly in camp this season - Macandrew School on the Otago Peninsula, Dunedin and elementary schools in Tennessee and Yorktown Heights, NY.

The wind is making its presence felt tonight - it's not quite catabatic, but enough to create a very different atmosphere inside the Jamesway. Last time I was here, I wrote the following poem after a wild-yet-strangely-comforting night when, snuggled up in our sleeping bags, we settled down to sleep as the catabatic winds roared down the Taylor Dry Valley, across our camp and out towards the sea ice. 


The wind is visiting 
New Harbor for once 
the chill and light 
of midnight bow down
and listen.

We shelter inside 
the Jamesway. Outside
five flags are live skins
shocked into action
by some ancient command.

They brace themselves 
and beat like drums
that thrum and thrum
and thrum till sleep

Ice (wo)men

Leaving the ice to speak for itself

It's 1.40AM and I've just come in from my first walk at Explorers Cove. I'm in my sleeping bag, yes, wondering what on earth I could possibly say to adequately describe how it feels to be back in this extraordinary place?  

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Portrait of a place

Last night, Sam and I presented our Art/Science lecture in the Crary Lab library. As soon as he finds a gap, he'll be posting something about this on his Ice Labyrinth blog. Right now, he's running around being Director of Proceedings as we pack, weigh and tag our final bits and pieces for camp. 

We woke to settled weather so it looks likely that we'll be flying out to Explorers Cove after lunch as scheduled. 

We won't return to McMurdo till the season's work is done, so before we leave, I thought I'd share a few of the photographs I've been taking around the base this past week. There's evidence everywhere of weather, age and history. As with every face, it's the blemishes, scars, dimples and frown-lines that tell the stories of life lived. I've focussed in on the gritty, largely overlooked sides of the town, wanting to capture something of the beauty that can be found in & amongst the largely ignored surfaces and corners of this hard-working place. 

Who was it who said Nature is as alive and glorious in rust as it is in a rose... ?

Here, then, are a few (of a great many more) pics that go towards making up one of my portraits of this place.

This evening I'll write from my my 'cot' in Explorers Cove -  

Woo hoo! 

(Cufflinks, anyone?) 

Light in ice

Things have been a bit crazy down here the past two days - so much so that I haven't been able to get onto my computer to write... We're scheduled to fly out to New Harbor just after lunch tomorrow, so I'm hoping to find a quiet couple of hours for writing some time between breakfast and a call from the helicopter crew... 

Monday, October 27, 2008

Squash Masters

'We don't stop playing because we get old - we get old because we stop playing.' 
9th World Squash Masters Championship, Christchurch, New Zealand. 

The afternoon before I left Christchurch for McMurdo, I was lucky enough to watch my 75-year old South African uncle - Jonathan Irving - play squash in the 9th World Masters Championship. The last time I can recall watching him play was at The Wanderers Club in Johannesburg when I was a wee girl of about 7 or 8. I wore my favourite turquoise-and-white checked gingham frock and white sandals, but confess to not remembering much about the game itself! I do know I'd have done my best to 'behave like a lady' in The Club and - if memory serves me well - I was treated to a bottle of lime green Hubbly-bubbly afterwards. 

Forty years later, I was delighted to be able to watch Jonnon play again - this time on NZ turf. His opponent was a 79-year old gentleman named Maurie Peters. What a match! And what an inspiration these two men were! They both deserved a trophy. Afterwards, we enjoyed a couple of pints of ice-cold Monteith's Summer Ale. (Roll over Hubbly-bubbly... )

I'm telling this story here because this morning I learnt that Jonnon went on to win his section of the tournament on Saturday (he was listed in the 75 - 99 bracket in the 2008 programme; how cool is that?). He now bears the title, World Masters Champion. This is not his first time, either. Congratulations Jonnon - you've once again proved there was merit to your old mates' nicknaming you 'Irv the Swerve!'  

And to think you almost didn't enter - it just goes to show... Next competition, Munich 2010?  

I was astounded to learn afterwards that an 82-year old woman and an 84-year old man also played impressive games in the tournament. The Masters Championship dictum says it all... 

Open-air theatre

There's heaps I'd like to write this evening, but for starters, I'll post two pics - the first was taken on the way to Crary Lab half an hour ago, and the second, just a couple of minutes ago. 

It's 9.17PM and I'm sitting in the lab's upstairs library where a wide sweep of windows overlooks the Sound and the distant Transantarctic mountains. 

As you can see, the  sky is up to high-jinks tonight.

It's been a full day - Sam finally made it back from Explorers Cove to McMurdo this morning, and the final two members of our team, Henry Kaiser (diver, film-maker, musician) and Molly Miller (geologist and co-Principal Investigator of G-093) flew in at lunchtime. Wonderful. Our team is now complete and I think we'll all similarly impatient to get out to New Harbor to begin our work 'proper.' If all goes according to plan, we should be ready to leave here on Thursday morning and head out into the field. If I'm to be really honest, I'd have to say that in terms of Antarctica, this big, densely-populated station is for me a place of transition rather than arrival. 

There are some extraordinarily talented and dedicated people here, and it's undeniably the hub of the continent with its support systems, resources, research facilities and unique sense of community, but the Antarctica I really resonate with is the one that's 'away out there,' away from buildings and power lines and pubs and yoga classes (held in the chapel)... across the Sound and on the ragged, jagged edge of the Dry Valleys. It's there that silence and solitude wait and come forward to meet us. 

By contrast, one of the gifts of this transition time is being in the company of like-minded Antarctica zealots. Time and again, I'm reminded of the potency of conversation. Our world is pretty much built on it. It has the power to transform ideas into actualities, visions into reality. 

This evening over dinner, I met Lisa Blatt, a photographer and videographer from San Francisco who is one of this year's Artists & Writers residents. We discussed a shared fascination for desert spaces - talked about the ones we've been in and the ones we'd like to visit. Namibia came up, Pips, as a place we'd both love to visit - perhaps this could give rise to a three-way collaborative project some day - two more voices to add to yours in your important campaign against improperly managed Uranium mining? We could sound a bell... it could have an indefinite time-frame; others will hear the call. 

And now, one more photograph of a quietening sky.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Black & white walk

Yesterday's turbulent weather gave way to a sparkling, wind-still day.  I headed out on a solo walk this afternoon - away from McMurdo (Mac Town) towards Scott's store, then up to George T. Vince's memorial cross and along the ridge towards Castle Rock. I recorded the sound of my footprints as I walked past Scott's hut but for some reason blogspot seems reluctant to upload it here. I'll keep trying, though. The MP3 was what I really wanted to post with these few pics today; it's the first of many sounds I intend to record and post here over the season. 

George Vince was the first man to have lost his life in McMurdo Sound. He was one of a party of nine men caught out in a blizzard during an excursion from the Discovery. He slipped down a steep slope and drowned. His body was never recovered. He is commemorated by a wooden cross erected by the crew of the Discovery and maintained today by the NZ & US bases in McMurdo Sound. In his journal, Scott wrote the following about George T. Vince; '... Life was a bright thing to him and it is something to think that death must have come quickly in the grip of that icy sea.' 

Saturday, October 25, 2008

From Pegasus to the dorm in 155

We landed on Pegasus Airfield just after 5.00PM last night, 

boarded Ivan the Terra Bus

and drove the flagged route to the village... 

After an immediate post-landing 'Welcome to Antarctica' lecture, we were handed the keys to our dorm rooms, directed to the Linen facility to pick up our bedding, then on up the hill to the luggage handling depot to collect all our bags. By the time all this was done, I was completely knackered - had barely made up my bed before I fell into it.
Next thing I knew, it was 7.20AM. The dorm I'm in is windowless, and completely blacked out, so there's no way of guessing whether it's daytime or night, let alone what time it is. The only reason I knew it was 7.20 was because one of my roommates has a digital alarm clock and I could just make it out in the dark from my position on the top bunk. 

My NZ phone is mightily confused - every time I open its lid, its quaint little receiving dish icon gets into a tizz because it can't determine where in the world it is, and even though we're on local NZ time down here, do you think I can convince the bewildered instrument that all it has to do is stick with the old-and-proven? No - absolutely not. It won't have a bar of it. So, for the time being I'm without a clock, not this will matter too much now that I've been 'refreshed'* for our coming season's work.

Kronos and Kairos cohabit contentedly down here, it seems.  

McMurdo has been a blustery, blurry place today, with landscape shuddering and buildings coming in and out of focus since about mid-morning. (Condition 2 at times - bracing, invigorating stuff). The frustrating thing, however, has been the fact that helicopters have been grounded for another day. Sam was hoping to get back to McM from Explorers Cove yesterday, but all flights (aside from ours from Chch - and then, only just) have been put on hold till the weather improves. : ( Next opportunity, Monday... 
Most of today was taken up with various *refresher courses one has to do before being allowed out into the field - things like survival/safety training, ice reading, helicopter protocol, environmental codes specific to both here and the Dry Valleys, etc... We pitched tents, demonstrated our 'knot and hitch' tying skills, revisited procedures like ice drilling, ice wall construction and radio communications, etc...  

Over dinner in the big communal galley, I enjoyed a stimulating conversation with a geologist named Allan. He's working with a team of four in the deep field - about a hundred kilometers North of Explorers Cove, atop a mountain in the Dry Valleys. Tomorrow evening, a film will be shown documenting the work these men have been doing over the past number of years. Titled 'Ice Men,' the movie apparently gives as much insight into the social dynamics of their field group as it does into their paleontological research. They recently discovered plant fossils that confirm that Antarctica was once fertile tundra area. I'll wait till I've seen the movie before I comment any further, though - wouldn't want to make inaccurate statements that I'll have to retract or apologize for later! We also talked about notions of silence and what 'the space between' might actually mean in a place such as this one. He's agreed to do a recorded interview with me sometime over the coming few days, before we all head off to our far-flung places.

To finish, a pic of moi wearing my new favourite hat. Hats are essential here, not only for warmth but as a form of alternative hair! Tania R, as you know, I looked covetously at the Knitty Wigs you introduced us to at Book Club, but then, in my search for funky, warm head-coverings, I came across this cheerful, dreadlocked substitute. (Anyone interested in knitting a flash hat should visit

One more look at the not-quite-light-not-quite-dark sky before heading back to the dorm to sleeeeep...  

Lining the stomach of the C17, a few Gaudi-esque surprises

A C17 plane is like a giant metal whale. Strapped to the inside of one, it's not hard to imagine how Jonah might have felt - the entire contents of his host's stomach in view. It's all there for you to see; pipes, cables, lining, wiring, electronics, engine components, emergency pulleys, winches, ropes... not to mention a small village-worth of cargo - and us, a slightly ragged-looking group of red- and blue-jacketed folk. All-in-all, a slightly surreal and disconcerting environment! 

Our flight down was uneventful, though. At one point it looked as though we might not get off the ground, but in the end there was a window in the weather, the go-ahead was given and off we went. And here we are... The pics above show a few unexpected aesthetic pleasures my eye was drawn to on the five hour flight - my small gesture of gratitude to the sombre grey whale for our safe passage down.  

The continent comes into view

Three years ago, I wept when I left this continent, not knowing then that I would one day return; I have no words for how it felt to see it come back into view.  

Thank you, Sam.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bear Paws and Bunny Boots

Well, it looks as though we're all set to board the C17 tomorrow morning - bags are packed, votes cast, Circulate (a ginger, ginseng and cayenne potion-in-a-capsule reported to really help with Raynaud's pain - thank you, GE) hunted down and purchased, loved ones hugged, camera batteries charged, Bear Paws gratefully stashed into the backpack, a packet of sour worms stuffed into one of Big Red's inside pockets... 

How good it felt to slip my feet into a pair of size 6 Bunny Boots again. For some reason, these chunky white boots give my feet a sense of purpose and responsibility that other shoes don't come close to. I feel steady in them. Taller. Almost un-tippable. 

I need to be up at 5.00AM tomorrow morning; a shuttle will be at the front door at 5.40. If all goes according to plan, we should be boarding the plane by around 7.45, with take-off soon after that. 5 or so hours later, we should touch down on McMurdo's landing strip.

I'm not sure much sleep will be had tonight - head buzzing 'n all... 

My next entry will be posted from down on the ice. 


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

It goes without saying

I am really going to miss having Jack Harris in camp. 

Jack, I will play Bach violin concertos to the forams - and Arvo Part's Fratres - often and will cook Bobotie in your honour at least a couple of times over the season. If I knew your famous bread recipe, I'd be sure to set some rising in a corner of the Jamesway, too. Sundays, we'll join you and Barb for breakfast.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Anticipating White

I'm counting the days till I step back onto the ice.

After a helicopter flight back to our field camp yesterday, Sam wrote to say that the sea ice is looking treacherous - choppier and more chaotic than it's been in ages. Traversing the ice will be tricky on skidoos and it's likely we'll have to make the many treks out to dive sites on foot. This will add an extra level of challenge to our season's work, but he sounds undeterred, is typically calm and resolute. 

At this point, five of our group are already down there - 'there' being McMurdo Station - doing various refresher courses in ice safety, etc... before heading out to New Harbor. (I will be doing the same when I arrive there this weekend.) They're also crating up our food & water supplies, bedding, lab equipment, vehicles, etc... for the coming weeks. 

Four of us from the 2005 season are back  - Sam, Steve, Henry and me - and this year, we'll also be enjoying the company and skills of Molly, Sally, Shawn and Cecil... So, four women and four men - quite different to my first camp experience (one woman amongst five exemplary men!). 4 + 4 augers well for a dynamic six weeks. 

Meantime, my piles of 'stuff' are all laid out and ready to pack - amongst the woolen gloves and Icebreaker long-johns are a flotilla of paper boats, a batch of 'bibulous' lab notebooks, watercolour pencils & crayons, ink and brushes... a camera, field recorder and an indecent number of cables, plugs and chargers. A week or so ago, Sam and I packed up Katherine's and Christina's magnificent porcelain pieces (K's 'bell' vessels and C's sculptural Euclidian forms), so they are already down there, waiting patiently to begin their collaborative dance. I can't wait. 

'Tis late now - more tomorrow or the next day... 

Our camp sits on the edge

of the Taylor Dry Valleys. This is one of the photographs Sam sent following his reconnaissance trip out there a day or two ago. It brought to mind whipped meringue, a snap-frozen storm - full of potential art-wise, but really challenging for diving, specimen collecting and research.  

These are four of Katherine Glenday's exquisite vessels that we'll be playing and recording during the coming season 

and this is one of Christina Bryer's stunning porcelain sculptures. Both Katherine and Christina have used the ice and Sam's foraminifera research as prompts for these pieces. (I'll go into the whys and wherefores of this later.) For now, because time is limited and my 'to do' list is still alarmingly long, just a few pics that introduce some of the things and people accompanying us over the coming weeks... 

Oh, and here's a process pic of my paper boats --- more about these at a later stage, too...