Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Blue, blue & blue

Antarctica is commonly referred to as The White Continent - aptly so, of course.  But, this is also a place of many colours - brown, black, coral, rust and lilac to name a few - and there are more tones of blue here than could be made to fit into any paintbox.  

I haven't forgotten about writing up this season's Art & ArtScience projects - far from it. I intend to put something about these together over the weekend. We're in the process of bringing our season to an end now, so in amongst all our usual activities, the focus has been very much on drawing a circle around our respective projects, as well as on packing up various pieces of now-redundant camp gear so that it can be retro-ed back to McMurdo for storage or processing. There have been samples to sort, sediment, lab equipment, paper boats and porcelain pieces to package up for safe transport home, etc... 

 Solo voyage across frazzle ice

This morning, I re-read a poem I wrote in about 2003, titled About Blue, and decided to post it here because I was struck by how relevant it seems to this season's work with its strong dive focus and my own happy preoccupation with boats, blue and the elements.   


Blue is
vagabond amongst colours.
Reckless, untamed, it disembodies 
whatever becomes caught in it.

Once, I brushed the surface 
of a boat blue. Within a moment
there were the ocean and sky - no longer 
a boat in view. 

And have you heard? 
 Blue has an appetite 
for monsters; stampeding and bellowing
like shapes 

fall into themselves, slip
down the throat of blue
into water the inside colour
of glass.

Imagine a slow drunkenness 
on vapours of blue.
Easy it is to spin dizzy
just at the thought of it
coupling some distance from shore
at sea with rose madder or gold.

If you close your eyes 
tightly, I think you will find blue 
   coiling a wind rope, coaxing lines 
   of water and air 
from currents of emerald 
and indigo. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A spectacular Jesus Beam lights up our Wales Delta dive hole

When Steve, Cecil and Shawn entered the water at around 2.00PM this afternoon, they swam into this -  

Photograph - Steve Clabuesch

To the right of the beam is a small sea star. Caravaggio and Rembrandt would surely have gasped and reached immediately for their paint brushes.    

Friday, November 21, 2008

Science, Art & ArtScience II

For some reason, the Science, Art & ArtScience ditty I wrote and posted yesterday, jumped backwards and ended up a couple of entries behind where I'd intended it to appear. If you're interested in reading about our group's Science objectives, an outline can be found two posts back. 

My next entry will shed more light on the Art and ArtScience projects I/we have been working on over the past few weeks. Cecil and I are about to tend Henry, Steve and Sam as they do a dive combining scallop collecting & core sampling with the filming of a quiet, spatially ambiguous, dreamlike sequence for me. This follows on from a dress rehearsal we did two days ago, in which my flotilla of silver-and-white paper boats were taken under the ice for the first time. 

More soon - 

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Drumming up a storm in the Dry Valleys

The weather is forecast to do an about-turn tomorrow; we've been told to expect Condition One by late-afternoon, with zero visibility in places. So, another opportunity to practice spontaneity. Unpredictability is a given down here. Helicopter schedules and field plans can - and do - change from one hour to the next. Steve, Henry, Cecil, Shawn and Sally are set to fly to Bay of Sails tomorrow morning, intending to put in a full day's work, but things may well look different come flight pick-up time. This wouldn't be the first time our group's plans have been stalled this week, each time due to circumstances beyond our control; in the first instance, because the weather asserted its will over ours, and then because the two holes took longer to prepare than anticipated.  

Shawn, Sam and I were the reconnaissance trio flown across to Bay of Sails earlier in the week. After scouting the bay for a suitable dive site then scouring the 'moat' area for scallops (Adamussium colbecki) for Sally and distinctive clues about sediment deposition for Molly, we pitched our tents out on the sea ice, using ice screws and nylon cord to anchor the pegs and stays. 

Bay of Sails is an eery length of coastline eighteen kilometres North of Explorers Cove, approximately halfway between Gneiss Point and Spike Cape. The sea ice there is the seductive texture of mill-made, cold-press paper and ranges in colour from translucent sapphire to robin's egg blue to crazy, crystalized albumen. And it's young - the sea ice, that is - just a year old, as opposed to the craggy, ten-year old, sediment-laden ice that fronts our camp. Spectacular pressures ridges heave and sound like cracking ribs all the way along the Bay of Sail's shoreline. 

In terms of transition/threshold features, Antarctica's pressure ridges stand out for me as some of the starkest yet most dynamic of liminal spaces I've experienced in any landscape. They're a powerful expression of the ongoing tussle between open sea ice and rock-strewn land. 

The wider landscape in this area is vast and haunting; there's the grand Wilson Piedmont Glacier whose tidy South Eastern flank takes on the appearance of a patient white mountain, then goes on to show its true nature by lurching to an abrupt and chaotic end. We counted at least nine icebergs out on the sea ice, poignantly frozen mid-sail. There's no way of telling whether these were captured on their way into the bay, or on their way out. There's something lost and desolate about them, as though, like weary old ships, they've run out of steam and had to drop anchor, or simply ground to a standstill. This ice-scape with its scatter of trapped bergs brought to mind an old boats' graveyard. Their shapes played havoc on the eye, too, exaggerating and shrinking the already-ambiguous space according to the way the light played across their surfaces. 


Going back for a moment to my earlier mention of spontaneity...  

This morning, something surprising and magical happened in camp. I was still trawling for dreams on the edge of sleep when a Bell 212 helicopter touched down in camp. I heard it, of course, but last night was another late night and even though it was 8.00AM, I was in no hurry to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. Next thing I knew, I was being nudged out of my reverie and instructed to grab my field recorder quickly then to follow the others outside where there was a surprise in store. I pulled a pair of jeans over my pj's, stepped into my Warehouse slippers, and bundled myself into Big Red. Outside, the helicopter rotors were still spinning, its bass-timbre jet engine still running. The New Harbor group knows I'm collecting sounds this season. I took their wake-up call as a thoughtful gesture, a way of making sure I'd be there and ready to record the Bell 212 as it took off. 

But that wasn't why they'd woken me; the real treat was yet to follow. I realized that today was our day to retro a stash of camp barrels - seven empty and two full ones (one containing urine and the other, 'grey water'). The helicopter would be returning to camp shortly to pick these up in a sling load. We'd have a short interval to get them all set to go, but the men had it in mind to do something else with them first. 

With Henry in the role of musical director, he, Steve, Sam and Shawn gathered around our camp's various storage drums and cylinders and transformed from scientists and divers into a band of competent percussionists. Our stony desert field camp instantly became a performance space, the objects pertinent to the comfort and productivity of our daily camp life, brought suddenly to life as musical instruments. Three great tracks later, I turned my recorder off and we all headed inside for breakfast. 
There is
as it happens
no dead wood here
only places 
and people 
who stand 
to take my breath 

from As it happens, CB 

   Percussion photos: Cecilia Shin

Science, Art & ArtScience

It's high time I outlined our group's research objectives for this season. Chances are this will ask for more than one installment. As the title of this post suggests, several disparate-but-strongly-related research strands are being followed, one of the ultimate intentions being to find both the distinguishing features and the connection points between each one of them so that the relationships between them can be woven together to form a more complete overview. People are working independently, collaboratively, across speciality areas and disciplines. Each person in Team G-093 brings something unique and essential to the mix; I think we'd all agree that as a group, we'll be able to accomplish more together than we could if we stood alone. So far, it's proving to be a season of rich pickings.     

I can't possibly go into all the intricacies of the various projects here, but I'll start by synthesizing what I've come to understand so far, drawing additionally on spoken or written input from the three Principal Investigators - Sam Bowser (cell biologist), Molly Miller (geologist) and Sally Walker (taphonomist*). First, let me introduce you to these three scientists -  

  • Sam Bowser is a veteran polar biologist. His first research trip to the ice was in 1984; he has spent a further twenty-six seasons in Antarctica studying the morphology and motile behaviour of foraminifera ~
  • One of the major motivations behind Molly Miller's work is the 'inherent mystery of it all' - the not-knowingFrom where I stand, it seems to me that the process of investigation is every bit as captivating for each of these investigators as the elusive destination might be.

  • Sally Walker, the taphonomist in the group, is down here for the first time but is no novice to field research, having conducted numerous fossil-related studies in unusual sites such as the Galapagos Islands, Mexico and Sapalo Island, Georgia. Here she is discussing the labeling of arrays with diver Henry Kaiser. (You can tell from the way Henry's holding Sally's scallop array that when he's not diving, he's very likely to be found playing his guitar!) 

In a nutshell, the group's driving observation has to do with the fact that while the Antarctica sea floor is teeming with life, there is virtually no record (body fossils or burrow bioturbation**) available for interpretation through the Cenozoic sediment sampled just offshore. What processes cause this disjunct? How can the Explorers Cove sediment and contained life be used to elucidate the Cenozoic environment recorded in cores?   

Experiments are being conducted in and around Explorers Cove to determine (1) if shells and skeletal material dissolves, and if so, how fast? (2) to identify specific characteristics of New Harbor sediment, its mode of delivery to the sea floor and the rate of sedimentation (important when it comes to interpreting the relative density of animals and shell material, and assessing the rate and record of bioturbation, and (3) the rate of bioturbation by infaunal animals***. The group's intention is to evaluate these determining characteristics in different areas and by so doing, to ascertain whether concerns (1), (2) and (3) differ from one area to the next. (This explains the need for multiple dive holes, and for there being three major sites at reasonable geographical distance from each other).

Additional work is being done using the information gleaned from the above key questions, including the development of a mathematical model that effectively simulates the sedimentary record, thereby allowing for comparisons to be made between new material and existing sequences found in cores. Related questions include the following:

(1) What is the rate of deposition?
(2) How is the sediment transported?
(3) What is living in the local sediment, how does it churn the sediment and at what rate?
(4) How abundant are the different species of foram? 
(5) What is the fate of shell material? (focusing in on adamussium colbecki - Antarctic scallops - foramanifera and ophiuroids)
(6) What are the oceanographic, sedimentologic and biologic characteristics at each of the sites - and why?
(7) How effectively can chemical analyses pertaining to pH, salinity, dissolution rates, etc... be conducted?
(8) Sedimentologic investigation is an important study component - i.e. examining and documenting grain size from short cores as well as from the existing datastore.
(9) Re; biological concerns - the group has been conducting a quadrant census on surface sediment, documenting the presence or absence of scallops, ophiuroids and other animals (important data for comparison with debris in cores)
(10) Observation of infaunal populations
(11) Site surveys are being carried out as documentary evidence of research settings.

  •     One of Molly's mini-sediment aquaria: displacement of the fluorescent pink sand will be an indication of bioturbation. 

  •    Cores used to gather sediment for Molly and/or forams for Sam  

  •            Adamussium colbecki - Antarctic scallop
  •     Astrammina Triangularis - agglutinated foram 

Last, but not least, there's the outreach component that runs adjacent to each of these projects, which is where the art comes in (1) in its own right as a conceptual medium and method of communication, (2) in its collaborative ArtScience capacity where it plays a powerful advocacy role on behalf of science and re: the Antarctic continent in general, and (3) as a bridge-builder connecting the dots between research areas and disciplines. Ideally, in this context, the art will act as a catalyst making art more accessible to scientific audiences, and at the same time conveying the wonders of science to a wider creative public. (I'll say more about this in a subsequent post.)

Molly Miller (who has spent seven seasons working in Antarctica on various geological projects, including Andrill) emailed me the following paragraph in response to my questions about her work in the Explorers Cove environment; 

'I am so excited to be in Explorers Cove finding out more about life on the ocean bottom. Amongst other things, our group will be exploring the taphonomic filter between present-day organisms and bioturbations, together with the fossil record in coves. We hope also to determine the mode of sediment transport and the rate of sedimentation. Skeletal material from ophioroids will be suspended in the ocean for up to two years and the disintegration and skeletal dissolution rate of bioturbation will be determined by putting known numbers of burrowing animals into custom-made laminated sediments (mini-aquaria) then uplifted for x-raying two years later (during the 2010 season).  Sediment traps will also be used to document rates of deposition and grain size, and surface-texture analysis will be used to determine infaunal modes of transport.' 

It might be best for me to stop here, at least for the time being. This is rather a looooong post. I'll pick up where I left off just as soon as time and camp activity allows.  

Before I go, though, here's a brief glossary of terms in case it's helpful. I've certainly had to refer to the dictionary often during this field season!  

*     Taphonomy is the branch of paleontology that deals with processes of fossilization.
**   Bioturbation is the disturbance of sedimentary deposits by living organisms.
*** Infaunal refers to the animals living in the sediments of the ocean floor or river or lake beds. 
~   Foraminifera are ancient uni-cellular aquatic organisms of which there are four main types: naked, thekate (soft-walled), agglutinated and calcereous.  

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bears, bunnies, ponies, calves, alligators & dogs

This post is for my nieces and nephews in South Africa and the UK - Mikey, Tess, Phil, Tor-tor and Jonathan - and for all you young at heart.

Today has been a great work day. Five of us spent the afternoon in or around the dive hole at Herbertson Glacier. Believe me, the water is a whole lot colder here than any winter time swimming pool in SA or the UK could ever get; today it was -1.98 degrees Celsius. I've been told that if a person were to stay in that water unprotected by layers of thermal underwear and heavy-weight dry suits, it would only be a matter of minutes before he/she would turn into a human popsicle. Ouch. Sounds pretty horrible to me! 

We take turns tending the divers (i.e we help them get their suits, tanks, weight belts, goggles and gloves on, then help them in and out of the water with science equipment, sediment traps, cores and experimental arrays) and I must admit that my hands don't enjoy getting wet one bit. Of course, the minute they get wet, they get cold, and once they're cold, it can be a pain (literally) trying to warm them up again. I'm becoming an expert at Jumping Jacks, pogo dancing and hopping-and-shaking on the ice! It's important we wear crampons (sometimes called 'stabilizers') around the dive hole as it can get very slippery with all the activity going on around it and there's no way you'd want to fall in. 

Here's a picture of one my neon green crampons; it sproinged off my boot and landed on the ice in this quirky bird shape -

Anyway, I was thinking about the five of you this afternoon. And while I was thinking, I was chewing on a question. In Antarctica, there are only two main aquatic mammals - seals and whales. Terrestrial fauna on the continent consists entirely of invertebrates, most of them microscopic (like the aquatic foraminifera Sam studies) that live in the soil and very minimal vegetation (moss and grass can be found on the Antarctic Peninsula.). Certainly, there's zero chance you'll come across a rat, an ant, a cat, a giraffe, a wombat or an aardvark anywhere out here. Why then are so many of the things we do, see, use or wear down here, given animal names? Perhaps you can tell me why we wear bunny boots, for instance? Or neck gaters (short for 'alligators')? Why do we say glaciers calve? Why do we warm our hands inside super-insulated bear paw mitts? Why is the spare air cylinder on the divers' down-line called a pony bottle? And how did Sun Dogs get their name? 

I'm attaching a few pics of the things I've just mentioned - when you have a bit of spare time, perhaps you can do a bit of research into how they got their names? I'll add another line or two to these photographs to help start you off.    

You've already seen what bunny boots look like, so I'll skip those and introduce you to me and my 2005 neck gater. (I shudder to think what I would have looked like the morning this picture was taken, had I not been wearing my gater!) The good thing about gaters is that they keep your neck warm and you can pull them right up over your ears and nose when it's really cold. The not-so-good thing is that if you do that, you fog up your glasses and can't see where you're going (and you have to wear dark glasses and sunblock every time you step outside, no matter what time of day or night it is)! I mostly wear mine around my neck, but cover my mouth & cheeks with it when driving the skidoo.

This next photograph shows the Canada Glacier calving. Why do we say calving instead of using a word like 'carving' or 'sloughing' or 'fracturing'?

In this pic, I've got my hands tucked up warmly in a pair of bear paws - perhaps this style of mitt originated in a cold Northern hemisphere country like Alaska, Greenland or the Arctic where bears are plentiful? It would be impossible for a bear to arrive - let alone survive - in Antarctica, of course.

Here's a pic of a pony bottle (the team had a chuckle when I accidentally called it a 'donkey' bottle a while back! But, I ask you, how much odder would that be than its current name? No one here knows how it got its name, either - maybe you can teach us all something?!)

Last, but not least, a photograph I took about a week ago of a polar atmospheric phenomenon called a Sun Dog. The dictionary defines this as 'a bright spot in the sky appearing on either side of the sun, formed by refraction of sunlight through ice crystals high in the earth's atmosphere.' Yes, that's all very well and good, but why do we then give it the name Sun Dog?

Any bright ideas? I'm sure you'll have heaps! Let's see if we can get to the bottom of some of these things, shall we? 

Final bow from this little Adele penguin who waddled up to our dive hole this afternoon.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ice diving & The Jesus Effect

(For some reason, the short video "Cecil swims by' has evaporated into thin air - if you'd like to watch it, it should be posted on YouTube at hhtp:// )

Apologies for leaving this elusive title to drift up there in the subject line without giving you anything to substantiate it. I had trouble uploading this video clip (Henry Kaiser filming Cecil Shin diving) and by the time I got it working, it was late at night and I was just too tired to write an accompanying note. The following morning, camp activity took over. 

'The Jesus Effect' is a term divers have adopted to describe the dramatic shaft of light that streams down towards them from the hole on the surface of the ice. The atmosphere and environment below the ice (dives here are to an average depth of 80 feet or 23 metres) is often ascribed cathedral-like characteristics - the ice above, a vaulted ceiling; the light, diffuse; the strange weightlessness and slow-motion movement of the swimmers almost other-worldly. 

Dramatic light beams are not a common underwater occurrence. Everything depends on the angle of the sun in relation to the dive hole - it needs to be pretty much directly above it in order for light to penetrate through a 12 - 20 feet-thick shaft of ice. 

Our divers experienced this effect a week ago in one of our close-to-camp dive holes, at around 6.00PM. We're hoping to capture Katherine and Christina's porcelain - and my small, silver-hulled boats - in this spectacular light next week when we do our underwater  ArtScience installations and filming.   

Friday, November 14, 2008

Storm clip I


    for Antarctica and her rebel wind 

She never sleeps deep, REM sleep.
No. She tosses and turns, cannot lie still

with bones and blood at ease, always keeps one eye 
open. The wind might stir at any time

touch her cold white skin, travel 
every willing curve and contour. She hears him 

long before he comes without warning
his hands trace her upper valleys, her mountains and hanging glaciers

travel her frozen coastline. She anticipates him
as the beloved awaits a lover. There's nothing silent

or passive about them. And when all is said and done
they both know their meeting will shake them

it always does
but see, it's nothing more than temporary dishevelment.

Theirs is a relationship refined
by this curiously lyrical insistence. 

CB 2006

Storm clip II

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Thoughts on air

Dictionary definitions of wind don't really cut it. Here are two: 

1. (Merriam-Webster) 'A natural movement of air of any velocity; especially : the earth's air or the gas surrounding a planet in natural motion horizontally.'
2. (The Free Dictionary) 'Moving air, especially a natural and perceptible movement of air parallel to or along the ground.'

I've been particularly aware of air the past 72 hours or so. This is partly because Steve, Cecil and Shawn have just taken us all through our dive safety procedures in preparation for forthcoming operations at the (almost ready) Herbertson Glacier site. As dive tenders, it's imperative that we know what to do (i.e how to administer oxygen, who to contact where and when, etc... ) in case of an emergency. 

'... Balancing on air is no easy task;
      tripping sees me float
      upwards or sideways, but never
      down...' From Give me thunder CB 2003
The traditional belief within symbology is that of the four basic elements - earth, air, fire and water - air is the primary one. There are two major ideas related to the element of air. One is the idea of breath and breathing and the other is the rather different reality of wind. Breathing relates to air on a personal level, while wind relates to air on a more cosmic level. Both represent life, the power of the spirit, the transient, ephemeral and elusive. 

Wind is in itself insubstantial and invisible - we see it and know it primarily by its effect. It can be tentative as a whisper, and yet - at the height of its activity - becomes the hurricane, with all the dynamism and energy attributed to processes of fecundation and regeneration. At this end of the continuum, there comes also the potential for expressions of violence and destruction. Interesting metaphors.
Air - the breath, breathing, inhaling and exhaling - is all-important when it comes to safe diving, too. And to safe tending. After dinner this evening, those of us who don't do this for a living spent a while re-familiarizing ourselves with oxygen cylinders, valves, regulators, lines and masks. Tomorrow morning we'll all accompany the divers out to one of the holes close to camp to carry out a mock rescue operation. I must admit that there's something a little discomforting - macabre even - about listening to your diver friends talk you through how you can be most effective and helpful to them in the (god forbid) event of Decompression Sickness or Arterial Gas Embolism. The reality, though, is that although such incidents are rare, there can be no room for complacency or naivete in environments such as this one.     

Two days ago, I was lucky enough to encounter a Condition Two storm on the far side of the Ferrar Sound - and then (happy, happy, joy, joy) to have to sleep out in it. It was exhilarating being caught - and temporarily held fast - in that fist of fierce weather. 

'... Rare sounds abound in these places where wind is 
      dressed in white; it roars and twists 
      and winds its way into rock and lungs
      and ice...' From New Harbour Psalm CB 2006 

I was reminded of Thoreau writing something along these lines; there's wildness in all of us, and a simple side that loves to walk. So, yes, I succumbed to both during those hours - my wildness and my simple side - and strode out into the wind. 

It does strike me as odd that when I'm on home turf, wind more often than not rumples and rattles me; it makes me want to batten down the hatches and stay indoors. And yet, here, the much greater force, noise and visual drama of a katabatic wind is an invitation for me to step outside. Standing in it, I find myself with an entirely different awareness of my body in space and possibly even in time. And if visibility's not what it's 'meant' to be and the usual familiar points of reference are no longer within grasp, it leads to an almost weightless feeling.  We're like feathers or flotsam in this place. This becomes even more apparent when we see and experience the wind 'at work,' displaying all the intention, zeal and passion of a sculptor mid-process. 

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Sleeping with mountains

The past few days have been spent largely away from camp, with skidoo trips South from Explorers Cove, across uninterrupted miles of sea ice towards the Herbertson Glacier where we're in the process of melting a new dive hole. The environment is remote, pristine, and dramatically different from the landscape surrounding our New Harbor camp.

I couldn't imagine a more spectacular or peaceful place to pitch a tent (this is it, on the right-hand side of the photograph), let alone fall asleep and wake to.

Getting the dive hole started has not been a straight-forward process. Moments away from breaking through the 18 - 21 feet-thick ice into water - six drill flights down -  the flights froze into the slush and quickly became immovable. So, it was back to the drawing board to come up with a recovery strategy. Fortunately, this is a resourceful team of highly-experienced men and women for whom no task seems too daunting. It wasn't long before a plan of action was decided on and implemented - and the 'melt' is back on track again. Exercises such as this one away from home require round-the-clock monitoring, so we're scheduled to be out there in pairs for eight-twelve hour shifts in order to keep an eye on things. We have to check the Hotsy (a large coiled copper immersion heater) every four-six hours; routine-wise, it's not unlike having a hungry newborn in the family. 

Travel to and from the site is exhilarating, but tough on the body. Our old skidoos are noisy, heavy vehicles to drive and the terrain, hard, bumpy and unforgiving. But, oh my goodness - you wouldn't believe the beauty. 

Sam and I packed a selection of Katherine's and Christina's porcelain pieces up before heading out yesterday, hoping we'd find some time to photograph them, perhaps play them out there in the wilderness. We lined the carry/kit-box on the back of the skidoo with extra jackets, bear paw mitts and fleece garments, wrapped the bells and wee Euclidian shapes in layers of tissue paper and bubble wrap, then held our breath hoping they'd survive the hard drive intact. They did, and how exquisite and congruent the ensuing dialogue between porcelain and place... During the hours between Hotsy duty and sleep, we introduced these fragile pieces to a waiting wonderland - a veritable theatre of visual and auditory treats opened up. Time simultaneously slowed right down and accelerated during those absorbing few hours of filming and recording.

It's an incredible privilege to be collaborating like this with such stellar people (both here - in situ - and further afield). At times like this, work is grit, sweat, dance, journey and reflection. 

Rumi (1207 - 1273) wrote - 

Remember the lips
where the wind-breath originated,
and let your note be clear.
Don't try to end it.
Be your note.
I'll show you how it's enough. 

Last night, on the shin of the ice-covered mountain, I swear I heard a reed flute playing. 

Welcoming change

Much ground has been crossed - literally and metaphorically - in the four days since I last wrote, so it's going to take me a good few days to bring these pages up to date.  

There was, of course, much jubilation in camp on 5th when the US election results came through - how wonderful to hear Barack Obama being welcomed to leadership by our world community. The president-elect demonstrates an attribute my friend Lawson would describe as 'the energy of restraint.' His dignity, eloquence and insightful intelligence are clear evidence that he understands the value of patience. With him comes a sense of hope, faith and restoration. The many - many - things that went so dramatically, alarmingly awry during the Bush administration will now have a chance to heal.    

Today is Saturday 8th and it's our turn - New Zealand's - to take to the polls. I felt a pang of tender-heartedness at the NZ Herald's mention of the fact that by 4.00PM yesterday, 2 979 366 citizens had enrolled to vote; almost 95% of those eligible. Many of us will be holding our breath - there is, as there must be, a mix of anticipation and apprehension pre-results. Our process and outcome is not a straight-forward one, either, but people's proactivity when it comes to voting is in itself to be celebrated. 
4 hours, 3 minutes and 31 seconds till voting closes... 

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Repertoire of sounds

I should be fast asleep (it's 1.47AM) but instead I'm tucked up in my sleeping bag, listening through headphones to various sound recordings I've collected over this past week. I wouldn't ordinarily choose to do this - plug myself into my computer pre-sleep - as I so love tuning in to the sound (or absence of sound, depending...) that accompanies these icy nights. But for a few hours tonight, the generator's on, and, much as I appreciate its invaluable contribution to camp life, the noise it makes knocks my ions about and its loud rumbling never fails to feel like a rude intrusion. 

So, what have I been recording - and what am I listening to? 

The wind. Wordless walks across a myriad textures of ice. The scrunch of crampon-ed boots on volcanic grit. McMurdo's telephone wires being taunted into song by high winds (you wouldn't believe the harmonics). The unearthly notes of a gas cylinder's hum. The clonk and split of chipping ice. The achingly poignant call of Katherine's bell vessels as they encountered this frozen landscape for the first time. Bubbles rising from 60 feet below the ice to effervesce then burst across the surfaces of dive holes. Helicopter rotors. Flags flapping. Wind. Breath. Silence.

Earlier this evening, I wrote a letter home trying to describe how Explorers Cove has re-drawn itself this year (and of course, this would be true of every year, but I can only refer back here to the place I first met three years ago).  Here's a smidgeon of what I wrote, 'It's as though the ice is a totally different substance with a totally different character.  The intricate calligraphy - those multifarious and meticulous drawings the ice delivered up in 2005 - has made way for wide gestural marks. Just about all the detail and subtlety of that time has been buried beneath a crude, spontaneous impasto. There's volcanic grit everywhere; the sea ice is brown and grey-blue as opposed to milky white or glass-like or transparent turquoise. It's chaotic and messy and I find myself liking it like this, a lot... ' 

It seems to me that alongside the exciting science projects and the almost-constant info-gathering I'll be doing for my own creative practice, one of the tasks of my time here is simply to be present and to listen. Mostly, I think, it's to listen. 

Listening has many aspects to it, of course - it's a dynamic, proactive process. It not only means listening to, but listening for and on behalf of

The ice is going to become increasingly challenging to walk across as the season progresses. The transition moat is already starting to thaw in places, so walking whilst carrying precious cargo such as foram samples, scallop arrays and fragile porcelain pieces can be a breath-holding experience. It's almost as though the ice is asking us to approach our journey mindfully, to walk the distance from 'here to there' like a meditation. So, this is something I am trying to do. It's an exercise in concentration, application and surrender all at once.

Almost inevitably, the subject of the sublime has come up in conversations both here and in letters from friends interested in the subject. I'd love to explore what it means, not only in relation to this ice-covered continent but also in the context of other wilderness experiences and spaces, be those spiritual, physical, metaphysical, existential, personal, communal, etc... 

Any thoughts on this subject? Please share them -   

Monday, November 03, 2008


(This pic will - I hope - be replaced by a video clip & spoken story later; there are too many users online at the moment for our limited bandwidth to cope with much more than a few jpgs for now.)

Heartening news - this lone Adele wandered purposefully off-track, heading inland for what must have been a good hour or so before stopping, re-assessing the situation and turning back. This sort of 'lost penguin' incident seems to happen fairly often. Mummified Adele penguins and Weddell seals are common sights hundreds of kilometres up the Dry Valleys. What is it that causes them to go so obviously wrong - does their ordinarily reliable instinctual 'navigation system' malfunction? Are they spurned by their waddle? (I just learned that a group of land-based penguins is aptly named a 'waddle.') Or are these rebel birds pushing the parameters of what it means to be 'penguin,' independent characters breaking the rules of their community group in a bid to assert their autonomy or forge their own route? 

It's difficult not to anthropomorphize these endearing creatures.

Photograph: Steve Clabuesch