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


  1. Hi Claire,

    Sam pointed me toward your blog a few weeks ago, and I just wanted to let you know how much of a pleasure it is to read! I miss my time at New Harbor very much, and so a taste of it is always nice. I very much like the poem in this post, too.

    All my best,
    -Ben the boy scout

  2. Wow another marvellous acount - exquisitely written. And the bongo on the wees drums / piss cans? is hilarious and endearing!

  3. Hi Kay - always great to know you're out there looking in. The drumming episode was fun, and yes, very endearing! Fine folk these. Will leave a message on your blog; so exciting to read about Mike's exhibition opening a few days ago! L, C