Surreal and Uncanny Encounters
Nina Burleigh is on assignment with Newsweek in Antarctica.
It is still Earth, but Antarctica is an alien land. In his book Future of Life, Nobel-winning American biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote of Antarctica, “On all of the Earth, the McMurdo Dry Valleys most resemble the rubbled plains of Mars.”
Antarctica is not as uninhabitable as Mars, but almost. It’s also a place that tricks the eye, it’s a trompe l’oeil of nature. On land, the whites stretch on forever, and snow, peak and cloud mingle so voyagers lose track of the difference. At sea, icebergs loom out of the fog like Gothic castles or the Sphinx, or simply abstract art, open to interpretation. But if the icebergs are Picassos, their positioning with backdrops of Alpine peaks and melted marshmallow, meringue and dollops of cream are pure Dali.
Here while the mind and eye are tricked, the body suffers extreme discomfort, from seasickness to frozen hands to frostbite and death, which might explain — logically — why Antarctic exploration always includes some element of the uncanny.
Ernest Shackleton and his two partners managed a death-defying sail across 800 miles of rough sea in an ice-crusted lifeboat then trekked across an island mountain range for several days to finally reach help at a whaling station. After that insane feat, the men admitted to one another that they had all sensed the presence of a “fourth man” — an unseen someone walking beside them the whole time.
T.S. Eliot was moved to mention the mystery man in his modernist classic, The Wasteland.
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
— But who is that on the other side of you?
More recently, in 2012, polar explorer Felicity Aston became the first woman to ski solo across the Antarctic Continent. In 63 days alone, she started talking to the sun — and it talked back. Eventually, she had entire conversations with it.
“The scariest thing I realized was I couldn’t rely on my own mind and my own sense, I had to second guess myself,” she has written. “The psychological journey of that experience is talking aloud, a running commentary but as time progressed I wasn’t talking anymore. In my internal monologues I started talking at the sun and then the sun started talking back at me.
She asked a sports psychologist whether she ought to worry about going crazy, and the psychologist replied that as long as she knew what was real and what not real, she was okay. Aston, a scientist by training, concluded: “There are different layers of self-perception. I got a glimpse at just how complicated the brain can be.”
My traveling companion on this voyage, a veteran expedition leader who has climbed the world’s highest mountains and trekked through jungles and deserts, has been having frequent episodes of deja vu — although he’s never been here. To me the spectacle has elements of more chemical trips. Yesterday, surveying a 360-degree panorama of cream-coated Matterhorn after Matterhorn, reflected in an utterly still black sea flecked with icebergs like an Ile Flottante dessert, one of my shipmates — one who, like me, came of age in the late Acid years — stood stunned and and at a loss for words, then simply blurted out: “It looks like an old Yes album cover.”
Read more of Newsweek’s climate change coverage here.
On the Gerlache Channel, Antarctica, 12/5/2015.