Eluding Antarctica

What if we stayed away from Antarctica and left the place to the penguins … and the imagination? Can we simply leave a place free of human beings? By Mike Medberry

I really don’t want to see Antarctica. Imagination is more than all of the rock and ice of that southern continent. More than fire and earthquakes, more than oxygen and water, more than blood and guts and low temperatures that freeze spit as it falls, more than Byrd’s, Shackleton’s, or Amundson’s worthy endeavors, more than a rock star’s bizarre desire to be the first to play there. Disallow scientists from further probing and diagnosing the problems in Antarctica. Imagine Atarctica as the place that no one knows.

In this world of Universal Knowledge where does wisdom begin or end? I have come to know what Antarctica is from pictures of it: beautiful white and transparent blue ice, ragged mountains, colorful southern auroras and wacky, cute penguins, a few colorful birds, and itty-bitty tiny krill. You know about the krill, right? Imagine quirky little shrimp. Antarctica is a big-rock-and-ice island, surrounded by cold, salty water and chips of ice in the drink that are bigger than any ship, with penguins comically waddling along the rocky places. Seabirds and albatrosses whirl in great numbers blacken the sky. Whales pass by now and again, spouting air and water like grand, living geysers while chasing the krill. Or was it plankton that whales come for? Well, I can read about that on the fabulous world-wide-web. No need to prove reality. Neither Narwhals nor unicorns will ever live there nor will any venomous sea snakes churn the waters of Antarctica. Even I know that.

The Ancient Mariner, of Samuel Coleridge fame, lived through a raging hell of vast icebergs, the starving boredom in the doldrums, and defying death riding on a ghostly ship with “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” That is a vision of going to Antarctica that I prefer to live by. It must have been difficult to get there by any means and more difficult to live in for any time.  I think that Coleridge had been to Antarctica of the mind and recorded its life most certainly!

Do whales fall off into the space south of Antarctica? Maybe. But I haven’t seen any. I have gained faith in gravity and expect that nothing falls into the abyss of sky. That’s the scientific mind at work. That’s my reality. But that mind hasn’t done much to protect the planet. (Or does this planet even need our protection?) I know that we have affected all the world with our growing populations and technology: from developing weapons with our many brilliant theories, (lots of oddball weapons: arrows, slings, spears, bullets, fire, lasers, atomic and hydrogen bombs, ad nasuem have been the result) protecting us from people who don’t share our opinions. Destroying societies, plant and animal communities. Protecting us from all of the uncertainties, all of the irrational things in life as they are understood. From the flat world. From darkness. From the plague. From cancer. From death. From aging. From a cult of others: Russians, Chinese, Tibetans, Polynesians, the Religious, or more current villains, from the white and the black races. It is as if understanding will give us knowledge and knowledge will convey safety. Isn’t that right? But where is the dividing line between survival and domination?

We have met the indomitable opponent of own ambition. To eat, drink, and procreate in vast comfort are our birthrights. Why would any one of us want to reduce our standard of living? And so we progress to the edge of the Lemming’s cliff knowing that we will fall and fail. Is it too late to push back? We charm ourselves into believing it is not too late for oil and food and medicines to save humanity. But we only live a day before we die. And then what have we left? Today only 7.3 billion people cover the world with the gifts of humanity.

Could we simply leave Antarctica alone for a change? To have peace where no human beings see, hike on, play concerts for the thrill of it, or fly over? Of course there are already photographs, but they open our imagination more than describe the icy continent. Our survival will depend upon our creativity and using our imaginations.

I hope krill live long and prosper in the Antarctic seawater, in warmth below the icebergs, and in the ecstasy of the warming waters of Antarctica. Let the penguins waddle in peace. Do we need to deal with the fact that their habitat, and ours, is diminishing? Yes, but not particularly in Antarctica. We’ve already seen that even Antarctica has been damaged by our exploits. Food will be less, people will be more, and water will be higher, storms bigger, as many catastrophes swirl. All I ask is to just leave Antarctica alone. As alone as possible. Maybe, like Atlantis, it will sink beneath the sea. However, I need a place to hold my dreams in my time on this bloody, beautiful planet.

There are plenty of facts showing that Antarctica is changing rapidly and that we’re not doing a damn thing about it. Nothing, anyway, that is likely to stop the world from warming. We probe it and pick at it and define the loss, like lepers in the time before antibiotics. We can all take a look at ice coring and see what has happened before we came to power or look at the rising tide and CO2levels. What do we do but say “doggone it?” I’ve heard the message chimed out to the world: the world is warming.

So what? So we may go back to the Ice Age of yesterday. So what? What is the new “antibiotic?”  We need a new drug. And a new respect for this limited planet.

Scientists using the scientific method, make systematic observations, measurements, and define experiments. We form and test our hypotheses before making brash proclamations. Our knowledge is slow moving, unimpeachable, and essential. We have discovered the underlying factors of life, nucleic acid by nucleic acid. We’ve unlocked the secrets of atomic structure. And what has that accomplished? Well, among other things we may be able to reconstruct the life force of the Tyrannosaurus Rex or the passenger pigeon and save other endangered species by analyzing their genetic components. We could extend our lives to, well, perhaps, forever. And make more money to give us each a better life, a happier life, a richer life! But when one gains, another always loses. Or as poet Alexander Pope wrote more succinctly, we are “Created half to rise and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all…” Do we want to be that forever?

What does any of this have to do with leaving Antarctica alone? I suppose not much. But my Antarctica allows mysteries to remain. I will imagine that continent of ice. It is a place, just like all other places, that is—today–being made less mysterious. Is more known of Antarctica today than yesterday? Probably. But why, what has been gained by this expanding knowledge?

doug-enduranceI want to know that Shackleton didn’t make it to the South Pole, that it was unattainable, that human ambition has its limits. Struggling serves its purpose for humanity but I don’t want to know exactly what happened to him. He survived an Odyssian journey is plenty. Must we know everything?  Can we? Failing is our greatest victory; it is the one thing that we cannot fully achieve until the moment of our death when we fail decisively, enormously, and finally. We all fail.

This is the beauty of Antarctica: it is futile, basically useless to me and to you. Sure there are plenty of beauties in Antarctca: the vicious cold, tall mountains, deep crevasses, and all of that. But this is the place where, if you choose to go, you should risk only death and the unknowable. If I go I must go alone—not with a crew of others to support me–and if a small thing goes wrong I won’t return: no heroic flights, no resupplying, no support groups. It should be a place where the world remains flat with our fear of falling off into oblivion. Or we just freeze.

Antarctica embodies the greatest mystery, the only reality that I know that I know. Antarctica, is the place where all my dreams might come true! Tread carefully on this forbidden continent and don’t bother to record its decline. Know that it is receding and there will never be another left like it.  Isn’t it enough to let it be and tell tall tales, Viking tales, of Antarctica? Perhaps you might come back from Antarctica as wise as the Mariner realizing that “He prayeth well who loveth well; both man and bird and beast. He prayest best who loveth best; All thing both great and small.” We should love Antarctica by letting her be herself.

Mike Medberry is the author of On the Dark Side of the Moon: A Journey to Recovery.