Ice, Baby

We can all be Antarcticans, insists Leslie Carol Roberts.

Antarctica is often called the planet’s last surviving wilderness. And even in this age of easy and almost-instant travel, almost no one broaches that icy, windy, nearly unpopulated continent on which stands the actual South Pole. So it’s safe from the standard resident- and tourist-borne predations — for now. How long will its purity last? Leslie Carol Roberts ventured there twenty years ago with a Greenpeace mission: “I was reporting on their base on the ice and it was a day-in, day-out activist lecture on how Antarctica belongs to all of us. … Many people don’t realize that Antarctica has no single country that ‘rules’ it. There are no indigenous people. You, too, as I like to say, can be an Antarctican. All you have to do is go there.”

This intriguing concept “sunk in and sort of marinated in my brain for many years,” until Roberts returned, crewing on a research vessel, determined to document her experience. The result, which she will discuss at Mrs. Dalloway’s on November 21, is The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica. “I was tired of coffee-table books and BBC documentaries that showed Antarctica as this haunted, blue ice world — that insisted Antarctica was ‘not of this world,'” said the author, who teaches at California College of the Arts and recently was selected to be 2009’s distinguished writer in residence at St. Mary’s College. She’s also the first-ever Fulbright Fellow in Antarctic Studies. The continent’s much-vaunted otherworldly image “bothered me for many reasons, not the least of which is [that] I think it’s easier to destroy landscapes that are foreign. And also because Antarctica needs to be known” — largely, she explains, because it “plays an immense part in global climate and is a key lab for the study of climate change.” While few North Americans know or, admittedly, care about that remote landmass, Roberts found a very different attitude in New Zealand, where she did some of her studies. Nearly every New Zealander, she learned, “had some link to Antarctica — either they had been there, or someone they knew had been there, or they were trying to go. Most people don’t realize that New Zealand has a large land-claim in Antarctica, called the Ross Dependency. I found this relationship of tiny island nation and ice continent really resonated for me, and so it became a large part of the narrative: how Antarctica inhabits New Zealand, what its stories mean there. … They are mad for Antarctica there.” That passion was contagious. “I decided to write a book that showed the Antarctica I knew from living and working there, populated by people brave and focused, a place where penguins outnumber people, where the sky is often grey, and the cold cannot be described.”

Ah, but she does describe it: “I am alive, I shouted into the cold wind that blasted my white cheeks while I stood on an anchor chain,” Roberts writes at one point in the book, “looking through green field binoculars for ice in a sea of dark water, white foam.” Brrrr. 7:30 p.m.

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