Antarctica: The planet's imagination

Understanding the changing narrative of what Antarctica means to the planet is crucial to our survival.

    Although seven countries lay claim to slices of Antarctica, most countries do not recognise those claims [EPA]
    Although seven countries lay claim to slices of Antarctica, most countries do not recognise those claims [EPA]

    Ernest Shackleton, the great Antarctic explorer, once said , "We all have our own white south." The comment is wonderfully open to interpretation. What did he mean and why is the idea so important, even crucial, to the survival of our species and planet? 

    My first and second trips to Antarctica were funded by National Science Foundation Artists & Writers Fellowships. I proposed to write a novel in which the characters viewed Antarctica as home . When I met with the director of the programme, he laughed at my idea. "No one," he told me, "thinks of that continent as home." 

    In fact, one of the most extraordinary things about Antarctica is that by international treaty, no one gets to call the southernmost landmass home. This agreement is almost inconceivable in today's world where resources are increasingly scarce and people are continuously fighting territorial wars. Imagine - and I use that word purposefully here - this gigantic continent which many, many countries have agreed to hold in common. They have also agreed that Antarctica will be used only for peaceful purposes, and equally amazing and important, that all scientific results from investigations done in Antarctica will be shared with all countries, shared internationally. The idea that one of our seven continents is reserved for cooperation, peace and shared study gives me hope for our planet. 

    Of course, not every country has signed the Antarctic Treaty , and perhaps one of the reasons we do not hear more about this international project of peace and science is that the agreement is an uneasy one, at best. Seven countries lay claim to slices of Antarctica. There are pie charts showing which portions are claimed by France, Chile, Argentina, Australia, the United Kingdom, Norway and New Zealand. Since this pie chart of claims is centred on the geographic South Pole, and if the claims were valid, a person could walk in a circle with a diameter of just one foot and visit all seven countries in a matter of a few seconds. Most countries do not recognise these claims, however, and while the US does not make a formal claim to any part of the continent, for all intents and purposes, it controls the South Pole and also has the largest research station by far. 

    For the time being, there is peace in Antarctica and all territorial issues are theoretical. I have returned to the continent three times, and each time I continued - somewhat clandestinely because I did not like being laughed at - my search for home there atop the kilometres-deep glaciers. 

    Why did I ever think I could find home in Antarctica in the first place? 

    Being lost

    'Chilling' at the bottom of the world

    When I was three years old, I went camping with my family and a bunch of our friends on Oregon's Mount Jefferson. It was the middle of summer but there were still ice fields on the slopes near our campsite. I was the youngest in a very large family, and so I was always afforded lots of independence. Wandering off was easy for me. I found myself in an ice cave, a melted out cavern in one of those ice fields. It was gorgeous, with translucent blue light coming through the ice and cold drips pinging my arms and head. I remember feeling very happy. This was a perfect place. I did not consider myself to be lost. I was too young to feel fear. 

    My entire life I have felt most at home in wilderness, and much of my writing explores this feeling of belonging. Why does it feel like home to me? 

    I went to Antarctica - the biggest, wildest, coldest, most intense wilderness of all - to find answers to that question, and also to the bigger question, why should wilderness exist at all? 

    At a time when people are desperate for oil for energy, water to drink and to nourish crops, minerals to make our mobile phones and computers, wood to build our houses, why would we leave vast tracts of land untouched, unused, just sitting there? It is a question I have deep feelings about but have difficulty articulating rational reasons why wilderness, including Antarctica, should be allowed to exist. When I read the reasons others give, articulate writers and scientists, I know they are right, and I can follow their arguments, but none of these answers are ones I can say to the guy sitting next to me on an airplane who just wants to drive his car and heat his house. Never mind the politicians who need not just simple and convincing answers, but ones that will sway them away from their corporate sponsors. 

    The answer has something to do with the value in being lost. Being lost is the antithesis of home. The relationship between the two is inextricable, a philosophical paradox. You cannot find home if you do not experience the unknown, and geographically, the unknown is wilderness. 

    Being lost is an extraordinary opportunity. Being lost is the heart of imagination. And imagination is the fodder of all creative endeavours, all new ideas. 

    The geography of imagination

    As a writer and as a traveller, I want to ask the question: How can we ever have compassion if we don't see the Other? How can we see the Other if we don't imagine our way there? The Other, by definition, is something or someone we do not know. Of course, studying and listening and reading are part of the journey. But eventually, people must take a leap of imagination to get to the Other. Imagining is always the first step outside oneself. 

    Even scientists, who depend on hard evidence for every truth they espouse, start with a leap of imagination. We all learned the scientific process in grammar school: hypothesis and testing and conclusion. But what about before that hypothesis? There is a moment there, or perhaps years rather than a moment, of flying through the imagination, to even think of the unthinkable, to put together an idea to test in the first place. 

    I love fiction, art and music - all forms of creative expression - because of the extraordinary reconfiguration that happens in authors' and artists' imaginations, the way they create new characters and stories and images from that intense and bright and raw dreamland place. 

    The equivalent place on this planet is Antarctica.  

    The scientists in Antarctica are on the frontlines of trying to understand our planet. The continent is relatively untouched by humans and is therefore the best place to learn what the planet is like without human contamination. They are studying climate change, whale brains and the Big Bang. In this vast icy place that has been called a "wasteland", we are beginning to understand how the universe came into being and what Earth's chances are for a future.

    Polar ice melt 'accelerating'


    Why do we need wilderness?  How can people justify putting it aside - these vast tracts of land that are not being used in any calculable way? We are seeing how the "emptiness" is necessary. How our knowledge of ourselves depends upon it. How places like Antarctica and the Arctic actually drive the entire planet's climate. 

    The raw, uncontaminated continent speaks to something pure and vital in humanity. The apparent blankness might instead be called openness. We do not need to assign a purpose to every single square inch of the planet. We do need imagination, vast areas of space where ideas and creativity and solutions can foment. Antarctica represents the frontier of imagination, the gorgeous unknown. 

    The changing Antarctic narrative

    More than 200 years ago, Captain James Cook doubted that Antarctic would ever be reached by humans. Fast forward a couple hundred years, and we have the well-known race to the Pole, with the key players being Ernest Shackleton , Robert Falcon Scott , and the winner, Roald Amundsen , who made it to the Pole on December 14, 1911. These men embody the old narrative: denying, racing and conquering. 

    There is a new narrative: the agreements of peace and cooperation laid out in the Antarctic Treaty; the work being done by today's inhabitants of Antarctica, the scientists who are there to gain a better understanding about how we live on Earth, about how our actions affect the climate and whales and one another, about the origins of our place in the universe. 

    We all know how shaky this new narrative is. With the human population bursting above seven billion, the desperation for space, food, energy and water increases daily. Newt Gingrich, in his recent bid for the American presidency, said he would put colonies on the moon to help with these problems. Much more likely is that eventually, maybe soon, people will turn to Antarctica for resources.  

    What if, instead, humanity embraced shared investigation, cooperative living, untapped resources left untapped , the unknowability of wilderness, imagination as hugely valuable? 

    "We all have our own white south." Shackleton meant a vast expanse of the unknown, resources within that have not been earmarked for specific tasks, a great imagination. I believe that imagination is our finest hope toward finding the compassion and solutions to go forward as a worthy species on this planet. Antarctica, the woolliest wilderness on Earth, is the geographical manifestation of imagination.

    Lucy Jane Bledsoe is the author of The Big Bang Symphony: A novel of Antarctica and The Ice Cave: A Woman's Adventures from the Mojave to the Antarctic, a nd of many other novels, essays and stories. She has travelled to Antarctica three times, twice as a recipient of the United States National Science Foundation's Artists & Writers Fellowship. Her recent story about the wolves of Yellowstone National Park won the Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Prize.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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