The Winter of My Contentment

Summer in Antarctica was about new experiences: penguins! Ice pressure ridges! Camping out in an ice coffin hewn from the Ross Ice Shelf with my own hands! Listening to Weddell seals breathing! Daylight 24/7! More penguins! Winter, one old-timer advised me back in January, is “about learning who you are and whether you can live with yourself.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, he left on a flight back to the US soon after. He had wintered before. It was not for him.

Others told me “wintering over is about routine,” “wintering over is about trying not to be bored to death,” “wintering over is about figuring out how not to go crazy,” “wintering over and not gaining a lot of weight is impossible,” and “wintering over is okay if you drink a lot.”

Hmm.

Well, so far, I haven’t gained any weight and only last week did I finally finish the bottle of wine my buddy Richard gave me before he left the Ice back in February. I just don’t get the whole “drink till you’re drunk” culture, but I’d be lying if I said no one else here does, either. That said, not everyone gets plastered most nights of the week, or even at all. Interestingly (at least my inner social anthropologist thinks so), the people that I’ve met here who drink very little or not at all also seem to be the people least likely to kvetch about how bored they are. Coincidence?

Hmm.

As for the old-timer’s claim that wintering-over is all about learning who I am and whether I can live with myself, well, thanks, pal, but I checked those two particular items off my life to-do list many years ago. I have yet to be bored here, either, even if there have been a lot of changes to my lifestyle. Long solitary hikes are a thing of the past – we now have to hike all but the shortest route, to Hut Point, with at least one other person after checking out from the firehouse and picking up a radio. Meh. Not for me. Sitting and watching penguins, seals and skua do their thing is also done for the season, as the critters have all fled north.

That is not to suggest I’m over Antarctica. This place still takes my breath away on a daily basis, sometimes literally because it’s minus 43 F. But even if I am just looking out the window on the way to the bathroom, what I see astounds me: the scale, the emptiness, the sense that we humans are merely interlopers in a place where Nature is still firmly in charge. We’ve had several gray, snowy, blowy days in a row, but also some beauties, like today, my day off, when I wandered down to Hut Point.

The view from Hut Point across the Ross Sea to the Royal Societies; after a few weeks of being ice over, a large stretch of open water has returned. But not for long.

Yes, there is still daylight here, for a few hours a day. Since late February we’ve been losing light at a rate of 15-30 minutes a day. Because McMurdo is nestled between two ridges to the north (roughly), we don’t get direct light in town anymore, but as you can see from the photo above, it’s still hitting the Royal Society Mountains.

These days, the sun never gets higher than (roughly) about 30 degrees in the sky. It comes up somewhere to the north (which we can’t see), then sort of does a slow slide to the west before disappearing into Ross Sea.

Hut Ridge and Tent Island viewed from Hut Point at about one in the afternoon, just as the sun was sidling around the ridge.

The sun will set on April 26 and won’t appear in these parts again till August. After living in Moscow, where the months of little sunlight were the grimmest in a place that was pretty grim to begin with, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about bidding the sun “auf wiedersehen” for a third of a year. But I find I welcome the darkness and am not worried about light deprivation, I think because Antarctica is so special. And because I can’t wait to see a serious Southern Lights show.

Aurora australis, Bring. It. On.

Here’s another shot from my wee walkies this afternoon, of a great Fata Morgana:

I zoomed in on Tent Island in hopes of capturing the polar mirage called a Fata Morgana. Note how the island appears to be floating in the air. The two specks on the horizon roughly in the center of the frame are not, as one might belive, ships or whales or land or icebergs. They are a product of the mirage, and are not actually there. Whoa.

Nowadays, nearly all my physical activity (aside from the workplace) takes place in the gerbil gym (where they keep the treadmills and ellipticals, as opposed to our weight gym where they keep, uhm, the weights). When not working or working out, I’ve been laboring on my novel as well as reading and, it must be said, watching tv. Specifically, watching Armed Forces News and sometimes the BBC. We get other channels that show programs such as “Celebrity Apprentice” and movies, but give me my Anderson Cooper and I’m happy. And, I will admit, I am totally psyched to see highlights of the royal wedding. Shh. Don’t tell anyone.

I’ve also been a bit preoccupied planning what next, not because I don’t know what to do, but because there is so much I want to do. We shall see.

As for the blog, I know I’ve been bad about updating it as regularly as I did in summer, but it’s not because anything is awry. I just don’t think even my most dedicated readers are interested in hearing how many minutes I spent on the elliptical at level 20, or how I’m struggling with pacing in the third quarter of my novel.

But watch this space… if weather permits, I’ll be taking a really cool field trip in a couple days, and I don’t just mean walking across the street to go to Friday’s karaoke night.

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6 thoughts on “The Winter of My Contentment

  1. “when did winter become a verb?” – asked Halley

    “Any word can be verbed.” – replied Unpaid Bill [Nice nickname, btw!]

    I *love* verbing nouns (heh), and Bill is right that it’s something English does regularly. But to answer Halley’s original question: as early as the 14th century! No, really! The first citation in the OED of “winter” as a verb meaning “To pass or spend the winter” is from the Wycliffite Bible of 1382, Acts xxvii. 12: “If on ony maner thei myȝten come to Fenyce, for to wynterne in the hauene of Crete.” (Ignore the -ne on the end; that’s the Middle English infinitive marker; and Middle English uses y for i all the time. But otherwise, that’s clearly “…to winter in the haven of Crete.”) Cool, huh?

    (Note: I’m mainly posting this because I know “storiesthataretrue” will love it, not to show off or make anyone feel bad. I do this professionally.)

    Back to the post: I will buy you any cool left-over Wills and Kate souvenirs I find in London and save them for when you get off the ice!

    What about writing about your work here on the blog? How has it changed (or not) since the summer people left? What were you mostly doing before and what are you doing now? I’d love to hear more.

  2. i love when the journalists and academics in my life come together like this 🙂 i heart you all. and i thought “wintering” was an old military term dating back at least as far as George Washington and Valley Forge, but as usual i learn something from DrV… re: writing more about people and work… a lot has changed, some has not, but i still feel residual bitterness over the way previous employers and coworkers back at Bullwinkle Ranch reacted to my blogging, so don’t expect much detail here about my current sitch, good or bad 🙂

    and if you score me a kate and wills tea cosy i will love you even more than i do now!

  3. Oh, I guess I meant more about what *you* do, not about co-workers — you know, the process and your responsibilities and all that. I mean, I don’t even know if you’re primarily baking or doing other culinary stuff now that the population is lower (or maybe even when it was higher). That kind of thing.

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