Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent by Gabrielle Walker
- Page count (according to Amazon) is 421 pages; Kindle edition has 20% for notes and references at the end
- Engaging first-person narrative best enjoyed while lingering over a hot beverage and under a blanket; Long chapters make this book a better selection when you have an abundance of time
I was honestly worried that I wouldn’t be able to find an Antarctica book that wasn’t about Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen and the race to the geographic South Pole. Only a handful of people have ever been to the continent long enough to make the history books, after all. So who else goes there? Scientists and the hardy individuals who operate the various research bases, and these are the people to whom Walker introduces us.
The irony, however, is that one can’t escape what Walker calls the “Age of Heroes”. Shackleton and company surface in conversations with the researchers living in Antarctica today, so Walker is obliged to give the explorers of nearly a century ago a significant amount of space in her book. Those men keep an important lesson top-of-mind for people in present-day Antarctica: even modern equipment can’t protect this extreme continent’s occupants from poor choices or just bad luck.
Walker’s background as a science writer lends her a high degree of comfort with the active investigations in Antarctica. These fields range from geology and climate change to astronomy and biology, and the author discusses the work of several scientists in some detail as a means to create a portrait of each researcher. Her science writing is accessible to the lay person. More importantly, she shows enough of each subject to lend some insight into why a person might find his or her field so interesting as to forgo a more typical lifestyle elsewhere in its pursuit. Having read this book, I understand, for example, why an astronomer might be drawn to the South Pole. I wouldn’t choose it for myself, but I get it.
Most interesting to me is the idea of an Antarctic culture. Although the French researchers have wine with dinner and McMurdo, the American base, is dry, there are some commonalities among people who work in the Antarctic regardless of national origin. First, rescue and crisis management cut across nationality. Second, women are still noticeably in the minority, despite being a presence on the continent for decades. Third, there is also a hierarchy – almost a caste system – among the people who have worked on the continent: people who have overwintered command more respect than people who have only worked summers. The more time logged in Antarctica, the more respect. Finally, there is a certain irreverent humor born of the harsh conditions and the seriousness of the work that pervades each of the bases.
For me, Walker’s description of her time over the Antarctic winter is the highlight of the book. The winter season begins with the traditional double feature of the original as well as the John Carpenter remake of The Thing. During this season, no one from outside Antarctica is coming for you – no planes or ships – if you have a problem (in fact, the exception a couple of years ago made national headlines). Her interview with one longtime winterer reveals which personality traits prepare one for success in the Antarctic winter. Anxious types like me don’t do well. Even well-adjusted people get edgy and more prone to fly off the handle as the winter goes on. People learn to stay out of each other’s way and smooth ruffled feathers as needed.
Walker plainly has an abiding affection for the continent and for many of the people she met in the process of researching the book. Her descriptions are rich and informative, and she provides just enough detail to keep the lay reader fully engaged. Her tone drifted into preachiness about global warming in the final chapter, but I was willing to forgive her because her argument is based in scientific work she has witnessed firsthand. Her personal experiences and vivid writing compel the reader to care about the continent’s fate.
And yes, she does write about the penguins.