I’ve been obsessed with Antarctica since I was a child: it represented a colossal, prismatic space of mystery and unanswered questions, the final wilderness on our planet, where men wearing ill-fitting reindeer skins took teams of sled dogs over glaciers for years at a time, through miserable conditions that are beyond imagination. So when I learned the National Science Foundation offered an Antarctica Artists and Writers Residency, I immediately applied. The NSF selects one or two artists or writers from any discipline – filmmaking, puppetry, painting, photography and poetry, to name just a few – to travel to Antarctica during the austral summer and embed with science teams.
The application process is rigorous, requiring extensive research about the existing science on the continent, permission from any field team that you propose to embed with, and justification of why your art requires a trip to Antarctica. I contacted four different field teams that work with Antarctic animals: from the largest animals, the seals, down to the smallest, the soil microbes. I wanted to spend weeks immersed in the vernacular of the scientists, and to better understand how these myriad animals had adapted to not just survive, but thrive, in the most strange and barren circumstances, and to write poetry and nonfiction about these experiences.
Most writer residencies around the world involve living in a quiet, remote, well-equipped cabin with other writers and artists for a few weeks at a time; this couldn’t have been a more opposite experience. Physical toughness, hard labor, and a good sense of humor about living in a very raw way are required of everyone who comes to Antarctica, including the writer grantee. Every newcomer has to take a two-day snow survival course called “Happy Camper”; I spent a miserably cold night in a snow cave of my own making. I had many long days on the sea ice in easily minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit wind chill, with no shelter to go get warm; I was responsible for driving my own snowmobile long distances, learned to change sparkplugs, pitched tents on snow and ice, used buckets as toilets, and many days ate just lentils and nuts.
On quieter afternoons, I browsed the McMurdo Station library, filled with extraordinary old polar journals that have remarkable lines like “A day’s chewing is necessary to soften a boot bottom,” “the contents were unrecognizable as carrots either by appearance or flavor” and “seal butchering is not without difficulties for the novice.” I found myself writing both poetry and articles inspired by all the various sensory inputs, historic and contemporary, exterior and interior, spoken and unspoken.
I expected my time in Antarctica to be the most thrilling experience of my life, yet every day there exceeded even my highest expectations. The work of Antarctic scientists was mind-blowing to witness up close: the glaciologists who are melting ancient ice and saving the trapped air bubbles in green canisters; the astrophysicists trapping neutrinos from outer space in a giant ice cube; the office down the hall from me simply labeled, astonishingly, THE ANTARCTIC SEARCH FOR METEORITES. I got to listen to the heartbeat of a mother seal, watch a sea urchin egg fertilize under a microscope, ride helicopters over vast glaciers, help shoot a laser into the upper stratosphere, climb inside an ice cave, and have an Adélie penguin pull on my shoelaces.
The hardest part of this experience was leaving to go home. Antarctica may be the only place on Earth that I’ve had to leave knowing I may never get to return. Admiral Richard Byrd famously wrote, “Part of me remained forever at Latitude 80 degrees 08 minutes South,” and I feel the same way.
About Jynne Martin
Jynne is the Director of Publicity at Riverhead Books as well as a writer of poetry and nonfiction. You can read more of her work on Slate, see more gorgeous pictures of her trip to Antarctica on her Tumblr, and you should definitely follow @Jynnne and @RiverheadBooks on Twitter.
About the National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Program
The annual Antarctic Artists and Writers Program supports writing and artistic projects specifically designed to increase understanding and appreciation of the Antarctic and of human activities on the southernmost continent. Proposals will be accepted for this year’s residency through May 1st, 2014. Learn more about this writing residency on the NSF website.
Where’s the most offbeat place that you’ve ever written? Share with the community here.