Review

On the Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at Mcmurdo Station, Antarctica

by Gretchen Legler



Antarctica hardly ever shows up in our national consciousness, and
when it does it's usually in odd ways. Ten years ago, it was the
science of Antarctica --- the hole in the ozone layer --- that was
making news. Five years ago, more or less, it was the rediscovery
of a bit of Antarctic history that was making news, with all sorts
of books and movies on Sir Ernest Shackleton's doomed expedition,
and the leadership lessons to be learned therein. This year, it's
Antarctic biology that's taking center stage, with March of the
Penguins
delighting movie audiences across the globe.

March of the Penguins was a hit in part because it wasn't
just about the savagery of the frozen continent, or the mating
cycle of the emperor penguin, or the threat of attacks from
vultures and sea lions. It was about love. Love is not something
you think about much in the Antarctic context. The Antarctica of
the mind is populated by brave, brawny, persevering explorers
wrapped in mukluks; the occasional research scientist in
horned-rimmed, fogged-up glasses; and maybe a sled dog. There's no
room for love there. It's too darn cold, for one thing.

ON THE ICE by Gretchen Legler is about finding love in Antarctica
--- outside of the emperor penguin context, mind you. Legler got
one of those government grants you hear about sometimes on
late-night TV. In this case, it was a National Science Foundation
grant that allowed her to write about Antarctica and publish this
book. The idea was supposed to be, according to the apparently
not-so-strict guidelines, a journalistic look at Antarctic science
and scientists.

But love got in the way. There's a chapter, about halfway through,
in which Legler is trying diligently to write about the problems of
refrigeration in Antarctica, which apparently involves keeping food
and supplies well above ambient temperature rather than the
reverse. We'll never know. Legler felt that she couldn't be an
objective journalist in Antarctica, that she couldn't write about
"facts and lives other than her own." But then enters Ruth, a woman
she has a crush on, who entreats her to take a look at a formation
of "nacreous" clouds that are in some way indescribably
beautiful. 

Legler and Ruth fall in love, and the manuscript careens from there
into meditations on lesbian love and the glories of nature, and
quotes from Walt Whitman wrapped around the whole thing like a big
dingy ribbon. Even when she tries to steel herself to write about
science or even the scientific personalities, she veers into the
transcendental and the vague. One short chapter, "The Ice King,"
starts out as a profile of the man who runs McMurdo station, then
migrates into Henry David Thoreau territory, and ends as an essay
about how global communication is making it harder to experience
what might be called a unique Antarctic way of life.

What ON THE ICE really ends up being about is the culture of
Antarctica. The best parts of the book are those that illuminate
how people cope with the isolation and the cold. Legler tells us
about the "toast chart" showing exactly how people coming to the
end of an Antarctic idyll feel --- the more burnt the toast, the
more stressed out the researcher. "Skua Central" is the local flea
market where items get passed around from hand to hand. And Legler
illustrates the occasional --- or more than occasional ---
heartbreak and loneliness that spurs people on to the bottom of the
world.

Given how little Antarctica shows up in the collective
unconsciousness, it's unfortunate that ON THE ICE doesn't meet up
to the expectations that the National Science Foundation must have
had when it funded Legler's expedition to McMurdo --- that it
doesn't say more about what all these people are doing down there,
and why it's important. It isn't that book because it was
interrupted and changed by love; anyone who loves knows that love
changes things, that it pops up where you would least expect it,
that it spins and disorients things. ON THE ICE has its
shortcomings, but they're shortcomings born of love, and therefore
should be given the widest latitude for pardoning.

On the Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at Mcmurdo Station, Antarctica
by Gretchen Legler

  • Publication Date: October 25, 2005
  • Genres: Nature, Nonfiction, Travel
  • Paperback: 195 pages
  • Publisher: Milkweed Editions
  • ISBN-10: 157131282X
  • ISBN-13: 9781571312822