Polar history and climate
change books reviewed by
the Ice: The History of Norway and the Polar Regions
Edited by Einar-Arne Drivenes and Harald Dag Jølle
Picture editor Ketil Zachariassen
Translated by Bruce Bawer, Deborah Dawkin, Joan S Rongen and Erik Skuggevik
Price: Nkr 499.00 hardback
Ferocious Summer: Palmer’s Penguins and the Warming of Antarctica
by Meredith Hooper
ISBN: 9781846680083 hardback / 9781846680236 paperback
Price: £20.00 hbk / £9.99 pbk
Winner of the 2008 Nettie Palmer Prize for Non-fiction (Victorian Premier’s
We read for many different reasons. Reading books to write a review
both sharpens the mind and narrows it, if my own experience is anything
to go by. (And I must begin by declaring a partiality. The world of
polar studies is a relatively small one, and I have met and liked the
authors or editors of both books reviewed here.)
Into the Ice is a magnificent achievement
which stems from an even greater one. The book is a condensation of
the three-volume Norsk Polarhistorie edited by Einar-Arne Drivenes
and Harald Dag Jølle and published (in Norwegian only) in 2004.
For publication in English the same editors have reduced the text of
the three volume work to a single volume, a formidable task. The result
is a well-presented and readable reference which follows the layout
of the three original volumes. It contains useful general summaries
of many aspects of polar history in which Norway — one of the
12 original signatories to the Antarctic Treaty — has been prominent.
Norway’s possession of Svalbard means that its
maritime territory there is twice as big as the land area of Norway.
The book explores large themes — polar history and exploration,
science, and resources — using stories of lesser known people
as well as the famous, and details of daily life as well as those of
the classic expeditions. We find out, for example, about conditions
of work for the ‘skimming lads’ of Antarctic whaling, or
the personal circumstances of whaler Bernhard Eilertsen, who wrote “I
am not able to take part in my children’s celebrations. Edit and
Martha were confirmed while I was away. Elsie will probably get married
this year, and in the meantime I have volunteered to go into exile for
two years” (p. 188).
Norway as a polar nation is seen today as being more
concerned with the harvesting of resources than with the cultivation
of heroes. But polar heroes will always be a large part of Norway’s
story. On his 1893–96 Arctic expedition, Fridtjof Nansen left
captain Otto Sverdrup with the beset Fram and tried to reach
the North Pole overland — or rather, over ice. His sole companion
was a young man called Hjalmar Johansen. During 15 months together alone,
each man was vital for the other’s survival. Marooned in a freezing
hut in Franz Josef Land, the two men’s celebration of Christmas
consisted of turning their clothes inside-out and changing the order
in which they put them back on. A week later Dr Nansen suggested to
his companion, Reserve Lieutenant Johansen, that the two might now address
each other informally (with du), rather than the formal mode
of address they had used until then — an offer whose latter-day
significance is apparent only when one discovers that the two men had
been sharing a sleeping bag for nine months. Johansen later accompanied
Roald Amundsen on his South Pole expedition. After criticising Amundsen’s
leadership at their ice-shelf base, Johansen found himself marginalised
by Amundsen, and he was not included in the South Pole party. Soon after
returning to Norway from the expedition, Johansen took his own life.
Inevitably, minor details of the translation of the
559-page book could be sharpened (the settlement of Grytviken on South
Georgia, for example, is rendered here as ‘Grytvika’, p.
171, which is slightly confusing to any English speaker who knows the
island). But in general presentation is scholarly, simple and clear.
The amount of work in its making is evident from the annotated chronology
of Arctic and then Antarctic expeditions, and from its 33 pages of close-set
bibliography, as well as in the body of the text. Among the well reproduced
pictures, my favourite (on p. 450) shows a couple in shirt-sleeves at
a table, with a polar bear striding to the left-hand side of the photograph,
and open blue water behind the couple. It takes a minute to realise
that this whole scene is taking place within a museum. For what is essentially
a reference book covering such a wide history, it is beautifully easy
Meredith Hooper’s The Ferocious Summer
is set at the US Palmer Station on Anvers Island in Antarctica, where
the colder Antarctic Peninsula region meets the warmer, moist maritime
environment of the northern Peninsula. Hooper combines the story of
her own time there in 2002 with that of scientist W.R. (Bill) Fraser,
who has worked in Antarctica since 1975. Both accounts unfold as she
explores the nature of climate change. This is not a uniform phenomenon.
‘Climate change isn’t a blanket thrown evenly over the surface
of the Earth,’ she says. ‘Its impacts are variable. They
can be specific, local’ (p. xvii).
Hooper’s time at Palmer station in 2002 was her
second visit with the support of the US National Science Foundation’s
Artists and Writers Programs. Her book is written for non-specialists
but the discussion on climate change includes abundant detail on scientific
work in Antarctica. One thing which emerges clearly is the role played
by long-term scientific studies, such as the Adelie penguin work of
Fraser and others, in contributing to the understanding of issues like
Hooper’s earlier visit was made during a season
when the sun shone day after day. In January–March 2002, the time
of The Ferocious Summer, the weather at Palmer station was
vile. Snow and rainfalls were the heaviest ever recorded. Hooper spent
her three months with scientists who censused, weighed and surveyed
Adelie penguins, skuas and giant petrels, as well as recording data
on other species including gentoo penguins. It was the warmest summer
on record — that year, the huge Larsen B ice shelf 100 miles to
the east in the Weddell Sea disintegrated in spectacular and rapid fashion.
Instead of the previous year’s 7,000-odd Adelie chicks, there
were about 1,500. At the same time, other species such as fur seals
(unknown in 1955 at one site Hooper visits) and gentoo penguins were
increasing in number.
Hooper’s prose is a treat to read (though I occasionally
wilt under her use of the present tense). She tells us of her growing
sense of possessiveness about particular places, describing them so
that they cannot fail to catch our imagination:
'The sky is an indefinable, high-latitude light,
pale green with delicate indigo. Water laps gently. It could be the
highlands of Scotland, the old world of the north, touching the barely
known south.' (p. 86)
Her image of melted ice as a wasted repository is equally
compelling. ‘All ice is a library of primary sources,’ she
writes, ‘and we’ve only managed a few scattered volumes.
Ice, once melted, is like manuscripts burned. Records irretrievably
lost’ (p. 92), an image which brings to my mind the 24 columns
of water, each from a different glacier, in Roni Horn’s installation
of Water at Stykkishólmur in Iceland.
Daily life at Palmer involves long-term projects in
huge, remote and empty places with a changing cast of scientists, support
staff and the occasional outsider, and little or no privacy for individuals.
By its nature, the extent of the work of both writers and scientists
is sometimes far from obvious to others. As Bill Fraser remarks, ‘we
are criticised if we’re ever late for breakfast’. Friction
between people — often invisible in official or scientific accounts
— is part of daily life and Hooper includes it in her evocation
of this life. In a region where science has become the rationale for
a human presence, she describes the ‘old, constant Antarctic equation,
science versus the enablers, tussles first played out on board nineteenth-century
ships’ (p. 236). For anyone who has worked for any length of time
in the polar regions, this may sound familiar.
Although Hooper writes that ‘here is climate
change in action, Antarctica as a living experiment’ (p. 153),
she also acknowledges that our whole Earth is a living experiment, and
that our struggle to understand it will always hold a paradox: the timing
is almost impossible. Even while we gather the information we need,
the world we are struggling to understand sweeps past us. ‘Increasingly,’
she says, ‘I’m discovering ways in which recording and interpreting
today and yesterday is writing history; and comprehending the importance
of the disciplines of history in understanding climate change …
The past is an essential context for the present. But accumulating and
processing, and the desire to write, are in conflict’ (p. 215).
Perhaps, she concludes (p. 272), ‘history and science are not
that far apart’. I can only agree.
Polar biographies reviewed
by Ken Catford
Scott in the Antarctic: Edward Wilson, Explorer, Naturalist, Artist
by Isobel Williams
of Ice: The Lives of Alistair Forbes Mackay (1878–1914) and
Cecil Henry Meares (1877–1937)
by Leif Mills
Caedmon of Whitby (to order e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)
As the year 1899 was drawing to a close the British
were viewing the future with keen anticipation. The new century would
surely build on the achievements of the great British Empire, and would
bring to fruition the advances in science, technology and medicine which
were already being pioneered. For 27-year-old medical student Edward
Wilson, there must also have been some doubts as he looked to the future.
He had just become engaged to his beloved Oriana, and his final medical
examinations were approaching, but his studies had been interrupted
by debilitating ill health. His comfort was that his religious faith
would enable him to face with fortitude any continuing illness and perhaps
Wilson had no inkling that only three years later he
and two companions would endure enormous physical hardships to reach
closer to the South Pole than any human being had achieved. That subsequently
his life would reach its grim end in the same Antarctic wilderness,
just before his fortieth birthday, was not the cause of the untimely
death he was imagining in 1899.
Also at the turn of the century another medical student
interrupted his studies, but for very different reasons. 21-year-old
Alister Mackay was a man of action. The newspapers were reporting the
intensification of the Boer War, and Mackay needed little encouragement
to join the affray. In January 1900 he was off to South Africa. That
his future life, too, would become dominated by (and terminated by)
the ice, would not have entered his mind.
The third character we meet in these two books is Cecil
Meares. He was an unsettled young man and the turn of the century found
him, aged 22, travelling in Siberia and China. He, too, was attracted
by the action and heroism of the South African war and duly joined up.
And he, too, found himself a few years later making history in the Antarctic.
The two books describe the very different contributions
made by these three men to Antarctic exploration in the early twentieth
century. Wilson played key roles with Scott and Shackleton on the Discovery
expedition (1901-04), and again with Scott on the Terra Nova
(1910-12). Meares was with them on the Terra Nova, while Mackay
took part in Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition (1907-09).
Isobel Williams presents a discerning and thoughtful
account of Edward Wilson and his contribution to both of Scott’s
expeditions. Wilson’s talents as a medical doctor, as a naturalist,
and as an artist, all deserve much wider recognition. His personal attitude
to life, and towards his companions, was strengthened by his religious
faith. He provided subtle, reliable personal support to Scott and the
others, and this made the hardships of the expeditions much more bearable
for everyone. The author’s medical knowledge is brought to bear
in explaining Wilson’s work, and in demonstrating that he was
at the cutting edge of medical and scientific progress.
A hundred years later it is hard for us not to be misled
by hindsight and to dismiss too lightly the scientific innovativeness
of all three of these major adventures. An example from the Terra
Nova expedition was the winter overland trek to and from the emperor
penguin colony at Cape Crozier in 1911. This was the infamous “worst
journey in the world” as described so dramatically by Apsley Cherry-Garrard,
and which has been dismissed by recent writers as foolhardy and futile.
What we learn from Isobel Williams, however, is the important purpose
for which the journey was made, and why it was seen at that time to
be crucial to the advancement of scientific knowledge.
A book previously reviewed in Polar Worlds is The
Coldest March by Susan Soloman. It also provides a modern, professional
analysis of Scott’s (and Wilson’s) final fatal journey with
particular reference to meteorology and the effects of extreme cold.
Now Williams’s very readable book brings us the benefit of up-to-date
medical knowledge to help us understand key health issues such as nutrition,
scurvy and fatigue. Those two books together contribute greatly to a
proper understanding of the reality of these extreme journeys.
Leif Mills’s book takes a completely different
approach – much more direct and with less background analysis.
Several participants in the expeditions have now faded from public memory,
and Mackay and Meares are two of those. That they left little in the
way of written accounts made research much harder, and Mills has done
well to compile such complete pictures of their lives.
Meares’s story was the more obscure of the two,
but Mills succeeds in revealing his wide-ranging activities before,
during and after the Terra Nova expedition on which he was
in charge of the dogs. It is interesting to read an account of the famous
expedition from the viewpoint of one of its less well-known participants.
Afterwards came action in the First World War, then service in Japan
before retirement in Canada where he died in 1937.
Alister Mackay was “surgeon and biologist”
on Shackleton’s expedition of 1907-09. Perhaps his most significant
participation was on the side journey to locate the south magnetic pole.
This was an arduous, but well organised, overland excursion with Mackay
and Douglas Mawson and led by Edgeworth David. Extracts from Mackay’s
diary give a personal day-by-day account. At that time huge advances
were being made in both geology and navigation, and this expedition’s
achievement was significant in locating with adequate (if not precise)
accuracy the position at that time of the southern ‘zone of maximum
The final part of Mackay’s story takes us to
the Arctic and the disastrous 1913-14 voyage of the Karluk
in which much interest has been revived in recent years. Again the story
as told from Mackay’s angle is revealing, culminating in his death
in the ice in 1914.
Both books would benefit from additional maps and a
suggestion would be that if you possess a copy of Beau Riffenburgh’s
Nimrod book, then have it open at its excellent map pages while
you read these two new books. A map of western China identifying the
place-names of 100 years ago would have helped greatly to appreciate
Meares’s adventures there in 1907-08. The small publishers Caedmon
of Whitby have made several welcome contributions to polar history,
and so it is disappointing to find this latest book marred by misprints.
In particular Leif Mills explains with some care why he believes ‘Alister’
to be the correct spelling of Mackay’s name, but the book’s
own title page gives the spelling ‘Alistair’ which we have
therefore adhered to above.
There surely needs to be some serious justification
for another two books to be published in this field. Williams’s
book more than meets that justification with its enlightening interpretation
of the under appreciated Edward Wilson, while Mills’s contribution
tackling less well-known team members brings a new dimension to the
otherwise familiar stories.