Recommended Reading from 2009

 

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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon

 

 

 

Polar history and climate change books reviewed by
Bernadette Hince

Into 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

Gyldendal akademisk
ISBN: 82-05-36185-1
Price: Nkr 499.00 hardback

 

The Ferocious Summer: Palmer’s Penguins and the Warming of Antarctica
by Meredith Hooper
Profile Books
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 Literary Awards)


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 to read.

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 climate change.

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 Vatnasafn/Library 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

With Scott in the Antarctic: Edward Wilson, Explorer, Naturalist, Artist
by Isobel Williams

The History Press
ISBN: 978-0-7509-4879-1
Price: £20.00

 

 

Men 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 sales@smithsettle.com)
ISBN978-0-905355-69-6
Price: £20.00

 

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 premature death.

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 dip’.

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.

 

 

 

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