Friday, January 9, 2009

T plus 4 months

This is going to be a different sort of blog entry today - no pictures or long-winded descriptions of wildlife. Just me, being introspective.

For years I said I wanted to work in Antarctica. Sometimes at dinners with friends, and always on New Years Resolutions lists, the word "Antarctica". I didn't have any clear motivations for the desire apart from the "wow" factor of being someplace few people go. A couple of years passed. Then, last summer, the realization that I was getting too old, too quickly. Couldn't put it off. I found myself a position at a station I had never heard of, in a part of Antarctica I didn't know existed and couldn't find on a map. Finagled a leave of absence, found friends to housesit. Left my dog, my big city, my blackberry for 7 months without an exit strategy, working a job I didn't know and living in conditions I had no clear idea of. Excited yes ? Certain of anything else ? No.

7 months - long enough to count but not an eternity. Now I'm past the midway mark and in the downhill slide towards home. I left California September 9th and will leave "the ice" about April 9th.

I was inspired to do this post because of comments left by Janice and Jeannie. Janice is a 5-time astronaut and encouraged me to talk about my life here. She says people back home are interested in the smallest things. Jeannie wondered how my cold-prone hands were holding up.

So, here goes: my thoughts on 4 months of life outside the US, in a place with 23 other people.

1. Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes
The first thing I noticed down here was that my eyes and brain have begun talking to each other differently. Even on drab days, I see aquas and blues as vivid, almost pulsingly alive. Anything that sticks through the snow seemed blindingly colorful but never comes out that way in photographs. Also, my body is eager to adjust to the smallest trend in the weather and set its thermostat according to that condition. Two or three days of wind and rain become comfortable but even a degree drop in the temperature becomes cold and I shiver all day. I've had one experience of hypothermia, which is enough. Usually those little chemical handwarmers and lots of layers of clothes do their job.

2. Community life - A close knit family ?
Some towns are probably as small as our community and many families are as big. Psychologically we are somewhat in the middle. Maybe like teams of mars astronauts will be in the future. Everyone has their job and roles are doggedly stuck to. There is no privacy - we know who wakes up early and how early, who's good at their job and who isn't, who steals cookie dough out of the freezer. We could catalog each other clothes. We rarely talk about the things we know. And there are vast gaps in the rest of our conversation - personal life off the ice for instance is mostly taboo. What we are left with is the assurance that every person is fulfilling their role and would save our life if required. And, the daily New York Times crossword. That's exciting.

3. The habits of society
The majority of people on the station, 18 of the 24, are career Antarcticans. They have been doing this seasonal work for years and live itinerantly when they are off the ice. Not a lot of people here are big consumers. Will I change when I get back ? Hard to predict. Living almost without money is comfortable here, I don't know if it will stick.

So, has it been what I expected ? I'm not sure. I think I was prepared for the experience to be anything. It has been, and is, complex. I miss my niece and nephew, I miss the freedom to go for a long walk somewhere warm or greet a stranger. But, I am wowwed to be living in a time when a member of my species is allowed to hang out in this landscape and be (even a somewhat unnatural) part of the greater system. I know I will miss this place very much in 3 more months when it is time to go.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Presenting the vascular plants of Antarctica

The Antarctic hair grass, Deschampsa antarctica

and the cushion-forming pearlwort, Colobanthus quitensis.

That's it :)