’Tis the season of complacency, when we sit in warmth and shiver vicariously with Mary and Joseph out in the snowy wastes, A Christmas Carol or The Snowman. A handsome exploration of Antarctica seems equally appropriate festive fare.
Peter Fretwell brings us chillingly close to a continent that has always inspired awe, evidenced by christenings such as Mount Erebus and Fenriskjeften — the Wolf’s Jaw mountains, named after Fenris, the Norse equivalent of the Beast, which will arise at the end of time to eat the world. The coldest, driest, remotest and windiest place on the planet, surrounded by the roughest ocean, has always seemed like somewhere primordial deities might live and secrets subsist — entrances to underworlds, hidden civilisations, UFO bases. The ‘Roaring Forties’ and ‘Furious Fifties’ are dreaded by sailors; valleys have seen no rain for three million years and temperatures tumble to -89.5°C. These mesmerising maps offer sparklingly clear prospects of an otherwise almost incomprehensible terrain.
Some have essayed this literally awful place ever since Captain Cook surmised its existence in 1775, magnetised by its beauty, bounty and mystery, or wishing to reach the Pole, climb a peak or lay claim on behalf of some ruler of the Global North. They left legends and perishing skeletons, of themselves, their boats, cairns, crosses, huts, lighthouses and vehicles, and telling toponymy — Deception Island, Pole of Inaccessibility, Pole of Isolation. All of us know Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton, so Fretwell highlights Carl Anton Larsen, who endured equally impressively between 1901 and 1903, and Douglas Mawson, who lost his companions and walked hundreds of miles with no tent, eating dogs whose livers were poisoning him.
Others have brought bathos, such as those who named some mountains the Executive Committee Range. Forty thousand tourists visit each year, and 29 countries have bases resembling 1950s sci-fi B-movie sets. A schematic of air links is curiously reminiscent of the Tube map, linking surreal stations — ‘Sky Blu’, ‘Prodi’ and ‘Pig’. Still Antarctica requires respect — no mythical abstraction now, but ‘Earth’s lungs’, whose waters’ vast and constant churning affects everything on Earth, and whose expectant ice may hold our futures.
We have also brought carnage, shown by whale catches between 1915 and 1984 — a white field spotted and stained with crimson gore, like the scene of some frenzied murder. South Georgia’s fur seal population fell to 50 by the 1950s before we let it recover. Exemplary action has allowed the ozone hole to start repairing itself, whales once again to sport in numbers, and aroused interest in the wanderings of albatrosses and seals followed from space, producing images like Pollock paintings. Scientists have magnified infinitesimal phyloplankton to reveal their bewilderingly varying forms, and the bacteria which somehow survive on Linnaeus Terrace in Victoria Land. Others have monitored calved icebergs, ice-cored to assay air from 740,000 years ago, and traced a huge filigree of sub-glacial rivers and lakes, and hidden mountains as high as the Alps. Those who open this compendium casually ‘may be some time’.
Strata is close to home — but a home seen utterly differently, where conventional colours are replaced by candy-stripes, or heritage paint hues. William Smith (1769-1839) was the ‘Father of English Geology’, and his 1815 A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales with Part of Scotland was almost literally ground-breaking. The map was 8’6” high by 6’ wide, and showed 23 different strata in 21 shades, based on years of field-walking, fossil-collecting and surveying, and exchanges with thinkers such as Joseph Banks. Artistic though it was, it was designed for use by landowners and industries, from alum via coal to vitriol: ancient England assessed for modern exploitation.
It failed financially, but introduced radical notions to a country rapidly rejecting biblical chronology. The original biostratigrapher was a disturber of ground, Robert Macfarlane observes in his foreword, ‘a terranaut’ whose indefatigable delving beneath Blake’s green pleasance lent England ‘a fabulous plumage’. Smith’s Cotswolds blaze with reds and yellows, his Rutland with salmon-pink and turquoise — and his colour legend and scales are still standard. This is a suitably prestigious tribute, with marbled endpapers, facsimile maps and pages from sketchbooks, and essays touching on canal-building, cartography, drainage, mineralogy, mining, palaeontology, water-finding and other topics.
Smith had no social advantages, and suffered vicissitudes from imprisonment to ‘a mad, bad wife’, yet raised himself by obsessive ability, nicknamed ‘Strata Smith’ in his lifetime. We pity his much younger wife, ‘oddly-attired’ and violent-tempered, abandoned for months with creditors calling, or walking ignored behind as he filled his pockets with stones (she died in York lunatic asylum). He recovered his fortunes by giving lectures — hugely popular, despite what his nephew John Phillips (a later geological eminence) called ‘a certain abstractness of mind’, in which ‘slight matters… not clearly or commonly associated with the general purpose of the lecture, swelled into excrescences’. Such well-chosen details help us remember this pioneer whose ramblings revealed the newest of possibilities in the oldest of things.
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