Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Log 421: Antarctica, barren end of Earth, yet teeming with life: Peter Matthiessen’s unforgettable description of it

Map showing the second voyage of Captain James...
Map showing the second voyage of Captain James Cook. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Official portrait of Captain James Cook
Official portrait of Captain James Cook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Peter Matthiessen in the WNYC studios...
Peter Matthiessen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Since Peter Matthiessen died 10 days ago I have been reading a book of his I had not previously seen. It is called End of the Earth, and is an account of two voyages he made deep into the Antarctic on board a Russian icebreaker which was taking time off its normal duties around the northern coasts of Russia to undertake some cruising for adventurous people.
I found the book in my favorite book store in Montreal The Word, run by Adrian  King-Edwards, whom I had chafed when he did not run a Peter Matthiessen window, as I would have expected. He said it was because they had
not been able to find enough  Matthiessen books to make a window among their remarkably comprehensive stock of second-hand books, an inventory that has been built up through the devotion and remarkable knowledge of the unassuming proprietor.
I noticed the next morning that they had found one book, at least,  and had put it in the window, so I went in and bought it. “The fact we don’t have his books in stock is a tribute to his stature, because it means people are not getting rid of his books.,” Adrian said when I ran into him on the street.
This book, like almost everything else I have read by Matthiessen, is a wonder. Embarking into the most remote area on Earth, he treats past voyageurs to the region, reaching back beyond Captain Cook’s two eighteenth century forays into the heavy ice, almost as fellow-voyageurs, and tells us the most enthralling details about each of them. Furthermore, his knowledge of bird-life is so profound that his pages are filled with descriptions of the few species that are either born down there, or visit the south during its least ferocious months, and he seems to be able to recognize immediately the many varieties of shearwaters, petrels, albatrosses and penguins. He had not personally seen the giant among the penguins, the Emperor, until his second voyage, but his background reading had been so voracious that he was able to describe their amazing life-cycle in detail.  Far from only visiting the region in the more clement weather, the Emperor --- the author says it is the only bird that never touches solid land in its life ---- breeds in the middle of the Antarctic winter. In other words, it chooses the toughest conditions available anywhere on Earth in which to lay its fairly rare eggs, nurture them against all temperatures, gales and storms, bring their chicks to life and eventually set them off on their journeys by depositing them into the ocean, and expecting them to return in a couple of years when fully grown. In itself a story worth the price of the book.
I had an especial interest in the subject of this book because he was sailing around in latitudes  not that very far from those in which I was born. On the return journey, for example, the little ship is tossed around by one of the most ferocious storms imaginable in the latitudes of the fifties, as they try to make their way to the New Zealand-owned Campbell islands, some hundreds of miles south of where I grew up. He talks of the Roaring Forties, those latitudes across which huge winds blow persistently south of Australia. They hit the Southern Alps of the South Island of New Zealand, drop immense quantities of water on the fiordlands of the south, and then pass on innocuously to my home town, Invercargill, a city  --- “the southernmost city in the British Empire”, we used to call it --- that is always noted in the guide books as having only one virtue, that is, of being a place to leave on the way to somewhere more interesting. Directly south of my hometown lies Foveaux Strait, a 26 mile stretch of turbulent water between the South Island and Stewart Island, which I remember from my one crossing in my late teens was as rough as I ever expect an ocean to become.
Matthiessen doesn’t mention it but Foveaux Strait is home to what those of us from that part of the world acknowledge to be the world’s finest oysters. But in the context of his description of the wildlife in Antarctica that should come as no surprise to anyone, because although one thinks of the Antarctic as the most barren area of Earth, in fact it is teeming with life, sustains vast colonies of sea-birds, seals, whales, all of which it feeds by providing huge clouds of  millions of krill, the primary food for the immense whales, grossly fat elephant seals,  and other amazing species.
Even more astonishing is his description of what is called the West Wind Drift, the biggest and most powerful  ocean current on Earth that circumnavigates the globe, and is indexed in the book under the title “circumpolar river…” of which he writes: “…whose depth and width, spanning the latitudes, make it the mightiest of currents, with a volume equivalent to all of the Earth’s rivers 135 times over.”
Matthiessen spends a lot of space writing  about “the Antarctic Convergence”, or Polar Front, that area where the intensely cold Southern Ocean (a term first used, he notes, by Captain Cook) “heavy and more dense, sinks hundreds of feet below the surface of the warmer ocean before continuing a northern ‘creep’ that is detectable by hydrologists all the way to the Equator and beyond. He goes into great detail about the separation of the various continents from Gondwana, at the period millions of years ago when they were all joined, noting that much animal life from those times --- for example, the strange animals that populate Australia --- got their characteristics and their particularity from that time.
Although he has provided fascinating snippets of information throughout the book about his predecessors over the centuries in Polar voyaging, he devotes a whole final chapter to estimating their various achievements, or lack of them, in some cases. He is an unrepentant admirer of Captain James Cook, who set off south during his Pacific voyages with the hope of discovering the Terra Australis Incognita at the bottom of the Earth, and had to give it up because of the barrier of the ice. He admires Shackleton, and particularly the great scientific adventurer Dr Edward Wilson. He is not an admirer of the fabled Captain  Scott, sold to every child in my boyhood as a huge hero of the British Empire, but revealed in the 1960s by Roland Huntford to have been a complete bungler, whose poor decision-making, stubbornness and false heroics unfortunately doomed not ony himself but his whole party of brave men, who perished on the way back from his ill-planned, ill-judged, impetuous journey to the South Pole in 1912, where he arrived only to find that the more methodical Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it.
Matthiessen returns repeatedly to wondering what is the mysterious attraction of the Antarctic, and quotes several of the more thoughtful of the explorers of the past. “A man on such an expedition lives so close to nature,” wrote Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who wrote the best book about the experience, “ in whom he realizes a giant force which is visibly, before his eyes, carving out the world.” Shackleton spoke of “the longing for the ice,” a feeling Matthiessen himself obviously felt, although he confessed unable to describe it in more detail.
Since Matthiessen’s death I have seen some interviews with him reproduced from earlier years, in which he claimed to be primarily a fiction writer, not a naturalist, and I certainly agree with one reviewer quoted on the book’s back cover who said that “I found myself constantly re-reading sentences or paragraphs to savour all of their rich resonances,” something I found myself doing as well. Matthiessen was not only a supreme observer of the natural world, but a master of English prose, as proof of which I  end with this quote:
“I am quite content with the material simplicity of shipboard life. Though scarcely hermetic, it offers a cocoon free of incoming mail, the clamor of the telephone, intrusive voices. In my spare, small cabin with its bunk and desk, its big porthole like a window on the sea,my books, binoculars, warming whiskey and rare solitude….I am somehow complete. In the sea rhythm and the wind on deck, I fill my lungs with ocean emptiness and the pure wind circling the Earth; in hard weather, driven below, I kneel on the spare bunk and peer out of my window at the waves, awaiting the passage of light-boned ocean birds in their fragility and their taut strength, astonished anew by those ancient adaptations that align them with the elements so that waves, wind, and wings all move as one. And to the degree that I am able to let go of mind and body and escape all boundaries, I soar with them in the unity of being.”
As someone has said since Peter Matthiessen’s death, we may never see his like again.

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