A friend of mine who has worked for the United States Antarctic Program for years always refers to Antarctica as “fairyland.’”
“I’ll be in Colorado until September,” she’ll say. “And then it’s back down to fairyland.”
The name is apt — Antarctica is so different from any other place I have known that it is easy to slip into a sense of otherworldliness. The basics of normal life simply don’t apply. As a child, I was told that no matter what my troubles were, “the sun will always come up in the morning.” Yet here at the South Pole the sun doesn’t rise and set every day; it rises once a year and sets six months later.
Having absolutely no environmental indication of the passage of time is very disorienting at first — I felt a strange, vague bewilderment when I arrived here. Months into my initial season at the South Pole, I had curious dreams in which my hair had suddenly grown a foot or more overnight. Awake, I knew that time was passing, but the lack of change in sunlight makes the South Pole seem like some kind of never-never land.
Or “fairyland,” as my friend would say.
Perhaps the most daunting and fascinating thing about living at the South Pole is that nothing, not a single fruit fly, lives here — only us. It’s just you, your work mates, and that giant, impressive environment, with nothing else to distract or dilute you. There are no bugs. No grass. The only other apparent energy is that of the sky — six months of solar energy and six months of stars — and the ice sheet, the ever-shifting, gargantuan chunk of frozen water underneath us. No native life inhabits this land. Were we to shut off our generators, the only sound would be the wind.
“Living on a sheet of paper,” as some people have called the South Pole experience, sure does eliminate the clutter. The featureless, paper-flat landscape at once conjures up infinity and gets rid of distraction. The harsh simplicity of the barren Polar Plateau makes you think more clearly about what little we have here — and it forces you to glimpse what we humans are capable of.
Some people never return to the South Pole. What they find here scares or bores them. The explorer Robert Scott, upon his arrival at the pole, declared it “a terrible place.” And yet, for many others, this frozen landscape has a magnetic pull. The colors, the endlessness, the pristine snow draw people in — and the unearthly mysteriousness of Antarctica rivets them.
After work, I strap on a pair of skis and go past the edges of the station. Out of sight, out of earshot from the bustle of work and daily life, the white waves stretch and flatten out in all directions under a constant, unsetting sun. As the noise of activity disappears behind me, the plateau looms larger than ever. The isolation of this frozen ocean of snow is unbelievable. The wind kicks up ice crystals so tiny that I cannot feel them, yet they sparkle in the air like a million infinitesimal fireflies. Small wonder this enchanted place has been dubbed “fairyland.”
The paring down of life to snow, sky and us brings us close together. While perhaps some of what makes Antarctica strange and beautiful is incommunicable, the shared experience of a continent ties “Polies” together.
It’s the otherworldly, harsh environment, which pushes us to test the limits of human endurance. Accomplishments such as Todd Carmichael’s record-breaking Antarctic crossing, walking in ski boots. Explorations that brought us deep into the Antarctic in the first place. Construction of South Pole Station — a feat of engineering under adverse conditions. However comfortably we live here now — South Pole Station’s amenities are a far cry from the original Scott tents — it is impossible to look around and not remember what it took to get us where we are today.
The South Pole has been many things to many people: a testing ground, an escape, a lifelong fascination — or yet another seasonal job. Regardless of why people have come here — and whether or not they return — this “fairyland” is unforgettable. It’s an extraordinary place.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MEG ADAMS
The “fairyland’s” sea of ice and snow stretches out toward the horizon.
South Pole an unearthly environment