On the Ice:
An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica

by Gretchen Legler


Milkweed Editions, October 2005. ISBN 978-1571312822.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 07/20/2007

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

Nature writing is changing. The surest mark of that change is the fact that Gretchen Legler's book, On the Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, was chosen as the best book of environmental creative writing published in 2005-2006 by the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment.

On the Ice is the story of what it means to find home, and heart, in the frozen place at the bottom of the world. With other artists, Gretchen Legler was offered the opportunity to spend a season in Antarctica under the auspices of the National Science Foundation Artists and Writers Program, to tell the story of the land, to try her hand "at making some human sense of its vastness and its terrible beauty." It was a quest, she says, not only to explore and discover new lands, but also inner worlds, "places that I hoped being so far from my ordinary self would help me find."

Antarctica as a place is extraordinarily far from the places our ordinary selves inhabit, and Legler wants us not just to know but to feel the distance, and to feel it as the explorers of a century ago must have felt it. She sleeps in a room that is only a stone's throw from the hut where Robert Scott set off in 1911 for his tragic bid to reach the Pole: "Good God, this is an awful place," he wrote. She spends time with other explorers who are looking even further back, into the unthinkably remote geologic past of the Polar region, into samples of sea floor at Cape Roberts. She goes naked into the coldest water on the globe and ventures into ice caves in the Erebus glacier, blue caves, blue, blue "like an endlessly deep hole in your heart...a color that is like some kind of yearning, some unfulfilled desire, or some constant, extreme joy." And then there is the sea ice, glowing "peach and pink, nearly neon, buttery yellow, lavender, jade, and indigo," colors painted by Edmund Wilson, Scott's chief scientist, whose watercolors, she says, are filled with, focused on light and color, color and light. And finally, there is the Pole, a "sacred destination," she says, not only for explorers but scientists and, yes, artists and writers, who find it the perfect place to look down into the mysteries at the earth's heart and up, into the mysteries of the universe, "the very farthest edge of darkness."

On the Ice is a luminous study of a remarkable place, a place that is so sublime as to almost defy human description. But as humans, we must place ourselves: we long to live in place and to make even the remotest place a home. And so the book is also about the men and women who live there, about the scientists, support staff, builders, workers, engineers, electricians, cooks, communications technicians—all the people it takes to make a home in an inhospitable place. These are people, by and large, who are willing, perhaps even anxious, to shed their ordinary selves and live in an extraordinary way, coping with the isolation and the cold and the loneliness, building a community of fellow-travelers, each with his or her own sometimes desperate reasons for coming to a place so unimaginably distant and different from the places where the rest of us live. These are funny people, weird people, misfits, heroes, people who live on hope and thrive on hard truths, people who have come away from the "real" world to invent themselves in a different reality.

But On the Ice isn't just about the place or the people. It's about Legler's own journey to the frozen wastes within herself, into her own frozen heart, which is thawed, incredibly, by the power of love. "How do you come to know place?" she asks. "How do you come to know self?...How do you let go of wounds and resentments and fierce anger, not begrudgingly, but as an act of grace?" She finds the answer to this age-old question in her relationship with Ruth, an electrician who helps her to shed "all that junk...all those layers of old self" and discover a new and loving self, a warm and passionate heart, in this frozen world. Some readers, particularly those who believe that books of natural history ought to exclude the historian's experience, may think that this part of the journey should have been omitted, as not quite worthy of the heroic spectacle that is the Antarctic. But that's the way it's always been, Legler reminds us: the personal has always been defined, she says, as "somehow gossipy or small, beyond or below the reach of proper recording." But why? Why do we deny the human perspective of place, since this is the only perspective we have? And why exclude the innermost experience, merely to focus on the outer? "Why obscure the intimate?" Legler asks. "Why shorten the story of the glorious complexity and depth of the human in order to make a neater, grander tale?"

Legler's journey—and her record of it—is all the more remarkable because it is an intimate journey, not only to the farthest place on earth but into the deepest desires and dreams of the human spirit. It's a singularly brave journey, as heroic in its way as the journeys of Scott and Shackleton and Amundsen, one more exploration of the truest human question: what it means to be at home on this earth. There are a great many books that will give you the cold, hard facts about the Antarctic. But as a book about place, a chronicle of life at the bottom of the world, and an intensely honest record of a spiritual journey, On the Ice is the most richly illuminating of all.

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