Haibun, a classic Japanese form, recounts everyday life or travels in diary-like prose scattered with small poems, often haiku. The best examples are found in the writings of Bashō, the 17th century master of the form. Try Back Roads to Far Towns (White Pine Press, 2004). As with much Japanese poetry and art, Bashō’s work is infused with allusions to poets, stories, figures, and cultural tropes that his contemporaries would recognize—here, footnotes serve the modern reader as an approximation of that experience.
How many whales hauled here, rendered? Twenty years of whales. And yet the air’s empty of that smell. Climb the penguins’ nest-ridge and find it lunar. Craters of empty nests, orbit of skua-cracked shells. A few gentoos still hunker eggs or chicks, bray to the hills. Where? What? (Is there a telling others use to make this not yet another grim tale? Subvert my new supposition, reroute me from woe.) Scat & tracks tell the story: reindeer walk through. Gentoos waddle-start. Skuas, winged wolves, swoop, steal, feast. No doubt now about harm.
unhatched shell cracked, extracted
more empty cupped in upturned palm
South Georgia’s whalers processed 175,250 whales. Native birds, like gentoo penguins, are threatened by the reindeer that were introduced by whalers for their meat. In 2012/2013, the first attempt to begin removal were launched. South polar skuas are intense avian predators in the gull family that behave a bit like a cross between a raven and a falcon.
Mandatory Purification Rituals
Can’t just go. Can’t, more to the point, just arrive, land. You must prepare yourself. Before the horizon is broken, we set up: housekeeping vacuums borrowed, disinfectant bright green in bins. Guests are called by deck. It takes an afternoon. They hand over anything wind might touch or that might touch what we’ll call earth. They joke, we joke. Scrub & hose. What cabin? Butter knife in boot treads. It’s hot, loud. We get punchy. J finds a seed in velcro, plucks it out. Shouts One saved albatross! Parka, pack, gloves, hat, walking stick. Ten coats later another grass seed—One saved albatross! Each pocket sucked by the vacuum wand. You’re fine. You’re good. You’re good. All clear. They sign a document. I grumble at the beat-up, gritty pack of the guy about to “get” his last continent. B, who’s served on committees, adds this corrective: naturalists are the worst. All those hills hunkered, too broke or sappy to upgrade gear.
months, years preparing
dirty scamming tagalong
I am not prepared
IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) regulations require that visitors to Antarctica clean their gear—also, visitors to South Georgia (and if you go to both, clean twice). Invasive species, particularly grasses, are a concern. As the climate warms, the concerns warm. On South Georgia, as of 2012, two massive campaigns are underway to eradicate rats and reindeer, both introduced by whalers.
Approach Whaler’s Bay. Entrance cemented. Grey ice a raku of clashed raftings. Small boat buzzes from outer cliff-fold, seven aboard, huddled. How long out? How open when they left? Unlucky or dumb. Could have been us, me. Now the solution of our hull, ice-strengthened, breaking toward their ship inside. K’s sailed for their outfit, knows who’s likely at the tiller. Could have been anyone, a quick tour turned long, wrong, danger & fear’s deep tug masked by exclamation: petrel! chinstrap porpoising! rock! look look look! Not the solitary flub of yore. Its consequences (Scott’s gap between tent and cache), but a small calamity to take as reprimand & recalibration of confidence.
sea fuses its refusal
we rip a small seam
Scott’s fatal mistake is well documented, but the Australian explorer Douglas Mawson might be less well known. He and his team attempted to reach the South Magnetic Pole in 1909. They thought they did but, once home and after reviewing their calculations, found they had not, in face, achieved it.
Albatross, albatross—what history. Whalers’ haphazard messenger, furled notes bound to flighty shins. For Australia-bound steamshippers: pot-shot amusement, winged skeet.
what did you look like falling
plummet or cartwheel?
The kinder diversion: catch & ribbon one. Let it circle mast or smokestack in unfettered May dance, no pattern accrued. If caught at sea with egg inside, luck. Captain’s tribute.
No need to mention Coleridge, that bird.
“At length did cross an Albatross, / Thorough the fog it came; / As it had been a Christian soul, / We hailed it in God’s name.”
All the maids are Filipino, ditto bartenders, deckhands, some engineers. Sommelier’s from the Marquesas. Officers mostly Eastern European, Scandinavian. Except the purser. He’s Greek (cue the joke trotted out at intros in year of debt crisis). Butlers Indian. The tallest of them a fantastic dancer (this discovered at New Year’s Eve crew party when riotously drunk). Argentinian gift shop manager. South African hairdresser. French concierge & maître d’. Expedition staff: German, South African, American, Canadian, Dutch, Argentinian. Can’t remember the ship’s flag—one of the cheap ports. We converge. Here on this all-owned land. Here on this unbridled ocean. Here on this world unto itself.
Many countries offer very inexpensive ship registration (‘one of the cheap ports’). Very few expedition travel ships are registered in the United States. Many are registered in the Bahamas, Panama, Bermuda, Malta, and Italy (the top ports as of 2011).