A wandering albatross just soared by my porthole. I am in the Southern Ocean, traveling between Antarctica and South America.
Before the bird startled me, I was reading Thies Matzen and Kicki Ericson’s beautiful book about the two years they spent on South Georgia Island, moving from bay to bay in their small wooden sailboat.
Small wooden sailboat. In bays and fjords that freeze over in winter, in the long dark of howling weather, along a coast with no backup plan. No bluster to their stories. No swagger or machismo. From 2009 to 2011 they were surprised and humbled and charmed and terrified by penguins and glaciers and leopard seals and storms and solitude. For them, the vast, raw place was made of intimate moments. Tenderness, even. America, I want all of us to know wild places in this way.
I’ve spent the last month working as a naturalist on a ship that spends the Austral summer taking tourists to the Antarctic. When I joined the expedition, we left Ushuaia, at the tip of South America, crossed the Drake, prowled a few bays and shores of the Antarctic Peninsula on foot and by Zodiac, returned, headed east toward the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, and are now sailing southwest to the Peninsula again.
The boat will do variations of this route all season, carrying visitors from America, Australia, China, India, Europe, and elsewhere, all of whom have found a way to get here, to this longed-for, difficult, leader-less continent set aside in 1959 “for peaceful purposes only” as a space for “scientific investigation . . . and cooperation toward that end.”
In their epilogue, Thies and Kicki write about the phenomenal recovery of South Georgia after industrial whaling sputtered and the island was abandoned by people. Tussac grass returned to trompled hillsides. Skies cleared of blubber-smoke. Fur seals rebounded from near extinction.
Solitude was part of the balm. But so was the hard work of people who began to pull back the harm done: introduced rats and reindeer, asbestos in the ruining buildings. The restoration of that place is working and it is not working. Certain things are healing, but other harms encroach. America, recovery is more complicated and more simple than we know.
At home on Cape Cod, I have been tracking the decades-long recovery of the gray seal population. Some think their return is not restoration but ruination of what we came to know in their absence. Some want to start killing them again. I don’t agree, but I’m interested in the different places our understandings come from. Where do we source our information and how do we scrape down to the truth? How are we going to agree and make a plan to move forward, America, on this one subject in our own crowded, conflicted, contradictory, not-wholly-known land? There are so many subjects about which we are asking these questions.
In Antarctica the ocean today feels the same as it did five years ago, the last time I worked in these waters. The same birds soar above the waves, tipping their wings. My wonder is greater upon returning. My knowledge of the threats they face: greater too.
America, some of you have asked, but I can’t say that I see the effects of climate change here firsthand. There are differences, but are they moments or trends? I started looking too late. I haven’t looked long enough. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe the scientific papers about warming oceans, rising seas, acidification, changing weather. It doesn’t mean I don’t fear the consequences.
Now I am headed home. Back to grocery shopping and teaching and bills. Back to neighbors and their conflicting yard signs. I’ve been keeping up with the news in small doses. I’ve been plotting my course.
Thies and Kicki navigated to South Georgia from the Falklands without a GPS or sat phone, a distance of 967 miles. They brought books and apples. They were cautious and experienced. Time slowed for them. We also need time to plan wisely, to wait out storms, to take a broad view and allow contradictions to have their space.
Was it an escape to come to the cold, hard edge of the world? Did I flee? Did Thies and Kicki? Maybe, but I have to believe that we return to our homes changed and strengthened. Better able to make new connections and see from new perspectives. Maybe even better at slowing time.
America, how do we care for what is far from us as well as what is near? How do we acknowledge the legacy of a plastic-wrapped sandwich or throwaway keychain? How do we account for the hidden costs of our phones, tablets, laptops? I embody so many of our modern, American contradictions: my environmentalism and my 120 mile commute, my certainty that wild spaces are necessary and my chugging toward them in a diesel-powered boat, my love of diverse community and my home in a largely white township.
On this ship, among the crew, Americans are in the minority. As a crew we are Filipino, Indian, South African, Bulgarian, Austrian, Chinese, New Zealander, Latvian, Irish, Columbian, and more. There are fissures between us. Bigotries. But also a sense of the interdependence we share aboard the ship.
But then, one fragile hull holds us all, doesn’t it, America?
Endless gratitude to Luke Kenny, shipmate extraordinaire, for lending me his beautiful signed and trash-bag-wrapped copy of Thies and Kicki’s book: Antarktische Wildnis: Südgeorgien, Thies Matzen and Kicki Ericson, Mare Verlag Gmbh, 2014, ISBN 978-3-86648-246-3 (in German, with an inset of selections translated into Chinese and English).