Antarctica

Deception Island

By Catherine Mauk

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Will the Antarctic Treaty system, now 60 years old, be enough to protect Antarctica from the depredations humankind inevitably inflicts on every place to which it lays claim?

 
1.

From the back of the Polar Pioneer, a reconditioned Russian research ship, I scan the serrated mountains that tower above Ushuaia, Argentina. It is late afternoon in early December, summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The small village rises into forested slopes daubed with late spring snow; wisps of cloud drift and settle over the dark green. Diesel taints the moist air as we head into the Beagle Channel past forests of Antarctic beech and sparse settlement on the Argentinian side; a naval base flanks the Chilean side. I imagine our destination at the bottom of the world: an immense landmass of parading mountain chains and basins and domes, the great masses of ice that define its entirety.

I am going to the Antarctic Peninsula to kayak, something I have longed to do since I first paddled in open water. Living in Australia for over two decades has fed this desire. Australia and Antarctica are, after all, Jurassic siblings. Both part of the supercontinent of Gondwana, they remained together, Antarctica nestled into the present-day Gulf of Carpentaria in the far north of Australia, until 50 million years ago—the last two continents to separate.

Several years ago, I had an imagined experience of what it would be like to be on the water in Antarctica. It was September. Humpback whales were returning to the southern oceans with their calves, and I was on a small whale-watching boat off the southeast coast of Australia. We had drifted into the silence of pre-dawn and a surprisingly placid sea after a rough crossing of the bar. The veil of first light cast a pearly sheen on the water, and on the horizon, masses of clouds billowed out of the pale opalescence like a snow-covered mountain range. It was as if I were gliding through an ethereal frozen landscape where a silver radiance glanced off mountains of ice.

Memories from my life in the Northern Hemisphere also incline me toward cold. Frigid air cleanses like a tonic as you suck it into your lungs. It amplifies all your senses, and life feels primal, sacrosanct, precious.

But ultimately, it is this that impels me: the continuous interplay between sea and land that Rachel Carson described in her book The Edge of the Sea. Shores as “echoes of past and future,” and seas “obliterating yet containing all that has gone before.” In Antarctica, ice locks in 400 million years of land formation and gradually releases it into the eternity of the seas, “a shifting, kaleidoscopic pattern in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality—earth becoming fluid as the sea itself.” It is dipping my paddle into those fluid and eternal rhythms that draws me, joining with all time in a place where the kaleidoscope has turned only lightly with the intrusions of humans.

This small ship, with its all-Russian crew and captain and the ability to cater for no more than 56 passengers, meets my needs perfectly. My cabin is basic: two wooden box cribs, bathroom, porthole. No Wi-Fi. No TV. Plenty of books on birds, whales, penguins, polar exploration, and history.

A rainbow arcs towards Gable Island, and mist coats my face as we join with the eternal rhythms of the sea.

Antarctica
Photo by Catherine Mauk.

2.

In Russian lore only the bosun is allowed to whistle on the ship, otherwise Neptune will consider it a challenge and will show who can blow harder. Did someone whistle in the night? I lurch from bed to cupboard to door jamb to sink where I steady myself and pull off my long johns. In the shower, the spray of water moves with the sway of the boat; one moment I’m standing in it, the next moment I’m not. I hang on to the grab bar with one hand while soaping with the other. The curtain over my porthole swings violently; outside, I see the horizon, next minute the whole mercurial sea is at my window.

In the night our ship entered the tempestuous Drake Passage, a nearly 1000-kilometer-wide waterway between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, where the circumpolar current streams unimpeded. Despite the unruly undulations of the sea, I am spared from seasickness. I stagger to the bridge in the leaden morning to watch the birds and the weather. The bow of the ship dips into valleys formed by enormous swells before rising with the white spume. Every now and then the bow dipping and the wave smacking coincide to send a 30-foot rush of water over the bow that thunders against the windows of the bridge. The sea yawns, threatening to swallow us like a morsel of krill. Then, snowflakes begin to pit against the windows of the bridge, obscuring visibility. Yet, as if in a dream, a vague incandescence permeates the dense layer of clouds.

Scores of cape petrels and assorted albatross follow in our wake, skimming the surface for organic matter stirred up by the boat. They’re also curious about the smells coming from our vessel. And what winged creature wouldn’t want a free ride in this mournful singing wind that buffets and pummels as it whips west to east around the globe along with the circumpolar current?
 
 

3.

With another day-and-a-half to endure the heavy seas, I spread a map of Antarctica across my bed and pore over a stack of books I find in the library. The ancient Greeks, who believed the earth was a sphere, assumed a southern landmass that counterbalanced Europe, Asia, and Africa and kept the world from toppling over. Around the 15th century, Terra Australis Incognita began to appear on European maps, but it wasn’t until Cook’s second voyage in 1773 that rock deposits on icebergs seemed to confirm the existence of a south land. Land itself wasn’t sighted for another 50 years.

While the southern oceans attracted marine enterprise in the 19th century, it was discovery of the North Magnetic Pole early in the 20th century that sparked the race to discover the South Pole and a frenzy of land exploration. Countries scrambled for territorial acquisitions in Antarctica—naming and claiming with an eye to commercial and scientific interests. Mapping the continent became a means of reinforcing these claims.

On my map, lines of longitude radiating from the South Pole divide the continent into wedges. Australia claims the biggest share at 42 percent. Norway and New Zealand also claim substantial portions. France claims a sliver within the Australian Antarctic Territory. Britain, Chile, and Argentina have overlapping claims. One section, just 10 percent, remains unclaimed.

Antarctica is owned by no one, yet it is as if it has seven sovereign states.

Britain was first to assert “legal” sovereignty through a Letters and Patents filing in 1903, but tensions over claims were rife, and Russia and the U.S. refused to recognize any prior claims, reserving their right to assert claims wherever they had a scientific presence or had made land “discoveries.”

In 1943, Britain attempted to reaffirm its claims by setting up the first permanent base on the mainland. Numerous states then rushed to open bases. And, in the depths of the Cold War, the United States, wanting to block Russian military access, established a Navy presence in Antarctica.

This free-for-all began to shift after the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year. Participating nations, inspired by the success of their cooperative polar research and data sharing, pushed for a more permanent arrangement that would enable ongoing collaborative scientific research in Antarctica and protect it for such purposes into the future. The sovereignty claims, of course, were the sticking point. Any arrangement had to accommodate those states that had already made claims; those states that didn’t recognize existing claims and considered themselves to have a “basis of claim”; and those states with neither a claim nor a basis of claim, but with an interest in future access and management of Antarctica.

The solution was a treaty that consigned sovereignty claims to mothballs to gain consensus around the other fundamental concerns—establishment of Antarctica as a preserve for scientific investigation and cooperation; the exchange of scientific information; prohibition of military activity; and freedom of access to all areas of the continent without regard to competing national claims. The resulting Antarctic Treaty—signed by the original seven countries that claimed territory, as well as Belgium, Japan, South Africa, Russia, Northern Ireland, and the United States—came into effect in 1961. It does not recognize prior claims of sovereignty over any part of the Antarctic or allow any new claims. But nor does it extinguish prior claims: these claims persist in a holding pattern so long as the treaty is in effect in its current state, and it expires in 2048.

When it came to jurisdiction, no single body or nation would be in charge. The treaty entrusted governance and regulation of all human activity in Antarctica, under the terms of the treaty, to consensus decision-making among the signatories and to a spirit of peaceful international cooperation: an extraordinary and contentious situation that continues to this day.
 

Antarctica
Photo by Catherine Mauk.

4.

On Day 3, Neptune tosses us across the Antarctic Convergence. 60° S. Antarctica. The cool subantarctic surface water meets the frigid Antarctic surface water and below the convergence—one of the most nutrient-rich areas in the world—sits 10 percent of the world’s oceans, the coldest and densest water on earth.

We enter the area of claims contested by Britain, Chile, and Argentina and cruise into Bransfield Strait towards Deception Island, so-named by an American sealer who realized the “island” is actually a ring of lava cliffs around the flooded caldera of an active volcano. Its natural sheltered harbor made an ideal base in the early to mid-19th century for those involved in the slaughter and, ultimately, the decimation of fur seals, and in the early 20th century, for the shore-based processing of whales. But Deception was abandoned by 1931 following the introduction of seagoing factory vessels by Norway.

Ten years later, both the Brits and the Argentines returned, planting flags to mark their territory, and then the Brits set up a permanent base on Deception. Argentina and Chile followed; Spain established a fire refuge; other states with scientific interests made sure they, too, had a physical presence. But between 1967 and 1970, the sea floor of the Bransfield Basin juddered and jolted, and the caldera rumbled, spewing hot liquids and fire. All stations were destroyed, and the island was again abandoned. Now, only Argentina and Spain maintain research stations, and they are seasonal.

Our ship threads through Neptune’s Bellows, the opening into the caldera, and steams past Whaler’s Bay. I imagine sounds of the past carried on the wind: the din of rough working men, the growl of mechanized winches that dragged the leviathans to shore, the grinding of their enormous bones into fertilizer, the bubbling cauldrons of blubber, and the squabble of birds that flocked to the bloody runoff. A haunting lament.

We plan to kayak at Telefon Cove, but squalls roughen the water. We load into Zodiacs, bounce across the choppy bay against a bracing wind and land on a shore strewn with mud, ash, dirty snow, and volcanic bombs. The scene is so inhospitable I can’t fathom the flurry of land grabs once the bloody business of sealing and whaling ended. I later discover that Deception’s numerous microclimates support the greatest number of rare plant species in the Antarctic. It’s also the breeding ground for 100,000 pairs of chinstrap penguins.

In gumboots, I slog through mud and slush and crunch over rubble towards a ridge of scree. I climb to the top in a searing wind accompanied by a crying tern and find that I, too, have been deceived: before me steep volcanic slopes, streaked with snow, rise against a blue sky teeming with cloud puffs, and below, the fractured surface of ice-green waters snakes through the chocolate rubble. The starkness of the geography, the geometric patterns, the boldness and contrast of colors create the most exquisite beauty: it is as if I am standing inside a canvas, a tiny figure lost in a great impasto of landscape.

Later, as we leave Telefon Cove, I notice some of the detritus from the destroyed stations. I’m pleased when the earth defies our acts of entitlement, sees off our bickering and reclaims itself from our enterprises.

It is easy to lose a separate sense of self amid the flawless reflections, the clarity of color, the definition of lines, the crispness of the air, the briny sea, the utter quietude.

5.

Clouds shroud the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula. A pod of orcas escorts our ship through the Gerlache Strait into Neumayer Channel, where a glaze of ice covers the water. Gentoo penguins and crabeater seals loll on surrounding ice floes. The ship slows and pushes through the icy veneer to find anchor off Wiencke Island.

Layered in high-tech clothing and dry suits, we kayakers gather on the aft deck. There are ten of us paddling in a mix of single and double kayaks. A crewmember lowers a Zodiac by crane into the turbulent sea. One-by-one we climb backwards on a rope ladder down the side of the ship to the Zodiac, balance on its pontoon and swivel our legs into the well of a pitching kayak.

Heavy snow drifts as we set out, paddling through a maze of ice floes and brash ice—deceptively fluffy tufts that are rock solid—and icebergs. My kayak partner is Tony, an amiable geologist from Australia. Sitting in front I set the pace, but we struggle to find our rhythm. Our rudder bounces out of the water every time we hit a chunk of brash ice, and Tony is double and triple paddling on one side to steer. My paddle, which is too long, keeps smacking into his. Water runs down my arms with each stroke, quickly soaking my neoprene mitts, or pogies; my hands are freezing.

We pull onto a rocky shore at Port Lockroy, an island populated with hundreds of gentoo penguins. The British base, established during World War II, now operates as a museum and post office, attracting over 18,000 visitors each year from cruise ships. Four volunteers live here through the five months of the tourist season and collect data on the impact of tourism on penguins.

Hunching against the blizzard, we climb a rise to the warmth of the shop. I buy a book on Antarctic bestiary and send a couple of postcards, then head back into the weather. Barks and “trumpeting” crack the bitter-cold air as the penguins go about their seasonal business in their rookeries: courting, quarreling, alternating incubation duties on their pebble-and-feather nests, and protecting juveniles in creches. I shelter by an out-building and wrap my hands around a cup of hot tea from a thermos, but cold finds its way to the back of my neck and down my spine. Nearby, two south polar skuas also huddle against the wind and wait for the opportunity to snatch an unattended penguin egg or chick.

That afternoon, the waters of the Lemaire Channel dazzle us with a mirror double of the snow-covered vertical cliffs and glaciers that rise on both port and starboard sides of our ship. An unimaginable twist of the kaleidoscope. We drift past black-and-white cliffs and among icebergs that pulse with hollows and rivulets of brilliant turquoise. It is easy to lose a separate sense of self amid the flawless reflections, the clarity of color, the definition of lines, the crispness of the air, the briny sea, the utter quietude. Simply to become part of the sensual flow.

Penguins in Antarctica
Photo by Catherine Mauk.

6.

Over the next several days my mind returns to Deception Island and how it was not what it seemed: an island turns out to be a ring of volcanic cliffs; a seemingly desolate landscape is ecologically rich; ineffable beauty transcends a history of slaughter and destruction; the sea hides powers that can topple the hubris of human possession. I wonder to what extent we deceive ourselves about our relationship with Antarctica. I wonder if we deceive ourselves about international cooperation and rivalries and that nations will continue to protect and preserve this south land for all humankind. My fascination with the treaty has become inseparable from my experience in this place.

The treaty is a magnificent concept: that peace and science should take precedence over territorial claims and commercial or political exploitation; that long-term interests should have priority over short-term gain; and that such an arrangement could be effected and managed on a foundation of agreed values and a spirit of international cooperation. It astonishes me that such a treaty was ever ratified. And given the theater of world events and international politics since its ratification, I’m even more astonished that the treaty has endured for 60 years.

It was such a different time when the treaty was crafted. The world was recovering from years of war that had ravaged countries and shattered lives; economies were rebuilding; science and industry had newly turned their attention from the business of battle. China was not a superpower. India was not on the rise. The world population was 40 percent of what it is today, and there was no scarcity of natural resources. Climate change had not been named nor its effects profoundly felt. The technological advancements of today and their potential for revolutionary research and resource exploitation were unimaginable. Expense and danger curbed commercial ventures in the southern oceans, and only a limited number of nations with proximity to or established interests in Antarctica could afford to invest in a remote frozen land. Who would have anticipated that more than 100 permanent and seasonal research stations, now representing 42 nations, would come to litter the continent? Or the visitation of 50,000 tourists each year? Or the special-built ships that can harvest 1,000 tonnes of krill a day?

The value of Antarctica as a preserve for scientific research, and the desire of most parties to conserve the integrity of the entire ecosystem for that purpose, have helped the treaty survive and, so far, sustained cooperation. And the treaty has evolved to comprise four linked instruments—the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS)—in response to emerging circumstances. Yet the longer I am immersed in the rhythms of this fragile place, and the more I learn about the fine balance of its ecosystems, the more I wonder if the ATS will be enough to protect Antarctica from the depredations humankind inevitably inflicts on every place to which it lays claim.

Kayaking in Antarctica
Photo by Catherine Mauk.

7.

On a particularly cold day our ship is anchored off Pleneau Island. The sea creases and folds over itself under a somber sky. The polar divers load into Zodiacs and set out for an iceberg as tall and wide as a city building. Those who are neither divers nor kayakers load into Zodiacs from the gangway and head in the opposite direction to explore.

We kayakers also paddle towards the iceberg, our kayaks and jackets a neon rainbow whispering through the pallid morning. Silence swells into the immense space charged with dry, brittle air. I take a deep breath, suck the freshness into the bottom of my lungs, and feel the iciness zing through my oxygenated blood to every part of my body. Black ribs of rocky cliffs poke through sheets of ice. A kit of Adélie penguins vaults past us; their stocky bodies, layered with fat and air bubbles, bounce across the surface of the water. Others bark and bray from drifting ice floes; some dive into the haven of the sea as we approach. Tony and I hit our stride, rhythmically pulling through the snow soup.

After over an hour of paddling, Al, our guide, rounds us up and demonstrates how to “bounce” our kayaks onto an ice floe. We stretch our legs and grab some morning tea. A massive cliff and the monumental iceberg provide an impressive background for photos.

I walk the perimeter of the ice floe and as I stare across the sea, something about the movement of ice around us makes me uneasy. No sooner has that thought formed than Al yells out to us: “We need to get out to open water! Everyone in your kayaks!”

Ian, in a single, slides into the water first, followed by Tony and me, then one more double before the ice packs in behind us, stranding the other paddlers and Al on the ice floe.

Ian takes the lead, and we paddle as hard and fast as we can to take advantage of the path he clears. We have moved no more than 150 meters when the ice begins to pack around us. Our vessels are too light, and we are not strong enough to pull through it. In the distance we hear Al on the radio asking the dive master, Martin, to pick us up.

In every direction, it’s as if scanning through gauze. The kayakers on the ice floe have planted their paddles vertically and, with their other hand, are hanging on to their kayaks so they won’t lose them if the ice floe splits; they can build a bridge between ice floes with kayaks and balance with paddles. The ice packs in tighter: the monolithic iceberg has become a fortress blocking the moving ice and causing it to bank up in a long corridor.

From the direction of the monolith, the faint engines of the Zodiacs cut through the air as the divers navigate the accumulating ice. When they reach us, they pull us inelegantly, one-by-one, over the sides of the Zodiac. We squeeze together on the pontoon, but when our kayaks are pulled into the well of the boat, there is barely room to jam our legs. The divers step across an ice floe into the other Zodiac, and side by side, the boats attempt to grind through the icy slurry. A few divers jump into the water and try to pull the boats through the pack with a rope. Tony and I push off small icebergs with our paddles to help propel the boat forward. Other divers clear ice away from the propeller and shove from behind. But we’re making no real headway.

Over a crackling two-way radio, the ship’s captain checks our situation and tells us to stay where we are. Martin stands, impassive, near the engine of our Zodiac, eyeing the ship, the weather, the ice. Behind him a faint, silvery light shimmers through the clouds and, like a rising sun, highlights the edges of the craggy cliff where a potential avalanche threatens. In the opposite direction, the horizon darkens while the sky above it remains lighter. Martin says we’re in for a temperature inversion and change in the weather.

The Polar Pioneer, a smallish ship at 71 meters, is an ice-strengthened vessel, not an ice-breaker. In the oyster grey of late morning, it looks like a toy across the plain of ice, and its movements are nearly imperceptible as it attempts to push through the ice towards its stranded passengers.

Martin tells us about katabatic winds that can blow up to 300 kilometers an hour. I watch the mountain for snow blowing off the top, an indicator, and imagine us swirling in the furor like scraps of litter. I’m intrigued by the ghostly white sunlight that penetrates the thickening brume above the cliff face, while the light everywhere else becomes utterly flat. How can such affecting beauty be the portent of something sinister?

“What if the ship can’t get to us?” someone asks. Martin gestures to another cliff face behind us and says we would probably walk across the pack ice to the nearest solid ground, dragging both the Zodiacs and the kayaks. “We can burn the Zodiacs for warmth if we have to.”

The calm among us is surprising given that we all know the story of Shackleton. I am not brave, and our situation is precarious, but I don’t feel afraid. Concerned, a bit. Naïve, definitely. Fatalistic, utterly. We are interlopers here. Every day is a dance with wildness and unpredictability. And while I’m grateful for the human expertise and technological ingenuity that has made it possible for me to be in this frozen world, I think our assumption of safety in Antarctica should be precarious. I accept that I, too, lack a fixed reality, and like the land, am befittingly vulnerable to “becoming fluid as the sea itself.”

I lose track of time; perhaps it takes another hour, maybe two, for the ship to push through the ice pack and reach the stranded kayakers. We watch from the distance as they board. Then all our eyes fix on the ship as it inches through the ice towards us. We are locked in the heaviest pack because of our proximity to the iceberg. The laboring drone of the engine grows louder; the prow bumps and thuds and pushes; the ice fractures, splits, somersaults, and scrapes against the sides of the vessel, then magnetically troops back together behind the stern. The ship moves forward and backward, then turns to clear a path for our Zodiacs. We edge forward.

The forbidding winds have not arrived; an avalanche has not thundered from the cliff face; we have not had to bivouac and burn our Zodiacs. Cold and wet, we welcome the safety of the ship and the aroma of hot food.

Loading kayaks in Antarctica
Photo by Catherine Mauk.

8.

As we return to the Drake Passage, I am fixated on how vulnerable Antarctica is; how there are so many forces twisting the kaleidoscope and changing the natural flow of time other than water, wind, ice, and the convulsing sea floor; how the human sense of impunity is the ultimate deception.

Back home, I learn more about Australia’s commitment to the ATS and to the ongoing protection of Antarctica as a scientific preserve—not surprising given its claim on the largest portion, its four permanent and continuously occupied research stations, and its proximity. I also explore arguments by international scholars, scientists, and bureaucrats as to whether the ATS remains adequate to manage the complexity and urgency of emerging pressures.

A commonly floated option is to bring management of Antarctica under the United Nations Security Council, where all parties to the UN Charter would be subject to the resolutions and decisions of the council. But this meets with strong opposition. Aside from the challenge of whether to sort out the sovereignty claims as part of this arrangement, the UN frequently has been criticized for its moral relativism and the sway of geopolitical and other strategic interests of its five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.), who hold veto power over Security Council decisions. Countries with substantial claims and investment in Antarctica—Australia, Norway, New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina—would have good reason to be concerned about this arrangement.

There is another view that sovereignty claims should be recognized and states allowed to manage and enforce national laws in their own territories, under the assumption they won’t foul their own nests. But we have seen how well that works—the Arctic, the Great Barrier Reef, the Amazon Forest. The risks related to exploitation of resources and fragmentation of ecosystems across Antarctica would be considerable, not to mention the potential for international conflict just to sort out the sovereignty claims.

In recognition of the 60th anniversary of the treaty, the XLII Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting crafted the 2019 Prague Declaration, which affirms commitment to the ATS and the intention to maintain Antarctica as a natural preserve for all humankind, dedicated to peace and science. A spirit of cooperation infuses the document, as does an emphasis on the ability of the ATS to evolve and meet future challenges.

Immanuel Kant once wrote that the “homage which each state pays (at least in words) to the concept of law proves that there is slumbering in man an even greater moral disposition to become master of the evil principle in himself (which he cannot disclaim) and to hope for the same from others.”

I want to believe this is true but, at the same time, I wonder what aspect of human nature is the deepest truth about us.

Antarctica
Photo by Catherine Mauk.

9.

As I finish this essay, the geopolitical landscape has fundamentally altered, and the Russian war on Ukraine nears the end of its sixth week. In the barbarity that unfolds and the response of NATO allies, I’m reminded there is not a single truth about human nature. I also find much that reinforces continuation of the ATS.

In the first instance, it is that a treaty, albeit a military alliance that is foundationally about territorial defense, reflects the mutual benefits to be gained from international cooperation around collective interests and has, despite controversy and denigration, prompted unity of response among most signatories. That it has awakened our “slumbering moral disposition.”

The war and the international response also underscore the shifting state of international affairs and reinforce concerns about the ability of the UN Security Council to assess and address emerging events without either geopolitical bias or moral relativism. And the war brings into question our assumptions that the world can maintain any sort of balance through a “balance of terror,” or the equal possession of nuclear weapons.

As we watch this war of power and sovereignty, I wonder, too, if the ambiguity around sovereignty in the ATS might be an advantage, in that Antarctica, for now, remains peripheral to the habitual machinations of world politics.

Above all, the key lesson I take from this conflict is that the genuine intent to preserve relationships through diplomacy and a shared homage to principles of behavior among states are fundamental to all international relations. When that intent is missing, and when there is a disregard of conventional norms about what is right or expected or moral or legitimate, treaties, agreements, organizations, and institutions become meaningless.

Whether the ATS continues in its current or an evolved form or is superseded by some other form of management, without a common ideology around the value of Antarctica to humanity and all life on the planet, a shared intent for its preservation, and a commitment to the cooperation and mutual regard that demands of us, no treaty, no institution, no form of government will protect us from the “evil principle” in us.  So far, adherence to the tenets of the ATS have allowed us to master that principle.

Antarctica
Photo by Catherine Mauk.

10.

I have downloaded a photo of an iceberg onto my computer as a screensaver. Snapped on a day we had set out under gloomy skies to stretch into some extended paddles along the folds and contours of glaciers that looked like lashings of hardened confection. As often happened, the weather changed in an instant, and Tony and I were on the open sea, tussling with the wind and rain and our faulty rudder. Icy drops stabbed at the corners of my eyes and pitted against my dry suit. My hands, as usual, ached from the wet and cold. Al led us around the end of an island to shelter from the wind, and unexpectedly, as in my imaginings on the small whale-watching boat, we entered a placid sea in the middle of a silvery frozen maze. A primal world of ice, intricately sculpted. We slid in and around the arches and tunnels in an almost holy silence. In my photograph, frozen spears hang like a fringe of miniature stalactites from an ice shelf. Below the shelf, the sea has hollowed a large, round opening into the ice; the portal is luminous with the purest blue, which also threads like filigree through the exterior of the surrounding wall of ice, as if the interior were suffused with a barely contained energy. The sea captures its watery reflection.

It reminds me of the ephemeral nature of beauty, of all things. As Rachel Carson wrote, we live in “a moment determined by our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea.”

It is that ephemerality that allows me to hope there is a hidden resilience within the landscape itself beyond this moment, to hope the earth and the long rhythms of the sea will continue to defy our acts of entitlement, and to hope the capacity, in the stream of time, to absorb and transcend human interference.

 

 

Catherine MaukCatherine Mauk’s essays have appeared in publications such as Briar Cliff Review, Crab Orchard Review, Ascent, Under the Sun, Solstice, and elsewhere, and have been selected as winner/runner up in multiple nonfiction contests in the U.S. and Australia. Her work was listed in Best American Essays 2019 as a notable essay. She is a U.S. expat who has lived in Australia for more than 30 years. 

Read nonfiction by Catherine Mauk previously appearing in Terrain.org: “Geography of the Self”, selected by Lauret Savoy as the winner of the Terrain.org 7th Annual Nonfiction Contest, and “Canberra: A Good Sheep Station Ruined”.

Header photo by Catherine Mauk.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.