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On the Poles

May 6, 2009

When people learn that I worked on Antarctica for a while, the first thing they usually ask, with a hint of incredulity, is “Why?” I usually tell them that I’ve always been obsessed with the place, and that it’s probably the closest thing to being on another planet I’ll ever get to experience … but beyond that I don’t really get into the metaphysics of Antarctica, and its psychic pull on me.

But Tim Wu, in a great piece published today on Slate, does. Here’s a couple of key (and beautiful) paragraphs that come after he compares the North and South Poles to Eden:

The signs of Eden are everywhere in Antarctica. The penguins and seals don’t seem to have learned, as most animals have, that humans are fallen creatures, best avoided. In the far south, the penguins spring out of the sea and waddle over to meet you, acting more like kindergarten children than wild birds. You feel you’re at a reunion with lost friends and wonder why we have such bad relations with most animals.

That’s very true. The penguins will just walk right up to you, and the skua birds (scavengers) are totally fearless … they will divebomb you if you are carrying a blue tray from the galley, which they have learned means food.

Every so often, an iceberg floats by that is grander and more beautiful than any cathedral, though it lacks any history or even a name. What’s almost as shocking as its appearance is its anonymity: beauty untainted by fame. Most of these perfect objects will never be seen by human eyes. They float around and slowly melt by themselves, unappreciated and utterly indifferent to that fact.

Again, very true, though I didn’t see any icebergs (I was on land). But I did sit atop Observation Hill in the lee of a rock and look out onto the frozen sea with the sun hanging in a sentient, old way over it; and the quiet of the sea ice and the quiet of the mountains, the boundless white, hypnotized me.

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