"Where Worlds Collide"
A couple of days later, I go for a walk to the edge of the world - the human world, that is. The map of South Pole Station can represent the relative location of all the buildings on a geographic grid. Meridians radiate out from the Pole Marker, lines of latitude like ripples of geography drawn on a frozen pond. But how to describe relative direction? - all directions are North. The four points of the traditional compass are replaced by lines pointing to London, Chicago, Honolulu and Delhi. Pragmatically, the convention here is to describe the meridians as 'Grid North' - i.e. London, zero degrees; 'Grid West' i.e. Chicago, ninety degrees; and so on. The conventional map of Pole has the Greenwich meridian pointing straight up to the top of the page, the heritage delineator of our Eurocentric history, the central flagpole of colonial geography. Off to the left is Grid West, the downwind end of town. Just as in all medieval European cities, whose constant west-to-east prevailing winds blew the grime and soot of the West-End rich over the hovels of the East-End poor, here too at Pole the prevailing wind from right to left creates a pristine Atmospheric Research Observatory on one side, and the construction camp and cargo dump on the other. Beyond in any direction - nothing, nada, zippo.
I've stood on the roof of the ARO building and felt the vastness blowing in my face, a thousand of miles of ice fetch to the ocean. Now, I walked the other way and stood with my back to the wind, and saw what was left over, what was to come for the air's travels. It was exactly what Scott saw when he turned his back on Amundsen's flag and headed towards ultimate defeat and victory combined. What could I see? - nothing. The sun glared at me as I stood on the last set of caterpillar trackmarks. I could walk for weeks and it wouldn't change, I would be the tallest thing within my entire field of view, I would lose my sense of scale, get vertigo and fall down clambering at an inch-tall rise.
Then I turned, and, for a moment, I was in the Arctic. A pressure ridge of ice reared up from the surface, Nansen's obstacle course. But it wasn't. It was the end of a cargo-storage berm, a raised area carved by subtraction from the natural surface. Farther away on top of it and its parallel brothers, thousands of tons of materials lay neatly stacked in lines parallel to the prevailing wind. Plywood. Steel girders. Cardboard boxes labelled "Windows - Fragile". Giant lumpy things strapped to pallets with steel bands.
All of this stuff constitutes the 'IN' box for the construction of the new station, delivered in advance according to an incredibly complex logistical dance whose steps are planned five years into the future. An airplane flew by and reminded me that all of this stuff - not just the stored cargo, but the entire station and the Dome and the buildings and the cranes and the caterpillar tractors and the toilets and sinks - all of it had come here by air freight, every last ounce of it.
As I walked back towards the station, I noticed that the horizon was becoming clouded. Anything unusual is usually bad. This became true. The wind picked up, stronger and stronger, as the day went on. The sides of my Jamesway flapped alarmingly, incredibly fine snow blew in under the plywood door. Like the defenders of a medieval castle, the station personnel closed the outer entrance doors to the Dome to keep the invading wind at bay. From time to time, the small inset door would open to admit a blast of snow containing a person bundle. The screens told us that the wind chill was equivalent to -79 degrees. I knew I had to go outside.
I put on all of my ECW's, every piece of clothing I had from longjohns to windbibs. Hat, goggs, parka hood zipped into a snorkel. I clumped out of the tent like a Michelin Man, waddling like a penguin. Immediately I was plunged into another world, a roar and swirl of white. I had felt like saying "I may be gone for a while" but that would have broken the Jamesway code of silence. I wondered if Jaques Cousteau had ever gone diving in a vanilla milkshake. By the time I reached the city gates, I was exhilarated, buffeted all over by a giant shiatsu massage. I squeezed through into the calm of the Dome and changed worlds again.
The buildings inside the Dome all look like giant freezer chests, their
functioning inverted since it is the Dome that is unheated, the contents
of each box that need to keep warm. They are piled two high like
shipping containers at the docks, the 'stairs' of 'upstairs' being snowy
metal treads on the outside of the boxes. One of these upper boxes
contains an astonishing minature world behind its 6-inch-thick door.
I climbed the steps, peeked in and saw a farm tractor.
The Station has a hydroponics greenhouse in which they grow 'freshies', especially important during the winter when planes can't bring in produce from New Zealand. Row upon row of lettuce plants waved their leaves at me under the warm breeze of fans, heaters and high-intensity lamps. A clipboard showed the harvest log, greens and herbs, a tiny world of life unaware of ECW's, sprouting from seed at 90 degrees South while the wind howled over the Dome outside.