ON THE ICE:
An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
By Gretchen Legler. Milkweed Editions.
195 pp. $15.95
When writer Gretchen Legler decides it’s time to thaw her frozen heart, she heads to the coldest place on the planet. Courtesy of the National Science Foundation Artists and Writers Program, Legler travels from the Far North—the creative writing department at the University of Alaska—to the Far South—McMurdo Station, located at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, “nearly at the bottom of the world.” Her ostensible goal in visiting McMurdo, whose population ranges from 150 to 1,000-plus, is “to talk to the people who dwelled and worked in Antarctica, to find out about their lives, and to listen to them tell their stories about themselves and this icy place.” But like her hero, Henry David Thoreau, Legler really wants to explore the wilderness within herself.
The result is a series of lyrical portraits of people and places, whose standalone quality betrays their original role as essays or “prose poems” in literary journals. Legler visits the South Pole, spends a month on an icebreaker, climbs down into an undersea observation tube, and hangs out with scientists of every variety. In addition to providing a comprehensive look at life in Antarctica, these portraits serve as occasionally clumsy jumping-off points for Legler’s ruminations on her sister’s suicide, her emotionally distant family, and her own shaky psychic state.
The humor that seems to characterize everyone who sets foot in Antarctica hastens Legler’s defrosting. The bus that lumbers between the airstrip and the station is called Ivan the Terra Bus, for instance, while parishioners at the Chapel of the Snows are known as the Frozen Chosen. The scientists and support staff are as aware as Legler of the ludicrousness of their attempts to measure up to their predecessors in a place that now offers fresh basil, espresso makers, a bowling alley, ATMs, and Internet connections. Instead of battling the elements, they’re checking their mutual funds.
The Antarctic literature is extensive—Legler discovers that even the walls of an outhouse are covered in scribbled excerpts from Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World (1922) and other classic texts—and awash in testosterone. Legler’s volume is a nice switch from the heroic tales of Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and other early explorers, and a welcome addition to the tiny body of work featuring women in Antarctica, represented most notably by Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita (1996).
Legler’s book also offers the novelty of a lesbian perspective, with the question of whether she will let herself fall for a banjo-playing mechanic named Ruth providing the book’s only real narrative drive. In bundled-up Antarctica, it seems, romance means parkas brushing or ice axes clanking against each other.
Toward the end of the author’s six-month stay, she takes the “Polar Plunge,” leaping into frigid water. “It was my birthday and I was born again,” she writes. Although Legler leaves no mark on the outhouse wall, she leaves her readers with a fascinating look not only at Antarctica but at a woman coming back to life.
—Rebecca A. Clay