Excerpt: The Crystal Desert

I had the pleasure of spending time with David G Campbell during a cruise to the Antarctic. I love his book and will be posting excerpts from it from time to time.

The book is called “The Crystal Desert:  Summers in Antarctica” and is published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.

“A superior personal account of place, a remarkable evocation of a land at the bottom of the world (Boston Globe)


PROLOGUE: Admiralty Bay

“The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,

Though to itself is only live and die. ”          (Shakespeare)


I spent three summers in Antarctica, in places beyond the horizon of most of the rest of my species. The journeys all took place during that single long day that begins in October and ends in March. Sometimes, in the sere, glaciated interior of the continent, Antarctica seemed to be a prebiotic place, as the world would have looked before the broth of life bubbled and popped into whales and tropical forests – and humans. I was as lonely as an astronaut walking on the moon. But at other times, during the short, erotic summer along the ocean margins of the continent, Antarctica seemed to be a celebration of everything living, of unchecked DNA in all its procreative frenzy, transmuting sunlight and minerals into life itself, hatching, squabbling, swimming and soaring on the sea wind.

My journeys were principally to the Antarctic Peninsula, a spine of rock and ice at the bottom of the Western Hemisphere that rambles north toward South America from the glacial fastness of the southern continent and then bends eastward, as if submitting to the prevailing westerly winds and currents of the Drake passage. This is the “maritime” Antarctic, where the extremes of temperature are modulated by the sea. Explorers who have been to the frigid interior of the continent call the peninsula and its nearby islands the “Banana Belt” of Antarctica. It rains frequently during the summer and once, in late January, I watched the thermometer climb to 9 degrees centigrade. The rest of the continent, ice-fast and arid, is a true desert and is mostly lifeless.

Northwest of the peninsula are the South Shetlands, an ocean-sculpted arc of islands, some with active volcanos, that reminded the first homesick and frightened Scottish sealers of the treeless, windblown islands of the North Sea. The sealers named the new islands Clarence, Elephant, King George, Nelson, Greenwich, Livingstone and Snow, after various monarchs, captains, mammals, meteorological events, and hometowns. Set off from the archipelago is the aptly named Deception Island, an active volcano with a secret caldera where ash-blackened snow mimics rock. These islands of ice and black basalt, now and then tinged russet or blue by oozings of iron or copper, rise over 600 meters. Their hearts are locked under deep glaciers, a crystal desert forever frozen in terms of our short life spans, but transient in their own time scale. Sometimes one sees only the cloud-marbled glacial fields, high in the sun above hidden mountain slopes and sea fog, Elysian plains that seem as insubstantial as vapor. The interiors of the glaciers, glimpsed through crevasses, are neon blue. Sliding imperceptibly on their bellies, the glaciers carve their own valleys through the rock, and when they pass over rough terrain they have the appearance of frozen rapids, which is in fact what they are, cascading at the rate of a centimeter a day. Sudden cold gusts known as katabatic winds, tumble down their icefalls to the shore; sometimes the coast snaps from tranquility to tempest in just a few minutes. Just as quickly the glacial winds abate, and there is calm. Where they reach the sea, the glaciers give birth to litters of icebergs, which usually travel a short distance and, at the next low tide, run aground on hidden banks. Most of the ice-free land is close to the shore, snuggled over the edge of the warm sea in places that are buffeted by both sea wind and land wind, where rain changes to snow and back. There is no plant taller than a lichen here, no animal larger than a midge – biological haiku. But on protected slopes, where the snow melts on warm summer days and glacial meltwater nourishes the soil, lichens and mosses dust the hills pale gray-green, and the islands take on a tenuous verdancy.


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