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My library’s index separates the world’s maps into Africa | Asia, Middle East, E. Asia | Europe, USA, Pacific | Moon, Mars and Antarctica. Such are the categories within which we conceive of distance.
Antarctica is astral. It performs a similar geopolitic as does outer space: there is no government, no law, no culture, history, society, bound only by a loosely-worded treaty banning any activity that causes “harmful interferences” and promotes “peaceful exploration.” The jagged glacier scape and its endlessness appeals to our imaginations of the other: the sublime, fearful, dark, unknown. It is a landing platform for meteorites. It is a place for humans to study humans in isolation, away from the crises of Earth.
It is a cosmic space of intimate mystery, unrepresentable, unrecognisable, unreachable, infinitely interpretable, provocative, existing only as an imaginary, a space of conjecture. At Concordia Station, doctor and researcher Alexander Kumar noted that, “We are completely alone and isolated here from February to November. The French refer to people who over-winter here as Hivernauts, but unlike astronauts, we have no ‘mission control’.”
But understanding Antarctica means understanding the Earth. Antarctica contains over 90% of the world’s fresh water in the form of ice. The Poles function as a thermostat, regulating the temperature of the entire planet. Antarctica is sometimes referred to as a “White Mars”, because it is the coldest, driest, and windiest of the Earth’s continents. There are no trees. Summer is a searing -27.5°C. The midge is an example of one of the continents’ marvellous geotic moments, a miniature example of resilience in the face of all odds. The largest terrestrial animal of Antarctica at 6mm diameter, the wingless insect has the tiniest genome ever sequenced and can survive the severest climate on Earth, with freezing temperatures, desiccation, high saline concentrations and intense ultraviolet exposure. It spends most of its life as a larvae, and emerges to live a mere week.
In reality, Antarctica is a contested place, more so as it melts and new sources of oil, gas, minerals, and arable land reveal themselves. The neocolonial nations–USA, Britain, Argentina, Russia, UK, China, India, Australia–have year-round activities at their research stations. Who owns the land upon which their research stations are built? Complicating this is Australia’s claim of 42% of the continent, unrecognised under international law. Fierce geopolitical battles ensue as I write this. When the treaty is renegotiated in 2048, Antarctica may depend entirely on the stories of a small handful of people: from the musings of explorers’ logs to the fossils left behind when the ice has melted.
Maybe we can start thinking of Antarctica as a sacred space, set aside from other spaces, equal to time or timeless, hallowed in its ineffability? Is the South Pole its central axis around which a circular cosmos might revolve? Is a sacred space one doused in metaphor? One that unfolds in presence and absence?
Is the annual Southern marathon, or the Antarctic biennale on a Russian ship its modern rituals? Is vacuuming tourists’ trousers to prevent the dispersal of invasive seeds its modern ceremony? Are the shipwrecks its shrines? Are the scientists and politicians its contemporary preachers?
Is it at the junction of the world and what lies farther? Is it too idealistic: a place that should be left untouched, uninfected, protected. Or is it just profane: indifferent, distant and devastating?
(Front image: Himali Singh Soin, W/T. Courtesy of the artist)