A writer discovers herself in the coldest place on Earth
Writer Gretchen Legler had dreamed of traveling to Antarctica to experience the scientifically lush yet barren land. A National ScienceFoundation program for writers brought her there, and in the world's coldest place, she found a desolate landscape, stark isolation—and, unexpectedly, love.
"I thought what I would be doing was a sort of immersion journalism/nonfiction reporting thing. But a couple of things happened," says Legler, an associate professor at the University of Maine.
What happened was Legler met a woman there, Ruth, who is now her partner. When she arrived in Antarctica, Legler was fresh off a failed relationship with a woman and was not anticipating a new one beginning at McMurdo Station, Antarctica's largest community. With her life taking such a turn, she began to rethink her purpose on the South Pole.
"I realized that one of the things that was always missing from the Antarctic explorers' narrative was the personal," she says. "It seemed dishonest to write about this experience and not include everything that happened to me."
Over the course of the 17 essays in On the Ice (Milkweed, $15.95), Legler, 45, mixes details of her trip with the deeply personal. Much of the book deals with the realities of living at the bottom of the world—how to heat buildings, store food and keep warm in weather that includes 70-below temperatures and wind speeds of 80 miles per hour—but Legler captures the community there as well. A gallows humor runs through the populace: The bathroom graffiti tends toward poetry, such as Tennyson's "...Come, my friends, 'tis not too late to seek a newer world," or "Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which had been devised."
Legler dove into her season on the ice, literally. She leapt naked into the world's coldest ocean; made a solo, subzero hike across the ice; and rode in an ice boat and watched scientists haul slimy gobs of possibly unknown creatures out of the sea. Each incident is tied back to Legler's own journey in a charming, self-conscious way. Often referring to Thoreau's work and his connection to the land, Legler explores how this cold, strange place affected her. "I walked around and around and around the world, my steps creaking in the dry hard snow. I'd never felt so riveted in place, so exactly located, so precisely in one spot, and everywhere at once," she writes.
For Legler, straying from the traditional journalistic travel writing to the memoir form was an important departure. The workforce in Antarctica is 40 percent female, but women were not allowed on the continent until 1970. Subsequently, the feminine voice has been absent from Antarctica narratives, which began in 1902 when English explorer Robert Falcon Scott set off on his famous doomed mission to reach the South Pole. Scott's hut, Discovery, still stands, and is within an easy walk ofMcMurdo Station.
The hut is a catalyst for Ice's evocative second chapter, Two Huts. Legler details her trip to Discovery and recounts what befell the men who resided there for five months.
"The little details, like boxes of oatmeal or penguin carcasses—all that stuff," she says in a phone interview. "It was eerie and kind of like entering a haunted house."
Through all that Scott's men endured, their journals and letters betray little of their personal feelings. Legler, on the other hand, strove to forge that bond between the land, the experience, and the person: "I wanted to be part of a new tradition of really interesting writing about Antarctica that isn't just about penguins and ice," she says.
Many return from their time on the ice with less than they came with, realizing their material possessions only burden them. Legler was one of the lucky ones who left behind her indecision and loneliness and brought back love. "We were both hungry to give love, ready to lavish upon each other what we hadn't been able to spend in the past," she writes about her relationship with Ruth. "And we were both shocked and startled at the ease of the exchange."
Legler chills out at Women and Children First Thursday 26.