Ice queen

In Antarctica, Gretchen Legler found a tribe of eccentrics living at 70-below under the biggest ozone hole on earth. She also found love.

Published December 20, 2005 12:26PM (EST)

Near the South Pole, seismologists measure the vibrations of earthquakes as they circle the globe. Astrophysicists try to unravel the mysteries of dark matter in the universe by scrutinizing subatomic particles under the ice. Writer Gretchen Legler went there to find out what this land of 80 mph winds and 70-below temperatures does to the people who work there, and how it might change her.

In 1997, through a National Science Foundation program for artists and writers, Legler sampled the scientific projects taking place on the continent, which is owned by no nation, but studied by researchers from many. At McMurdo Station, the South Pole and Cape Roberts, she met not just geologists looking for deep sea geologic core samples and biologists trying to discover new organisms that thrive in freezing waters, but also ordinary civilians, from graphic designers to counselors, who had put their lives back home on hold and gone in search of an icy adventure, working in the research stations as cooks, cleaners and ditch-diggers on ice.

The 17 essays in Legler's "On the Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica" offer vignettes of her own explorations of Antarctica, told in a kind of self-consciously antiheroic style. She chronicles the rigors of life in the frozen environment, but also explores the emotional impact of this landscape on her sense of self. When Legler arrives in Antartica, she's struggling to get over a failed relationship with another woman, and on this icy continent she finds a new love, too.

Salon spoke with Legler by telephone from her office at the University of Maine at Farmington, where she now teaches English and creative writing.

Why is Antarctica such an important place for scientists?

The South Pole is a clean and dark place, so they can study ice and be pretty sure that it's not been polluted. And there is so little human life in Antarctica that it creates this sort of perfect, dry, dark environment for doing astronomy. It's unpeopled, and unpolluted, and basically untouched.

It's almost like this living sterile laboratory. Antarctica's place on the planet gives it interesting weather patterns, and Antarctica is right under the earth's biggest ozone hole. People who want to study global warming go there too, because Antarctica is so central to the world's weather patterns, and the ocean that surrounds Antarctica is so crucial to the whole riddle of global warming.

Antarctica is really an unstudied place. It's really a new place. Despite the fact that there are scientific stations from almost every country you can imagine in Antarctica right now, it's a place that humans really haven't been long -- only about 100 years -- and then we've had this very, very slight footprint.

So, some scientists are drawn there because of the lure of discovering something new?

Scientists like adventures, too. There was this funny debate while I was there. Some of the scientists would accuse others of being "adventure scientists" or "gee-whiz scientists" -- scientists who were mostly in it for the adventure, not for the science, as if going for the adventure is somehow not a valuable goal.

Yet, until recent decades, American women scientists were not allowed in at all. How was it that this continent that was owned by no country was off-limits to female U.S. researchers?

It's a great example of the patriarchy in action. It's astonishing to us to think that some high-up Navy person could justify keeping serious, women scientists out of a country because of their gender. That just seems outrageous to us now.

The year I was there, 1997, was the last year that the Navy was in charge of operations in Antarctica, before it shifted control over to the National Science Foundation. It was military ideology that kept women out. Navy brass said: "We couldn't possibly have women here; we don't have bathrooms for them." Or: "We can't have women here; it would upset the men." In the '60s, they used these excuses to restrict women's movements.

Dr. Mary Alice McWhinnie was a scientist who studied krill, but she had to study it from her laboratory in Ohio. She had to have men go to Antarctica, and bring back samples for her. She became the first woman to winter-over at McMurdo Station in Antarctica in 1974. And once they sent one woman, the precedent had been set, and so more and more started to go. Now, you'll see plenty of women who are there as assistants, or who are there as principal investigators running their own scientific projects.

And women are among those providing support services to the scientists, too?

Yes, the National Science Foundation hires a company called Raytheon Polar Services Co. to basically run things for them now -- a private company. They hire people to do all kinds of things: cook, bake, laundry, cleaning. They hire carpenters, plumbers and electricians, and people to take care of computers, garbage and hazardous waste, to dig ditches and to run the hydroponic greenhouse.

But they're not all cooks and bakers in their normal lives?

Some of these people are adventurers, people who really, really want to go to Antarctica. It sort of reminds me of that movie "Close Encounters." Richard Dreyfuss has this overwhelming urge to go to Devil's Tower, and he can't explain it, he keeps being drawn there. I met a lot of people in Antarctica who were like that.

Adelie penguins on frozen Ross sea.

Aren't some people drawn there because it's so remote? They can hide out there?

Yes. I talked to this scientist, who had been there a long time, and he said when he first started going to Antarctica there were a lot of escapees and deniers of the truth there.

What he meant was a bunch of losers going there to get away from their regular lives. It was a place where you could go, and you basically were off the map. There were very few ways that people could contact you. There was no e-mail. There was no television. There might have been spotty electricity, and very little mail. And the best communications device they had was a ham radio. Once a week, you could call home, and it would be hit or miss whether you could actually get through.

Technology has really changed the place, and the kind of people who might go there.

How so? Because you can keep in better touch now?

Yes, the technical assistance there is just awesome. You can go and keep up with your e-mail and news. You can watch TV. You can watch football games there. You can get packages from L.L. Bean. People would order coffee. They can only get it during the Antarctic summer, which would be October, November and December, but, yeah, people would order stuff online all the time.

Is there nostalgia for the disconnected past?

People would talk to me about this too. They'd say: "Oh, when women came, it all changed." Or: "When the Internet came, it all changed." Maybe these are some of those escapees and deniers of the truth, who are really looking for hiding places.

But it's really different now. There are a lot of professional people who work seasonally in Antarctica, and then go home for part of the year to wherever their home is, and when their season comes up again, down they fly.

When you went there, weren't you looking for a new challenge?

I was in a place as a writer, professionally, where I was ready to do something else, and ready to think about something else. And, then, I was in this place in my life too, where I had come out as a lesbian and made this big shift in my personal life from living as a heterosexual woman, and went through this incredible turmoil coming out at the age of 30, and there was this way in which this new life had kind of lost its shine. I was settling back into reality.

Of more ordinary life?

Yes, much more ordinary life. I was feeling this restlessness, this sense of disappointment that I wasn't on the high anymore that I was on when I first came out, where everything is so new, and you feel like you're born again. I was restless and was looking for something to sort of rejuvenate myself. And, of course, Antarctica is a pretty good place to go to rejuvenate.


Because it's so far away from your regular life.

You fell in love in Antarctica.


How do you think that your romance was influenced by the place?

One of the things I was interested in exploring was how place changes us, and I talked to a lot of people in Antarctica who say that many people fall in love there. I think there are some reasons for that. One is that they're away from their regular lives, and so in a sense they can reinvent themselves. And in that place where you're reinventing yourself, I think in some ways it's easier to fall in love, because you're not trapped in your daily routine.

And some people fall in love, because they're there, and they're alone, they're not with their wives and partners or their husbands or something, and so they feel that freedom to explore a side of themselves that they might not at home.

But I think that there is also a way that Antarctica as a place opens people up to possibilities. I think that it might have the same effect that major natural disasters have on people. It sort of wakes them up, and they think: "Oh, I better seize the day. Life is short. The world is large. What am I doing with my life? How do I want to spend my life?" So, I really do think there is a way that the hugeness and rawness of that landscape makes people take stock. And I think that it did that for me, too -- it made me ask questions about what kind of relationship I want to be in. What kind of person do I want to be my partner? What kind of risks am I willing to take to make myself available to a really intimate relationship?

There are many women in Antarctica now. But do you think that there is an especially large number of lesbians in Antarctica, and if so, why?

Obviously, I don't know for sure, because I didn't take a poll. I think that sometimes there are a lot of lesbians there, and sometimes there aren't. It just depends.

But I think that one thing that would attract lesbians, and other women who might be on the margins of our culture, is that Antarctica is a place where I think that a woman can go to be herself, and can go to be relatively free of the constraints and difficulties that Western culture puts on women.

So, you go to Antarctica to work, and obviously you can't take your family with you, and you're not cooking for yourself. You're just responsible for your little tiny room. Your responsibilities for other people are very limited in some ways, and you also become part of a larger community that expects different things from you. It expects you to share the burden of the work of the community, so you're not sort of the sole nurturer. You're now part of a team where everybody is helping one another.

Then, there are a lot of non-traditional jobs for women in Antarctica, like driving big equipment or being an electrician, or being a carpenter, or doing hazardous waste removal, or fire-alarm technician stuff. And everybody is part of this community, and everybody matters equally, basically. So, the jobs aren't distributed in Antarctica, necessarily, based on gender.

So, some of the traditional roles for women don't exist there, and other roles are open?

Exactly. There have been places that women who are sort of on the margins of the culture have been attracted to. Where have the refuges in our culture been for women who didn't want to accept traditional roles? One refuge always has been the military, and another refuge has been religion -- being a nun.

Antarctica is somewhat analogous to that. It's sort of a place that you can go that's apart from the larger culture, where you have more control over who you are, and the role you play in that community. I don't want to make huge generalizations about all lesbians, but many lesbians feel like outsiders, and women who are feminists often feel like outsiders in the larger culture. But you don't have to be a lesbian or a feminist either to think that maybe a place like Antarctica might hold some possibilities for you.

Some people there have entire romances that only exist in Antarctica -- they have a so-called ice husband or ice wife who they return to season after season. Why do you think that happens?

I think that there is a part of all of us that would like to live a double life. If we could, we'd be someone else for part of the time. If we could go to a place that not only allowed us to do that because of its remoteness in terms of distance of geography, but it's sort of psychic remoteness, too, I think that a lot of us might take that opportunity.

Among the workers in Antarctica, where you went to college or how many degrees you have or how wealthy you are back home doesn't matter, because you have people with MBAs who might be baking or ditch-digging all day just so they can be there. So, what is the social hierarchy there, then?

The nickname for scientists in Antarctica was "beakers." There was always all this good-natured joking about beakers -- how beakers were so arrogant or picky or particular. So, there was this hierarchy between the beakers and the workers.

Then, there was this other hierarchy among the workers -- they were basically the grunts. They were people who came to do really basic work, like shoveling or transporting goods or something like that. They were the lowest on the totem pole. You would find the most diversity among them. You might find somebody with a Ph.D. in counseling there, because those were the jobs that might be the easiest to get.

There was one kid who had such a high opinion of himself, and he got so frustrated with the fact that they had him cleaning toilets that he basically ran away.

That sounds dangerous -- running away in Antarctica. Where do you go?

There was this dorm that was kind of uninhabited. And he'd keep changing rooms. He stopped going to work, but he just sort of hung out, and was this ghost figure who would kind of pop up here and there at odd hours.

He wanted to stay in Antarctica to have adventures, but he didn't want to clean toilets, and that person is the kind of person who isn't respected. He's not playing the game. The people who were really respected were those who had come back to Antarctica again and again, who were kind and smart and had a sense of humor, and really knew how to make the place work. There was a lot of status for them, because they just knew how to get things done in Antarctica. You could depend on them.

Some of the scientists and workers in Antarctica whom you met fear the coming Disney-fication of Antarctica. Aren't more tourists in fact coming there, and there's some talk of how it might hurt the environment?

There are more and more tourists in Antarctica. Originally most of them would just go to the Antarctic Peninsula, which is known as Antarctica's banana belt. It's that part of Antarctica that kind of reaches out toward the tip of Chile. It's relatively temperate there compared to McMurdo Station or the South Pole. So, cruises go there. People get off, and they take the boats from the cruise ship, and they land on the shore, and they look at penguins. There are also travel adventure companies who are creating opportunities for people to be dropped by parachute into the South Pole.

So, there is this fear. It's like the fear that people always have about "unspoiled" places becoming spoiled by tourism, industrialization or resource extraction. There are a lot of people who really believe strongly that Antarctica is this sort of "last best place" we have on the planet. It's this symbol of what's wild and good on planet earth.

So, there's this debate about who should be able to go to Antarctica, who should be able to see it. It's that whole debate around wilderness: Is wilderness worthwhile if nobody gets to go and be in it? Is wilderness worthwhile in and of itself? Does it have to be used for something -- for entertainment or resource extraction?

Antarctica is the perfect place for this debate, because one ideal of wilderness is that it's a place without people. And, unlike many of the places that we think of as "wild," Antarctica really had no people, until very recently. So, it fits this fantasy of the purity of a landscape without humans.

And it's white, too. It's the perfect metaphor. It's the virgin landscape. It's the white, virgin landscape.

Thirty thousand tourists visited the continent during the most recent summer season. One news story suggested that by carrying in foreign bacteria on their shoes, such tourists were the newest defilers of the pristine Antarctic landscape.

What most surprised you about the environment there?

So much struck me -- to see an Adelie penguin colony and think: "This is where penguins live, this is where penguins breed. This is a major player in the earth's ecosystem, this huge penguin colony I'm looking at."

That impressed me that this is this place on earth that belongs to these animals. It doesn't belong to human beings -- not yet anyway.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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