The Antarctic Problem

Photos from UAB in Antarctica group on Flickr, related to this post
By Jim
Posted on 03/23/10

Let me begin by laying the foundation of the problem out for you in a poem. 




The essence of Antarctica

is as elusive as the

flutter of wings.

Defying scale, stasis, especially prose.


To imagine, even for a moment,

capturing the emerald-green

of vast frozen seas,

the sublimity of sculptured

glacial ice,

the fragility

of bounteous life.


This would be nothing,

if not arrogance

in its quintessential form.


James McClintock, February 22, 2010, Anvers Island, Antarctic Peninsula


    Ever since I first laid eyes on Antarctica some 27 years ago, I have tried to come to terms with the fact that it is simply not possible to capture the essence of Antarctica so as to share it with those that have yet to visit this remarkable, otherworldly, continent. 

    At first blush, one might imagine this task being as simple as arming oneself with a high-priced camera, equipped with all means of wide angle, short angle, and telephoto lens, along with various adaptors, filters, tripods, you name it.  But the bottom line is that when you point your camera at a landscape that rewrites one’s sensibilities in its utter grandeur and immensity of scale, you are reminded of a naturalist digging up a single teaspoon of soil and trying to describe the community of life in your backyard. 

    There have also been those that have attempted using narrative prose to capture the gestalt of Antarctica, myself included.  However, this approach also falls short.  While the English language does not want for adjectives, they do little to address the Antarctic problem.  For as adroitly as one describes the curvature of glacial ice, or the changing textures of an Antarctic sky, one is ultimately painted into the corner of inadequacy.  It is simply not possible to exploit narrative to tame the collective nature of the beast.

    No, I have decided that, quite frankly, there is no straightforward solution to conveying the essence of Antarctica.  As I have told others, the closest one might come is through its sheer poetry.  And so, the Antarctic problem lives on.  Ultimately, coming to Antarctica is the essence of capturing its essence.   



  1. Re: The Antarctic Problem
    Posted by Terri Schoenrock on 03/24/10

    Jim - Your prose and your camera do not fall short for those of us who have not had the experience.

  2. Re: The Antarctic Problem
    Posted by Michele Cross on 03/26/10

    I spent 6 1/2 weeks in Antarctica this past Nov-Dec as a 2009 PolarTREC teacher. And, I've said it many times during interviews and, videos and words will never do Antarctica any justice...and I think that is as it should be. What a MAGNIFICENT place!! How marvelous that you are able to go back every year!

    1. Posted by Jim on 03/29/10
      As a teacher who has visited and worked on this amazing continent you certainly speak from deep experience. You will find that Antarctica grows on you, and that as the years go by you will find yourself thinking about finding a way to get back. And on occasion, your reverence and awe for Antarctica will rub off on someone that will in turn make the journey, and you will celebrate your role in the birth of yet another Antarctican. Thanks for sharing your insights!
  3. Re: The Antarctic Problem
    Posted by Dee on 03/28/10

    Your words and photos give a glimpse of the immense beauty of Antarctica. I agree that descriptions and photographs simply cannot capture the essence of Antarctica. One has to visit to truly appreciate Antarctica. I wrote the following thoughts in my photo journal after my trip to Antarctica: "Words seem inadequate in describing the majestic beauty of Antarctica that left me in awe of its humbling vastness, the magnificent contrast of scenery, the tenacity of the wildlife, and a real sense of quiet serenity and peace. After seeing the breathtaking cliffs, the whimsically-sculpted icebergs, and the penguin footprints in the snow and ice, I cannot imagine one leaving Antarctica without feeling a kind of reverence for this unique place and knowing it needs to be respected and preserved." Antarctica is indeed a very special place! Thanks to you and a classroom teddy bear, Antarctica became a trip of a lifetime for me.

    1. Posted by Jim on 03/29/10
      Dee You, in your skilled prose, have captured some of the essense of Antarctica. I particularly like your choice of the word "reverence" to describe your kindred to Antarctica. Having served as an expedition leader for cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula, I have been struck by how people who have traveled to every continent on our planet consistenly find Antarctica a life-changing experience. From a life-changing experience is born "reverence". Antarctica becomes to many a unique life journey where a new understanding, respect, and appreciation for the natural sciences is born, and then passed on to others. This is why I feel it is so important that scientists and station staff with the privilage of conducting or supporting research in Antarctica at tax-payers expense, should be proud of welcoming several thousand visitors to Palmer Station each year with open arms and outstanding educational outreach. For only here can they can truly experience and appreciate the fruits of their investment.
  4. Re: The Antarctic Problem
    Posted by Dave B on 03/30/10

    Jim it gets better each trip. I thought about jumping ship earlier this month so I could stay at Palmer....almost did but realized some would not think it was funny.


    1. Posted by Jim on 04/03/10
      Dave And we would all have been delighted to have you remain with us at Palmer! And, yes, it does keep getting better every trip!!

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