The Rocky peaks of the land seem to emerge right out of the ocean and many of them are covered in glacial ice. Chunks of ice, some icebergs, some “bergie bits” (the smallest are called “growlers” because they growl under the hull of ships), are everywhere around us. Antarctica is a harsh continent, cold even in the summer months which are beginning to wane.
Our first day in sight of the continent dawned crisp and clear with much sunlight and crystal blue sky. The scenery is jaw-dropping – so much so that there were whispers on the decks as if we were in a large cathedral. The presence and magnificence of creation was in grand display. As the day came to a close with a sunset after 10 pm (sunrise is around 4:30), I wondered how the next three days could be any different. After a good look at the scenery, why would people want to come here for any length of time? Is there life to be found in stone and ice?
Although plant and simple animal fossils have been found here that indicate a connection to the continent of South America (remember the theories about continental separation and drift in the evolution of this planet), there is no evidence that any indigenous peoples ever lived here. But like a cantankerous old man who shows a cold grumpy personality on the surface but has a soft heart underneath, the Antarctic is full of life in ways I never imagined.
Phytoplankton proliferate in the water, especially in the summer, and are consumed by the krill who are the main food source for whales and birds (including penguins) and fish and seals. The only humans who are here year round are in the research stations which grow in population in the summer and then are maintained by skeleton crew in the winter. Lichen abounds in a variety of colors on the rocks when exposed to the sun. These are the summer flowers. Winter, as you might expect, is the quietest season as penguins and whales go north, but even then much life is growing in the sea. There is beauty everywhere– a kind of stable proud magnificence that is apparent in silence and contemplation. Those who winter here love the immense beauty and silence.
I’ve met people in my life who are like these peaks and icebergs. Not much shows on the surface and what does is a bit harsh and stand-offish. Most of their life is hidden underneath the surface and rarely shared or shown. Perhaps you’ve met folks like that, too. Or perhaps you are one. Know that you are precious and valued and desired. For you bring a needed life and love into this planet. The landscape and biodiversity here invites me to be present, just to admire the beauty and to share the silence. This beautifully harsh part of our planet teaches me that stone and ice do have hearts that beat with life and love. And that is true in people, too. Being present is really what’s needed to discover the life within.
My companion book for this part of our journey has been “South! The story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914-1917”by Sir Ernest Shackleton himself. It is his diary of the events as they transpired during the days when the much of the earth had been mapped out and what was left for the great adventurers was the North Pole, the South Pole and the highest mountains on the planet. Shackleton got hooked on the Antarctic when he was part of the crew for Robert Scott’s expedition to reach the South Pole. They had to turn back a number of times before they made it and by that time Shackleton was back in England and preparing his own way. He wanted to be the first to cross the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific (the Wendell Sea to the Ross Sea) so that is what he set out to do. In his preface to the book: “I think that though failure in the actual accomplishment must be recorded, there are chapters in this book of high adventure, strenuous days, lonely nights, unique experiences and, above all, records of unflinching determination, supreme loyalty and generous self-sacrifice on the part of my men . . .”
And that is all very true. It is one thing to read about an extraordinary adventure, and I read about Shackleton and the Endeavor, a number of years ago when I was studying about leadership, but it is quite another to actually be in the land where so much of what happened to him and his men took place. The kind of courage and determination that they show, as well as perhaps the kind of spirit that we all have in our youth, that we can accomplish anything if we set out minds and bodies to it, is, in some ways foolhardy and very risky. And yet, I marvel at the ability of human beings to push beyond normal boundaries and pursue lofty goals. What is most impressive about Shackleton is that he put the men in his charge first. He showed an incredible heart.
The piece of scripture that has been going through my mind these last couple of days is from the Book of Ezekiel, chapter 36, vs. 26: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body a heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”A heart of flesh is one that is responsive to the multiplicity and complexity of life as it clearly is and not as one wishes it to be. A heart of flesh shows compassion as well as confidence and works together with the mind and the body to make decisions and move forward in life giving and loving ways.
So, this stone and ice land reveals and forms hearts and life that abound in wondrous ways, much in the same way that pressure forms diamonds. Perhaps it takes incredible challenges and persistent living for the creative life changing ways of humans to evolve into the kinds of creatures we are designed to be.