The Noise, the Silence, and the Music
It is flat here. Really flat. The horizon is identical in every direction. There is no geographic feature to use as a frame of reference. To complicate matters, there are two different systems of navigation that make “true north” the opposite physical direction from “grid north.” “True north,” as the name implies, is the direction that points to New Zealand and the Pacific Ocean. “Grid north” refers to an Antarctica-specific directional system that overlays a separate grid to navigate around the continent. At Yesterday Camp, “true north” is equal to “grid south.”
Readers of this blog will remember that this place gets its name from the fact that travel from McMurdo crosses the international date line. Therefore, we now live in “yesterday” from McMurdo’s perspective. This gets even more weird to remember that all of Antarctica is designated a single time zone. So, as I mentioned earlier, I am in the same time zone as McMurdo but not the same day.
This place compels me to forget many, if not most of the daily stuff I think about back home. There simply isn’t enough time or enough brain cells to concentrate on much else than the life and the work in front of us. In the Middle Ages, there were a bunch of Irish monks that decided to seek eternal things in the harshest, most unforgiving environments. They built their monasteries in cold, rocky locations. They lived in silence, utterly isolated from the noise and distraction of civilization. By stripping away the noise, they figured it would be easier to find greater truths. While this camp is devoted to science not religion, I can’t help but see the similarities. Scientists come to this remote, uncomfortable place to find the truths of the ice shelf. They live together under a sense of common purpose and mutual protection, in an even more concentrated form than I witnessed back at McMurdo. I have a feeling that those Medieval Irish monks would feel right at home here at Yesterday Camp.
The Ross Ice Shelf vacillates between constant noise and deafening silence. Every movement of my feet produces a loud crunch from the dry snow and ice. When Pete gives us instructions, we need to remain completely still. The wind is also a constant and unpredictable source of sound. It blows across the open ice and rattles our tents. It blows through the vents in our goggles and reminds us of any small patch of skin that is exposed to the cold. The gasoline generators that power our equipment add to the daily soundscape. They sound like big lawnmowers. The snowmobiles heap on, sounding like motorcycles.
However, at the end of the day when the machines are turned off and the wind stops blowing, a profound silence wraps its arms around us. It is a silence like no other. It is more than an absence of sound. It draws me into it with a warm embrace. The silence is an entity in and of itself. It is a musical friend in this unforgiving place, the kind of friend that demands nothing but rather wants to sit with you, listening to the music of this place and this moment. Words get in the way. This musical silence can say much more.