I’m delighted to launch Rebecca’s brilliant book on the subject of why we go to Antarctica. One very deft thing that Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica does is to give its readers a sense of scale. In order for us to get that fifteen million years – and to get our uncertain future as a civilisation, if not as a species – it helps to have other measures, human measures, like the distance between the distinguished visitor flying into Ross Base in 2011, worrying about her children, and the men bunking down in Scott’s hut, in 1904, missing their families and pets. That, and the distance between the woman flying out and flying home during her father’s last weeks of life in 2014, and the older, more purposeful (or consciously purposeful) person of her third trip in 2018. Those human measures help us absorb the book’s halo of deep time, its stretch back fifteen million years to the coniferous forests of our planet’s last dramatic period of warming. It helps make everything more immediately real. Rebecca the geologist, science explainer, and mother, has no time for anyone who hasn’t any time for both timescales. By letting her readers walk with her in solitude on a pressure ridge, while she clings with the full force of her attention to every moment of time, Rebecca shows us what the stakes are. The woman alone on the pressure ridge isn’t just the lucky professional who has gone somewhere extraordinary and got to watch scientists in different and complementary disciplines do their work and build their way towards discoveries and understandings; she isn’t just the science writer who gets to communicate that work and those enthusiasms; she is also the body and sensibility, the girl who went to school in jeans, skivvy and gumboots, and defined herself quite early on as loving books full of feeling AND books full of facts. She’s the woman who wakes up at night and worries – she’s us, and she’s paying attention for us: she’s tender-hearted and doesn’t want to see skuas pecking penguin chicks, but she can look with an icy gaze on the horrible roulette of the gravitational effects of melting sea ice and ice sheets. She explains. It’s fascinating. And you can’t look away.
Rebecca is aware of the problem writing about Antarctica presents, a need to escape from the layers of others’ impressions. To take it all in, acknowledge it, and move out of its shadow. She reports being annoyed that the photos she takes of the contents of Scott’s hut are the photos everyone takes, and that those first things a visitor to Antarctica sees – the vast strangeness, the remnants of legends from the age of exploration – commandeer her responses. We are with her, gobsmacked and wordless or as inclined to hyperbole as the people writing in the visitor’s book at Shackleton’s hut. We are with her as she slows down and looks deeper.
Rebecca's writing is a process of careful and passionate observation, and her decision not to leave anything out is a rewarding one for the reader. She lets herself be a person, the bundle of nerves and interests and responsibilities – our representative and guide, the person alive at this critical point in human history whose human self comes into clearer focus as the book goes on. She’s that, but also the tourist, the science writer, the body having a low blood sugar, the body filled with ballooning dread, the body that can’t get warm.
There are things here that particularly delight me:
An account of the data set from over 50 years of observations from the Scott Base Meteorological Station.
Several friendly but also anthropological forays into the loud and quiet bars of McMurdo.
The sounds that baby seals make.
The author’s anxiety dream focusing on a door that won’t lock – the dreamer kicking herself for not doing something about it while it was daylight, and when she still had time.
Being raised in the seventies by a lively and resourceful solo mother.
A very clear account of the stablelists’ vs dynamicists’ view of the Antarctic ice sheet, with a final sharp observation on how arguing about an idea can cause you to miss evidence. (In this case the argument might have influenced scientists’ underestimation of ice melt.)
The most succinct explanation I’ve read about how building walls won’t help with rising sea levels.
A visit to a penguin colony.
Being in a tent in a blizzard in the Friis Hills.
What else? How family life is never tidy or sorted or safe enough to leave—but the world has many uses for us. Rebecca’s observation about how time spent in a landscape made that landscape more visible and readable. You go back often enough and you see the bands of different rocks deposited when the glacier retreated – because, at first, you can’t see the rocks for the debris field.
And, finally, the best use ever of John Key’s phrase ‘At the end of the day’.
Most of all I loved the book’s numerous descriptions of people working in the field, or in a laboratory. The processes of work, the time things take, the ingenuity and imagination, who is suited to a job, how the work works and what its aims are, and beyond its aims, its implications – what is being learned, what new understanding, or fuller understanding – about a mountain range or algae mat or penguin colony or soil sample or ice core, about Antarctica in the world, how it is, how it once was, and what, considering the past, we might expect it’s future to look like. Its future and ours – with five metres of sea level rise in the West Antarctic ice sheet, and 50 metres in the landbound east. There’s that sense of scale, that slides through Rebecca’s three Antarctic visits over a seven year period, the 50 years of a community of scientists—a lineage of scientists according to who supervised whose PHD. The hundred years of exploration, and the millions of years of ice and rock and sometimes of soil and trees. The scale of studies, from nematodes and tardigrades, to opportunistic orca waiting for the annual arrival of the icebreaker that will, while just going about its business, cut a channel to their new hunting grounds. There’s the scale of types of people in Antarctica: from the cook, the barman, the driver; to the semi-legendary old Antarcticans. Big and little, now and then.This is a book about doing science in Antarctica, about a curious, committed individual trying to concentrate herself into a brief experience to make sense of things for herself and – professionally, scrupulously – for others. It’s a book about learning, understanding and communication, but also about rapture and dread and awe. It’s an important book, and one that is a joy to read, and I think everyone should buy it.