I’M ON A SHIP, a small one built for the rigors of icy seas, not for transporting people comfortably, and so as it rocks and rolls, dips and surges, so does my stomach. We’re riding 25-foot waves, and explosions of salt water are smashing against the small porthole of my cabin. Eventually we get to our destination, where I’m unloaded with the rest of the cargo and a few other people. Here I am, at a station in Antarctica where I’ll be living for a couple of months with a group of scientists and their support staffs.
At least that’s the plan. I settle in. I make sure I come out to everyone, casually referring to my girlfriend back home—you know the drill—so that I can be myself. I make every effort to fit into the station, taking my turn scrubbing kitchen mats and going to movie night.
A few days into my stay, another ship arrives with a team of paleontologists who want to look for dinosaur bones on an island off another shore of the continent. Logistical complications change the ship’s schedule, and my ride back to the tip of South America is canceled. My choices are to stay at the station for the entire season—four more months—or join the paleontologists on their expedition and ride home with them in six weeks. I choose the second option.
So I’m reloaded onto the ship with the paleontologists, and off we go to their island. Actually, the island they’d scouted on a previous year, with the cache of ancient bones, is inaccessible due to a thick skirt of fast ice. They’re forced to choose a different destination, and we—me and a dozen strangers—are dropped off on James Ross Island, where we’ll remain for the duration.
The question of why I put myself through this ordeal has been put to me by many people, and I’ve come up with a lot of answers: the extreme beauty of the place; an addiction to endorphins; because it’s there. But the truest answer is because I’m a fiction writer, and I want Antarctica for my stories and my characters. This motive in turn can be divided into two elements: imagination and evolution.
The scientists who make up the communities in Antarctica are on the front lines of trying to understand our planet. The continent is relatively untouched by humans and is therefore the best place to learn what the planet was like before human contamination. They’re studying climate change, whale brains, and the Big Bang. In this vast, icy place that was once viewed as a “wasteland,” we are beginning to understand how the universe came into being and what Earth’s chances are for a future.
I’ve loved and craved wilderness my whole life. And I’ve often struggled with the meaning of that love. Why do we need wilderness? How can people justify putting regions aside as preserves, vast tracts that aren’t being used in any calculable way? But now we are seeing how the “emptiness” is necessary, how the polar regions of Antarctica and the Arctic actually drive the entire planet’s climate.
I’d like to say they drive my imagination in the same way. The hugeness and the extremity of both beauty and risk open me up to my biggest, best stories. The raw, uncontaminated Earth speaks to something pure and vital. The apparent blankness might instead be called an openness. We don’t need to assign a purpose to every single square inch of the planet. We do need imagination, vast areas of space where ideas and creativity can foment. Antarctica represents for me the frontier of the imagination, the gorgeous unknown.
I fear our culture is giving up on imagination, the rich nutrient that drives art and all creative endeavors. People crave the memoir, just the facts, above all else. They view novels, stories that come from the imagination, as recreation, or even as the mental equivalent of junk food. I don’t like the term “mind candy” when applied to novels, as if entering an imaginary world is a sticky sweet indulgence that needs to be snuck. Reading a novel can be a sticky sweet indulgence, but in the best cases, it is so much more. A stretch toward the possible, an attempt to understand human behavior, a way to make connections that spark new ideas. I don’t want to discount pleasure as an important gift of fiction, but what I love best about novels is the way they use story to carry me across borders into regions I didn’t know, the way the characters can show me something new.
Many people read narcissistically, to see themselves and their world reflected back at them, to feel validated. The most exciting reading experiences, however, are bridges from the self to someone else, from one’s own small sphere to another, unknown one. The imagination is a crucial part of this bridging. Facts certainly help us see new ideas and places and people. But imagining is always the first step outside of oneself. Even scientists have to imagine a hypothesis—based on a set of data, of course, but it’s still a leap of the imagination to see those facts in a new configuration. I love fiction because of the extraordinary reconfiguration that happens in authors’ imaginations, the way they create new characters and stories from that intense, bright, and often raw place of dreams.
Readers frequently tell me something like this: “I don’t like the outdoors. So I didn’t think I’d like your books. But I do.” That’s because my stories aren’t about the outdoors, or about nature, or even adventure. They’re about people and their relationships, but heightened, squeezed to the breaking point—or to a breakthrough point.
I write stories because I want to find out who people are at our deepest level. The best way to get to that level is to stress people, to put them on the edge of their existence. Illness can do this; so can violence. I like to explore the extremes of biological necessity, as well as the extremes of beauty—in both landscape and love. Put people in these wild places and see how they change, evolve, or self-destruct. Actually, transgressions of any sort, whether cultural or physical, can create this effect. The problem with many stories about transgression, however, is that they stop with crossing over the line, so that the transgression itself is considered enough, rather than exploring how the rule-breaking leads to change and new ideas, the possibility for human evolution—or, of course, ruination.
This is why I’ve always defended the coming out narrative as enduringly important. Life is an arduous business. Illness and heartbreak eat up so much of it. What we all live for are the breakout moments, times of flight and insight. For many of us, coming out as queer is such a moment. The experience shifts our whole worldview; we learn that what we thought was true is not, a realization that we can extrapolate to so much else in life. Everything gets opened up to question, not just sex, love, and marriage, but many “truths” we’d been taught from childhood about gender, race, and other types of identity. It’s in these extrapolations that real change can happen, real evolution.
Coming out as a lesbian has given me insight into all kinds of cultural assumptions. My outsider status has paradoxically given me a much wider view of life and its possibilities. In grandiose moments, I like to think of us being on the front wave of human evolution, insisting on love, not tradition, on freedom and choice, not a key to the dominant culture’s clubhouse. I’ve never wanted what straight people have; I want much more—Antarctica.
So here I am on this island and … for the first time in years, even decades, I’m afraid to come out. After all, I’m on an Antarctic island, with a team of paleontologists, and we won’t get off for weeks, and then only if we’re lucky. Call me naïve, but I’m surprised when the homophobic jokes begin. Hilarious antics, like asking, “What are you, some kind of fag?” when two men have to rub bodies to get past one another in the cook tent because the space is so small. Dan, a guy who was also pulled away from the station under the same circumstances as me, is the only person in the camp who knows I’m a lesbian. He’s an evolved, considerate person, but he doesn’t talk much. Still, each time one of these jokes flies, he gives me a brief shoulder rub or finds a way to help me with a task. I’m grateful for his acknowledgment and kindness.
Eventually, one of the paleontologists catches on. We’re in the kitchen tent—I must have said something that breached the norm—and I see the realization pass across his face. Of all the people who share that kitchen tent, other than Dan, he may be the least likely to be homophobic. But I had let the situation get out of hand, let them tell their homophobic jokes, in other words, let them look like fools, and so he isn’t pleased with what he now comprehends. It makes coming out all the more difficult.
Like a character in a novel, I feel that I’ve been put on the edge of my existence. I forget who I am, what I need to do to survive comfortably. I feel like a blank, a middle-aged woman who apparently has no relationship and no work, and that’s how they regard me, too. They have no idea that I have a sense of humor, that I write stories, have a lot of friends, like wine and cards, which they indulge in every night while I skulk off to my tent, because I just can’t find a place for myself in their conversations. In any case, every day we hike nine wildly strenuous miles across knee-high sastrugi and mud-sucking beaches, to look for dinosaur bones, and I can’t drink at night and get through those hikes. So I lie in my tent for hours, the eternal daylight keeping me awake, along with the sounds of their partying.
Being there, under those circumstances, wipes my data set clean. I am forced to look deeply at who I am. And who I am is another animal needing food and shelter. I get to see myself in my most essentially human state, stripped of life’s ordinary overlays. There is beauty in this raw, close-to-the-bone perspective, which facilitates an ability to see oneself and others with a startling clarity. Paradoxically enough, a kind of elation bobs to the surface. On a biological level, you are living very close to the planet. This heightens and intensifies emotion. It makes the beauty all the more audacious. For me, this is like a drug. I go to Antarctica because I want my characters to experience their emotional cores. I want them to find their own potential for evolution, for deep feeling and the possibility of change.
The paleontologists have their moment, turning up some important fossils. In fact, they find the sixth ever dinosaur in Antarctica and the second ever meat-eating one. We dig, sieve, and sort through the fossils. They find part of a jaw with teeth, crucial for dating and identification. They’re ecstatic; now it’s time to go home.
However, twenty miles of pack ice have drifted in and sealed our island. The ship is not able to get to us. The crew makes “several aggressive attempts” with no success. The camp manager assures us that we can have supplies airdropped throughout the winter. We won’t starve. But several days later, the ship tries again. Backing and ramming, they get close enough to send in a Zodiac, an inflatable boat. A man shorter than myself and probably my weight, wades from the Zodiac to shore. He pats his shoulder and tells me to climb on his back. I refuse, unable to believe he can hold me. Only later do I learn that he was the first person to climb Vinson Massif, Antarctica’s highest mountain. As I balk, he orders me to climb on, and so I do. He wades waist-deep in the frigid Antarctic sea, my feet splashing the surface as I ride his back like a child, and dumps me into the Zodiac.
Once we’re all safely on the ship, I come out to everyone. All I want to do, anyway, is to talk about my girlfriend, who’s meeting me in Punta Arenas. I pass out copies of my books and come out in every possible way. I see myself finally transform into a three-dimensional person in their view. A couple of them read my book in their cabins and talk to me about it the next day, as we motor back toward South America. I realize they might have liked me. I feel like a fool for my fear. Coming out, and by extension coming out stories, are important because people evolve when they tell the truth. Some people evolve when they hear the truth. I have learned my lesson.
Long-timers at the stations in Antarctica, people who go back season after season to work as galley cooks, computer techs, or waste managers, use a joke to answer why they go back to Antarctica. The first time you go for the adventure; the second time you go for the money; the third time because you no longer fit in anywhere else.
When, a year later, an Australian group asked if I’d come along on their journey to Antarctica—aboard the Russian ship the Akademik Sergey Vavilov—I didn’t hesitate. It would be my third time. Hell, yes.
Lucy Jane Bledsoe is the author of the Big Bang Symphony: A Novel of Antarctica (2010) and the Ice Cave: A Woman’s Adventures from the Mojave to the Antarctic (2006).