Volume 2 Issue 4 Feature article

The Soul of the Antarctic        Bernadette Hince

The Soul of the Antarctic  (pdf version)

EarthSong’s annual symposium held in June this year was entitled Celebrating the Antarctic. Those gathered were invited into silence and sound, stillness and movement, absence and presence and into visibility and invisibility. It was a powerful vicarious experience of the wilderness and the endemic wildness of this vast land to our south. The following is a brief extract from the opening presentation.

More than a hundred years ago, Irish-born explorer Ernest Shackleton published The Heart of the Antarctic, an account of the 1907–09 Nimrod Expedition. It was his second expedition to Antarctica, a wild and uninhabited land whose status as continent was still unproven.

On a later voyage, Shackleton and his men were marooned in appalling circumstances with little hope of safe return when their ship Endurance was crushed by ice and sank. ‘We had reached the naked soul of man’, Shackleton wrote, quoting ‘The call of the wild’ by Robert Service. The human tendency to make emotional connections with landscape, sometimes called ‘geophilia’, is deep-seated. What is it in wilderness that calls us? In ‘The call of the wild’ it was the silence, the unmapped places, the lack of old settlement, and the loneliness. No wonder that Shackleton, and other explorers, made use of this poem to describe their life in Antarctica.

I wrote The Antarctic Dictionary after accumulating thousands of quotations for icy words from accounts like Shackleton’s, as well as from magazines, poems, plays, science fiction, airport novels, advertisements. Reading about Antarctica, cold places became mine. I mapped the words and grew to love the territory the words graphed:  the frazil, the shuga, the grease ice, the rhythmical bumping of ice floes in a pack-dampened swell, the silent movement of green auroras overhead, the whiteness of the snow petrel, the lightness of a Wilson’s petrel — 30 grams of feather and bone held in your hand. The language of the continent enthralled me, as it has done others. ‘Snow, paper, a little shiver of language lifting at last from the page’, said New Zealand poet Bill Manhire, and the dictionary lifted from the pages.

When I first went to Antarctica on the Norwegian ice-strengthened ship Polar Bird, with its ice captain and its bewildering maritime rules, I stood on deck for hour after hour, hypnotised by the seas of the Southern Ocean. On her own voyage south, Australian artist Bea Maddock spent a lot of time on deck drawing the sea. The Southern Ocean was the “road” there, part of Antarctica, for her as well.

How wild is this continent when it looms into view? Australia’s Davis station, a tiny pinprick of human habitation on a virtually empty continent of spectacular beauty, was just like any other Antarctic settlement, with its incongruous mining-town ugliness, rocky rubble roads, lots of machinery, lots of noise. It isn’t the Antarctica of your mind, a sharp clean vast place.

Some of the lakes around Davis are hypersaline, and freeze at lower temperatures than seawater. They can stay unfrozen even in the colder months. Others are less salty. They freeze into ice so clear that you can stand in the middle of a lake and look far down into the depths, past frozen bubbles and jointed cracks. You feel you are standing on an armoured pane of thick but fractured glass.

Davis is in an ice-free oasis. From the air its bare hills are striking, not only for the lack of snow (‘is this really Antarctica?’) but because black volcanic dykes run at crazy angles across the landscape. Once, I was delivered by helicopter with my belongings to a fossil-rich plain near Davis station. The welcome party failed to arrive for me, and the helicopter dopplered away into the distance. Its sound faded to nothing.

Far away I had seen the elongated red fibreglass huts of a field camp. I stood wondering what to do. Slowly, I became conscious of a strange sound, waves on a distant shore, perhaps, diffused but rhythmical. Perfectly still, I tried to identify the direction of the sound. It seemed to be growing louder. Nothing was moving, no birds flew past. No buildings were close.

Then I realised that it was blood pulsing in my ears, a sound so constant and small that it is normally hidden by the distraction of greater sounds around us. In 44 years I had never noticed it. Antarctica is silence.

It is also piercing sound. Imagine the ship Scotia, beset by the ice close to the shore of the antarctic continent in 1903. One of the men of William Speirs Bruce’s Scottish Antarctic Expedition, the young chief engineer, died on the ship in August. On a clear cold day, his burial party was led over the ice to shore by a piper playing ‘The flowers of the forest’. Bagpipes have led men into battle — how their sound in the silence of Antarctica must have pierced the men’s hearts.

The same piper was photographed playing his pipes to an apparently attentive penguin later that year, in a now celebrated series of images. Intrigued by this picture, New Zealand writer Laurence Fearnley published a short story of the same title, The Piper and the Penguin. Her heroine envisages playing the bagpipes in such a cold setting. She imagines ‘that the notes from the pipes would freeze in the air and then fall shattered to the ground like small shards of broken glass’.

Today, incredibly, Antarctica is a tourist destination. Did the Norwegian–Australian whaler Henrik Bull ever think that his wild idea would come to pass, when he suggested tourist expeditions to subantarctic Kerguelen Island? The mountain ranges there afforded scenery of sublime grandeur, he noted in 1896. True, the climate was raw and damp, ‘extremely bracing’, and there were gales, but these could be safely braved with good anchors. Furthermore, the climate could have no terrors when you had a comfortable cabin to return to after a day’s excursion on land’. This is precisely the mode of ship-based tourism today. Bull could have been describing my own voyage to Kerguelen in November 2002, more than a century later.

‘Antarctica: feed your soul’, says one travel site on the internet. ‘The enormous ice shelves and the mountain ranges of the Antarctica will not leave you unsatisfied. Nothing is equivalent to Antarctica when it comes to nature’s grandeur’. Wilderness and nature’s grandeur. Antarctica is this, too — and a snug ship’s cabin at the end of a hard day’s exploring.

Even more incredibly to most people, Antarctica and its surrounding seas have pollution problems. Scientists are working to clean them up. ‘A clean Antarctic matters to all of us’, one woman scientist, Anne Rahilly, recently commented in an interview.

It was a shock to me to discover that the subantarctic islands scattered around Antarctica — remote places often described as pristine wildernesses — have been greatly affected by human actions. Not only have we harvested their wildlife, fur seals, elephant seals and penguins, but we have also taken an astonishing variety of foreign animals and plants there. There are enough to make a convincing litany: rats, mice, rabbits, dogs, cats, mink, goats, pigs, cattle, horses, donkeys, reindeer, wekas, domestic fowls, ducks, geese, salmon, trout, dandelions, pine trees, eucalypts and New Zealand flax.

Some became naturalised, affecting the native plants and animals, including the millions of seabirds that breed on the tiny islands each year. Towards the end of the 20th century, we started to remove some of these introduced species in order to restore the plants and animals distinctive of these islands.

We have also taken, or sent, our rubbish from elsewhere. On most subantarctic islands, as on the continent of Antarctica, there are no roads, tracks, or harbours, nor tourist facilities of any kind. Unfortunately, there are other, inexhaustible, sources of rubbish. Remote as they are, these islands are not beyond the reach of marine debris. The waves which fetch up on one subantarctic island after another bring the same sort of waterborne debris to them all. Seabirds that nest on them ingest small particles of plastic in their food. One Australian volunteer walked four beaches on Heard Island every day for four months in the summer of 2000–01. He collected an estimated tonne and a half of garbage, almost all of it plastic. Antarctica is pollution, too

Does a clean Antarctica matter to us all, as the scientist claimed? Aldo Leopold proposed a land ethic. We should be preserving the integrity and beauty of natural systems, he said, among other reasons because we perceive quality in nature by beginning with its beauty. Like Robert Service, Leopold saw wildness, solitude and lack of roads as aspects of wild landscapes to cherish. ‘Many of us … long to become the companion of a place, not its authority, not its owner’, wrote Barry Lopez in A Literature of Place. Can a clean Antarctica increasingly be seen as a sign of attachment to place, wilderness or otherwise?


Boyer, Peter and Kolenberg, Hendrik (1988) Antarctic journey: three artists in Antarctica. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Bull, HJ (1896) The cruise of the ‘Antarctic’ to the South Polar regions. Edward Arnold, London.

Faulstich, Paul (1998) Geophilia: landscape and humanity. Wild Earth (Spring): 81–7.

Fearnley, Laurence (1998) The Piper and the Penguin. Sport 20: Autumn: 71–80.

Hince, Bernadette (2000) The antarctic dictionary. CSIRO and Museum Victoria, Melbourne.

Leopold, Aldo (1949) ‘Wisconsin’, in A sand county almanac, and sketches here and there. Oxford University Press.

Lopez, Barry (c2000) A literature of place. Source http://arts.envirolink.org/literary_arts/BarryLopez_LitofPlace.html accessed 28 January 2005.

Mossman, RC, Pirie, JH Harvey and Rudmose Brown, RN (1906, annotated facsimile edition 1978) The voyage of the “Scotia”, being a record of a voyage of exploration in Antarctic seas. Australian National University Press, Canberra (originally published by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh, 1906): p 241.

Oelschlaeger, Max (1991) The idea of wilderness from prehistory to the age of ecology Yale University Press, New Haven.

Rahilly, Annie (20120 Cleaning up an unforgiving landscape, The Age [Melbourne] 6 June.

Ricketts, Harry (2011) ‘Antarctica’s white flower’. Pp 80–88 in Ralph Crane, Elizabeth Leane and Mark Williams (eds) Imagining Antarctica. Quintus Publishing, Hobart.

Shackleton, Ernest (1911) The heart of the Antarctic. William Heinemann, London.

Shackleton, Ernest (1919) South. Century Publishing, London.

Bernadette Hince is a researcher, historian and writer and is currently at the ANU’s Australian National Dictionary Centre. She is the recipient of several awards and fellowships and amongst her published works are The Antarctic Dictionary, Unique and Unspoilt: a year among the natural wonders of Heard Island  and most recently Still No Mawson: Frank Stillwell’s diaries 1911- 13.