Antarctica: The spirit of the explorer

March 08, 1998|By John R. Alden | John R. Alden,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica," by Sara Wheeler. Random House. 351 pages. $25.

Among the concepts, ideals and assumptions that died in the 20th century is the idea - and reality - of unknown lands. Today there are no blank spaces on the map. The earth is explored.

There are still places humans have never walked. In Antarcticathe huge icy continent weighing down the bottom of the globe, there are probably places human eyes have never seen. Yet satellites have scanned its surface and seismic surveys mapped the rock beneath. Few people may be personally acquainted with that remote land, but with scientific bases dotting its edges and adventure cruises (an odd notion, that) scheduling summer visits, even Antarctica is not terra incognita.

It is, however, distant, difficult, and intellectually diverting.

Exactly, in short, the kind of place to attract a travel writer, anexactly the kind of place that armchair travelers might enjoy being taken.

As a writer, Sara Wheeler is first-rate. Her observations arnuanced, specific and flavored with the spice of surprise. She packs her pages carefully, with everything she needs to convey the sense and spirit of the places she visits, but without a shred of excess. She exposes the stodgy essence of Robert Scott, the British explorer who died on his return from the South Pole after being beaten to that goal by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, by calling him "as English as overcooked cabbage" and captures the stillness of a windless day at the South Pole with "so quiet I heard the blood pumping around my head."

Capsule histories of Antarctic explorers add a human veneer tthe harsh landscapes she visits, while bits of Antarctic jargon and daily routine reveal how different life on the ice is from anything in the outside world.

The resupply plane from McMurdo Sound to the South Pole ithe "fridge to freezer fuel flight," and when she and a watercolor artist set up an isolated camp of their own the base staff tows out two separate buildings - a standard precaution - so the campers will have shelter even if one box burns down.

Scenery, history and personal reactions to new things are all parof good travel books, and Wheeler's account of her time in Antarctica is filled with vivid descriptions of these topics. The only thing she neglects is the continent's human inhabitants.

Science is what brings people here; what fills their days anfocuses their thoughts. Wheeler herself came to the ice through the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists' and Writers' Program. Yet she never says more than a sentence or two about what the scientists she meets really do.

Antarctica is full of smart people working on intriguing topicsAntifreeze in fish. Rock-eating bacteria. Ice cores and astrophysics. But to Wheeler, they are just "beards" and "beakers" -hairy males and odd ducks doing unfathomable science. Lovely writing isn't enough. Without a clear picture of these people's passions, Antarctica remains an unknown land. That's not how a travel book should make a reader feel.

John R. Alden, an archeologist, has done fieldwork in northerChile, Mesoamerica and the Middle East. He has written two travel articles, on Chile's Atacama Desert and the Florida Everglades, for the New York Times.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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