South Pole: Nature and Culture
by Elizabeth Leane
Reaktion Books (2015)
There is something ironic about the pull of tourism to a place noted for being “untouched” by humans. Especially when that destination is the South Pole. As Elizabeth Leane writes, there is precious little to see there, at this spot atop miles of ice around which the planet revolves. “Surrounding you is a white plateau, stretching in all directions; there are no natural sites to attract the eye, or to which you might want to make a short excursion.”
Despite all this, “in the early 21st century, it seems, it still means something to stand at the Earth’s axis, to get off the turning planet for just one night, or even an hour; to be simultaneously on the map’s merge and at the world’s centre”.
This book explores at length the allure, not just for tourists but for scientists from almost all disciplines, of this spot on, but off, the map which belongs to no single nation. But while people have theorised about what they may find at 90 degrees south, it is less than a century since we first went there, when Roald Amundsen beat the British team of Robert Scott by just one month in 1911.
Although, as Leane notes, the tragedy of Scott’s return, during which all his party died, has forever overshadowed the Norwegian’s achievement in the public imagination. It has also set the pattern for the way we view the Pole, through a kaleidoscope of tragedy and adventure.
Leane herself approaches the subject from a unique angle. An associate professor of literature at the University of Tasmania, she is intrigued as much by the passion the place inspires and argues that the future of Antarctica needs the help of the humanities as well as science. Its future “depends on attitudes towards the continent, which are influenced by the way it is depicted”, she argues.
And her book goes some way towards doing that, weaving together mythology and tales of ancient speculation, the sledging journeys of the early 20th century, scientific investigations, environmental issues, political negotiations and new challenges of tourism. She draws on stories from researchers to describe what it is like to live in a place where every direction is north.
A fascinating journey from ancient Greece to the modern day on an unexpectedly rich theme.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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