The East Antarctic And The Emptiness Within: Impermanence (Part IV)
I’ve been taking walks out into trackless space, leaving point A without a point B to find.
It’s all out there, just steps away. The impermanence is more present than I am. I, we, this sketched home of tents and flags, are desperately more impermanent than the hard silence. I didn’t get anywhere until I came home and looked back over my shoulder.
Our alienness is so obvious (even giraffes, loping away across the snows, would seem more native), our presence so tenuous, that our century-old foothold on the ice seems never to move beyond the first step of arrival.
What intimacy is possible with this place? Not as much as I feel. How much loneliness do I find in the icecape? Not as much as I feared. The proximity of my life to this lack of it, and the fact that my observations are altered by what objects I carry with me, contribute to the suspicion that I am scarcely here at all.
But I feel close to that which ignores me. I lay down upon it to sleep, surrounded by technology, but not so enclosed that the ends of my thoughts do not collide with the continental no-thought, which moves much closer to me if I feel insulated and alone.
If interior Antarctica has taught me anything about time, it’s that timelessness surrounds us in a life composed entirely of unframed moments. On the ice I feel no story, no beginning or end. Time is not the straight and shallow river I imported, but rather an invisible relation between things on a scale so large that my life and observations are immeasurably small. My moments don’t exist, and so are simultaneous, as it were, with the infinite. Some days this timelessness seems to crush in on me from all directions, while on others it feels like a medium through which my experience radiates out in all directions, without destination.
Antarctic summer is both the singular moment of high albedo, and an analogue for the endless horizon of time. Timelessness should pervade any description of Antarctic experience that also accounts for the relentless scale of the ice.
My conscious presence here does not overwhelm the awareness of deep time, as it does everywhere else. Here I am overwhelmed. This irrational experience of Antarctic time is the “native” experience, and the rational notions of mind and space which drive science have little to say about it, cannot recommend or obviate it.
The brief sweep of a zephyr of cold air across the ice is both the infinitesimal fingerprint of an instant and the breath of an ageless universe.
All things visible or invisible are connected, whether through time, space, or imagination. As we muddle through our days, however, we cultivate, or are cultivated by, the absences that are the shadows of consciousness: we measure the distances between all things, and between those things and us. When we take time to think about things we call “invisible” or “empty,” we make them visible to the mind, yet when we say little of something visible, we grow blind to it.
But out of the chaos of our perceptions certain depths emerge. As we experience a lifetime of finding connections, the perspective condenses: for me, space and time have begun to feel like different forms of imagination.
Each moment is a lifetime. Here, in this landscape that is also a blank continuum, every liminal day, there is a lesson in this understanding.
Now, at the end of our season on the ice, as we prepare to go back to what Antarctic residents, in unsure irony, often call the “real world,” where can we go that will not be touched by this empty unity?
At peace, I feel more antarctic than mindful, cultivating the silence that I remember so well. Within things and my thoughts is the landscape of quietude. I am the bridge between Antarctica, which is the bridge between space and the Earth, and my mind.
A version of this essay was originally published, in different form, in the Seneca Review.