Canadian Jean McNeil is a remarkable writer who has done residencies in both the Arctic and Antarctic. She is Director of the prestigious Creative Writing department at the University of East Anglia; her own luminously perceptive work on the poles includes the prize-winning Ice Diaries: An Antarctic Memoir, an extract of which can be read below:
"The Antarctic was a lair of monsters, but also of magic. I noticed how many words in the ship’s officers’ and able seamen’s vocabulary point to a place where reality and unreality intertwine, where weather and terrain might be indistinguishable: ice blink, the reflection of distant pack ice on the sky; sun dogs, or parhelia, multiple suns radiating round one true sun, refracted by ice crystals. I could see for myself out of the JCR’s windows how we were entering a land of mirages and refractions, of whiteouts and vanishing horizons.
Vision is confounded by the Antarctic landmass and its seas, and this is one of the many reasons why the continent is so dangerous for humans. Our vision anchors us in reality; our eyes seek lines, definitions, perimeters, contrast, separations, in order to judge whether a surface will permit us to engage with it. When these are absent we are so disoriented we begin to hallucinate them. On a visual level we imagine into being what we need to see in order to orient ourselves in the world, just as our consciousnesses rely on a similar wishful manufacture to guide us through the unruly reality of our lives.
What to make of our destination, this void masquerading as a continent, a place endowed with such powerful energy that it was able to map the idea of itself onto the greatest cartographers and thinkers of our civilization before it was discovered? It is still less a destination than an idea. We will dock at no town or city; there will be no shops, cafes, offices, comfortable dwellings…I can already feel how helpless we will be in that nullius, that place where absence and emptiness rule. It is a zone of poetic force, a seemingly colourless place. Yet home to the most alluring chromatic phenomena on the planet. The only place in the world that is nobody’s country. A utopia, an apocryphal vision, a conundrum. A hoax.”
To read Jean McNeil’s Banff Grand Prize-winning Ice Diaries: An Antarctic Memoir visit here.