My fascination with Antarctica always struck me as a strange, random blip of an interest—something that I was drawn to for no apparent reason. I viewed it as a divergent fascination, separated from my other passions and pastimes — an isolated hobby of sorts that didn’t necessarily fit into the rest of my life; or, if I was feeling a bit new-agey, perhaps an inkling of a past, more adventurous life. Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s journals kept me up nights, a map of the barren white continent has remained taped to my wall for years now, and every few months I inevitably end up on various websites, researching future employment possibilities down South—real South.
But of all places, why Antarctica, friends have asked.
I now realize the answer was in the very nature of the land—inhospitable, stark, and empty. If existentialism had a logo, this would be it. In Antarctica, there is nothing to be dealt with except your own mind and the land itself, and the land is unforgiving. The blankness of the terrain is as daunting as the proverbial blank canvas or empty page, waiting to be filled in by one’s own interpretations and ideas.
Once I became more aware of this, I also became more aware of creative works that focused on individuals’ fascinations with stark landscapes, and the various ways these landscapes could be used to touch upon much broader, philosophical issues. How did other people choose to “fill in the blank page” of a desolate land?
Indie band Modest Mouse’s main lyricist and singer, Isaac Brock, uses recurrent images of Antarctica and other empty, expansive landscapes in his songs in order to convey a certain mindset. The band’s third album is in fact entitled The Moon and Antarctica. With lyrics like,
Well, an endless ocean landing on an endless desert
Well, it’s funny as hell, but no one laughs when they get there
If you can’t see the thin air then why the hell should you care?
(“Dark Center of the Universe”)
Modest Mouse alludes to feelings of transience in the face of the infinite, the endless. By focusing on the topography of the land, they are able to develop a certain tone that evokes the cyclic, unfathomable nature of life and time in contrast to our short existence, while never actually referring to anything other than natural, organic images (the ocean, the desert, air, etc.). “If you can’t see the thin air then why the hell should you care?” singer Isaac Brock poses—a question that in its earnestness, touches upon the ultimate human defeat, our mortality. Brock allows all of these ideas to percolate simply by illustrating inhospitable lands.
In “The World at Large,” Modest Mouse presents a more literal interpretation of the escapism that provides the foundation for many of their songs:
I like songs about drifters—books about the same
They both seem to make me feel a little less insane
Walked on off to another spot
I still haven’t gotten anywhere that I want
Did I want love? Did I need to know?
Why does it always feel like I’m caught in an undertow?
The lyrics are simple, honest, and make some sense of the restless itch to wander, to go, to understand and experience an unforgiving land—because really, this physical restlessness cannot be separated from the kind of mental restlessness that explorers, adventurers, artists, and creative thinkers of all kinds experience when they seek more, whatever form “more” happens to take. As Brock articulates, reading about Antarctic explorers did “make me feel a little less insane.”
This eagerness to leave society or “get in touch with nature” is nothing new to humankind. Our restlessness is part of our humanity, the wanderlust part of our psyche. Most of us just don’t act on it.
INTO THE WILD
In Jon Krakauer’s highly acclaimed nonfiction novel (and subsequent film, directed by Sean Penn), Into the Wild, we are introduced to Chris McCandless, an idealistic, intelligent young man who has recently graduated college.
Growing up in an affluent suburb of Washington D.C. with his parents and younger sister, his life was privileged, comfortable, and stereotypically suburban. Upon graduation, however, McCandless leaves everything behind and heads for the Alaskan wilderness without a word to his friends or family. Four months later, he is found dead in his makeshift home, an abandoned bus in the middle of a deserted, unforgiving tundra. (His death was the result of mistaking a poisonous plant that causes starvation for an extremely similar-looking edible one.)
Throughout the book, we come to know McCandless intimately — excerpts from his journals and first-hand accounts from family members, friends, and acquaintances reveal a bright, visionary, young man with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and adventure. For McCandless, the Alaskan tundra provided the ultimate solitude, emptiness, and time to explore the depths of his own mind. Just as I, and countless others before me, have looked to the Antarctic as a vehicle for self-discovery and discovery, McCandless looked to the Alaskan tundra. In his journal, he writes:
“…nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
Christopher McCandless is not an extraordinary case. His untimely death made him one, but his mindset is shared by many. His story has resonated so deeply within the public not because it is extreme, but because we can relate to his fervent wanderlust, his intense desire to know himself in relation to little other than the natural world around him.
This desire, however, may be more than just an individual ego-drive to “find ourselves,” to challenge our bodies and minds against formidable environments. Ecopsychology, as its name implies, is the study of human cognition in relation to the surrounding ecosystem.
This growing field attempts to broaden psychology’s focus beyond the individual mind and the influence of social systems to encompass the role of ecosystems, and really, the world in general. According to ecopsychologists, our connection to nature is steadily diminishing, and a void of sorts has taken the place of our feelings of connectedness to nature. Are we all facing the consequences of a limited relationship with our environment, without even realizing it? Ecopsychologists say yes, and feelings of anxiety and despair may stem from this phenomenon. Perhaps our innate restlessness and drive to wander, to seek out new and strange lands, is in part due to the severed ties we have with nature.
With empirical research for backing, attention-restoration-theory holds that being around nature actually stimulates our cognitive abilities. Because nature has many “soft fascinations,” like the sound of leaves in the wind, flowing water, etc., it allows our minds to replenish our cognitive abilities, and thereby increase focus and memory. Harsh stimuli, like car horns, sirens, iPods, and televisions do not allow this kind of rejuvenation. Scientific terminology aside, our environment is an undeniable aspect of our everyday lives, whether we realize it or not, and can provide us with much comfort, enlightenment, and enjoyment.
McCandless sought this enlightenment when he embarked on his brave, ultimately fatal journey into Alaska; Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock conveys a certain existential understanding of human fallibility when he sings about oceans, deserts, and Antarctica; and I too, know that when I scan my bookshelf, longing to escape suburbia for the night, I can turn to Antarctica, the land “upon which this great round ball turns,” as Shackleton once wrote.
Perhaps my desire to ship off to a frozen, uninviting land wasn’t so weird after all. The South Pole, one of the few relatively unsullied environments left on this planet, will always be reliable in its blankness, comforting in its own starkness — a constant, timeless haven for restless feet and restless minds. It’s up to us to keep these kind of havens around and simultaneously keep alive our childlike, mysterious fascination with the world, because when it comes down to it, it’s all we’ve got.
BY HELEN CAREY