22 08 10 - Ice Bound Book Launch
*Speakers: Lauren Smith (L), Alasdair McGregor (A), Joy McCann (J)
L: Hello everyone and welcome to tonight’s event. In Douglas Mawson’s account of 1911 to 1914 Australasian Antarctic expedition, The Home of the Blizzard, he wrote, here was a new world, flawless and unblemished into which no human being had ever pried. Here were open secrets to be read for the first time. It was not with a cold eye of science alone that we gazed at these rocks, a tiny spur of the great unseen continent but it was with an indefinable wonder.
Part of that wonder is what has brought us here tonight. Good evening, welcome to the National Library of Australia and to this very special launch of Ice Bound, the Australian Story of Antarctica by Dr Joy McCann. My name is Lauren Smith, I’m the publisher here at the Library and to begin with I would like to acknowledge Australia’s first nations people as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, particularly the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people on whose lands we meet tonight and give my respects to their elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
We are thrilled to have you here tonight for this conversation about Ice Bound and welcome as well to all of those who are watching the livestream at home.
The vast polar region to our south may seem far removed from the daily lives of Australians but it exerts a profound influence on our island continent, shaping not only our weather but our sense of place and history. In Ice Bound Dr Joy McCann uses stories of exploration and adventure, exploitation and conservation, culture, science and governance to examine the history of Australia’s involvement with Antarctica. We’re particularly glad to have Denise Allen and Keith [Gouley] 1:45 here with us tonight whose stories are included in the book.
Joy interviewed several people for the book as well as investigating the collection material available here at the Library and elsewhere, striving to tell a rich account of Australians in Antarctica. Joy is an environmental historian and writer who has focused her research on the natural and cultural histories of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. She’s a visiting fellow at ANU and previously published Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean.
She is joined tonight by Alasdair McGregor who wrote Mountains for us last year. Alasdair is a writer, painter and lecturer who first began travelling to the Antarctic in the 1980s. He has published numerous books including Frank Hurley: A Photographer’s Life, and Antarctica, That Sweep of Savage Splendour. Please join me in welcoming Dr Joy McCann and Alasdair McGregor to discuss Ice Bound, the Australian story of Antarctica.
A: Good evening, Joy, it’s a thrill to discuss your wonderful book. Now Antarctica’s to most people any other worldly sort of place. I just described it to you as perhaps Australia’s geological Siamese twin that’s been ripped apart at some time in geological history but of course Australia also is similar to Antarctica in that it is the two driest continents on earth. So it’s a long way from Australia to Antarctica geographically but also in the minds of people so why write a book about Antarctica for Australians?
J: A good question and hello, Alasdair, and thanks for joining me in this conversation and thanks to everyone who’s come tonight and to the viewers who are listening in. It’s a good question because I mean we all grow up with the stories of Antarctic exploration and I guess it’s a very familiar place for that reason but in fact it’s a very long way away, it’s about 4,000km away at the nearest point from southern Australia and it is a very stormy ocean in between Australia and Antarctica. But the funny thing is that the southern coast of Australia is actually closer to Antarctica than to southeast Asia. It’s a pretty interesting kind of geographical fact and of course a lot of the early ships sailed from Hobart and Melbourne and Sydney ports so that there has been quite a long history, particularly in the last century, of Australians being aware of Antarctica, being interested and intrigued by Antarctica and certainty in the last few decades increasingly Australians are involved in wanting to go there to visit and to read about it.
One of the things that really struck me when I started to do this research was just how much material there is in our archives, particularly places like the National Library and the National Archives and all the various collections around Australia so it speaks I think to the fact that Australians have had not only a long engagement with Antarctica but also have incredibly - produced an incredible range of material, whether it’s books like the Home of the Blizzard that Douglas Mawson wrote or more recently Tim Bowden’s History of 50 Years of ANARE Expeditions, that’s Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions. So yes, I think there’s been an ongoing interest in Antarctica but what I wanted to do with this book was show the diversity of stories and the diversity of those connections.
So there’s obviously the physical connection to some of our weather. I don’t know whether some of the weather in recent times feels a bit Antarctic in nature. Certainly I'm living in Tasmania now and we get the roaring ‘40s regularly and we certainly have Antarctic chills coming through, the polar airs and also of course the Aurora Australis which emanates from the polar region. So we have some physical connections, there’s also the long history of the very deep, deep history of Gondwana and the connection Australians – of Australia, the continent with the Antarctic continent.
So from about 80 million years ago to about 30 million years ago I don’t know if you’re aware but Australia and Antarctica were joined as you mentioned as part of Gondwana. We know this because of some of the fossil record and the rocks as well so the glossopteris genus was discovered or at least particular species was discovered in Antarctica which is similar to the Southern Beech tree. I’m certainly familiar with those in Tasmania and they’re certainly around other parts of Australia. So there’s fossil connections and then there’s obviously all the cultural and historical and political and scientific connections as well.
A: Yes, Australia and Antarctica have a rich historical connection because of visiting expeditions right back into the middle of the 19th century, James Clark Ross, for instance, Bellingshausen, they all called at Hobart -
A: - or Sydney and they were feted then and then of course then comes Douglas Mawson and his first outward-looking effort of a united federation of Australia so there was no accident that he named Commonwealth Bay after the newly federated nation. So Australia’s activities in Antarctica certainly have a wonderful and rich history and I'm sure that was a guiding principle in the way you went about writing the book.
J: That’s right. When I first started to think about how to structure this, and particularly with so much history it’s so much, it’s a very rich history, it was actually a bit overwhelming to start with when I looked at the various archives and the range of books that had been written over the years. It was a bit daunting but I was excited because I knew that there were some really worthwhile stories to tell here that perhaps some might be familiar for people but some wouldn’t be and so my intention was to create an overarching narrative. Much of it has been said before but in this context I wanted to then kind of give people a deep dive into some of the specific stories which takes people into particular moments, particular experiences, takes you into the heart of a blizzard or into the dark gloomy interior of a hut out on the ice or a tent.
And to really give people, give readers a flavour of what it’s like to live and work in Antarctica but also how artists and writers have experienced it and reflected on it and indeed how we all do because many people – there have been quite a number of people now going to Antarctica, mainly in a scientific capacity and associated with scientific programs in the region but there’s so many people who will never visit it because it is remote and it’s difficult to get to. So this book really helps people to I guess understand what it is how Australians have – what they’ve taken down of themselves and their country into Antarctica and what they brought back and how they've reflected on their experiences as well.
A: Yes and then in that context it’s also a geopolitical story in that we look at the expeditions of Scott and Shackleton for instance, this rush to – well first of all this sort of rather – well what’s the point of getting to the South Pole other than to flex the sort of geographical muscles and plant the union jack there? Well that didn’t quite work out, did it?
A: But very much the Australians who were involved in those expeditions, Edgeworth David, for instance, with Shackleton and of course Douglas Mawson, Griffith Taylor, all these prominent scientists of that era that perhaps Australians in general don’t know all that much about but they were very much at the forefront of early Antarctic terrestrial exploration.
J: That’s right, we’re very familiar I think with the British presence in Antarctica and there were other expeditions from Belgium for example, from – I think there was a Swedish expedition in those early days and we’re talking here about the late 19th, early 20th centuries when Antarctic exploration really started to take hold. Prior to that as you say there had been a number of people sailing into that region, landing on islands, intrigued by this continent, this final frontier as they called it but it was really by the late 19th century when there was a concerted effort certainly from the British to explore this region for geographical purposes but also of course don’t forget this is the time when whaling and sealing or particularly whaling was in full swing. This was a – this region was an untapped resource and so a lot of the motivation for those early expeditions was certainly geographical, certainly about planting a flag but that sovereignty, that claim of sovereignty was all about resources in the end.
So one of the interesting things about the Australian involvement was that at that time it was very much British in flavour, very much part of that British imperial reach into the region, into the high southern latitudes. So the people that you mentioned, Edgeworth David, he was a professor of geology and Mawson was one of his students. They were actually with Shackleton on Shackleton’s first expedition on The Nimrod in about 1907 and did some really interesting scientific work and one of the things I found by reading about these particular Australians and what they were doing in the region was to realise there was this – yes, there was certainly – they were driven by this desire to – ultimately to have made their mark in that remote territory, similar to what had happened in the Arctic in the previous century, there was a sort of drive to sort of be the first and make their mark. But ultimately I think science became one of the prominent reasons and certainly that was the case for Mawson.
So I guess I wanted just to bring in some of those stories of those early Australians who as you say most of whom may not be well-known. Douglas Mawson, now Sir Douglas Mawson as he later became, was prominent in those stories but there were also a lot of other people as well so yeah -
A: Perhaps we could go on to Louis Bernacchi who was a member of the first party to spend a winter in Antarctica and very much lesser known in the whole context of Antarctic exploration. But it was called I think the British Antarctic expedition, spent a winter at Cape Adare in the most miserable of circumstances under the leadership or dubious leadership of Carsten Borchgrevink if I can say that correctly -
J: That’s right.
A: - Norwegian émigré to Melbourne. I think he was a schoolteacher but -
J: Businessman, I think.
A: Businessman, okay, and very much very gruff, unpleasant personality or so they portrayed him as such. But the expedition was staffed mainly by Norwegians and Laps and so it was funded by Sir George Newnes, I think –
J - correct.
A: - the British newspaper proprietor but it sort of probably offended the sensibilities that it wasn’t fully British staffed and so it sort of slipped out of the consciousness of the likes of the Royal Geographical Society and so on and the great push that then went in the early years of the 20th century with Robert Falcon Scott. But perhaps we could talk a bit about Bernacchi and his importance in the Australian context.
J: Absolutely, he’s recently been I think rediscovered in terms of his importance. He was a young physicist and interested in the - there was a period of - interest in this period called the Magnetic Crusade, they were interested in magnetic observations which was partly to do with navigational – trying to develop, improve navigation and the influence of magnetic forces on that. But I just wanted to read a little bit from Bernacchi’s experience in this 1898 to 1900 expedition. Now this – bearing in mind this was – he became the first Australian to spend winter on the continent so this was a significant step forward for Australians and he was a young enthusiastic physicist who as you say then went on to accompany Robert Falcon Scott on the Discovery expedition in 1901. But I’ll just – and we were talking before about isn’t it amazing how he had such a terrible experience on this first trip and then ended up recruited for the second one.
I’ll just read this bit because I think it gives you a flavour of some of the difficulties and one of the things I wanted to do in these stories was not just to show the – how wonderful it all was and how glorious but also to show that there were actually a lot of difficulties, a lot of tensions, a lot of psychological effects of living and working in this remote region.
So they’d arrived at Cape Adare and built a hut and the group were settling in for the winter. As the polar winter descended these first winterers began to feel the psychological stresses associated with constant darkness, isolation and confinement. Bernacchi found himself alternating between feeling spellbound and horrified by his predicament. He confided to his diary that men and dogs alike were becoming increasingly irritable and morose while Borchgrevink, who showed himself to be a meddling and impractical leader, was generally loathed by his men and becoming increasingly isolated from the group.
Finally as midwinter approached Borchgrevink’s behaviour – bizarre behaviour pushed Bernacchi to breaking point and he said at last matters have reached a climax. My opinion that Borchgrevink is insane is now confirmed, really believe him to be insane. His entry for Christmas 1899 revealed his desperation. Christmas Day in Purgatory. All over the world a time of rejoicing, here misery, desolation and a flood of nostalgia to drive one mad.
A: I remember reading – I could only – couldn’t even paraphrase them but I read Bernacchi’s last words on the blessed relief of seeing the ship arrive to pluck them off that forbidding coast and anybody who’s been to Cape Adare, it’s a pretty hostile place that’s at the head of the Ross Sea. It’s – yes, he must have had some sort of polar amnesia because he signed up for another tour of duty with Scott very soon after.
But onto perhaps some of these other stories and one of my favourites, and we’re jumping ahead many years, is John Béchervaise, wonderful Australian polymath in many respects, had two tours as station leader at Mawson and also at Heard Island before that, writes the most eloquent prose about being in Antarctica and all the trials and tribulations of what has come to be known as the A factor.
J: That’s right. The stories in this book try to do several things. Some of the stories have layers in them if you like so I think one of the things that Béchervaise’s tries to convey is the sense of the – a real sense of that environment during a blizzard, for example. So the story takes place at - the particular way I’ve written it is to introduce this 1959 expedition by Béchervaise as Officer in Charge for that season as they're arriving at Mawson Station. Now we have jumped a bit ahead quite a bit but I should just explain by way of background, Australia began to be deeply involved by this stage in Antarctica. 1954 was when Mawson Station was first established. It became one of three permanent stations established on the continent and there was one other established on Macquarie Island which you may know, it’s about halfway between – roughly between New Zealand and the Antarctic coast.
So Mawson was the earliest station name of course after Douglas Mawson, the explorer and there were another two to follow but Béchervaise had spent some time – he was a mountaineer, actually but a terrific writer and some of his prose is really powerful. He talks about being at Mawson as winter’s approaching. In fact it’s still autumn but they’re starting to have an incredible range of blizzards hitting them, just one after the other and they very – I’ll just read a little bit here from his story ‘cause I think it takes you right into the heart of what it’s like to be in Antarctica during a blizzard as winter approaches. This section’s called The Monster is Fully Aroused.
So they’d already had one blizzard and it had caused a fire in their power supply, their power house. They’d had to quickly rebuild it. They managed to salvage the generator otherwise they were really in trouble but they then had to brace themselves for another blizzard. Then came the worst blizzard in living memory. For Béchervaise that night in July was, as he wrote it, the wild – most wildest, most forlorn night I have ever known. It even surpassed the storm that he and two companions had weathered on Heard Island when they had been virtually imprisoned in their tent for five days.
Yet within his tiny room at Mawson Béchervaise felt even less secure than in that tent. The Mawson accommodation comprised – and this is only five years old, this station at this point – comprised a string of huts with space between them so that any fire that might break out in one could not spread to the rest. Each hut was secured by steel cables set into the exposed rock but now this blizzard was trying to tear them from its moorings – from their moorings.
Béchervaise wondered whether the whole station might be blown away. In such conditions everyone was afraid. Daylight brought no relief, visibility shrank to the space between eyes and boots and the blizzard seemed to metamorphose into a living thing. The monster is fully aroused, he wrote, and quite contemptuous of human resolution. Often it seems that we’re fighting a cunning sentient foe, striving always to outwit us.
As the men huddled in their huts they took turns to stoke their fires so that the dense particles of wind-driven snow that melted in the warm flues and air vents could not be allowed to freeze over again. To do so would mean the build-up of carbon monoxide within the hut and certain death to its occupants.
Two of the men, David Norris and [Les Onnly] 23:51, were forced to endure the blizzard in an auroral observatory located at Taylor Glacier, some 80km from the station. From then matters took a turn for the worse. After initially making radio contact indicating that the blizzard was not as severe at Mawson the station lost contact with them. The weather afforded limited options to reach the men but after several days of de-icing one of the Beaver planes Béchervaise and the two others made the westward journey by air. As they circled to find a landing spot they realised that the observatory was no longer there and all that remained was a black smudge staining the snow. The building had been destroyed by fire and its two inhabitants had escaped, taking shelter in a stores hut. It could have been worse, of course, but for Béchervaise as OIC it was yet another blow for this ANARE.
Then the worst thing happened, their two Beaver aircraft were destroyed, pulled off their moorings and flung away across the ice. They watched as the second aircraft finally yielded to the storm and Béchervaise wrote, the wings suddenly came away and seemed to be hurled directly at the caravan that they were sheltering in. It passed a few yards to our westward and above the scream of the wind we heard it momentarily crash to the ice before being borne away. I reckon, said Mac with some relief, that I’ll make a nice pot of tea.
A: Yes, I love the way he makes the small things almost joyous and in that case the relief after sort of fighting this malevolent force. I’m reminded of a favourite little passage from Béchervaise that I used in one of my books where he’s on Heard Island and he’s the night watchman and he’s boiling a pot of water on a stove and he’s watching these icicles out the window and he starts to philosophise about the various states of water and it’s almost Zen in its interpretation, it’s wonderful stuff.
But just back on sort of these malevolent forces, I’m reminded of Shackleton who in trying to rally the troops or people - men to enlist during the first world war after he’d come back from the Nimrod expedition and he's giving this speech in Martin Place in Sydney and he’s talking about the white warfare of the south as against the red warfare of the battlefields so the heat and the cold. They viewed this as being this great sort of confrontation with nature and conquering nature and conquering the pole and the whole thing. Hopefully we’ve got over that these days.
J: Yes, I might just say on that that this is one of the thing that the stories overall try to show, is how much our attitudes to Antarctica have changed and how the stories have changed and the way we understand the continent from a scientific perspective but also culturally as well. I think the other thing that the stories do is try to breathe life into the archives. I mean a lot of people think of history as being a bit dry perhaps but the storytelling is a way of really I think bringing people into it emotionally and understanding these are people doing extraordinary things in an extraordinary place.
I should also mention that some of the artists and writers that have been to Antarctica have tried to capture this essence that Béchervaise was trying to write about. This seems to be a common theme right through a lot of these stories, is no matter what people are doing in Antarctica and the surrounding region it affects people quite profoundly, I think. As I say I like to think of it as people having taken a bit of Australia with them but coming back with Antarctica and I think - inside them as well. I think it’s this idea that it gets into your blood and I seem – everyone I speak to who’s been to Antarctica to work and live, they – it’s still a profoundly important part of their lives and some of the people here today have experienced that and are here because it’s still such a big part of their lives and also Australians as a whole. So again it reinforces that idea that it’s far more than politics and science and the geography and the other connections, it’s actually deeply personal for a lot of people. So reading about it takes us that bit closer I think to the amazing stories that people have to tell about the place and what we learn about ourselves as a nation too.
A: Indeed. Would you like to say something about some of the Antarctic traditions, the one sort of centrepiece that still goes on today and will forever when people are in Antarctica, is the celebration of midwinter. It’s far more important than Christmas and – because it means that from that moment on things are getting better.
J: That’s it, it’s getting lighter, the brief summer is coming after a prolonged darkness, almost dark. It’s time – and it is, it’s an incredibly powerful celebration still celebrated to this day and I have to say living in Tasmania now it’s very much part of Tasmanian culture too, I was really surprised to find this. We have midwinter fire festivals. But the midwinter tradition from Antarctica and indeed across all the – Macquarie Island as well is a really – it’s a great story because it takes us back to some terrific stories about how midwinter’s been celebrated in various places. So there’s – I tell the story of midwinter – I call it midwinter madness and it’s this idea that the darkness can cause all sorts of psychological effects on people.
Don’t forget particularly in the earlier days, particularly like the Australasian Antarctic expedition between 1911 and ’14 Mawson and his men and separately Frank Wild in the western base of that expedition in their own hut, these two camps in Antarctica were in a very, very small environment so some of the photographs, the wonderful photographs from the National Library’s collection which are in the book show you just how there’s equipment everywhere and there’s people’s clothing drying and there’s people cooking and there’s pots and pans and there’s equipment for the photographers and scientific equipment and there’s all these men all huddled - and it was all men in those days – huddled into a tiny hut.
So one of the things that comes through these stories is how people in order to survive in this environment needed to work together, needed to get along, needed to resolve difference, have a good leader, have a good morale and maintaining morale was crucial for survival. So – and whether that be in the hut or out on the sledges when they were actually doing their exploration activities or whether they were doing scientific monitoring or research.
So the midwinter dinner became established as a really important part of that way of keeping morale boosted right from the start. There were also lots of other activities, writing the newspaper which became a famous part of Mawson’s expedition. They produced the first newspaper in Antarctica. They were able to make up songs and stories about the sled dogs and births, marriages and deaths and -
A: On Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition they actually took a printing press down and they actually made a book -
J: That’s right.
A: - so printed, bound in Antarctica. I don’t know how many copies, perhaps it’s 100 copies were ever produced, an incredible feat in itself but it kept them going. Just on the midwinter’s day thing these beautiful menus that they produced or for things like the King’s birthday or whatever it might be, a special occasion. In the case of Mawson and his men with Frank Hurley producing a photograph specifically for that that was then incorporated into these elaborate menus. I think it was – can’t remember the name of the cartographer but he was an architectural draftsman on the exhibition, he did all the calligraphy for these beautiful menus. Then you see Hurley’s photograph and it instantly puts you into the flavour of that era because there were all these union jacks draped around. There was an Australian flag but it’s wound around a post so you don’t see it specifically.
J: I might just read a little from what I call Polar Pastimes which is – as well as the midwinter festivities which was as you say always traditionally involved a sumptuous feast and dressing up and a pantomime that became a part of -
A: A lot of cross-dressing too at times.
J: A lot of crossdressing, yeah. I think Cinderella was still being performed by the all male members of the expeditions through until – correct me if I’m wrong – but about the 1970s when women started to enter into expedition life and I think they toned it down a bit after that. But I mean – and I want to just talk about women in Antarctica as well, I think there’s a really important story there but I’ll just read this little bit. So this is still from – I’ve gone back in time now, we’re doing a bit of time travel today. We’re talking about yeah Australasian Antarctic expedition with Douglas Mawson and Antarctica’s extreme isolation and harsh conditions can take a mental toll. Indeed maintaining morale and group cohesion, as I mentioned, is as important as physical safety. For Mawson’s men confined to their two-room hut at Commonwealth Bay over long winter months leisure activities helped to ease worried minds.
Charles Laseron – he was a biologist – I think he worked in the – in Sydney in the museum there – noted in his dairy, taking it all in – sorry, taking it all in time is passing pleasantly enough during the day, we’re all busy and after the evening meal we are free to read or write or go to bed, the last being very acceptable. In order to alleviate anxieties associated with boredom and maintain morale, whether confined to small huts or sledging across the vast inland plateau, the men would spend the long hours of darkness writing in their diaries, listening to gramophone records or creating their own plays, short stories, songs and poetry, satirising their current predicament or retelling a recent adventure.
I love this bit, in October 1912 the men at main base held an impromptu drama to celebrate Xavier Mertz’s birthday. You might remember Xavier Mertz would ultimately meet his fate dying on Mawson – one of Mawson’s sledging journey, on the return journey so that makes this celebration kind of even more poignant, I think. They enjoyed it so much they decided to stage a grand opera, The Washer Woman’s Secret. According to its author, Laseron – Laseron wrote it – it was a - quote, a tragedy in five acts with a complicated and highly dramatic plot. He reported a howling success, we had managed to extract some fun from this godforsaken hole.
So that just gives you a sense of – there’s so much rich history here about how people have lived and related to each other as well as to the environment and some of it’s funny and some of it’s tragic and it’s all in here, it’s so rich.
A: Would you like to say something about the little gems? Talk about Stay.
J: There’s some – when I was researching this and obviously these stories I’ve selected and in some cases interviewed people to draw their stories into it and the stories are really trying to cover a broad spectrum of different experiences, different perspectives but just occasionally I could just be blown away by a little story or a little gem as I called them. So one of them – and I don’t know if anyone here knows about this bit but you can actually read about it online with this and I should mention and acknowledge the Australian Antarctic Division who have contributed to this book and – in several ways and been very supportive. They also I should say have an enormous archive and - obviously scientific but also some wonderful other material as well and a lot of it is available online.
But the story goes that in the ‘90s and I’ll just briefly give a bit of context so Douglas Mawson had dogs, husky dogs with him and – as did some of the other expeditions from other nations. Now the – when Mawson Station was established ultimately in the 1950s Mawson Station ended up having some husky dogs there stationed with the men and women ultimately so these were dogs being used for again pulling sledges for expeditions, for helping with scientific research out on the ice but also increasingly as companions, they played an important role for a lot of people. I know Denise Allen here talks about her role – her experiences going sledging with the dogs. It became a – those runs became a huge part of station life.
Anyway fast forward, in the ‘90s after the Madrid Protocol was introduced through the Antarctic Treaty system, to remove all introduced animals to the Antarctic the dogs had to go so they were removed and found homes, rehomed in other places. That’s a nice bit of the story, I had to follow through what happened to the dogs. But the – but somewhere along the line in Hobart a group of expeditioners who were about to set sail for Antarctica on a scientific expedition decided they would dog-nab a plastic or fibreglass dog, guide dog for the blind statue. It ended up on the Aurora Australis heading for Antarctica and it was called Stay ‘cause it was definitely going to stay.
Anyway it’s now become a really lovely part of Antarctic culture so Stay has been photographed at every Australian station and many stations of other nations and I should say there are about 70 permanent research stations in Antarctica of which Australia’s three are included representing - I think it’s about 29 nations so there are a lot of stations and a lot of research programs. Australia is part of an international research effort in Antarctica. These days it’s much more about the science thanks to the Antarctic Treaty and the agreement that Antarctica would be preserved for science and peace rather than for resources which was the early 20th century idea of why we were down there.
So – sorry, that’s a bit of context rambling around there but really the main point about Stay is that it’s just become this wonderful iconic tribute to the dogs and the role they played in people’s lives and now it’s even been photographed in the North Pole I’m told next to Amundsen’s Memorial so I just think this is just great, it’s continuing its adventures – her, I should say her adventures, it’s a her, that’s right.
A: So why don’t you tell us something of your adventures in Antarctica.
J: Yes well I certainly don’t have the long experience of Antarctica that you have, Alasdair, but my brief – well I should say Antarctica kind of weaves in and out of my life in unexpected ways and I suspect most people here would have some of those connections as well. Just briefly I’ll mention that recently I was in South Australia and I went to Arkaroola which is in northern Flinders or it’s actually the Gawler Ranges. Now that was Douglas Mawson’s country and I - suddenly as I was there I was transported back to the fact that Douglas Mawson was a geologist in South Australia and did a lot of work in that region, understanding the rock. Obviously when he was in Antarctica he was really, really interested in the rock and what it told us about deep geological time in Gondwana as it became only he wasn’t familiar with that at that time but he certainly did a lot of research that contributed to that understanding in – later in the 20th century.
So I just had this wonderful moment, a Douglas Mawson moment, when I thought this was his place, this is where he began his career. But the other story was that I went to Antarctica in 2017 as a tourist which is how most people will ever get to Antarctica and I travelled to South – I was actually on South Georgia for a while and then we went down to the Antarctica Peninsula and the South Sandwich Islands. Now – sorry, South Sandwich, that’s not right, South -
A: South Georgia -
J: No, South Shetland Islands. Sorry, I knew that wasn’t right. South Shetland Islands. All of a sudden the captain made the decision that we could land on Elephant Island. Now for those of you that know the story of Shackleton and his men aboard The Endurance - now that’s recently been rediscovered, the wreck of The Endurance but this was an expedition actually during the - it was actually the middle of the first world war when Shackleton and his men briefly – I’ll just explain - were – embarked on an expedition to Antarctica and the ship was crushed by sea ice, the men spent months and months camping on the sea ice hauling their three lifeboats with them across the ice as it was pretty much shifting. There were some hairy moments where the ice cracks opened up underneath tents and things like that but they ended up looking for solid land because sea ice is floating and they were looking to be able to stay on land until they – and then launch a rescue mission ‘cause they were alone in the middle of – well on the coast of Antarctica.
So they landed on Elephant Island ultimately, they had an aborted camp first up further along and then they found this rock. Now when I landed there I – as a historian I had that moment, you know you have those occasionally in your life where you’re transported suddenly to this moment back in – I think it was 1916, 1916 and these group of 22 men who were stranded on the island. Now this is just a spit of land, of rock. It’s not much, really, it’s just a bit of rock. It’s a glacier one end and then there’s ocean and there’s a pyramid -
A: Bit of a knoll.
J: - coming straight out of the ocean nearby.
A: Covered in Chinstrap Penguins.
J: That’s right and interestingly a memorial to The Yelcho -
A: Captain -
J: The Captain of The Yelcho who rescued them ultimately.
A: A Chilean tugboat that rescued them.
J: That’s right. But one of the reasons that affected me so much was because I had been reading about Frank Hurley. Now he’s another Australian whose story really isn’t that well known but Alasdair’s written a wonderful book on his life, he was a photographer. You may have seen those classic images of The Endurance as it was being crushed by sea ice. They were of Frank Hurley’s, he was on that expedition and he was actually amongst the group that stayed on this bit of land on Elephant Island and recorded the survival of these men. They were literally living on lichen and anything they could catch, seals -
A: Limpets and yeah, the seal -
J: - fish and so on, yeah. So for me it was also – when I came home I had my photograph of Elephant Island and that landing site next to Frank Hurley’s image. It was a pretty powerful moment of connection with a place.
A: What’s interesting there is how much it’s changed since Hurley’s day and that might be a lead-in to talking a bit about climate change because -
A: - the glacier to one side of where they were camped has receded significantly so obviously the backwash and whatever’s happening there has washed this beach away so would be very, very – well nigh impossible now for anybody to actually camp where they did. But yeah, I’ve been lucky enough to be on Elephant Island I think three times and it’s an extraordinary experience when you stand in this spot and you think how these men have the presence of mind to just wait and wait and they didn’t know whether Shackleton and his companions were going to come back and rescue them because they’d gone off and they’d waved goodbye to them and they may never see them again.
It was quite likely that that would happen so that would test anybody’s mental endurance if you’ll pardon the pun so – and the way Hurley was just - one camera left which was a folding vest pocket camera and a few rolls of film documented that experience says so much about human – of course then it definitely has that Australian flavour to it because of Hurley’s presence on the expedition.
J: I also include the fact that they celebrated midwinter in their upturned boats, their two upturned lifeboats. They – Hurley describes the pantomime that they put on in the upturned boats. He said he couldn’t have asked for a better audience and they were so – they were a captive audience, actually, that’s right.
A: Their alcoholic beverage needs – well that was methylated spirits, a pinch of ginger and a cube of sugar so -
J: I gather Hurley was the main cook, he was a bit of a character and apparently it was completely – they were using seal oil, you know the oil extracted from the seals -
J: The blubber and it was black and greasy. It would have been pretty revolting.
J: He actually has a sketch which I include here from his diary of how the sleeping arrangements were arranged for those months that they were living in the upturned boats.
I just wanted to mention a couple of other stories if I may -
J: - before I get onto the climate change one and that is I mentioned about – and it’s an important part of this, is to – and it’s an ongoing process of having diverse voices and stories about Antarctica being understood and recognised. One of the things I felt really strongly about was a lot of the archives which up until about the 1980s tended to be – and of course the early expeditions were – it was a male domain, there were very few – well up until the 1970s at least, very few females in the Australian story at least in Antarctica. So I tried to pay tribute I think to the early women, the pioneering women.
I interviewed a couple, one of whom’s here tonight and I also interviewed Barbara Wienecke, Dr Barbara Wienecke who’s still working with the Antarctic Division and I love her story because she’s an ecologist, a seabird ecologist and she spent the early – she was one of – she was the first woman in the Australian program to spend winter out on the ice sheet – sorry, on the sea ice studying Emperor penguins. Her specialty is penguins and Emperor penguins.
So there’s a lovely story about her learning to navigate on the ice and read the icebergs and understand how to find a penguin colony and – but also her experience I think puts her into that modern category of the old heroic explorer, she’s one of them as well. So I wanted to bring women’s voices into it. I might just briefly, very briefly if I have the time read Jaimie Cleeland’s story ‘cause I also wanted to bring some younger voices in, some of the new generation of people who are working in Antarctica. Jaimie Cleeland, Dr Jaimie Cleeland, she’s a biologist working – actually I think now she’s working back in the Antarctic Division as a fishery scientist but at this point when I interviewed her she had been working on Macquarie Island which is a subantarctic island.
Jaimie sits quietly in the tussock grass at the southern tip of Macquarie Island. She’s watching two male wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans, sitting side by side on their nests, each nursing an enormous egg. They fledged from this spot eight or so years earlier, embarking on a circumpolar journey covering many thousands of kilometres in these albatross latitudes before returning to their birthplace to breed. Their female partners, each having laid a 500g egg, have headed out to sea where they’ll spend several weeks foraging to replenish their energy while the males care for the precious eggs. From time to time one of the males looks down at his egg and sings to it in a deep guttural voice.
I think that’s just a really powerful story which goes on explaining about the island and Jaimie’s work in walking the length of the island daily to monitor the eggs being laid and the health of the birds and part of the important research that’s going on today to understand the wildlife in the Antarctic region and in this case the subantarctic islands.
So that was – that’s certainly a story that really spoke to me and another one that really I find powerful is another person I interviewed, Dr Tas van Ommen, who is a paleoclimatologist, that’s a bit of a mouthful. He’s actually a Tasmanian born and bred. He’s now working as one of the coleaders of the Million Year Ice Core Drilling Project if any of you have actually been reading about what’s going on down there. These days - it’s actually Tas' photo that features on the front of the book and what I wanted to say about his work is that he and many others are absolutely invested in this, international programs of research where the countries are joining together to – because this is an enormous undertaking in such a remote region – to drill for ice cores which help to enable – they’re kind of the archive of Antarctica.
So snow compacted, falls compacted and over many thousands of years becomes compressed but when it’s – the snow’s falling it’s capturing some of the atmosphere in bubbles. So when you see an ice core just been drilled down into the ice it can be thousands and thousands of years old, millions of years old in our timeline and they can actually release the gases that are trapped within the ice to be able to understand what past atmospheres were like. It’s fascinating. It also shows up sediment so volcanic eruptions and so on so -
A: It’s a gigantic library of climate change.
J: It really is, it really is and so I just wanted to briefly again, just the last story, read a story that Tas told me about his experience working in Antarctica. Initially he was there in the ‘90s – sorry, no, sorry, much later than that, more recently, I think it’s the early 2000s, haven’t got the date in front of me but he was with a group working on what's called the Law Dome. So Antarctica isn’t just this anonymous space, it’s got lots of places that are named and the Law Dome is actually within the Australian Antarctic territory named after Dr Phillip Law who was one of the – well who was the earliest leader of a – of the Australian Antarctic research expeditions. He was a remarkable man and was prominent in developing Australia’s Antarctic science program in the early days.
So when Tas was working on the Law Dome drilling for ice cores he had a bit of an epiphany and I think I’ll just explain how a scientist can be deeply affected by what they find in Antarctica as well. One of Tas van Ommen’s significant insights came when he compared the layers of ice with Australian metrological records in – since 1900. The comparison revealed that an unusually snowy period in Antarctica coincided with prolonged drought conditions in southwestern Australia and that such conditions were likely associated with climate change.
For the first time changes in snowfall recorded in the east Antarctic ice core over several centuries could be linked to rainfall patterns in Western Australia. For van Ommen it was a moment to treasure as he stood on Law Dome contemplating the archive of climate history beneath his feet.
If you look back at Mawson and Edgeworth David and others – this is him talking – they stated as part of their permission that Antarctica is important for the climate of the southern hemisphere. But to actually find such a direction connection which we did in the finish was really potent. To this day it’s one of those kind of serendipity things. Normally the climate is a messy thing, it’s got so many factors, especially in remote locations.
You don’t expect to find links as direct as that but it was there, watching the snow coming down around me and thinking that this is connecting me back to Australia and to lower latitudes. You can put the whole thing together in your head and it feels very connected.
So this was him only a few years ago and now as I say involved in million year ice core drilling which will reveal much about how climate has changed over centuries and important part of putting the pieces together about understanding what’s happening now in Antarctica in terms of the way that the continent and the ocean are responding to global warming.
A: Perhaps to end this discussion we might go back to the sort of geopolitical idea where we were talking about planting flags and so on and on the cover of your book there’s an Australian flag there so what does that tell us about the politics of Antarctica?
J: It’s a little bit provocative, actually. When I saw the photograph that the Library had chosen for the front cover and it is one of Tas van Ommen’s photos I was a bit taken aback because coming from having been reading the history of Australia’s claim to sovereignty. Now I don’t know if you’re familiar, I haven’t – it hasn’t come up in conversation but as a result of Douglas Mawson’s expedition and subsequent expeditions into Antarctica and the Southern Ocean in the early 1930s the aim was for the British Government to transfer its territorial claims in Antarctica to Australia and it did that in 1933. It’s a whopping 42% of the continent, it’s massive.
Now I hasten to point out that those – that claim is not recognised widely by a lot of countries however it has been – there were seven countries that made those claims around that time. By the time - there was a big year called the International Geophysical Year in the 1940s which was an international scientific program in Antarctica and then as a result of that – and Australia was quite prominent in this, Australia’s political history, geopolitics as they call it in Antarctica, it’s been quite a strong theme through our history – Australia participated in developing the Antarctic Treaty which was a remarkable product of international diplomacy.
It took a long time, it’s still in force and the Antarctic Treaty and associated conventions protect the Antarctic environment from mining, from whaling, from – although whaling these days not so much, being – there’s not many people active in that but certainly it was an important statement at the time, that this is how the nations of the world want Antarctica to be protected and cared for. That was in 1959 so that’s an incredible treaty that still survives.
So going back to why this is provocative, people will say Australian flag stuck in the ice, this is part of this old flag-waving ‘cause every country that was trying to claim Antarctica for potentially its resources would stick a flag in the rocks or the ice and say we’re here, this is our claim.
This is a very – this really I guess alludes to that but what this photo does is show that - how much has changed in that period, in the – really the last century, that now you’ve got a – this photo is from the Aurora Basin and it’s where Dr van Ommen was participating in an international ice core research drilling program. These are just the Australian tents, sleeping tents of the people who are participating in that program but they were part of – I think there were six nations involved so there would have been tents from other nations and all it was was really a flag to say yeah, we’re the Australians here but we’re working cooperatively with these other nations. So I think it’s a really interesting and powerful statement. It’s also a really nice photo, giving you an idea of what modern science is like in Antarctica.
A: Very good. Well to sum up we’ve gone from the geology of these strange Siamese twins being ripped apart to geopolitical flags and changing attitudes, climate change, the importance of Antarctica as a weather factory, the rich history of our nation’s involvement and various extraordinary individuals over that time. What do you see as Australia’s future in Antarctica?
J: It’s the number one question, isn’t it?
A: More collaboration but obviously there’s always this question of tensions, international diplomacy, the future of the Antarctic Treaty. You may not want to comment on that.
J: Look, I’m not sure I can say very much without going into absolute speculation but I just think it was worth reflecting and being aware of the history that has gone before. I mean it’s one of those things about learning from the past and the thing that comes through the most for me in this work, as I said before is how much has changed, how our attitudes and our practices and our behaviours have changed so much. But we carry that past with us as well, in so many ways we’re learning from our experiences. Australia has played a prominent role and surprisingly given the relatively small population but it’s played a huge role in Antarctica and in many ways that speaks to the fact that it is a close neighbour even though it seems so far away.
It is an important part of our life and I think that the future is going to be very interesting because things are changing rapidly in Antarctica as far as I can tell, reading the latest sort of science and I'm not a scientist but my reading of some of the reports coming out now about melting glaciers or at least melting ice shelves. The big risk of course with that is that the ice shelves are effectively the build-up of ice at the front of glaciers stopping them from flowing into the ocean. So once you start losing ice shelves and the glacial ice moves quicker into the ocean my understanding as a non-scientist is that you’re then in really deep trouble because this – it’s the – the water becomes fresher. Of course it changes the whole ecosystem of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica and we’re talking sea level rise.
So just one frightening quote I’ll leave, if all the ice in Antarctica melts, 60m – they predict 60m level rise, sea level rise. So I mean I don’t think anyone really expects that and I suppose the whole point about a book like this is to really - not only to be enjoyed and to be entertained but it’s also to help people to become aware and active advocates for the climate change science to be heard and to be acted upon. So I guess that's really where I’m coming from, is that as an environmental historian I’m interested in – vitally interested in our future but I think we can only really look at our future by understanding how things have changed and demonstrating we’ve got a capacity to change and to make a difference ourselves no matter who we are.
A: Well I think you’ve done a wonderful job in bringing that to the fore, Joy, so congratulations. Thank you.
J: Thank you very much.
L: Thank you so much, that was very, very enjoyable and I particularly think you’ve done this remarkably in the book but especially tonight, so many of the few who have been to Antarctica – I wish I was one of them but I am not – have been experts in their field, scientists, geologists, explorers, navigators but they’ve also been so skilled at communication that they have come home and they have shared their diaries or they have shared their images from Hurley to Tas in a way that has helped those of us who haven’t been to understand a fraction of it and I am very grateful for that.
We have a brief period of time for some questions so we’ll raise up the lights so that I can see everybody and I have some colleagues who are standing at the sides here with microphones so if you have any questions that you would like to ask if you could raise your hand and then we’ll come across to you.
Au: Hello, thanks, Joy, it was – and Alasdair – very interesting. Many years ago, 10 years ago or so I think David Day wrote a book about Mawson and it wasn’t quite as pleasant probably in his description of Mawson as what you have been saying tonight. Would you like to comment on David Day’s book and some of the things that came out of that?
J: Look, I won’t necessarily comment on that book but I think it’s fair to say that as with a lot of things in Antarctica there's a lot of people revisiting that history and re-evaluating I guess what those accomplishments have been and what kind of people they were and their motivations and so on. Certainly Mawson, some of the reading I have done around people having a look at his relationship, for example, with the people that were involved in the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, I don’t really know what sort of censorship was involved in those days because a lot of the expeditioners that served with him wrote their own diaries and letters which I’ve drawn on in this book. Mawson himself of course wrote The Home of the Blizzard and has achieved a certain – I guess a very prominent status in Australian history for his work and I think rightly so.
How people then interpret some of the relationships between he and some of his men, I do allude to the fact that during – and just very briefly the first year that they were there they accomplished a great deal, enormous range of scientific programs despite the conditions but then because of the tragic journey that Mawson – one of his sledging journeys, the one where Mertz and Ninnis were killed – he came back and he was a bit of a broken man, I think, he was exhausted, he was suffering badly physically and had missed the ship, the ship had – some of the men had stayed behind as a rescue party and the ship had sailed and so they were left there for a second winter. It was that second year that caused I believe quite a lot of tensions.
So there’s been a bit of a look, people looking more closely at the way that played out in the conditions that they were in. It must have been phenomenally difficult and I think rightly so, questioning – I believe some of the – there was a lot of distrust and a lot of resentment because of the two people that had died on his particular sledging journey. Having said that I don’t think you can take it away from the fact that he did achieve an awful amount, a huge amount and has gained a place in our history as a – I don’t know so much about his leadership qualities, I haven’t looked closely at that but certainly as a scientist I think he did really set the scene for what eventually happened in Australia in terms of its Antarctic program. He was really the pioneer in that sense.
So I guess I’m not answering that directly but I think that it’s worth knowing that there is a lot of review going on about not just Mawson but others as well. Even Frank Hurley, people are revisiting his work and saying well he wasn’t quite as – the golden boy that people made him out to be. I mean we’re all human, aren’t we?
A: We had this discussion earlier about - Hurley and Mawson’s business relationship was a very fraught one, ending in the 1930s with the very sad – well it was the last correspondence I found where Mawson was threatening to sue Hurley for breach of contract and so on. It’s – these backstories tell a different tale often.
J: They do and I think that’s why it’s important – I’ve listed in the back of the book a large number of the primary sources that are available in the collections around Australia, different places including the Polar Collection which is primarily Mawson’s work in the South Australian Museum through to the National Library, Frank Hurley’s films. He made quite a few moving images that are with the National Film and Sound Archive. There are – there’s a rich archive and because there is so much I thought it was worth trying to summarise it to some degree in the back of this book for precisely the reason that you may want to go and then start looking at the letters and diaries of Mawson or Hurley or whoever it might be and make your own mind up because I think it’s really – they’re fascinating to read, I must say.
I absolutely love reading the letters and diaries as well as of course looking at maps and the oral histories. The National Library has a fantastic Antarctic oral history collection and these things are still being added to all the time, this isn’t something in the past. This is a living archive that keeps on building, adding new stories, new information and new records.
L: If anyone would like to shoot their hand up for one final question. I think that’s a good note for us to leave it on. If you would join me again once more in thanking Joy and Alasdair for their conversation tonight.
L: Both Joy and Alasdair have very kindly agreed to sign copies of their books. They will be out in the foyer shortly to do that. If you haven’t yet had a chance the bookshop is still open so you can purchase copies of the books there. Thank you once again for attending tonight, we hope to see you soon. Have a good evening.
J: Thank you.
End of recording
Ice Bound tells the story of Australia in Antarctica, from the very first imaginings of what may lie to the south, to the inspiring early expeditions onto the unknown continent, through to the remarkable and valuable scientific work that is still going strong today. This new National Library of Australia Publishing title is an exciting and comprehensive account of Australian stories in Antarctica, from the early imaginings and expeditions on the continent, through to the continuing vital contributions to the world’s knowledge of earth science and climate change. You can find it in our bookshop here https://bit.ly/3cOQM9t In this talk, Ice Bound author Dr Joy McCann share stories of the intrepid Australian Antarctic explorers, joined in conversation by writer, painter and lecturer Alasdair McGregor.