Two years ago, a lawyer in Indiana sent me a check for seventy-eight thousand dollars. The money was from my uncle Walt, who had died six months earlier. I hadn’t been expecting any money from Walt, still less counting on it. So I thought I should earmark my inheritance for something special, to honor Walt’s memory.
It happened that my longtime girlfriend, a native Californian, had promised to join me on a big vacation. She’d been feeling grateful to me for understanding why she had to return full time to Santa Cruz and look after her mother, who was ninety-four and losing her short-term memory. She’d said to me, impulsively, “I will take a trip with you anywhere in the world you’ve always wanted to go.” To this I’d replied, for reasons I’m at a loss to reconstruct, “Antarctica?” Her eyes widened in a way that I should have paid closer attention to. But a promise was a promise.
Hoping to make Antarctica more palatable to my temperate Californian, I decided to spend Walt’s money on the most deluxe of bookings—a three-week Lindblad National Geographic expedition to Antarctica, South Georgia island, and the Falklands. I paid a deposit, and the Californian and I proceeded to joke, uneasily, when the topic arose, about the nasty cold weather and the heaving South Polar seas to which she’d consented to subject herself. I kept reassuring her that as soon as she saw a penguin she’d be happy she’d made the trip. But when it came time to pay the balance, she asked if we might postpone by a year. Her mother’s situation was unstable, and she was loath to put herself so irretrievably far from home.
By this point, I, too, had developed a vague aversion to the trip, an inability to recall why I’d proposed Antarctica in the first place. The idea of “seeing it before it melts” was dismal and self-cancelling: why not just wait for it to melt and cross itself off the list of travel destinations? I was also put off by the seventh continent’s status as a trophy, too remote and expensive for the common tourist to set foot on. It was true that there were extraordinary birds to be seen, not just penguins but oddities like the snowy sheathbill and the world’s southernmost-breeding songbird, the South Georgia pipit. But the number of Antarctic species is fairly small, and I’d already reconciled myself to never seeing every bird species in the world. The best reason I could think of for going to Antarctica was that it was absolutely not the kind of thing the Californian and I did; we’d learned that our ideal getaway lasts three days. I thought that if she and I were at sea for three weeks, with no possibility of escape, we might discover new capacities in ourselves. We would do a thing together that we would then, for the rest of our lives, have done together.
And so I agreed to a year’s postponement. I relocated to Santa Cruz myself. Then the Californian’s mother had a worrisome fall, and the Californian became even more afraid of leaving her alone. Recognizing, finally, that it wasn’t my job to make her life more difficult, I excused her from the trip. Luckily, my brother Tom, the only other person with whom I could imagine sharing a small cabin for three weeks, had just retired and was available to take her place. I changed the booking from a queen-size bed to twin beds, and I ordered insulated rubber boots and a richly illustrated guide to Antarctic wildlife.
Even then, though, as the departure date approached, I couldn’t bring myself to say that I was going to Antarctica. I kept saying, “It appears that I’m going to Antarctica.” Tom reported being excited, but my own sense of unreality, of failure to pleasurably anticipate, grew only stronger. Maybe it was that Antarctica reminded me of death—the ecological death with which global warming is threatening it, or the deadline for seeing it that my own death represented. But I became acutely appreciative of the ordinary rhythm of life with the Californian, the sight of her face in the morning, the sound of the garage door when she returned from her evening visit to her mother. When I packed my suitcase, it was as if I were doing the bidding of the money I’d paid.
In St. Louis, in August, 1976, on an evening cool enough that my parents and I were eating dinner on the porch, my mother got up to answer the phone in the kitchen and immediately summoned my father. “It’s Irma,” she said. Irma was my father’s sister, who lived with Walt in Dover, Delaware. It must have been clear that something terrible had happened, because I remember being in the kitchen, standing near my mother, when my father interrupted whatever Irma was saying to him and shouted into the telephone, as if in anger, “Irma, my God, is she dead?”
Irma and Walt were my godparents, but I didn’t know them well. My mother couldn’t stand Irma—she maintained that Irma had been terminally spoiled by her parents, at my father’s expense—and although Walt was felt to be much the more likable of the two, a retired Air Force colonel who’d become a high-school guidance counsellor, I knew him mainly from a self-published volume of golf wisdom that he’d sent us, “Eclectic Golf,” which, because I read everything, I’d read. The person I’d seen more of was Walt and Irma’s only child, Gail. She was a tall and pretty and adventurous young woman who’d gone to college in Missouri and often stopped to see us. She’d graduated the previous year and had taken a job as a silversmith’s apprentice at Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia. What Irma was calling to tell us was that Gail, while driving alone, overnight, in heavy rain, to a rock concert in Ohio, had lost control of her car on one of West Virginia’s narrow, winding highways. Although Irma apparently couldn’t bring herself to say the words, Gail was dead.
I was sixteen and understood what death was. And yet, perhaps because my parents didn’t bring me along to the funeral, I didn’t cry or grieve for Gail. What I had, instead, was a feeling that her death was somehow inside my head—as if my network of memories of her had been cauterized by some hideous needle and now constituted a zone of nullity, a zone of essential, bad truth. The zone was too forbidding to enter consciously, but I could sense it there, behind a mental cordon, the irreversibility of my lovely cousin’s death.
A year and a half after the accident, when I was a college freshman in Pennsylvania, my mother conveyed to me an invitation from Irma and Walt to come to Dover for a weekend, along with her own strict instruction that I say yes. In my imagination, the house in Dover was an embodiment of the zone of bad truth in my head. I went there with a dread which the house proceeded to justify. It had the uncluttered, oppressively clean formality of an official residence. The floor-length curtains, their stiffness, the precision of their folds, seemed to say that no breath or movement of Gail’s would ever stir them. My aunt’s hair was pure white and looked as stiff as the curtains. The whiteness of her face was intensified by crimson lipstick and heavy eyeliner.
I learned that only my parents called Irma Irma; to everyone else, she was Fran, a shortening of her maiden name. I’d dreaded a scene of open grief, but Fran filled the minutes and the hours by talking to me incessantly, in a strained and overloud voice. The talk—about her house’s décor, about her acquaintance with Delaware’s governor, about the direction the nation had taken—was exquisitely boring in its remoteness from ordinary feeling. By and by, she spoke of Gail in the same way: the essential nature of Gail’s personality, the quality of Gail’s artistic talents, the high idealism of Gail’s plans for the future. I said very little, as did Walt. My aunt’s droning was unbearable, but I may already have understood that the zone she was inhabiting was itself unbearable, and that talking loftily about nothing, non-stop, was how a person might survive in it; how, indeed, she might enable a visitor to survive in it. Basically, I saw that Fran was adaptively out of her mind. My only respite from her that weekend was the auto tour Walt gave me of Dover and its Air Force base. Walt was a lean, tall man, ethnically Slovenian, with a beak of a nose and hair persisting only behind his ears. His nickname was Baldy.
I visited him and Fran twice more while I was in college, and they came to my graduation and to my wedding, and then, for many years, I had little contact with them beyond birthday cards and my mother’s reporting (always colored by her dislike of Fran) on the dutiful stops that she and my father made in Boynton Beach, Florida, where Fran and Walt had moved into a golf-centered condominium complex. But then, after my father died, and while my mother was losing her battle with cancer, a funny thing happened: Walt became smitten with my mother.
Fran by now was straightforwardly demented, with Alzheimer’s, and had entered a nursing home. Since my father had also had Alzheimer’s, Walt had reached out by telephone to my mother for advice and commiseration. According to her, he’d then travelled by himself to St. Louis, where the two of them, finding themselves alone together for the first time, had uncovered so much common ground—each was an optimistic lover of life, long married to a rigid and depressive Franzen—that they’d fallen into a dizzying kind of ease with each other, an incipiently romantic intimacy. Walt had taken her downtown to her favorite restaurant, and afterward, at the wheel of her car, he’d scraped a fender on the wall of a parking garage; the two of them, giggling, a little bit drunk, had agreed to split the repair cost and tell no one. (Walt did eventually tell me.) Soon after his visit, my mother’s health worsened, and she went to Seattle to spend her remaining days in my brother Tom’s house. But Walt made plans to come and see her and continue what they’d started. Of the feelings they had for each other, his were still forward-looking. Hers were more bittersweet, the sadness of opportunities she knew she’d missed.
It was my mother who opened my eyes to what a gem Walt was, and it was Walt’s dismay and sorrow, after she’d died suddenly, before he could see her again, that opened the door to my friendship with him. He needed someone to know that he’d begun to fall in love with her, the joyous surprise of that, and to appreciate how keenly he therefore felt the loss of her. Because I, too, in the last few years of my mother’s life, had experienced a surprising upsurge of admiration and affection for her, and because I had a lot of time on my hands—I was childless, divorced, underemployed, and now parentless—I became the person Walt could talk to.
During my first visit to him, a few months after my mother died, we did the essential South Florida things: nine holes of golf at his condominium complex, two rubbers of bridge with two friends in their nineties in Delray Beach, and a stop at the nursing home where my aunt dwelled. We found her lying in bed in a tight fetal position. Walt tenderly fed her a dish of ice cream and a dish of pudding. When a nurse came in to change a Band-Aid on her hip, Fran burst into tears, her face contorting like a baby’s, and wailed that it hurt, it hurt, it was horrible, it wasn’t fair.
We left her with the nurse and returned to his apartment. Many of Fran’s formal furnishings had come along from Dover, but now a bachelor scattering of magazines and cereal boxes had loosened their death grip. Walt spoke to me with plain emotion about the loss of Gail and the question of her old belongings. Would I like to have some of her drawings? Would I take the Pentax SLR he’d once given her? The drawings had the look of school projects, and I didn’t need a camera, but I sensed that Walt was looking for a way to disencumber himself of things he couldn’t bear to simply donate to Goodwill. I said I’d be very happy to take them.
In Santiago, the night before our charter flight to the southern tip of Argentina, Tom and I attended Lindblad’s welcoming reception in a Ritz-Carlton function room. Because berths on our ship, the National Geographic Orion, started at twenty-two thousand dollars and went up to almost double that, I’d pre-stereotyped my fellow-passengers as plutocratic nature lovers—leather-skinned retirees with trophy spouses and tax-haven home addresses, maybe a face or two I recognized from television. But I’d done the math wrong. There turn out to be special yachts for that clientele. The crowd in the function room was less glamorous than I’d expected, and less octogenarian. A plurality of the hundred of us were merely physicians or attorneys, and I could see only one man in pants hiked up around his stomach.
My third-biggest fear about the expedition, after seasickness and disturbing my brother with my snoring, was that insufficient diligence would be devoted to finding the bird species unique to the Antarctic. After a Lindblad staffer, an Australian whose luggage for the trip had been lost by his airline, had greeted us and taken some questions from the crowd, I raised my hand and said I was a birder and asked who else was. I was hoping to establish the existence of a powerful constituency, but I saw only two hands go up. The Australian, who’d praised each of the earlier questions as “excellent,” did not praise mine. He said, rather vaguely, that there would be staff members on the ship who knew their birds.
I soon learned that the two raised hands had belonged to the only two passengers who hadn’t paid full fare. They were a conservationist couple in their fifties, Chris and Ada, from Mount Shasta, California. Ada has a sister who works for Lindblad, and they’d been offered a slashed-rate stateroom ten days before departure, owing to a cancellation. This added to my feeling of kinship with them. Although I could afford to pay full fare, I wouldn’t have chosen a cruise line like Lindblad for my own sake; I’d done it for the Californian, to soften the blow of Antarctica, and was feeling like an accidental luxury tourist myself.
The next day, at the airport in Ushuaia, Argentina, Tom and I found ourselves near the rear of a slow line for passport control. At the urgent instruction of Lindblad, before leaving home, I’d paid the “reciprocity fee” that Argentina charged American tourists, but Tom had been in Argentina three years earlier. The government’s Web site hadn’t let him pay his fee again, so he’d printed a copy of its refusal and taken it with him, figuring that the printout, plus the Argentine stamps in his passport, would get him over the border. They didn’t get him over the border. While the other Lindblad passengers boarded the buses that were taking us to a lunchtime cruise on a catamaran, we stood and pleaded with an immigration officer. Half an hour passed. A further twenty minutes passed. The Lindblad handlers were tearing their hair. Finally, when it looked as if Tom would be allowed to pay his fee a second time, I ran outside and boarded a bus and charged into a sea of dirty looks. The trip hadn’t even started, and Tom and I were already the problem passengers.
On board the Orion, our expedition leader, Doug, summoned everyone to the ship’s lounge and greeted us energetically. Doug was burly and white-bearded, a former theatrical designer. “I love this trip!” he said into his microphone. “This is the greatest trip, by the greatest company, to the greatest destination in the world. I’m at least as excited as any of you are.” The trip, he hastened to add, was not a cruise. It was an expedition, and he wanted us to know that he was the kind of expedition leader who, if he and the captain spied the right opportunity, would tear up the plan, throw it out the window, and go chase great adventure.
Throughout the trip, Doug continued, two staffers would give photography lessons and work individually with passengers who wanted to improve their images. Two other staffers would go diving wherever possible, to supply us with additional images. The Australian who’d lost his luggage had not lost the late-model drone, with a high-definition video camera, that he’d worked for nine months to get the permits to use on our trip. The drone would be supplying images, too. And then there was the full-time videographer, who would create a DVD that we could all buy at trip’s end. I got the impression that other people in the lounge had a clearer grasp than I of the point of coming to Antarctica. Evidently, the point was to bring home images. The National Geographic brand had led me to expect science where I should have been thinking of pictures. My sense of being a problem passenger deepened.
In the days that followed, I was taught what to ask when you meet a person on a Lindblad ship: “Is this your first Lindblad?” Or, alternately, “Have you done a Lindblad before?” I found these locutions unsettling, as if “a Lindblad” were something vaguely but expensively spiritual. Doug typically began his evening recap, in the lounge, by asking, “Was this a great day or was this a great day?” and then waiting for a cheer. He made sure we knew that we’d been specially blessed by a smooth crossing of the Drake Passage, which had saved us enough time to land in our Zodiac dinghies on Barrientos Island, near the Antarctic Peninsula. This was a very special landing, not something every Lindblad expedition got to do.
It was late in the nesting season for the gentoo and chinstrap penguins on Barrientos. Some of the chicks had fledged and followed their parents back into the sea, which is the preferred element of penguins and their only source of food. But thousands of birds remained. Downy gray chicks chased after any adult that was plausibly their parent, begging for a regurgitated meal, or banded together for safety from the gull-like skuas that preyed on the orphaned and the failing-to-thrive. Many of the adults had retreated uphill to molt, a process that involves standing still for several weeks, itchy and hungry, while new feathers push out old feathers. The patience of the molters, their silent endurance, was impossible not to admire in human terms. Although the colony was everywhere smeared with nitric-smelling shit, and the doomed orphan chicks were a piteous sight, I was already glad I’d come.
The scopolamine patches that Tom and I were wearing on our necks had dispelled my two biggest fears. With the help of the patch and calm waters, I wasn’t getting seasick, and, with the help of the snore-muffling noise that we blasted on our clock radio, Tom was getting ten hours of deep scopolamine sleep every night. My third fear, however, had been on target. At no point did a Lindblad naturalist join Chris and Ada and me to watch seabirds from the observation deck. There wasn’t even a good field guide to Antarctic wildlife in the Orion’s library. Instead, there were dozens of books about South Polar explorers, notably Ernest Shackleton—a figure scarcely less fetishized onboard than the Lindblad experience itself. Sewed onto the left sleeve of my company-issued orange parka was a badge with Shackleton’s portrait, commemorating the centennial of his epic open-boat voyage from Elephant Island. We were given a book about Shackleton, PowerPoint lectures about Shackleton, special tours to Shackleton-related sites, a screening of a long film about a re-creation of Shackleton’s voyage, and a chance to hike three miles of the arduous trail that Shackleton had survived at the end of it. (Late in the trip, under the gaze of our videographer, we would all be herded to the grave of Shackleton, handed shot glasses of Irish whiskey, and invited to join in a toast to him.) The message seemed to be that we, on our Lindblad, were not un-Shackletonian ourselves. Failing to feel heroic on the Orion was a recipe for loneliness. I was grateful that I at least had two compatriots with whom to study the wildlife guides we’d brought, and to puzzle out the field marks of the Antarctic prion (a small seabird),and to try to discern the species-distinguishing hue of the bill of a fast-flying giant petrel.
As we progressed down the peninsula, Doug began dangling the possibility of exciting news. Finally, he gathered us in the lounge and revealed that it was actually happening: because of favorable winds, he and the captain had thrown out the plan. We had a very special opportunity to cross below the Antarctic Circle, and would now be steaming hard to the south.
The night before we reached the circle, Doug warned us that he might come on the intercom fairly early in the morning to wake those passengers who wanted to look outside and see the “magenta line” (he was joking) as we crossed it. And wake us he did, at six-thirty, with another joke about the magenta line. As the ship bore down on it, Doug dramatically counted down from five. Then he congratulated “every person onboard,” and Tom and I went back to sleep. Only later did we learn that the Orion had approached the Antarctic Circle much earlier than six-thirty—at an hour when a person hesitates to wake up millionaires, an hour too dark for taking a picture. Chris, it turned out, had been awake before dawn and had followed the ship’s coördinates on his cabin’s TV screen. He’d watched as the ship slowed down, tacked west, and then executed a fishhook turn and steamed due north to buy time.
Although Doug came off as the chief simulacrum manager for a brand with cultish aspects, I had sympathy for him. He was finishing his first season as a Lindblad expedition leader, was clearly exhausted, and was under intense pressure to deliver the trip of a lifetime to customers who, not being plutocrats after all, expected value for their money. Doug was also, as far as I could determine, the only person on the ship besides me who’d been a birder serious enough to keep a list of the species he’d seen. He’d given up listing, but in one of his nightly recaps he told the amusing story of his desperation and failure to find a pipit on his first trip to South Georgia. If he hadn’t been frantically catering to a shipful of image seekers, I would have liked to get to know him.
It should also be said that Antarctica lived up to Doug’s enthusiasm. I’d never before had the experience of beholding scenic beauty so dazzling that I couldn’t process it, couldn’t get it to register as something real. A trip that had seemed unreal to me beforehand had taken me to a place that likewise seemed unreal, albeit in a better way. Global warming may be endangering the continent’s western ice sheet, but Antarctica is still far from having melted. On either side of the Lemaire Channel were spiky black mountains, extremely tall but still not so tall as to be merely snow-covered; they were buried in wind-carved snowdrift, all the way to their peaks, with rock exposed only on the most vertical cliffs. Sheltered from wind, the water was glassy, and under a solidly gray sky it was absolutely black, pristinely black, like outer space. Amid the monochromes, the endless black and white and gray, was the jarring blue of glacial ice. No matter the shade of it—the bluish tinge of the growlers bobbing in our wake, the intensely deep blue of the arched and chambered floating ice castles, the Styrofoamish powder blue of calving glaciers—I couldn’t make my eyes believe that they were seeing a color from nature. Again and again, I nearly laughed in disbelief. Immanuel Kant had connected the sublime with terror, but as I experienced it in Antarctica, from the safe vantage of a ship with a glass-and-brass elevator and first-rate espresso, it was more like a mixture of beauty and absurdity.
The Orion sailed on through eerily glassy seas. Nothing man-made could be seen on land or ice or water, no building or other ship, and up on the forward observation deck the Orion’s engines were inaudible. Standing there in the silence with Chris and Ada, scanning for petrels, I felt as if we were alone in the world and being pulled forward toward the end of it, like the Dawn Treader in Narnia, by some irresistible invisible current. But when we entered an area of pack ice and became surrounded by it, images were needed. A Zodiac was noisily launched, the Australian’s drone unleashed.
Late in the day, in Lallemand Fjord, near the southernmost latitude we reached, Doug announced another “operation.” The captain would ram the ship into the huge ice field at the head of the fjord, and we could then choose between paddling around in sea kayaks or taking a walk on the ice. I knew that the fjord was our last hope for seeing an emperor penguin; seven other penguin species were likely on the trip, but the emperors rarely venture north of the Antarctic Circle. While the rest of the passengers hurried to their rooms to put on their life jackets and adventure boots, I set up a telescope on the observation deck. Scanning the ice field, which was dotted with crabeater seals and small Adélie penguins, I immediately caught a glimpse of a bird that looked unfamiliar. It seemed to have a patch of color behind its ear and a blush of yellow on its breast. Emperor penguin? The magnified image was dim and unsteady, and most of the bird’s body was hidden by a little iceberg, and either the ship or the iceberg was drifting. Before I could get a proper look, the iceberg had obscured the bird altogether.
What to do? Emperor penguins may be the world’s greatest bird. Four feet tall, the stars of “March of the Penguins,” they incubate their eggs in the Antarctic winter as far as a hundred miles from the sea, the males huddling together for warmth, the females waddling or tobogganing to open water for food, every one of them as heroic as Shackleton. But the bird I’d glimpsed was easily half a mile away, and I was aware of being a problem passenger who’d already been involved in one lengthy delay of the group. I was also aware of my distressing history of incorrect bird identifications. What were the chances of randomly pointing a scope at the ice and instantly spotting the most sought-after species of the trip? I didn’t feel as if I’d made up the yellow blush and the patch of color. But sometimes the birder’s eye sees what it hopes to see.
After an existentialist moment, conscious of deciding my fate, I ran down to the bridge deck and found my favorite staff naturalist hurrying in the direction of Doug’s operation. I grabbed his sleeve and said I thought I’d seen an emperor penguin.
“An emperor? You sure?”
“Ninety per cent sure.”
“We’ll check it out,” he said, pulling away from me.
He didn’t sound as though he meant it, so I ran down to Chris and Ada’s cabin, banged on their door, and gave them my news. God bless them for believing it. They took off their life jackets and followed me back up to the observation deck. By now, unfortunately, I’d lost track of the penguin spot; there were so many little icebergs. I went down to the bridge itself, where a different staffer, a Dutch woman, gave me a more satisfactory response: “Emperor penguin! That’s a key species for us, we have to tell the captain right away.”
Captain Graser was a skinny, peppy German probably older than he looked. He wanted to know exactly where the bird was. I pointed at my best guess, and he got on the radio with Doug and told him that we had to move the ship. I could hear Doug’s exasperation on the radio. He was in the middle of an operation! The captain instructed him to suspend it.
As the ship began to move, and I considered how annoyed Doug would be if I’d been wrong about the bird, I rediscovered the little iceberg. Chris and Ada and I stood at the rail and watched it through our binoculars. But there was nothing behind it now, at least nothing that we could see before the ship stopped and turned around. Radios were squawking impatiently. After the captain had rammed us into the ice, Chris spotted a promising bird that quickly dived into the water. But then Ada thought she saw it come flopping back onto the ice. Chris put the scope on it, had a long look, and turned to me with a deadpan expression. “I concur,” he said.
We high-fived. I fetched Captain Graser, who took one look through the scope and let out a whoop. “Ja, ja,” he said, “emperor penguin! Emperor penguin! Just like I was hoping!” He said he’d trusted my report because, on a previous trip, he’d seen a lone emperor in the same area. Emitting further whoops, he danced a jig, an actual jig, and then hurried off to the Zodiacs to have a closer look.
The emperor he’d seen earlier had been exceptionally friendly or inquisitive, and it appeared that I’d refound the same bird, because as soon as the captain approached it we saw it flop down on its belly and toboggan toward him eagerly. Doug, on the intercom, announced that the captain had made an exciting discovery and the plan had changed. Hikers already on the ice bent their steps toward the bird, the rest of us piled into Zodiacs. By the time I arrived on the scene, thirty orange-jacketed photographers were standing or kneeling and training their lenses on a very tall and very handsome penguin, very close to them.
I’d already made a quiet, alienated resolution not to take a single picture on the trip. And here was an image so indelible that no camera was needed to capture it: the emperor penguin appeared to be holding a press conference. While a cluster of Adélies came up from behind it, observing like support staff, the emperor faced the press corps in a posture of calm dignity. After a while, it gave its neck a leisurely stretch. Demonstrating its masterly balance and flexibility, and yet without seeming to show off, it scratched behind its ear with one foot while standing fully erect on the other. And then, as if to underline how comfortable it felt with us, it fell asleep.
At the following evening’s recap, Captain Graser warmly thanked the birders. He’d reserved a special table for us in the dining room, with free wine on offer. A card on the table read “King Emperor.” Ordinarily, the ship’s waiters, who were mostly Filipino, addressed Tom as Sir Tom and me as Sir Jon, which made me feel like John Falstaff. But that evening I really was feeling like King Emperor. All day long, passengers I hadn’t even met had stopped me in hallways to thank me or cheer me for finding the penguin. I finally had an inkling of how it must feel to be a high-school athlete and come to school after scoring a season-saving touchdown. For forty years, in large social groups, I’d accustomed myself to feeling like the problem. To be a group’s game-winning hero, if only for a day, was a complete, disorienting novelty. I wondered if, all my life, in my refusal to be a joiner, I’d missed out on some essential human thing.
My uncle, the Air Force veteran, now buried in the ranks at Arlington, was a lifelong joiner. Walt never ceased to be passionately loyal to his home town of Chisholm, in Minnesota’s Iron Range, where he’d grown up with little money. He’d been a college hockey player and then a bomber pilot in the Second World War, flying thirty-five missions in North Africa and South Asia. He was a self-taught pianist, able to play any standard by ear; the elements of his golf swing were eclectic. He wrote two memoirs devoted to the many great friends he’d made in life. He was also a liberal Democrat who’d married a stringent Republican. He could strike up a lively conversation with almost anyone, and I could imagine the unfettered fun that my mother could imagine having had if she’d been with a regular guy like Walt and not my father.
One night, at the restaurant in the South Florida complex, over several cocktails, Walt told me the story not only of him and my mother but of him and Fran and Gail. After retiring from combat, he said, and after leading an officer’s social life with Fran at various overseas bases, he’d realized that he’d made a mistake in marrying her. It wasn’t just that her parents had spoiled her; she was an implacable social striver who hated and denied her backwoods Minnesota background as much as he loved and celebrated his own; she was unbearable. “I was weak,” he said. “I should have left her, but I was weak.”
They had their only child when Fran was in her mid-thirties, and Fran quickly became so obsessed with Gail, and so opposed to sex with Walt, that he felt driven to seek comfort elsewhere. “There were other women,” he told me. “I had affairs. But I always made it clear that I was a family man and wasn’t leaving Fran. On Sundays, my buddies and I would get loaded up on liquor and drive over to Baltimore to watch Johnny Unitas and the Colts.” At home, Fran grew ever more micromanagerial in her attention to Gail’s personal appearance, to her schoolwork, to her art projects. Gail seemed to be all Fran could talk about or think about. Her four years at college had brought some relief, but as soon as she returned to the East Coast, and went to work in Williamsburg, Fran redoubled her intrusions into Gail’s life. Walt could see that something was terribly wrong; that Gail was being driven crazy by her mother but didn’t know how to escape.
By early August, 1976, he’d become so desperate that he did the only thing he could do. He announced to Fran that he was going back to Minnesota, back to his beloved Chisholm, and that he wasn’t going to live with her again—couldn’t be married to her—unless she curtailed her obsession with their daughter. Then he packed a bag and drove to Minnesota. He was there, in Chisholm, ten days later, when Gail set out to drive through the night in bad weather across West Virginia. Gail was aware, he said, that he’d made a break with her mother. He’d told her himself.
Walt ended his story there, and we spoke of other things—his wish to find a girlfriend among the other residents of the complex, his clearness of conscience regarding this wish, now that my mother was dead and Fran was in a nursing home, and his worry that he was too much of a country boy, too unpolished, for the stylish widows at the complex. I wondered if he’d omitted the coda to his story because it went without saying: how, after an accident in West Virginia that could never be untangled from his flight to Minnesota, and after Fran had lost the one person in the world who mattered to her, becoming locked forever in brittle posthumous monomania, a world of pain, he’d had no choice but to return to her and devote himself henceforth to caring for her.
I saw that Gail’s death hadn’t merely been “tragic” in the hackneyed sense. It had partaken of the irony and inevitability of dramatic tragedy, compounded by the twenty-plus years that Walt had then devoted to listening to Fran, leavened only by the tenderness of his solicitude toward her. He really was a nice guy. He had a heart full of love and had given it to his broken wife, and I was moved not only by the tragedy but by the ordinary humanity of the man at the center of it. I had a sense of astonishment as well. Concealed in plain sight, my whole life, amid the moral rigidity and Swedish standoffishness of my father’s family, had been a regular guy who had affairs and drove to Baltimore with his buddies and manfully accepted his fate. I wondered if my mother had seen in him what I’d now seen, and had loved him for it, as I now did.
The following afternoon, Walt’s friend Ed called and asked him to come to his house with jumper cables. Arriving at the house, we found Ed standing in the street beside an enormous American car. Ed looked nearly dead—his skin was a terrible yellow and he was swaying on his feet. He said he’d been sick for a month and was feeling much better. But when Walt connected the jumper cables to Ed’s car and asked him to try turning over the engine, Ed reminded him that he was too weak to turn the ignition key. (He had, however, been hoping to drive the car.) I got into Ed’s car myself. As soon as I tried the key, I could tell that the car’s problem was worse than a dead battery. Ed’s car was utterly nonresponsive, and I said so. But Walt wasn’t happy with how the jumper cables were connected. He backed his own car away and snagged a cable on the pavement. Before I could stop him, he’d torn off the cable’s gripper, and the person he became upset with was me. I worked to reattach the gripper with a screwdriver, but he didn’t like how I was doing it. He tried to grab it away from me, and he barked at me, shouted at me. “God damn it, Jonathan! God damn it! That’s not right! Give it here! God damn it!” Ed, now sitting in the passenger seat, had slumped sideways and was listing downward. Walt and I tussled over the screwdriver, which I wouldn’t let go of; I was angry at him, too. When we’d calmed down, and I’d repaired the cable to his satisfaction, I turned the key of Ed’s car again. The car was nonresponsive.
After that first visit, I tried to get to Florida every year to see Walt, and to call him every few months. He did eventually find a girlfriend, a sterling one. Even when his hearing worsened and his mind began to cloud, I could sustain a conversation with him. We continued to have moments of intensity, like the time he told me how important it was to him that I someday tell his story, and I promised that I would. But it seems to me that we were never closer than the day he’d shouted at me about the jumper cable. There was something uncanny about that shouting. It was as if he’d forgotten—had been made to forget, perhaps by the overt mortality of Ed and his car, perhaps by the refraction of his love for my mother through the person of me—that he and I didn’t have a real history together; had spent, in our lives, no more than a cumulative week with each other. He’d shouted at me the way a father might have shouted at a son.
The Californian had been right to fear the weather, which was colder than I’d led her to believe. But I’d been right about the penguins. From the Antarctic Peninsula, where their numbers were impressive, the Orion’s route took us north again and then far east, to South Georgia island, where their numbers were staggering. South Georgia is a principal breeding site for the king penguin, a species nearly as tall as the emperor and even more dramatically plumaged. To see a king penguin in the wild seemed to me, in itself, sufficient reason not only to have made the journey; it seemed reason enough to have been born on this planet. Admittedly, I love birds. But I believe that a visitor from any other planet, observing a king penguin alongside even the most perfect human specimen, with vision unclouded by the possibility of sexual attraction, would declare the penguin the obviously more beautiful species. And it’s not just the hypothetical extraterrestrial. Everybody loves penguins. In the erectness of their bearing, and in their readiness to drop down on their bellies, the flinging way they gesture with their armlike flippers, the shortness of the strides with which they walk or boldly scamper on their fleshy feet, they resemble human children more closely than does any other animal, not excepting the great apes.
Having evolved on remote coastlines, Antarctic penguins are also the rare animal with absolutely no fear of us. When I sat on the ground, the king penguins came so close to me that I could have stroked their gleaming, furlike feathers. Their plumage had the hypercrispness of pattern, the hypervividness of color, that you can normally experience only by taking drugs. The colonies of gentoos and chinstraps had not been great for sitting down, because of the excrement. But the king penguins were, as one Lindblad naturalist put it, more tidy. At St. Andrews Bay, on South Georgia, where half a million adult kings and fluffy king chicks were gathered tightly together, all I smelled was sea and alpine air.
Though every penguin species has its charms—the glam-rock head-streamers of the macaroni penguin, the little parallel-footed jumps with which a rockhopper patiently climbs or descends a steep slope—I loved the kings above all others. They combined untoppable aesthetic splendor with the intently social energies of children at play. After porpoising toward shore, a group of kings would come running headlong up from the breakers, their flippers outstretched and fluttering, as if the water had got too cold for them. Or a lone bird would stand in shallow surf and gaze out to sea for so long that you wondered what thought was in its head. Or a pair of young males, excitedly tottering after an undecided female, would pause to see which of them was the more impressive craner of its neck, or to whap at each other ineffectually with their flippers. They had viciously sharp bills but sparred instead with punchless wings.
At St. Andrews, the activity was mostly on the outskirts of the colony. Because so many of the birds were incubating eggs or molting, the main colony itself seemed strikingly peaceful. The view of it from above reminded me of Los Angeles as seen from Griffith Park very early on a weekend morning. A drowsy megalopolis of upright penguins. Patrolling the thoroughfares were the sheathbills, strange snow-white birds with the body of a pigeon and the habits of a vulture. Even the amazing sound the kings made—a spiralling festive bray that was sort of like bagpipes, sort of like a holiday noise-maker, and sort of like the “woofing dog” sound on certain airplanes, but really like nothing on earth I’d ever heard—had a soothing effect when thousands of distant penguins were making it together.
In the twentieth century, human beings did penguins a favor by all but extirpating many of the whales and seals that they competed with for food. Penguin populations rose, and South Georgia has lately become even more hospitable to them, because the rapid retreat of its glaciers is exposing land suitable for nesting. But humanity’s benefit to penguins may be short-lived. If climate change continues to acidify the oceans, the water will reach a pH at which ocean invertebrates can’t grow their shells; one of these invertebrates, krill, is a dietary staple of many penguin species. Climate change is also rapidly diminishing the Antarctic Peninsula’s encircling ice, which provides a platform for the algae on which krill feed in winter, and which has hitherto protected krill from large-scale commercial exploitation. Supertanker-size factory ships may soon be coming from China, from Norway, from South Korea, to vacuum up the food on which not only the penguins but many whales and seals depend.
Krill are pinkie-size, pinkie-colored crustaceans. Estimating the total amount of them in the Antarctic is difficult, but a frequently cited figure, five hundred million metric tons, could make the species the world’s largest repository of animal biomass. Unfortunately for penguins, many countries consider krill good eating, both for humans (the taste is said to be acquirable) and especially for farm fish and livestock. Currently, the total reported annual take of krill is less than half a million tons, with Norway leading the list of harvesters. China, however, has announced its intention to increase its harvest to as much as two million tons a year, and has begun building the ships needed to do it. As the chairman of China’s National Agricultural Development Group has explained, “Krill provides very good quality protein that can be processed into food and medicine. The Antarctic is a treasure house for all human beings, and China should go there and share.”
The Antarctic marine ecosystem is indeed the richest in the world; it’s also the last remaining substantially intact one. Commercial use of it is monitored and regulated, at least nominally, by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. But decisions by the commission may be vetoed by any of its twenty-five members, and one of them, China, has a history of resisting the designation of some large marine protected areas. Another, Russia, has lately become openly intransigent, not only vetoing the establishment of new protected areas but questioning the very authority of the convention to establish them. Thus the future of krill, and with it the future of many penguin species, depends on uncertainties multiplied by uncertainties: how much krill there really is, how resiliently it can respond to climate change, whether any of it can now be harvested without starving other wildlife, whether such a harvest can even be regulated, and whether international coöperation on Antarctica can withstand new geopolitical conflicts. What isn’t uncertain is that global temperatures, global population, and global demand for animal protein are all rising fast.
Mealtimes on the Orion inevitably put me in mind of the sanatorium in “The Magic Mountain”: the thrice-daily rush for the dining room, the hermetic isolation from the world, the unchanging faces at the tables. Instead of Frau Stöhr, dropping the name of Beethoven’s “Erotica,” there was the Donald Trump supporter and his wife. There was the merry alcoholic couple. There was the Dutch rheumatologist, her rheumatologist second husband, her rheumatologist daughter, and the daughter’s rheumatologist boyfriend. There was the pair of couples who, whenever the Zodiacs were being loaded, maneuvered their way to the front of the line. There was the man who, by special permission, had brought along ham-radio equipment and was spending his vacation in the ship’s library, trying to contact fellow-hobbyists. There were the Australians who mostly didn’t mix.
By way of mealtime small talk, I asked people why they’d come to Antarctica. I learned that many were simply devotees of Lindblad. Some had heard, while on a different Lindblad, that a Lindblad to Antarctica was the best Lindblad, possibly excepting a Sea of Cortez Lindblad. One couple whom I liked very much, a doctor and a nurse, Bob and Gigi, had come to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary one year late. Another man, a retired chemist, told me that he’d chosen Antarctica only because he’d run out of other places he hadn’t been. I was glad that nobody mentioned seeing Antarctica before it melts. The surprise was that, for nearly the entire trip, not one staff person or passenger even uttered the words “climate change” in my hearing.
Granted, I was skipping many of the onboard lectures. To prove myself a hardest-core birder, I needed to be up on the observation deck. The hardest-core birder stands all day in biting wind and salt spray, staring into fog or glare in the hope of glimpsing something unusual. Even when your intuition is telling you that nothing’s out there, the only way to know for sure is to put in the hours and examine every speck of bird life out to the horizon, every Antarctic prion (might be a fairy prion) darting among waves whose color it matches exactly, every wandering albatross (might be a royal albatross) deciding whether the ship’s wake is worth following. Seawatching is sometimes nauseating, often freezing, and almost always punishingly dull. After I’d racked up thirty hours of it and tallied exactly one seabird of note, a Kerguelen petrel, I dialled back and devoted myself to the more sociable compulsion of playing bridge.
The other players, Diana and Nancy and Jacq, came from Seattle and belonged to a book club that had several other members on the ship. Along with Chris and Ada, they became my friends. In one of the early hands we played, I made a stupid discard, and Diana, a formidable bankruptcy attorney, laughed at me and said, “That was a terrible play.” I liked her for this. I liked the foulness of the language at the table. When my partner, Nancy, who owns a forklift dealership, was playing her first slam contract of the trip, and I’d pointed out that the rest of the tricks were hers, she snapped at me, “Let me play the cards, you shit.” She told me she’d meant it affectionately. The third player, Jacq, also an attorney, told me that she’d written a stage play about a Thanksgiving dinner she’d attended at Diana’s, in the course of which Diana’s ailing husband had died in bed in the family room. Jacq had the only tattoo I noticed on any passenger.
As in “The Magic Mountain,” the early days of the expedition were long and memorable, the later ones more of an accelerating blur. As soon as I’d had a rewarding encounter with South Georgia pipits (they were gorgeous and confiding),I lost interest in visiting abandoned whaling stations. Even in Doug’s voice, on our fifth day at South Georgia, a weariness was audible when he said, “So I think we’ll do another sea kayak.” He sounded like Vladimir and Estragon when they decide, late in “Godot,” after exhausting every other conceivable distraction, to “do the tree.”
Toward the end of the trip’s final day, which I’d mostly spent at the bridge table while hundreds of potentially interesting seabirds wheeled around outside, I went down to the lounge for a lecture on climate change. The lecture was delivered by the drone-flying Australian, whose name is Adam, and was attended by fewer than half the passengers. I wondered why Lindblad had postponed such an important lecture until the last day. The charitable explanation was that Lindblad, which prides itself on its environmental consciousness, wanted to send us home fired up to do more to protect the natural splendor we’d enjoyed.
Adam’s opening plea suggested other explanations. “Passenger-comment cards,” he said, “are not the place to voice your beliefs about climate change.” He laughed uneasily. “Don’t shoot the messenger.” He proceeded to ask how many of us believed the earth’s climate was changing. Everyone in the lounge raised a hand. And how many of us believed that human activity was causing it? Again, most hands were raised, but not the Donald Trump supporter’s, not the ham hobbyist’s. From the very back of the lounge came the curmudgeonly voice of Chris: “What about the people who think it isn’t a matter of belief?”
“Excellent question,” Adam said.
His lecture was a barn-burning reprise of “An Inconvenient Truth,” including the famous “hockey stick” graph of spiking temperatures, the famous map of an America castrated of its Florida by the coming rise in sea level. But the picture Adam painted was even darker than Al Gore’s, because the planet is heating up so much faster than even the pessimists expected ten years ago. Adam cited the recent snowless start of the Iditarod, the sickeningly hot winter that Alaska was having, the possibility of an ice-free North Pole in the summer of 2020. He noted that whereas, ten years ago, only eighty-seven per cent of the Antarctic Peninsula’s glaciers were known to be shrinking, the figure now seems to be a hundred per cent. But his darkest point was that climate scientists, being scientists, must confine themselves to making claims that have a high degree of statistical probability. When they model future climate scenarios and predict the rise in global temperature, they have to pick a lowball temperature, one reached in ninety-plus per cent of all cases, rather than the temperature that’s reached in the average scenario. Thus, the scientist who confidently predicts a five-degree (Celsius) warming by the end of the century might tell you in private, over beers, that she really expects it to be nine degrees.
Thinking in Fahrenheit—sixteen degrees—I felt very sad for the penguins. But then, as so often happens in climate-change discussions when the talk turns from diagnosis to remedies, the darkness became the blackness of black comedy. Sitting in the lounge of a ship burning three and a half gallons of fuel per minute, we listened to Adam extoll the benefits of shopping at farmers’ markets and changing our incandescent bulbs to L.E.D. bulbs. He also suggested that universal education for women would lower the global birth rate, and that ridding the world of war would free up enough money to convert the global economy to renewable energy. Then he called for questions or comments. The climate-change skeptics weren’t interested in arguing, but a believer stood up to say that he managed a lot of residential properties, and that he’d noticed that his federally subsidized tenants always kept their homes too hot in the winter and too cold in the summer, because they didn’t pay for their utilities, and that one way to combat climate change would be to make them pay. To this, a woman quietly responded, “I think the ultra-wealthy waste far more than people in subsidized housing.” The discussion broke up quickly after that—we all had bags to pack.
At six o’clock, the lounge filled up again, more tightly, for the climax of the expedition: the screening of a slide show to which passengers had been invited to contribute their three or four finest images. The photography instructor who was hosting it apologized in advance to anyone who didn’t like the songs he’d chosen for its soundtrack. The music—“Here Comes the Sun,” “Build Me Up Buttercup”—certainly didn’t help. But the whole show was dispiriting. There was the sense of diminishment I always get from our culture of images: no matter how finely you chop life into a sequence of photographs, no matter how closely in time the photographs are spaced, what the sequence always ends up conveying to me most strongly is what it leaves out. It was also sadly evident that three weeks of National Geographic instruction hadn’t produced National Geographic freshness of vision. And the cumulative effect was painfully wishful. The slide show purported to capture an adventure we’d had as a community, like the community of Shackleton and his men. But there had been no long Antarctic winter, no months of sharing seal meat. The vertical relationship between Lindblad and its customers had been too insistent to encourage the forging of horizontal bonds. And so the slide show came off as an amateur commercial for Lindblad. Its wishful context spoiled even the images that should have mattered to me, the way any amateur photograph matters: by recording the face of what we love. When my brother privately showed me a picture he’d taken of Chris and Ada sitting in a Zodiac (Chris failing to maintain complete disgruntlement, Ada outright smiling),it reminded me of my happiness at having found them on the ship. The picture was full of meaning—to me. Upload it onto Lindblad’s Web site, and its meaning collapses into advertising.
So what had been the point of coming to Antarctica? For me, it turned out, the point was to experience penguins, be blown away by the scenery, make some new friends, add thirty-one bird species to my life list, and celebrate my uncle’s memory. Was this enough to justify the money and the carbon it had cost? You tell me. But the slide show did perform a kind of backhanded service, by directing my attention to all the unphotographed minutes I’d been alive on the trip—how much better it was to be bored and frozen by seawatching than to be dead. A related service emerged the next morning, after the Orion had docked in Ushuaia and Tom and I were set free to wander the streets by ourselves. I discovered that three weeks on the Orion, looking at the same faces every day, had made me intensely receptive to any face that hadn’t been on it, especially to the younger ones. I felt like throwing my arms around every young Argentine I saw.
It’s true that the most effective single action that most human beings can take, not only to combat climate change but to preserve a world of biodiversity, is to not have children. It may also be true that nothing can stop the logic of human priority: if people want meat and there are krill for the taking, krill will be taken. It may even be true that penguins, in their resemblance to children, offer the most promising bridge to a better way of thinking about species endangered by the human logic: They, too, are our children. They, too, deserve our care.
And yet to imagine a world without young people is to imagine living on a Lindblad ship forever. My godmother had had a life like that, after her only child was killed. I remember the half-mad smile with which she once confided to me the dollar value of her Wedgwood china. But Fran had been nutty even before Gail died; she’d been obsessed with a biological replica of herself. Life is precarious, and you can crush it by holding on too tightly, or you can love it the way my godfather did. Walt lost his daughter, his war buddies, his wife, and my mother, but he never stopped improvising. I see him at a piano in South Florida, flashing his big smile while he banged out old show tunes and the widows at his complex danced. Even in a world of dying, new loves continue to be born. ♦