It has been a juggle to stay happy and focussed here at times. Not too difficult but I have had to exert self-discipline and find a balance between the stunning sublime views and the grind of isolation and time. Thus, there is over-stimulation and under-stimulation found in the daily patterns of Antarctic life. I believe everyone has felt this to a degree at some stage throughout the year. My method of operating down here has somehow worked as I have not “lost the plot” and there is now only a handful of weeks remaining here at Mawson Station before I am extracted and begin to move to one of the continents washed with liquid water and covered with masses of humans. The cultural life here has been unique and exotic and there is much more I wish to do but time seems to speed up now.
Culture is derived from the Latin ‘cultura’ or ‘cultured land’ but what does it mean in Antarctica where the land is squashed under 30 million square kilometres of ice and nobody stays longer than a year or two at the most? Culture today is many things like “the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties of people by education”. It is the “integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behaviour”. It is “customary beliefs, social forms and material traits of a particular racial, religious or social group” and it is “excellence of taste in fine arts and humanities”. That is a lot of stuff! Human culture slowly settles into the Ice. Like elsewhere on the planet, culture is created everyday in Antarctica but here it emerges amongst extreme isolation, severe weather and the transient population. Most activities here are very fresh, windswept and weather permitting.
Antarctica has distinctive history, science, celebrations, traditions, language even fashion and art begin to accumulate on top of the many layers of ice.
I will run through some activities found on the Ice with the hope of briefly exploring Antarctic culture.
Most ideas and pastimes come from other continents although Science collects new data and this can indeed be original and extremely important but other activities here are transplanted from warmer parts of the world. Culture down on the ice revolves around science, the collecting of data, research, PhDs, fact finding and testing to form models that may help humans understand more, do more, live more and be more but more sustainably.
Human History is really only 100 years young in Antarctica and consists of a tiny number of mostly men exploring, documenting, searching and trying to stay alive. The Heroic era is well over now but its pemmican flavour still lingers at some stations, as does the respect for those early explorers.
Art arrived here with science by tagging along as a documentation and publicity tool for scientific work and to this day it still plays those roles along with its own separate intrinsic performances. As a painter in this science driven world I may seem out of place at times but the support and interest of all on the station is quite strong and positive which helps me to translate this strange white land into art. Not a simple task in any climate.
Photography is the main form of visual art made in Antarctica and cinema is the most popular entertainment but other media, can appear depending on the individuals on station at any given time.
There is very little formal religion here and that is neatly tucked away in a church on the American station and a few on the Antarctic Peninsula. Science has swamped voodoo, virgins running about heaven waiting for heroes and the idea of a hot hell here is extremely difficult to even consider. The remaining spiritual business here is private and intimate and that includes the common shock of grand sublime nature doing its thing Big-time. The humble viewing of the awesome icescape seems to be ample soul food for most people down on the Ice.
Language is a transmitter of culture and its role here is certainly primary, as contact with the rest of the world is much needed. There has recently been an Antarctic English dictionary published which reminds us that language is a very fluid human tool. The dictionary is formed from science, acronyms, slang, Inuit and other borrowed words. All required to describe this unusual icy continent.
Food must be mentioned as well as it is often an integral part of social functions. High-energy food like chocolate is popular as is alcohol. As a result both are locked in a secure facility called ‘Fort Knox’ in an attempt to stop over consumption. Four meals a day keep people physically and psychologically happy with smoked oysters and other treats strangely desired. Over winter fresh fruit and vegetables are missed but hydroponics can help in that department. Otherwise there is no local produce so a special Antarctic cuisine has not grown but experimentation with homebrew beer is far from unheard of.
Celebrations imported from various homelands are performed with gusto. Public holidays, religious festivals, (often attended by atheists with full glasses) special days and birthdays are all diligently celebrated. Unique Antarctic events are found on the calendar such as the Mid-Winter feast, end of summer and end of winter formal dinners along with the short getaways called “jollies.” All of these activities ward of the ‘groundhog day’ syndrome, which can make each day in Antarctica, seem like the last. These functions create a community structure and acknowledge the desire to share events.
In Antarctica you can see the following –
1. A strong focus on positive scientific activity.
2. Immediate help to any one from any country in trouble.
3. Recycling and environmental impact concerns that are as strong as anywhere on the planet.
4. An aesthetic love of the continent displayed by the staggering number of photographs taken by those that work and visit Antarctica.
These positive cultural traits have become ingrained and automatic on most stations most of the time.
We can thank both the demanding climate and the geo-political anomaly of the Antarctic treaty for the above behaviour. Surprisingly this treaty has the signatures of over 40 countries on a document that states they will not fight over borders or make a mess as well as share knowledge across the entire continent. Very surprising in fact!
Someone once said to me “why go to Antarctica? There’s no culture there!” My slightly arrogant reply was “ Then I best make some when I get there.” Which is what we all do here, there and elsewhere. It is what type of culture that is important.
On pre-departure talks before travel to Antarctica there is usually a doctor to give everyone a fast overview of conditions down on the Ice regarding health. Often the final words are simply something like this “ Don’t get cold and look after one another.” Not a bad doctrine for Antarctica or elsewhere in this world.