Jesse Blackadder (1964–2020) was twice awarded the prestigious Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) Arts Fellowship, travelling south to Davis Station in 2011 to work on her novel Chasing the Light and again to Mawson Station in 2018. Conversations with her in late 2019 fed many of the first thoughts about the possibility of an Antarctic edition of Griffith Review: her introduction connected Griffith Review with the team at AAD, which ultimately enabled this publishing partnership.
This memoir combines private diary entries from her second voyage south, in late 2018, with published blogs from the same period. This voyage – longer than her first – saw her travel with and collaborate across various projects with Jane Allen, another AAD Arts Fellow, including a series of YA novels and a television script.
Through this short memoir’s combination of exploration and meditation, it’s possible to glimpse – through an intimate and generous window – some of the realities of the experience of living and working at the end of the Earth; of distance, silence, loneliness and creativity, and an extraordinary demonstration of the process of transforming that life, that experience, into words that can be shared with readers in what might be thought of as the ‘real world’ beyond.
Thanks to Jesse’s partner, Andi Davey, for permission to collate and share some of Jesse’s words in this way.
Mon 5 November, 6.50 am
Yesterday a slide of emotions for really no reason at all. In the morning I woke excited and happy, hardly able to believe I’m on this adventure. On the bridge after breakfast (feels like days ago) – the feeling intensified and deepened. Surrounded by icebergs and sea ice, the ship making her stately way through the majesty. A big slow silence opening up inside me. This long journey is absolutely what’s needed to approach this place – crossing the threshold, the forty-eight hours of seasick disorientation, stupor, sleep, a liminal zone of dark and light, everything inside rocked and tossed, rearranged and recalibrated for this crossing into the new world. It is a heroes’ journey.
Wed or Thursday...I think Thurs 8 Nov
Alone on the helideck. Around me, stretching in all directions, a vast white plain of ice. Overhead, off-white sky. The sun is a white headlamp in fog.
We cracked and shoved our way through the ice, one or two ship’s length at a time, backwards and forwards over and over, and at last in the morning’s small hours, came to rest in a parking spot in this harbour in front of Davis. Huge horizons, and on them the low rise of the Vestfold Hills, rocks showing through snow. The extraordinary jumble of iceberg alley – any one of them an exquisite creation of blue ice carved by wind and water – together almost too much to take in.
Across on the flat sea ice, two quad bikes cross silently, weaving around the penguins.
Everything is stretched and compressed. Time, space, perspective, distance. On the ship it’s a mix of hurry up and wait – cabins cleaned, bags packed and stacked in the halls, people standing in cabin doorways chatting – the uncertainty of farewells. Especially the twenty-odd Mawson-bound expeditioners – not knowing who to farewell and when.
My internal levels rock and bob although the ship’s firmly wedged in 1.5-metre thick fast ice and not moving at all. After a night of crushing and crunching, forward and reversing, crunching and breaking – shattered from lack of sleep although I thought I did sleep. I have the whole season here ahead of me – plenty of time. I’ve slowed down so far I wonder if I can speed up again.
What would I say of this place today?
Outside, Friday afternoon sun rides high. Knock-off time shortly, drinks @Met, hamburgers in the bar, putting out the fire with gasoline, just another Friday night. Me, all apart. This place is taking me to pieces. Flee to my room, unable to face lunch. Weep. I raft the doona over my head, curl in hard, my body pushes me over into sleep, the only safety to be found. Try to recalibrate while I’m under. Two hours pass, deep under. It works – I wake feeling some ground underfoot – but the crust is thin, and so little is needed to shift, crack, break through and fall.
Survival training did not address this – how to find emotional safety when conditions have gone unpredictable, or bad, or even dangerous. Stop, think, plan. Go to ground. Call for help. There feels not much help at hand right this moment, though that also may be just what I’m telling myself. I look tired and ancient. I want to hide here forever, or at least tonight, one place of safety, one place out of the all-seeing gaze of the station.
Sometime in January
Sometimes here things feel so very big
Sometimes here I feel so very small
Sometimes I feel completely present
Other times I feel nowhere at all
Outside, nothing moves
Nothing shows my eye what’s blowing until Curly pushes his way up the hill against the wind. It tears at his shirt. The phone tells me it’s twenty-three knots gusting to twenty-eight knots. In one corner of the dog-room view, it rakes the surface of the tide’s edge. Unfrozen water.
There’s not much to take the eyes. Palette – so stripped back – white, blue, soft grey, a hint of green. Photos from home are gaudy and shocking.
And with all this light and starkness and nowhere to hide, everything is laid bare.
Antarctic summer peaked last week, with daytime temperatures reaching 5 degrees. In front of the station, the sea ice is still cracking up and melting, especially at the tidelines. On the hottest days, turquoise melt streams gushed down the ice plateau behind the station and the five-kilometre walking loop on the ice became soft and rather treacherous.
Now things have changed again. It’s only two weeks since the summer solstice, but already I can feel the season’s turn. Temperatures are dropping, puddles and melt streams refreezing. We’re still experiencing 24-hour daylight, but in the wee small hours the sun dips low, light turns gold and shadows stretch long over the sea ice. Official sunsets return in ten days.
Four pretty major things since I last wrote. A few weeks ago Jane and I finished the first draft of book one in our middle-grade fiction trilogy – 33,000 words written jointly – a tale of four kids on an Antarctic adventure that becomes a fight for survival. I’ve never actually written with someone else – sitting side by side and writing alternating chapters – and it worked really well. Completing a draft was further than I’d expected to get. In fact, it was exhilarating.
Secondly – I survived survival training. It was relatively benign, given the warm time of the year, but it pushed me. Jane, Amy and I spent three days out in the field learning how to ride quad bikes on ice and snow, how to retrieve a stuck quad bike, how to put up an emergency tent between two quad bikes, how to sink snow anchors and ice screws, how to make a pulley, how to use an ice axe to get out of sea ice if it collapsed beneath you, how to assemble and use an emergency stove without incinerating self or others.
On the second night in the field I slept in a bivvy, which is a fancy name for a large yellow plastic bag, aka the chip packet. Given I haven’t slept on the ground in a million years, I was nervous. In fact, it was beautiful lying on the rocks watching snow petrels wheeling around the cliffs above me, and then tucking down into the bag and actually managing to sleep for a few hours.
Straight after survival training we repacked, turned around and headed out on the quads again for a jolly – another night in a field hut, this time purely for fun. Wrapped up the next day with a long walk up a scree slope in high winds, during which I mentally composed farewell messages to my loved ones in case I expired. (For some reason it doesn’t look nearly as scary and steep and windy in the photo!) Then set out on the journey back to station and experienced what happens with thick cloud cover – it becomes physically impossible to discern depth on the snow, and therefore very difficult to ride. Something I’d heard described but never experienced.
Out in the field I felt euphoria, terror, frustration, exultation and most things in between. In some areas I surprised myself with capability, but in many more I struggled – mostly in keeping track of the vast range of gear that I had to carry and manage, and also in facing physical fears.
Back from the field, exhausted – and straight into Christmas. Getting into the spirit, helping with meal and decoration prep, sending messages home. The station makes a massive effort for Christmas, but it was always going to be a hard time – the gathering of my clan every second year is something I really love, and missing it was sad. Then just before bed on Christmas Eve I received news that my cousin Peter had died very suddenly of a heart attack while visiting Australia from his LA home. I haven’t seen Peter for a long time, apart from our interactions on Facebook, but I felt heartbroken for his family. His elderly mother was waiting for Peter to fly to Ballina for Christmas – the first one they would have spent together in years – and he died in Sydney at 5 am Christmas morning without seeing her. It was tough news on a day that already held challenges.
The sea ice in Horseshoe Bay has been cracking up, rotting and melting in the past few weeks and it mirrored my internal landscape. I was just over halfway through the season, interacting with other people almost every waking hour, under the gaze of 24-hour daylight, in a stark and stripped-down landscape. Sensitivities and vulnerabilities magnified, and it was hard to distinguish reality from my own reactions. I felt isolated, left out, adrift. Difficult emotions became even harder to manage in these conditions – with a small group of people day and night. I spent a lot of time flailing around, trying to get back on an even keel. Moments of darkness were interspersed with times of great beauty, fun and friendship, but I was struggling.
Long conversations with trusted loved ones at home helped hugely (thank goodness for the satellite phone system), as did Jane’s patience in listening and helping talk through things. And I became aware that the station is a watchful place – in the best sense. After I disappeared into my room for most of a day, I was greeted by gentle inquiries about my wellbeing, from people I wouldn’t have expected to notice my absence. By New Year’s Eve I was very touched by the relationships that have been forged here – and the reminder that I’m not the only person in the world who has vulnerabilities. My respect increased for the people who do this over winter, in darkness, isolated with an even smaller group.
And this all led to a brilliant night of fancy dress, dancing, air guitar, snowflakes and hijinks to see in the new year, in one of the old huts in the original station. An absolutely joyful celebration.
Five days into 2019, I feel mostly out of the woods. I’m back in the joy of being in this incredible place. Jane and I are well into developing the
TV series, so the excitement of creative expression is back. Some other creative ideas – perhaps in other forms – are starting to bubble up inside me. It has been a hard time, but perhaps an important balance to the jubilation of the first half of the season. And all part of the journey of being here, exploring and understanding what it is to live and work in this sublime and intense place.
Time’s moving very fast now. Winterers are starting to get organised for the journey home, schedules are being drawn up, paperwork for cargo submitted, days being counted down. There’s really only three more weeks of station operations to go. And then a long month on the ship…
I wish you all the very best.
This place, for this time is home.
You inhabit. Habitation. Living.
Between the profound and prosaic.
This place, where sky surrounds you
and ice stretches south to
Ice and stone, cloud, wind
light with no end and no start.
You can feel very large
and very small.
or nowhere at all.
You look for words, because that’s
what you know.
Here it seems an intangible skill,
hard to pin down, hard to show.
Here, people deal in metal and wood
and fuel and cable and machinery.
Or in numbers, measurements
Here, there’s no hiding.
The heroic and the shameful,
the prosaic and profound
on display. In 24-hour daylight.
Here’s a quiet courage
what it took to step up and strike out
all that’s been risked on every side
to come this distance, and say
Here. You’ll live, for this time.
unmoored from the old,
Over this time, the cream-blue scallops
of polished sea ice soften, crack,
split, turn white, break apart.
With all preparations, you can still
This place is absolutely safe
You’re not home here long enough to
know all the ways.
You long for something to take home,
some thing you can hold and touch and
see, something that exists in the world.
You still can’t find the words to
why the ice calls you so.
The sound you want to remember
Crak of Adélie, tweeping of emperor chicks
and the deep trumpet of their parents.
Ice underfoot that’s hollow.
Melt streams off the plateau.
The broken-glass chink of the ice plateau in the melt.
The wind in the mornings, rattling the blizz lines.
The roar-hum of the MPH sliding into your dreams.
The silence out at Fang and Rum and Hendo.
The wind in the chip packet.
The slither of scree underfoot.
Your own loud breath walking in the cold wind.
You find time of company and time without.
Connection, friendship, loneliness.
The other home feels far away.
You find friendship too, stretching beyond
the horizon and out of sight.
You don’t know yet how deep it goes.