Volume one of The South Pole: finished. I’ll shortly be starting volume two – in which Amundsen cheerfully makes his way to the South Pole. Almost all of volume one concerns itself with the preparations for the trip, packing for the trip, and then leaving on the trip…and more or less end just as the attempt for the pole is about to begin.
There are occasional glimpses of homesickness in volume one:
By noon on Saturday, January 28, the hut was ready, and all the 900 cases were in place. The depot of provisions had quite an imposing appearance. Great rows of cases stood in the snow, all with their numbers outward, so that we could find what we wanted at once. And there was the house, all finished, exactly as it had stood in its native place on Bundefjord. But it would be difficult to imagine more different surroundings: there, green pinewoods and splashing water; here, ice, nothing but ice. But both scenes were beautiful; I stood thinking which I preferred. My thoughts travelled far – thousands of miles in a second. It was the forest that gained the day.
But for the most part, the expedition is comfortable, well-fed, and happy: they’ve constructed a really comfortable home (a station, I guess?) and set out supply depots that they can use on their way back from the South Pole. But there are challenges in this new landscape:
The weather conditions were not quite what we should have wished in an unknown country. It is true that it was calm and mild, and altogether pleasant for travelling, but the light was not good. A grey haze, the most unpleasant kind of light after fog, lay upon the landscape, making the Barrier and the sky merge into one. There was no horizon to be seen. This grey haze, presumably a younger sister of fog, is extremely disagreeable. One can never be certain of one’s surroundings. There are no shadows; everything looks the same. In a light like this it is a bad thing to be the forerunner; he does not see the inequalities of the ground until too late — until he is right on them. This often ends in a fall, or in desperate efforts to keep on his feet. It is better for the drivers, they can steady themselves with a hand on the sledge. But they also have to be on the lookout for inequalities, and see that the sledges do not capsize. This light is also very trying to the eyes, and one often hears of snow-blindness after such a day. The cause of this is not only that one strains one’s eyes continually; it is also brought about by carelessness. One is very apt to push one’s snow-goggles up on to one’s forehead, especially if they are fitted with dark glasses. However, we always came through it very well; only a few of us had a little touch of this unpleasant complaint. Curiously enough, snow-blindness has something in common with seasickness. If you ask a man whether he is seasick, in nine cases out of ten he will answer: “No, not at all – only a little queer in the stomach.” It is the same, in a slightly different way, with snow-blindness. If a man comes into the tent in the evening with an inflamed eye and you ask him whether he is snow-blind, you may be sure he will be almost offended. “Snow-blind? Is it likely? No, not at all, only a little queer about the eye.”
But Amundsen finds beauty and pleasure in the strangeness of it all, too:
Winter! I believe most people look upon winter as a time of storms, cold, and discomfort. They look forward to it with sadness, and bow before the inevitable — Providence ordains it so. The prospect of a ball or two cheers them up a little, and makes the horizon somewhat brighter; but, all the same — darkness and cold — ugh, no! let us have summer, they say. What my comrades thought about the winter that was approaching I cannot say; for my part, I looked forward to it with pleasure. When I stood out there on the snow hill, and saw the light shining out of the kitchen window, there came over me an indescribable feeling of comfort and well-being. And the blacker and more stormy the winter night might be, the greater would be this feeling of well-being inside our snug little house.
And he delights in the auroras:
The light is so wonderful; what causes this strange glow? It is clear as daylight, and yet the shortest day of the year is at hand. There are no shadows, so it cannot be the moon. No; it is one of the few really intense appearances of the aurora australis that receives us now. It looks as though Nature wished to honour our guests, and to show herself in her best attire. And it is a gorgeous dress she has chosen. Perfectly calm, clear with a starry sparkle, and not a sound in any direction. But wait: what is that? Like a stream of fire the light shoots across the sky, and a whistling sound follows the movement. Hush! can’t you hear? It shoots forward again, takes the form of a band, and glows in rays of red and green. It stands still for a moment, thinking of what direction it shall take, and then away again, followed by an intermittent whistling sound. So Nature has offered us on this wonderful morning one of her most mysterious, most incomprehensible, phenomena – the audible southern light.
I’m not sure that I believe the bit about being able to hear the aurora australis, but the way Amundsen writes about the South Pole seems to reinforce the sense of a strange and other-worldly land – and so whether it’s true or not, the description really does seem to connect to that depiction. I’m going to work on volume two over the weekend, and I’ve done a big JSTOR search for articles…a good sixty of them to read through and sort into the ‘good’ or ‘not good’ folders. And notes to take. And library books to read.
And popcorn to make and movies to watch. Which are, um, not strictly part of the research process in the academic sense…but still vital ones. I’m taking the spirit of Amundsen to heart: he strikes me as somebody who would heartily approve of popcorn and movies.