Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Longest Night

Photo from Internet: Generic Antarctic Octopi

I had the happy experience of stumbling across this letter home amongst my things this week. A fabulous memory of a few years ago when I lived in Antarctica, where seasons are opposite of ours in North America, winter blackness goes on for months, and a crazy annual tradition is undertaken every June 21st. In a divergence from all things hot and humid and sandy and sunburned, I am delighted to share this memory with all of you who kindly read my occasional ramblings. Happy Solstice, particularly to my iciest of friends.



Midwinter Greetings from Antarctica!!

They say that today is the longest night of the year. Not to be confused with yesterday, and our 24 hours of darkness, nor tomorrow, and our 24 hours of darkness. This longest night has been determined with meteorological specificity. We are tipped farther from the sun today than we have been tipped all year. After this night, the sun will start her slow trip back to our horizon – a journey of another 61 days.

In fine human form, we celebrate this longest night with a bit of pomp, a bit of circumstance, and a fine tradition of human stupidity. We pull out our shovels and chainsaws, and dig down to the depths of the sea, 15 feet beneath the snow and ice. We stop to stare into the shallow depths of the re-discovered liquid ocean, through a six by six foot square window in its solid surface. Illuminated by a submerged light, the sea laps gently at its new icy frame. And we strip down to our skivvies -- some, in fact, down to nothing at all -- because, dammit, its summer (somewhere). It’s June, for God’s sake. And, yes, it’s time for a swim.

Our pale, fleshy bodies glow eerily in the foggy moonlight. No need for sunscreen on this beach today. Bare-bodied, defiant, we walk one-by-one down to the hole. This is, perhaps, a keen and wondrous example of the powerful emotion “denial”, and the eternal battle of the logical mind and its rebel nemesis. The rebel mind fails to acknowledge that minutes prior, its body was bundled in down, silk, fleece, wool and complicated polypropylene. It fails to question why it is now walking, defiantly naked, towards this newly opened window to the sea. Outside. In the -40F ambient air, made ever more frigid by the presence of a katabatic wind. It instead snickers with barely hidden delight. The logical mind wonders, “Why am I wearing sneakers, but nothing else? Isn’t this odd?” The rebel mind grins. It knows why**.

(**Previous attempts to perform this feat sneakerless has left people with the skin of their feet literally torn off, frozen permanently to the sea ice.)

It is the rebel mind that guides the body down the icy path to the hole in the mid-day darkness. It guides the hands that grab the dripping, icy harness and wrap it around its torso.

“What is this harness for?” asks the logical mind, cringing at its acrid frigidity on the flesh of its body’s warm back.

“Why, it’s a safeguard to prevent your body from getting sucked under into the ocean’s 300 foot depths,” whispers the rebel mind.

The logical mind contemplates this for a moment, suddenly catching on. The hole. The harness. The inappropriate nudity. Dear God in heaven! The body’s pulses surge with sudden panic-impregnated awareness. The logical mind prepares to mount a sudden protest. But, alas…the rebel mind has already directed the knees to bend, the calves to contract, a lateral jump into the air, and then….


No, not cold. There is no description for this sensation. It is cold and wet and suffocation and pain and panic and fear and bright light and hair-standing-on-end and muscles contracting and blood vessels constricting and eyelids (and, yes, other orifices) clenching. Perhaps this is what it is like to get struck by lightning, or fall from an airplane with a great splat onto the earth below: a sudden, body-consuming, brain-flooding sensation of transient life.

This sensation is perhaps made worse by the rumor of octopi.

Yes, there are things living down there under the ice. One wonder of this newly-opened window to the sea is the life it reveals teeming in the waters below. We are not alone here in our Antarctic wilderness, on our dark Midwinter’s Day. Two years ago, one plunger was intimately greeted by the warm mammalian nose of curious weddel seal. This year, as we stare down into the sea, hundreds of small eyes stare back at our warbling forms. Bright orange krill swim at the surface, perhaps holding their own mid-winter celebration? Are they challenging each other to jump out of the ocean into the frigid air above, for a momentary glimpse of our waterless world? If I look closer, will I see the small harness that they attach to each other, to prevent them from floating away in the Antarctic winds? Beyond the krill, one can spy giant yellow starfish, clinging to the rocks of the sea floor below; and foot-long white worms, squiggling hideously just below our ladder in the hole. These worms are not dangerous, we are told. Just hideous, slimy, disgusting, necrotic foragers. They eat only dead things. They are the recyclers of the sea. So, what brings them here on this day, the mind has to wonder, to loom in wait beneath our hole -- these eaters of dead things? Would their presence make them optimists? Or pessimists? That, I suppose, depends on your perspective….

But, yes, an octopus had been spotted, feeding on krill just below the surface of the water. Certainly, this was quite the unexpected opportunity for him. He’d been swimming about in the dark depths of the ocean for months now, blindly groping about for dinner, not a glimmer of sun in the sky. When, suddenly, the illumination from our underwater lamp brought enlightenment, and with it, the fantastical and alluring dance of krill. Dinner. And he had swiftly scooted by, just in time for my turn at the plunge hole.

“Watch out for the octopus,” my Kiwi friend warned flatly, as he stood beside me at the mouth of the hole. He was the dive tender. I was standing beside him, nearly naked, save my sneakered feet, tankini, and fine layer of goosebumps. It was not a choice moment for a lecture on marine biology.

“The what?” I asked with pseudocalm, a hint of poorly veiled trepidation in my harsh whisper. “Watch out for the what?”

“The octopus,” he replied, with an unblinking challenge, a stoic stare. At that moment, he extended to me a band of icy, dripping cloth attached to a rope. “Here. Put on your harness.”

“Funny,” I said, with poorly-feigned nonchalance. “You think you’re sooo funny. There isn’t any bloody octopus in that water!”

“Don’t worry,” he reassured with a calm stare, pausing for dramatic effect. “It wasn’t a big octopus.”

Right. As if the size of the octopus had anything to do with my trepidation. As if I should have been un-alarmed by the presence of any hungry, multi-legged, suction-cup encrusted, beak-faced being that had been blindly flailing tentacled appendages for months in the frozen dark sea, seeking even a single morsel of food. As if I should have been unconcerned by the prospect of his octopus family, who might have been lurking just on the other side of the ice, in the shadows, out of sight, emaciated, drooling in anticipation of their next meal. And how big is an octopus family, anyway? Ten? Twenty slithering beasts? How many legs does that make? How wonderful that they had been alerted by the plunging humans before me -- a virtual dinner bell. These creatures, who’d been eeking out their survival in the dark Antarctic sea for months, barely subsisting on a diet of microscopic krill, now attracted to the light, now drooling in the darkness. And who would, in a moment, be presented with a rather large, tender, warm, fleshy morsel known fondly to me as... my body.

“Fantastic,” thought my logical mind. “I am bait.”

“True,” acknowledged my rebel mind. “Bait.” And then my body was hijacked.

Unexpectedly, my breath sucked in deeply and my toes pushed off forcefully in the icy slush on the side of the hole. As I flew through the air, muscles tensing, eyes clenching, my logical mind repeated the mantra of my shoremate. “No worries. It isn’t a big octopus. It isn’t a big octopus…”


Cold. No, not cold…

The first one-millionth of a second of cold-water immersion -- when the first molecule of toe hits the water -- initiates the cascade of a massive adrenaline dump. A giant internal air raid siren begins its deafening scream. The fight or flight response ensues. As the first tinkling-bubbling of ocean migrates down the auditory canal, the mind has already formulated its frenetic plan, and screams commands like an angry drill sergeant. “Left leg push! Right arm grab the ladder! Climb, climb, climb! What the HELL are we doing underwater? Don’t you know this is Antarctica?” And on the heels of that, “Worms! Big carnivorous worms!” And finally, to motivate, “Octopi!”

Yes, the brain is in full flight. So, when the dive tender at the surface starts screaming, “Octopus!! It’s the octopus! Look out!! My God, look out!!” there’s not a whole lot more for the body to do, except accelerate its escape. And imagine tentacled arms gently brushing against frigid legs. Hands grip the icy rails of the escape ladder, ignoring the frozen paralysis of muscles. The body climbs. And in moments, it is standing once again on the icy ledge, above the window to the sea, dripping wet, now convecting any remaining body heat off into the windy darkness. A leg gives a shake to dislodge imagined remnant tentacles. Eyes quickly turn back to stare down into the icy hole.

“You saw the octopus?!” I cried, wide eyed with horror, dripping like a wet rat, staring into the abyss. “Was it after me? Really?!” my voice squeaked in a frigid whisper.

Then came the laughter -- a loud uproarious eruption. He was laughing at me, the dive tender, a look of exquisite glee in his eyes. “No,” he said, chortling with obvious amusement. “Not really.”

I glared at him silently. Warm air steamed visibly, flaring from my nostrils. He would never know. How close that man came today to a sudden swim in that hole -- big down thermal body suit, boots, hat, gloves and all -- for a better look at that octopus. If only my hands were not frozen at that moment into frigid claws. If only I weren’t dripping wet, hair freezing in place in a tangled mat on my head. If only my muscles would respond to something other than a fierce command to run away to the warming shelter. Down he would have gone to commune with the octopi. The worms might have found their meal, as well. But, lucky Kiwi. In the contest of fight versus flight today, flight won. Just barely.

And my rebel brain grinned in preening satisfaction, while my logical brain sighed, urging my frigid legs towards the warming shelter.

“Come now,” urged the rebel brain. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“I’m not talking to you,” grumbled the logical brain, effectively masking its unsurpressable elation, and the virtual sparkle in its eye.“Not bad at all,” it whispered silently to no one.

So, the plungers plunged, then donned their down, and slowly walked away. With the sea light gone, the octopus family groped their way into the darkness. The carnivorous worms squirmed along towards a more hopeful site, mild frustration in their slithering gaits. And the starfish remained, seated quietly on their rocky thrones, peering up through the skylight in their icy ceiling to the night sky above, towards their sister stars in the heavens. Golden star shining upon golden star…

On this Midwinter’s Night.