The Best Essay I Read This Month: “Antarctic Dreams” by Douglas Fox

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Reported essays often forget either the ability to be literary in their writing, or else overcompensate for such and crowd out the facts with flowery prose. A balanced one is a pleasure to read, as with Douglas Fox’s “Antarctic Dreams” in the Spring 2016 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review.

In writing the story of the team of scientists attempting to drill a hole in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet for the first time, Fox puts the stakes right up near the top—$10 million in potentially wasted funding; years spent building the drill; an achievement in scientific exploration “on par with landing a probe for the first time on Mars.” Whatever lay beneath the ice might be something like what lay beneath the ice on the moons of Jupiter. Saturn. It’s not an unusual move to drop the reader right into a moment of precarious tension, then move out for exposition and introduction to the main players, but Fox does it cleanly and in a way that captures interest from the first paragraph. The writing is descriptive, but not lyric. The imagery serves a purpose and isn’t overdone.

On the day that drilling began, a brisk breeze blew through camp—propelled by a current of dense frigid air pouring off the high Polar Plateau, sixty miles south. Wisps of white, powdery spindrift slithered over the ground. At the head of the machine, two truck-sized generators started to roar, burning jet fuel to crank out nearly half a million watts of electricity. The drill’s circulatory system churned to life, and what was mechanical began to seem almost biological: Water coursed from one shipping container to the next through arteries of reinforced Kevlar hose as thick as a man’s wrist. In the first container, powerful ultraviolet lamps sterilized the water; filters removed outside material that might contaminate the pristine Lake Whillans, if and when the drill reached it. In the next two containers, Duling’s prized fleet of power-washers pressurized and heated the water to near boiling. The hot, clean water then passed into the next container, gushing into another Kevlar hose, more than half a mile long, coiled around a mechanized spool as wide as a city bus. Despite its vast scale, the drill functioned on a surprisingly simple principle, akin to peeing into a snow drift: By forcing hot water into the ice, you can gradually create a hole.

I could be coming at this with a bias, because I have always found what goes on at the poles of the Earth inordinately fascinating, but I do think Fox does a nice job of including very small doses of technical description without being pedantic. In general, the essay is much less scientifically dense than you might expect, favoring more accessible descriptions and allegories, which allows the writing a broader audience while stopping short of anything patronizing. Fox draws a parallel between the cohesiveness that existed among the team of seven drillers and the infinite, minutely coordinated functions of a human brain. He also lets a small number of choice, earthy quotes from the drillers themselves explain what’s happening.

“That’s a dairy storage tank,” he said as he pointed toward a truck-sized cylinder overhead. “A stirring tank, like out of a cheese factory. I bought it used from Ullmer’s Dairy in Pulaski, Wisconsin.”

He also shares pieces from the life stories of the drillers; what motivated them, how they ended up where they were. It pulls the narrative along without losing the overhanging tension we still feel as we wait to hear about the mission’s outcome. He details their personal lives, past and present, and the bleak struggles of living isolated inside “the dome.” The psychological makeup of this team of men is as central to the essay as the drilling mission.

As the drill inched downward, sometime after midnight Burnett, Gibson, and Blythe gathered for a respite in the control room. The space was cluttered with Carhartt jackets, goggles, gloves, plyers. A bottle of Ice Hole schnapps stood in a corner, reserved for celebration. They soon found themselves talking about one another’s dreams. Burnett, on his first-ever trip to Antarctica, seemed amused by the fact that he hadn’t had any dreams set there since he’d arrived three months ago.

“You will,” Blythe said. “As soon as you go home.” After his first winter at the South Pole, Blythe said, he “dreamed about Antarctica for six months straight.”

Gibson agreed.“I still have Antarctic dreams, mostly about my first winter” at South Pole thirteen years ago.“That classic dream that people told me about—you walk [outside] and instead of snow it’s all grass.”

This is touching, but could become corny really quickly. Fox steers the essay back into the tense give-and-take of multiple failed or aborted attempts to drill and analyze what was needed, the agony of having to leave and then return to try again. It’s neither just the story of the drillers as characters in a narrative nor just a reported feature of a research project. It’s an essay that manages to be a little of everything.

In the months after the researchers returned home with mud and water samples from Lake Whillans, they would go on to identify at least 4,000 types of microbes inhabiting the lake. In the absence of sunlight, these microorganisms subsist by gnawing on iron and sulfur minerals, and by burning simple fuels like ammonium and methane that filter up from the mud. The lake water itself is surprisingly temperate, warmed by geothermal heat seeping from deep in the Earth to a temperature of 31 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than the coastal ocean waters 600 miles to the north. Lake Whillans would turn out to provide the best view, to date, of what kind of life might exist in deep oceans, buried beneath miles of ice, in frozen moons like Europa and Enceladus. As Priscu put it,“This is a new frontier. I think we need ten years of this before we really understand it.”