Southward, Ho!

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I had never before had the experience of beholding scenic beauty so dazzling that I couldn’t process it, couldn’t get it to register as something real. ILLUSTRATION BY BLEXBOLEX

We are happy any time this novelist takes time from his main craft to devote time to what seems to be his main personal passion, which might be identified as birding, or else more broadly speaking the environment in which birds thrive (or not). From this week’s New Yorker, another journey far away, southward, by Jonathan Franzen with an eye to environmentalist perspective:

The End of the End of the World

An uncle’s legacy and a journey to Antarctica.


Two years ago, a lawyer in Indiana sent me a check for seventy-eight thousand dollars. The money was from my uncle Walt, who had died six months earlier. I hadn’t been expecting any money from Walt, still less counting on it. So I thought I should earmark my inheritance for something special, to honor Walt’s memory.

It happened that my longtime girlfriend, a native Californian, had promised to join me on a big vacation. She’d been feeling grateful to me for understanding why she had to return full time to Santa Cruz and look after her mother, who was ninety-four and losing her short-term memory. She’d said to me, impulsively, “I will take a trip with you anywhere in the world you’ve always wanted to go.” To this I’d replied, for reasons I’m at a loss to reconstruct, “Antarctica?” Her eyes widened in a way that I should have paid closer attention to. But a promise was a promise.Hoping to make Antarctica more palatable to my temperate Californian, I decided to spend Walt’s money on the most deluxe of bookings—a three-week Lindblad National Geographic expedition to Antarctica, South Georgia island, and the Falklands. I paid a deposit, and the Californian and I proceeded to joke, uneasily, when the topic arose, about the nasty cold weather and the heaving South Polar seas to which she’d consented to subject herself. I kept reassuring her that as soon as she saw a penguin she’d be happy she’d made the trip. But when it came time to pay the balance, she asked if we might postpone by a year. Her mother’s situation was unstable, and she was loath to put herself so irretrievably far from home.

By this point, I, too, had developed a vague aversion to the trip, an inability to recall why I’d proposed Antarctica in the first place. The idea of “seeing it before it melts” was dismal and self-cancelling: why not just wait for it to melt and cross itself off the list of travel destinations? I was also put off by the seventh continent’s status as a trophy, too remote and expensive for the common tourist to set foot on. It was true that there were extraordinary birds to be seen, not just penguins but oddities like the snowy sheathbill and the world’s southernmost-breeding songbird, the South Georgia pipit. But the number of Antarctic species is fairly small, and I’d already reconciled myself to never seeing every bird species in the world. The best reason I could think of for going to Antarctica was that it was absolutely not the kind of thing the Californian and I did; we’d learned that our ideal getaway lasts three days. I thought that if she and I were at sea for three weeks, with no possibility of escape, we might discover new capacities in ourselves. We would do a thing together that we would then, for the rest of our lives, have done together.

And so I agreed to a year’s postponement. I relocated to Santa Cruz myself. Then the Californian’s mother had a worrisome fall, and the Californian became even more afraid of leaving her alone. Recognizing, finally, that it wasn’t my job to make her life more difficult, I excused her from the trip. Luckily, my brother Tom, the only other person with whom I could imagine sharing a small cabin for three weeks, had just retired and was available to take her place. I changed the booking from a queen-size bed to twin beds, and I ordered insulated rubber boots and a richly illustrated guide to Antarctic wildlife.

Even then, though, as the departure date approached, I couldn’t bring myself to say that I was going to Antarctica. I kept saying, “It appears that I’m going to Antarctica.” Tom reported being excited, but my own sense of unreality, of failure to pleasurably anticipate, grew only stronger. Maybe it was that Antarctica reminded me of death—the ecological death with which global warming is threatening it, or the deadline for seeing it that my own death represented. But I became acutely appreciative of the ordinary rhythm of life with the Californian, the sight of her face in the morning, the sound of the garage door when she returned from her evening visit to her mother. When I packed my suitcase, it was as if I were doing the bidding of the money I’d paid.

In St. Louis, in August, 1976, on an evening cool enough that my parents and I were eating dinner on the porch, my mother got up to answer the phone in the kitchen and immediately summoned my father. “It’s Irma,” she said. Irma was my father’s sister, who lived with Walt in Dover, Delaware. It must have been clear that something terrible had happened, because I remember being in the kitchen, standing near my mother, when my father interrupted whatever Irma was saying to him and shouted into the telephone, as if in anger, “Irma, my God, is she dead?”…

Read the whole article here.

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