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Life on the Ice
Susan Fox Rogers assembles anthology of Antarctic writing featuring support staff, scientists
Posted November 22, 2007
There are tales of adventure. There are humorous stories about frozen poultry and toast. Its language reflects a vocabulary unique to the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP).
But if Susan Fox Rogers’ anthology “Antarctica: Life on the Ice” (Travelers’ Tales, September 2007) has a theme that cuts across most of its 20 stories, it’s a surprising one for a place popularly known for its cold beauty and brutal disposition.
“I’m really interested in narratives where people reveal their inner lives,” explains Rogers over the phone from her office at Bard College. “There’s a lot of thoughts on love.”
A grant recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, Rogers spent about six weeks on the Ice in 2005. A writer and college professor who specializes in editing anthologies, her own love affair with the continent began as a young girl listening to her father’s stories about the South Pole.
It seemed only natural that she would propose a project that weds the two passions.
“I’m kind of a natural editor, and I love working with other people’s writing,” she says. “I also really love working with people who are not necessarily writers; people who have had great experiences and can tell a good story, but not necessarily easily on paper.”
Besides, she adds, six weeks on the Ice does not make one an expert on Antarctica. “[In] a place as big as the Antarctic, one voice couldn’t possibly capture that.”
For her literary chorus, Rogers recruited professional writers, scientists, artists and USAP participants who had never written a story before.
“I look for writers who have an emotional response to a place and can write about that, as well as describe the place they’re in,” she says. “I think the thing that holds these pieces together is that they’re very intimate.”
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Freelance writer Traci Macnamara contributed an article to the collection about her experiences in 2003 at a field survival course, ironically named Happy Camper School, working as a general assistant for her first season.
The piece, “We Ate No Turkey: A Holiday on Ice,” is an initiation into the continent’s culture and the people who live there.
“I was drawn to Antarctica for the landscape and the beauty of it, [but] it was the people that impressed me once I got there,” says the nomadic Macnamara, who temporarily makes her home in Boulder, Colo. “In my writing, I want to show what people do in McMurdo and what life is like for the people who go there.”
Stories in the collection range from the light-hearted to emotional collapse. USAP participant Elaine Hood, who read the anthology and wrote a review, says the versatility and creativity of the stories amazed her.
“Who knew our heavy equipment operators and ‘fuelies’ could write so well? I laughed my way through several chapters and was fascinated by the poetic beauty of others,” she writes. “These are not simple recountings of the day-to-day routine of being a shuttle driver or carpenter, but are instead lyrical depictions of the inner thoughts of a wide variety of personnel who have worked in various locations around the continent.”
Rogers says she recruits writers differently for each of the anthologies, working with each writer to coax the best from his or her work. “There are very few pieces that I didn’t ask for something. Everybody had to work,” she says.
“This [book] was probably the most fun because I had probably met most everybody who’s in the book. That’s a great thing.” Rogers adds. “I had a sense of who I was working with, and what I could ask of them. … Being on the Ice was absolutely essential. I couldn’t have done this book if I hadn’t been down there.”
Rogers’ own story in the collection, “The Secret of Silence,” contemplates the theme of love that she says strings the book together. Her own cynicism about love seems to melt in the heat of her experiences. Equally suspicious of broken hearts — how can a muscle break, she asks — Rogers, as many before her, laments saying goodbye to the continent after too brief an affair.
She writes toward the end: “I knew I could not take home the silence that had entered me so surely; it would give over to the roar of life. Too quick, I’d resume my orientation in the world; I’d shift into my wary approach of love; I’d recognize the smell of death.”
But to help her remember — and to help the rest of us understand — Rogers and her 19 collaborators graciously add “Life on the Ice” to the Antarctic compendium.
NSF-funded work in this story: Susan Fox Rogers, Antarctic Artists and Writers Program.