Monday, January 28, 2008


Someone asked me while I was traveling in Antarctica, “So...are you having the greatest time ever?”

Of course I said yes, and I was having a great time—beauty, adventure, and purpose all rolled into one delightful trip. But as time went on a part of me shattered into a million tiny pieces every time the glacier sprayed ice into the harbor or an elephant seal scream or a whale breeched earth and sky. In the groaning of the glacier, in the eye of the whale—I sensed something precious slipping away. Like a loved one you want to call home, but wait too long and when you speak, she is too far away to hear you.

One scientist said, “The question is not whether the earth will survive.” He paused and looked into my eyes. “The question is,” he said, “have we humans overplayed our hand?” When I think of acceptance, compassion, and hope all bundled up into one, I will forever see his brilliant blue eyes.

Antarctica is big—vast spaces covered in white. White is an expansive color, so the emptiness grows out of proportion even to itself. We haven’t colonized the place to any grand degree, and much of life in Antarctica goes on under the sea.

From the top of Pikes Peak in Colorado, on a clear day you can see for miles. If you look at the surface of the ocean—which can plunge down for miles before water meets earth—you might see a few hundred feet on a clear day. The deepest I saw (I know because we were measuring turbidity) was 65 feet. I felt so small. Small and helpless.

I am one person living in a world occupied by billions. Even if I went to bed at dusk and got up with sun, eliminated plastic from my life, stopped using gasoline, turned down the heat and shivered all winter, nothing would change. If I could do everything—and I know I can’t—what difference would it make?
A friend helped me to see that everything hangs in the balance of one billion divided by one. It’s not one person doing one billion things—that’s impossible, almost comical to imagine. But one billion people making one small change gives me shivers.

Why does that seem so much more possible? I think—I hope—it’s because I know I can do one thing, and my friends can do one thing, and their friends can do one thing. Try and think of one person you know who can’t do one small thing to help. Try and think of one person who wouldn’t help in some small way, if they could, if it was barely noticeable in the everyday motions of life. I can’t think of anyone like that.

Earth Hour: March 29, 2008 at 8 pm—

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Loved to Death

Halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii, a mother scours a mass of garbage twice the size of the state of Texas for treats to take home to her child. A bright yellow Lego block catches her attention. She scoops up the toy and heads back to its home.

When the baby sees her coming, it begins to whistle and click. She leans over the side of her baby’s crib. It opens its mouth and cries to show her it is hungry. She feeds the plastic toy to her baby, followed by a treasure trove of tangled fishing line, a red bottle cap, and fingers torn from a broken doll.


Nearly half of all albatross chicks die each year from dehydration and starvation. Most of these chicks are well-fed. Their stomachs are filled with twice as much plastic as the stomachs of chicks that die from other causes.

~The albatross is the largest of all the seabirds.
~Its wingspan can reach 11 feet.
~These birds spend about 85% of their time at sea, eating fish and sleeping on the water.
~They drink seawater.
~Between chicks dying from dehydration and starvation (caused by ingesting plastic?) and adults drowning at the end of fish hooks, the population of some species have decreased by as much as 90%, many have declined by 40-50%.

We saw many of these beautiful birds as we crossed the Drake Passage and in the waters around the Antarctic Peninsula. What a tragic loss to our own children if we lose these birds. I cannot help but ask myself how long it will be before we see that we are endangering our own loved ones as well—we are simply farther back in the line.

I am not fool enough to think that I or anyone else can bring the sum of our bad habits to a grinding halt. We’re like a train; it takes us a while to stop. My hope is that we can make a big difference through small changes. It is a place to start.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Sky for a Bag of Gold

The ship rocks beneath my feet, as unnoticed as the beating of my heart. The ice stretches out between our ship and the cliffs rising in the distance, and I understand the power of the ice, the fragility of life. Land I can see, but not reach. Not even our powerful ship cannot breach that ice. We know this. We try, of course we try. Is that not the nature of humanity?

Silently my heart breaks with the ice. Why can we leave nothing as we find it? I wonder if the penguins perched on the edge of the ice will have to swim farther now to find food and then to return to safety. By our actions, have we killed another adéile or given a chance at life to a leopard seal?

The ice doesn’t care if penguins die, if seals live, if we reached our destination or not. It doesn’t care if we stay and wait, or leave. The earth doesn’t judge or forgive, she accepts.

I am ashamed for my people.

We charge the unbroken white, the only protests the creaking of our ship and the groan strangled in my throat. The ice halts our progress. The sun beats down, an ally to our cause, but even the sun cannot win our way. Not that day. But give her time. We turn and seek another path.

As we burn ozone in exchange for extravagant lives and trade gold for atmosphere, the sun gains power, the earth shudders, the ice weakens. Will our ally become our enemy? Will nature ever protest at how we impinge on her good will?

She lovingly gives in to our indulgences. She changes for us. She will change for us until we can no longer live and breathe her acceptance and her patience. Will she cry for us? Why should she? Having given us everything we asked, what has the earth to regret? What have we to regret but that we trade the sky for a bag of gold?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Learning to See More

When I think of barren lands, barren wombs, barren lives, the image that comes into my mind is Seymour Island on the Weddell Sea side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Nothing grows here. I suppose a bit of lichen must cling to the sunny side of some wet rock, but I can’t find anything that isn’t brown or white. Even the mummified seal, however mystical, lacks color. The only things that move of their own volition are the wind, the birds in the sky, and the penguins.

The mummified seal suggests that the occasional pinniped also hauls out onto the ice that borders this desolate place. How is it then, in the absence of life, that life becomes so much more vibrant and real? I venture to guess it is because there is nothing standing between me and the beating of my heart.

No trees bar my view of the hilltops. None stand between me and the sea. Until the wind draws a curtain of cloud and snow across the horizon, I can see the bow-legged edge of water and sky. In the blue-green water, boulders shimmer, and I can believe them to be the petrified eggs of dinosaurs. In my pack I carry a collection of sharks' teeth set aside for further examination by the paleontologists. Sixty-five million years ago sharks swam where I stand. Then the weather changed, the sharks retreated. Time passed. Twenty-five or thirty million years later giant penguins—6 feet tall—lumbered across this land. I hold their bones in my hand, close my eyes, and listen.

Nothing lasts. The earth is patient. Why am I in such a hurry? What is missing in this sun, this blue-green water, these friends? What better thing will I find tomorrow or in ten thousand years?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Memories of Water and Ice

I have been back from my Antarctica trip for almost a week now. First of all, I'm sorry it has taken me so long to acknowledge my return. Second, thank you for all your comments, notes, and well wishes. Knowing you were here to return to was a comfort.

Friends and family ask me what I saw and did. I open my mouth, but am not able to respond. Memories flash like whirlwinds across my mind's eye. I have a hundred answers and so am not able to articulate even one. I can talk for hours or days, but not for just a few minutes. I fear that if I begin to talk about this experience, I might never stop.

Perhaps this is a better place, a better way to unleash, and I have the 18 day cruise aboard the Laurence M Gould to account for. I stepped on the ship wary of spending so many days at sea. I said goodbye to my companions with tears in my eyes. This sentiment hints at the answer to what had the most impact on me during my travels--the people I met. But they deserve more than just an acknowledgment and, though I won't be able to get to them all, I will post profiles and excerpts from our conversations.

I had a wonderful journey, filled with new insights and a great deal of fun. It is sad to be gone from such a wonderful place and the people I met there, but good to be home. I have memories to last a lifetime--and as many pictures.

Again, thanks to you all for your support.