Roll Cage Mary        

Sometimes landscape symbols feel like an ingrained part of ourselves. A cathedral, or a memorial, is solid, concrete and dependable, even when it has fallen. There is an order to the markings of our landscapes that helps us navigate our world. That is until you arrive in Antarctica, when all that solidity goes out the triple-glazed window and becomes a shimmering mirage, cleverly disguised as brilliant white ice.

Colonisation came late to the Antarctic continent. The first to dwell here over the formidable winter was a party led by the Anglo-Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink, who endured the dark months in a small hut at Cape Adare in the winter of 1899. Despite the age of exploration that followed (which ended with Ernest Shackleton’s legendary survival against the odds during his 1914–17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition), there was no serious settlement until Argentina set the ball rolling by building a base in 1947. Chile and Britain quickly followed suit.

Even today, Antarctica’s daunting climate and geography dictate that the human presence is little more than a sprinkle around the edges. What these early explorers of Antarctica found was a landscape that had no Indigenous people and no language. This fact, perhaps even more than the physical hardships of survival, seems to hover silently in the descriptions left by the likes of Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott.

Antarctica is a place that does not tolerate human habitation; this does not stop humans trying to cling there. Modern attempts at permanence in Antarctica can be found in the 29 bases scattered mostly around the continent’s coast. In this shifting other-worldly landscape, colonists cling on to the familiar, bringing all their cultural baggage and symbols with them. Residents at the United States McMurdo Station on Ross Island have Frosty Boys, bowling alleys, cable TV and ATMs. Across the hill, the New Zealanders at Scott Base have images of Massey Ferguson tractors, corrugated iron, a rugby field, a ski field and even a bach to escape to. To wander around in one of the bases is to experience a kind of stifling attachment to these landscape symbols. Home away from home. McMurdo is like a 1980s wood-panelled Alaskan rural town with few windows. Scott Base could be a 1990s backpackers with bad décor. They both feel like someone’s youth, preserved in an icy grip.

The most persistent and obvious of these imported cultural symbols are those that pertain to death. Indeed, this is a continent of death. Like the insidious creep of altitude sickness on high mountains, death here happens in barely noticeable increments. The early explorers walked with death by their side and some, like Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his companions, were eventually seduced by it.

This thin, perforated membrane between the living and the dead in Antarctica is most prominent outside the stuffy familiarity and cliché of the bases. Around Ross Island, it’s the cross on Observation Hill that best illustrates the futility of remembering in a place where time has so little meaning. Despite the low humidity and freezing temperatures that ensure that so much in Antarctica is preserved, this three-metre-tall cross built of Oregon pine shows the ravages of a violently moving landscape. Twice it has blown down and been replaced. On its southern face are inscribed the names of Scott’s ill-fated party and the final line of Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’: ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’. The words are very faint now, as the wind and ice have conspired to obliterate them and grind the timber into ridges and grooves like some persistent graveyard vandal attempting to annihilate memory. As if, in spite of Tennyson’s words, the memorial is yielding slowly and surely to its own version of death.

Further around Winter Quarters Bay, on Hut Point, a statue of the Virgin Mary has been enclosed in a galvanised-iron cage welded by the engineers of McMurdo Station. The memorial is officially called Our Lady of the Snows. It is dedicated to Richard T. Williams who died in 1956 when his D8 bulldozer broke through the ice, taking him to a furiously cold death in the waters of McMurdo Sound. Unofficially, Our Lady of the Snows is known as Roll Cage Mary, and she too is showing the effects of wind-blown ice, despite being restored by a group of Carmelite nuns from Christchurch in the 1990s.

Roll Cage Mary is out of town. The point she stands on is about the windiest and most exposed place in the whole bay. To visit, you have to want to leave the intense existence of McMurdo and go for a walk.  McMurdo Station, the largest on the continent, has a hint of civilisation. And with that comes the ills of civilisation, mostly in the form of sporadic discontent among the workforce. This discontent surfaces as heavy drinking, the odd bar fight and the creation of landscape symbols like Roll Cage Mary. There are severe restrictions in place on where you can go, so Hut Point is a natural destination for those who have had enough or can’t stand the rules.

Mary faces the frozen waters of McMurdo Sound, which are terminated by the spectacular Transantarctic Mountains to the west. She looks like she might be one of the naïve first-timers who come south expecting to be free to wander the wild wastes of Antarctica, and are instead confronted with clouds of restrictions. They sympathise with her, these naïve first-timers, and come here in droves to push trinkets through the bars at her feet.

For most people, Roll Cage Mary’s religious connotations are not the point. What they want is freedom, not more rules, which might be why the congregation at the nearby Chapel of the Snows is pitiful. The chapel is a whitewashed, barn-like structure that rests on the shores of the sound. It is the southernmost church in the world and it is on a prime piece of real estate in the jumble of buildings which form McMurdo Station. It has a peaceful emptiness and a great view out the feature windows behind the pulpit. There are yoga classes on Thursday mornings and meditation for beginners on Friday.

Antarctica is a continent that has remained largely free of the influence of organised religion. The sailors of the great clipper ships that dipped deep into the Southern Ocean agreed there was no God past the latitude of 60 degrees south. Perhaps this Godlessness had something to do with the world as it was when Antarctica was colonised: the industrial revolution and the rise of science rationalised their idea of a God out of existence, or perhaps it was the place itself that emitted a bone-chilling absence?

The staff who work at McMurdo Station fly back home to the USA via Christchurch. The lumbering United States Air Force C-17 Globemasters pack them in among the cargo for a five-hour flight north, to a roughly equal amount of day and night, to humidity and all its compost smells, to humanity with all its nuances and landscape symbols that remind us how to behave. Those who have wintered over on the ice seem to have lost their memory of place; it seems to slip through the long pauses in their conversation caused by lack of daylight for four months. They are stunned by the sudden return to navigating a set of rules they should know but just can’t quite remember.

I watch them emerge from the airport terminal in Christchurch, stripping off layers of thermal clothing to feel the warmth of the sun on their skin. They run to the nearest patch of grass and roll on it; they lie face down, hugging it. Like a beach, or a church, or a tree, they know its meaning.

Words & photo: Matt Vance