Through the First Antarctic Night: A Poetic Tribute and Testament to the Human Spirit from a Pioneering Polar Explorer
“There was a naked fierceness in the scenes, a boisterous wildness in the storms, a sublimity and silence in the still, cold dayless nights, which were too impressive to be entirely overshadowed by the soul-despairing depression.”
By Maria Popova
One of the strangest paradoxes of life is that our most intimate knowledge of things often comes from their opposites; that presence is most sharply contoured by the negative space of absence; that busyness reveals the value of stillness, loss the magnitude of love. Contrasts are how we orient ourselves and calibrate our feelings, the height of our fears fathoming the depth of our hopes. Thoreau knew this when one cold winter day he filled a diary page with his recipe for kindling inner warmth: “Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”
Half a century after Thoreau, half a world away, the explorer, physician, and ethnographer Frederick Cook (June 10, 1865–August 5, 1940) composed a stunning study of contrasts through a winter of a different order in Through the First Antarctic Night (public library | public domain), subtitled A Narrative of the Voyage of the “Belgica” Among Newly Discovered Lands and Over an Unknown Sea about the South Pole — a forgotten masterpiece kindred and in many ways superior to Thoreau’s famed journals, for it chronicles, in lyrical prose and with immense psychological insight, the triumph of the human spirit over circumstances infinitely more trying than the tranquil contemplative life on the shores of Walden Pond.
American by birth, Cook joined the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897 as official surgeon and anthropologist. When the ship was trapped in pack ice just before the descent of the endless polar night, he toiled with the other men to free it — a Sisyphean ambition for these tiny human ants against the frozen colossus. They failed. Seeing that they would have to winter in polar captivity, Cook took it upon himself to save the crew’s lives from scurvy, venturing onto the otherworldly icescape to hunt for fresh meat. He was only thirty-three. (A decade later, in April of 1908, he would become the first explorer to believe he has reached the North Pole — a year before Robert Peary. Both explorers’ claims of discovery would be disputed for years.)
The Belgian expedition became the first to winter in the Antarctic — a feat previously thought unsurvivable. All the while, Cook recorded the experience — soul-straining, superhuman — in his journal. With a naturalist’s curiosity and a poet’s sensitivity to the changing appearances of light and darkness, external and internal, he chronicles the eternal tug of war between our capacity for despair and our capacity for transcendence, between absolute desolation and almost unbearable beauty, as the crew surrender their survival and their sanity to the unfeeling icy grip of nature.
In an entry from January 1898, when the ship first became locked in ice, Cook laments the lack of time for writing, then describes — still with the jocular tone that is the privilege of the hopeful — the Herculean efforts the men are exerting on freeing themselves:
Eight hours daily with a heavy saw, and the spine twisted semi-circularly, is not conducive to literary ambitions. It is, however, a capital exercise. Everybody is being hardened to the work and developing ponderous muscles. Our skin is burnt until it has the appearance of the inner surface of boot leather… We eat like bears the meat of seals and penguins twice daily, disposing of three, four, and five steaks each. We find time and gastric capacity for no less than seven meals daily… In one spot we sawed eight hours and cut less than five feet.
All they manage to do is drift a little between the icebergs before becoming trapped again. As they toil, they watch helplessly the approach of the long polar winter-night:
Now the sun is low on the horizon. The darkness, which is soon to throw the icy splendours into a hopeless, sooty gloom, is gathering its hellish fabric to cover the laughing glory of day. The sunless winter of storm, of unimaginable cold, of heart-destroying depression, is rapidly advancing. We are hoping to continue our voyage of exploration as long as possible, and when the darkness and cold become too great we expect to steal away and winter in more congenial latitudes.
By March, it becomes crushingly clear that they might not escape their “icy imprisonment” for months. Upon coming to terms with their fate — “how utterly we failed to gain freedom from the icy fetters of this heartless Frost King” — the crew enter a sort of forced meditation state. All they can do is observe the changing flow of sensation, the undulating currents of hope and despair. In a journal entry that would later become part of a chapter he titles “Helpless in a Hopeless Sea of Ice,” Cook writes:
We are now doomed to remain, and become the football of an unpromising fate. Henceforth we are to be kicked, pushed, squeezed, and ushered helplessly at the mercy of the pack. Our first duty is to prepare for the coming of the night, with its unknowable cold and its soul-depressing effects… Outside there has been a rapid transformation. The summer days of midnight suns are past, and the premonitory darkness of the long night is falling upon us with marvellous rapidity, for in this latitude the sun dips below the southern skies at midnight late in January. This dip increases, and sweeps more and more of the horizon every day until early in May, when the sun sets and remains below the horizon for seventy-one days.
We are at this moment as tired of each other’s company as we are of the cold monotony of the black night and of the unpalatable sameness of our food. Now and then we experience affectionate moody spells and then we try to inspire each other with a sort of superficial effervescence of good cheer, but such moods are short-lived. Physically, mentally, and perhaps morally, then, we are depressed, and from my past experience in the arctic I know that this depression will increase with the advance of the night, and far into the increasing dawn of next summer.
Days melt into weeks melt into months as the ship remains frozen and their spirits plummet deeper and deeper into despair. One man — the ship’s magnetician, Lieutenant Emile Danco — dies of heart failure. One of the sailors goes “to the verge of insanity.” But somehow, amid the icy blackness, they begin to do what the human spirit is made to do — find glimmers of hope, footholds of transcendence. In June, on the Southern winter solstice, Cook writes:
It is midnight and midwinter. Thirty-five long, dayless nights have passed. An equal number of dreary, cheerless days must elapse before we again see the glowing orb, the star of day, the sun has reached its greatest northern declination. We have thus passed the antarctic midnight. The winter solstice is to us the meridian day, the zenith of the night as much so as twelve o’clock is the meridian hour to those who dwell in the more favoured lands, in the temperate and tropical zones, where there is a regular day and night three hundred and sixty-five times in the yearly cycle. Yesterday was the darkest day of the night ; a more dismal sky and a more depressing scene could not be imagined, but to-day the outlook is a little brighter. The sky is lined with a few touches of orange, the frozen sea of black snow is made more cheerful by the high lights, with a sort of dull phosphorescent glimmer of the projecting peaks of ice. The temperature has suddenly fallen to -27.5 C. at noon, and the wind is coming out of the south with an easy force which has sent all the floating humidity of the past few days down, leaving an air clear and sharp.
And all the while, adrift in this cosmos of ice, they have no sense of where they are. So a wave of cheer sweeps over the men when the industrious captain sets out to observe a predicted eclipse Jupiter’s moons, by which he would set the ship’s chronometers and thus determine its position in this disorienting unexplored world.
By July, as the sun’s return approaches, the fringes of elation begin to tickle the mariners’ despairing souls. A subtle undertone of humor returns to Cook’s journal as he chronicles the renaissance of light and color to the world — those immeasurable glories we daily take for granted, but which shape our entire perceptual experience and much of our emotional reality:
After so much physical, mental, and moral depression, and after having our anticipations raised to a fever heat by the tempting increase of dawn at noon, it is needless to say that we are elated at the expectation of actual daylight once more. In these dreadful wastes of perennial ice and snow, man feels the force of the superstitions of past ages, and becomes willingly a worshipper of the eternal luminary. I am certain that if our preparations for greeting the returning sun were seen by other people, either civilised or savage, we would be thought disciples of heliolatry.
At eleven o’clock, every single man aboard the ship stakes out a position from which he is to greet the long-awaited light — some climb to the top of the masts, others perch on the ropes and spars, and the most adventurous set up hammocks on the surrounding icebergs. Cook describes the otherworldly spectacle of returning color, saturated by their months-long anticipation:
The northern sky at this time was nearly clear and clothed with the usual haze. A bright lemon glow was just changing into an eve glimmer of rose. At about half-past eleven a few stratus clouds spread over the rose, and under these there was a play in colours, too complex for my powers of description. The clouds were at first violet, but they quickly caught the train of colours which was spread over the sky beyond. There were spaces of gold, orange, blue, green, and a hundred harmonious blends, with an occasional strip like a band of polished silver to set the colours in bold relief. Precisely at twelve o’clock a fiery cloud separated, disclosing a bit of the upper rim of the sun.
All this time I had been absorbed by the pyrotechnic-like display, but now I turned about to see my companions and the glory of the new sea of ice, under the first light of the new day. Looking towards the sun the fields of snow had a velvety aspect in pink. In the opposite direction the pack was noticeably flushed with a soft lavender light. The whole scene changed in colour with every direction taken by the eye, and everywhere the ice seemed veiled by a gauzy atmosphere in which the colour appeared to rest. For several minutes my companions did not speak. Indeed, we could not at that time have found words with which to express the buoyant feeling of relief, and the emotion of the new life which was sent coursing through our arteries by the hammer-like beats of our enfeebled hearts.
On July 25, as the kaleidoscopic halo of the approaching sun finally crests into full sunrise, a kind of euphoric gladness washes over everything:
For three days we have had a glimpse of the sun, but it has appeared a thing of unreality. To-day we have seen the normal face. The sun at noon sailed along the northern sky above the horizon, a distance nearly equal to its own diameter. We thus have the actual sunrise, since heretofore we have only been able to see it when aided by the high polar refraction by which the sun is apparently lifted above its actual position, a distance equal to about three quarters its diameter.
What a peculiar effusion of sentiments the welcome face of the sun draws from our frozen fountains of life! How that great golden ball of cold fire incites the spirit to expressions of joy and gratitude! How it sets the tongue to pleasurable utterances, and the vocal chords to music! The sun is, indeed, the father of everything terrestrial. We have suddenly found a tonic in the air, an inspiration in the scenic splendours of the sea of ice, and a cheerfulness in each other’s companionship which make the death-dealing depression of the night a thing of the past.
In October, looking back on the harrowing experience, Cook composes a stunning passage that marries the poetic and the philosophical, using his icy entrapment as a lens on the universal human capacity for transcendence. He begins with a summation of the physical and psychological struggle:
The human system accommodates itself sluggishly and poorly to the strange conditions of the polar seasons, and we, too, are slow in adapting ourselves to the awful despondency of the long winter night. It is possible to close your eyes and befog your brain after a time, when all the world is enveloped in prolonged darkness, but this is not physiological adaptation; it is abnormal education. We have all felt the effects of the night severely. The death of Danco, and also the insanity of a sailor, are due to this withdrawal of light.
Echoing Keats’s views on depression and the mightiest consolation for a sunken heart, Cook adds:
Now that the light is brightening every day, we are as backward in recuperating as we were in establishing a balance of living comfort during the vanishing dawn of the early night. The present cheering influence of the rising sun invites labour and frivolity. The soothing light of the long evening twilights invites repose. The change from day to night and from night to day, so long absent from our outlook, is now beginning to lighten the burdens of the weary mind and the aching muscles; elevating the depressed spirits of hope, augmenting the dwarfed courage, and raising the moral perceptions to the great life battle of work before us.
A generation after Tchaikovsky wrote so beautifully about finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, Cook takes care to celebrate the elemental core of resilience that carried the crew to survival, bodily and spiritual — the refusal to let even this extreme bleakness of their surroundings and circumstances blind them to the beauty of the natural world, that ancient and limitless wellspring of the beauty of life itself:
We have talked only of the discomforts of the night, and of the misery. The long unbroken darkness has not totally blinded us to its few real charms which are strikingly brought out by the awful contrasts of heat and cold, of light and darkness. As lovers of Nature, we found many pleasures for the eye and the intellect in the flashing aurora australis, in the play of intense silvery moonlight over the mountainous seas of ice, and in the fascinating clearness of the starlight over the endless expanse of driven snows. There was a naked fierceness in the scenes, a boisterous wildness in the storms, a sublimity and silence in the still, cold dayless nights, which were too impressive to be entirely overshadowed by the soul-despairing depression. The attractions of the polar night are not to be written in the language of a people who live in a land of sunshine and of flowers. They are found in a roughness, ruggedness, and severity, appreciated only by men who are fated to live in similar regions, on the verge of another world, where animal sentiments take the place of the finer, but less realistic human passions.
Complement Through the First Antarctic Night — some of the most stunning nature writing ever composed, and a buoyant testament and tribute to the human spirit — with Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd’s masterpiece on mountains and Olivia Laing, one of the most poetic and insightful writers of our own time, on the wisdom of rivers, then revisit The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning — part scientific serenade, part feminist manifesto, part ecological clarion call to humanity, drawing on the world’s first collaborative environmental initiative to clean up the garbage that besmirched the polar wonderland so soon after Cook’s pioneering generation of explorers first set foot on it.
Published September 4, 2019