Memento Mori

Thanksgiving in McMurdo fell on Saturday. McMurdo gleamed with white snow – the reflections were blinding, even with sunglasses.

In the spirit of awe and reflection, I participated in a Thanksgiving Day-trip to Scott’s historic Hut at Cape Evans. The Cape Evans hut was built in 1911 after Scott’s ship (the Terra Nova) could not reach his older Discovery hut near McMurdo. This is the hut from which Scott’s team laid their depot caches, preparing for the expedition to the South Pole. The trek described in “The Worst Journey in the World” also departed from and returned to the Cape Evans Hut. As historic sites go, Cape Evans is well-documented, and now well-maintained and protected. It is a protected site, with limits on visitor numbers and behaviors. We were given instructions on how to move through the hut, and an overview, before we walked onshore.

See:
NZ Antarctic Heritage Trust: Scott’s Terra Nova Hut, Cape Evans

My curatorial eye was amazed to spot marker numbers and teensy labeled tags on almost everything – every object from socks, books, tins, scientific tools and tiny bottles, string, a packet of darning needles, weathering tin debris in the area, dog skeletons, etc. Even surrounding vistas are numbered (I assume most of the tags are buried in snow, but correspond to an official map or guide pamphlet of some sort…)

Despite this scrutiny, the heart feels as if the objects are being viewed after months or years of solitude. The heart finds the hut evocative for various reasons. While windows and roof have been replaced or reinforced, the exterior wood, and the interior layout and personal collections is is visceral and real. Scott’s hut is approached from the sea ice, stepping over drifts that hide cracks where the sea ice and land ice are cracking apart – walking back, a woman behind me stepped (one leg only) into such a crack, and dropped up to her thigh. The hut is half hidden in a great V made by drifting snow – as if even the wind keeps away, just a bit, out of some natural respect. Above, there is black Weather Van Hill, marked with a simple cross and a memorial plate in 4 languages. The snow drifts are as high as the hut itself — inside is very dark as you enter. We had a couple flashlights, but batteries hate the cold, and so the lights were quite dim. The beam could illuminate only a small spot, anyways. Some of the old glass windows are cracked; now sealed with a new plexi layer to keep snow out. It takes a while for the eyes to adjust.

The outer door leads into a foyer, insulated with original crating wood from Scott’s expedition: the wood is stamped “British Antarctic Survey.” The walls are hung with various tools — and an achingly crude collection of boards that resembling picket fence stakes with hardened leather shoelaces and leather straps nailed on for the boot-laces. Skiis? It would be hard to imagine skiing on such lumber across a pleasant field, much less a harsh continent.

The foyer, you realize, is a walled-in breeze-way that runs back along the side, under the hut’s eaves. The sides were used as protected cold storage – and there are still crates and hooks, objects hanging on the walls, and old stores — a large iron basket of frozen penguin eggs, for example. The breezeway turns and widens, a protected hallway between the sea-ward wall of the hut and a line of pony stables. The stable pens are tiny – they must have been cramped, and dark, with a simple feed crate lashed to one wall and a crate for manure resting on the other side. In addition to dogs, Scott tried to use both mules and ponies (as well as primitive motorized vehicles.) There are still “pony snowshoes” hanging on the wall, which were slipped over their hoofs to help them in drifts.

Standing there quietly in the dark, at the outside corner of the house and the stable, I became aware of the large dark stack of something next to me. Fodder, I thought at first, or maybe slabs of wood or frozen sacks? Actually it was a stack of flensed seal, the blubber made dense by almost a hundred years of gravity and desication, with thick gobs of oil seeping along the cut edges. Given the cold storage conditions, I suppose it could still work in a crude oil lamp, in an emergency.

In such a place, one can easily imagine “emergencies.”

Outside the hut, between the stable wall and the sea: a large ship anchor, lost when the Aurora ship was swept away — this happened during the time when Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17) was using the hut.

Most everyone went immediately to the inner hut, but I wanted to see the context of the place first, and walked up the back side of the rise, to the hill with the weather vane and the cross (dedicated to members of Shackleton’s expedition who lost their lives in the area). At the sea edge, seals were rising and breathing in the open holes left by fish scientists. The Barne glacier is a chiseled blue cliff, running along the cape to the north. The volcano rises in the background (everywhere you turn, Erebus is there, steaming, enormous.).

The hut’s inner hut door is heavy wood, with an iron latch and strong sill, insulated on the back with torn burlap sacks. There is a smell, some alchemy between dry wood, straw dust, pony manure, curry and old meat. The bunk beds still have old fur sleeping bags, and thin wool socks; a variety of scientific instruments, beakers and bottled chemicals line the rear walls, and there is a dark room. Seeing the hut, one remembers that the Scott party was a scientific expedition, not just a run for the Pole. Vials, calipers, clamps, burners, glass tubes.

I understand that some small, fragile or ephemeral objects located in the area have been brought inside, as have small items found under layers of debris along the pony-shed floor. Nothing has been replicated or moved into the hut from elsewhere, which makes it feel more “real” than many other historic buildings. A taxidermied penguin and an old London newspaper lie on the desk near Scott’s bunk, as if he might be returning to study them soon.

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