December 6, 2001
you ever imagined what an exorcism ceremony at the South Pole would be
like? I never would have imagined that... but now I have participated in
flight from McMurdo station's sea ice airfield to Pole was a bit more
arduous than your typical domestic flight within the USA. After a 3 hour
flight to 90 degrees South in a C-130 Hercules military cargo plane, we
circled Pole for 90 minutes; the weather was inimical to a safe
landing. So, 3 hours flight, straight back to McMurdo. This is locally
known as a boomerang flight. About an hour on the ground for refueling
and back into the frigid air for a 3 hour trip back to the axis of our
planet and a safe landing at Pole. Total transit time:11.5 hours. A long
time to sit in the hold of a cargo plane, but many great opportunities
to peer out the tiny porthole at amazing mountains and immense
icescapes. The immensity of Antarctica - about 1.5 times the size of
America - was evident to see.
disembarking from the aircraft I was greeted by Katy Jensen, the Pole
Station's capable, hardworking and beautiful station manager. Depositing
my gear in my "Jamesway" tent dorm #5, I headed off for a rehearsal
with the Pole rock band THUNDERJUG.
The band is named for the "piss bottles", that are most folks' bed
warmers in the toiletless Jamesway dorms. We ran through several numbers
and looked forward to a Jamesway Lounge dance party on Saturday night.
took me outside and showed me a fascinating piece of old but reliable
technology: the Campbell-Stokes Sunshine Recorder, circa 1910 or so...
most likely the same model that Robert Scott had on his exploration
ships. It records daily intensity and duration of sunlight by burning a
piece of paper with sunlight focused through a crystal globe. No moving
parts, and operational after nearly a century. A piece of hardware that
is both gorgeous and elegant.
there are about 10,000 feet of ice deposited upon the surface of the
Earth at Pole, the altitude is 10,000 feet. But because the Earth's
atmosphere is thinner at the poles, the equivalent altitude is more like
12,000 feet. It is completely dry: 0% humidity. And it is COLD.
Around minus 30-40 for most of my visit. The community of about 200
lives in a base designed for 40 inhabitants. A new station is being
constructed, but won't be complete until 2006. This is the toughest
construction job in the world.
being a place of climatic and geographical extremity, Pole is a place
of multidimensional extremes of human achievement: past, present and
future. This is the most inspiring place that I have ever visited. From
the heroic age of Antarctic exploration; to the present population who
work harder than anyone anywhere today; to the future of the new station
and the visionary science projects that are accomplished here, this is
human achievement writ large. In describing the science projects, I mean
visionary in several senses. From Pole, scientists learn much about the
rest of the earth. It is a unique and valuable place to view our planet
from. It is also a one of the best places on Earth to view the rest of
the Universe. John Carlstrom of the University of Chicago guided me up
into his D.A.S.I. telescope where the quest for the origins of the
Universe as well as dark matter and dark energy are carried out. Since
the air is so clear here, and since there is little air, light or
electromagnetic interference at Pole, this is a mecca and window on the
cosmos for astronomers. We discussed the academic and government agency
politics and processes of getting grants to do our work here. It has
been a long and tenacious haul for both of us. We are both happy and
excited to be able to do our work here and we are both confident in our
morning, I head out to the South Pole(s) in the brisk, minus 40 air.
There are two South Poles: ceremonial and geographic. The ceremonial
pole is the original pole that was found by the earliest explorers who
reached the Pole. Since it bears the familiar candy stripe barber pole
design with the mirror ball on top, of the North Pole, it was most
likely placed here by Santa Claus, well before humans ever set foot on
this continent. Surrounded by the flags of nations signatory to the
Antarctic Treaty, it is the prime photo opportunity spot of Antarctica.
Nearby, marching yearly across the surface of the ice cap, is the real
geographic pole, which is precisely repositioned each year as the ice
slides slowly over the Earth's crust. A line of old poles and flag
makers, gradually sinking into the snowcap recedes off into the
a DAT recorder at the geographic pole, I take out my acoustic guitar
(in this case an all-graphite Rain Song guitar that I have used for
years as a boat guitar on dive trips. It will remain here as a gift to
Pole Station) and I ready myself to attempt to play slide guitar, using
the South Pole as my guitar slide. The night before, I sat out by the
pole and searched for a slack key tuning that would right for this job.
Finding one that I liked, I checked it with many station residents, all
of whom approved. Messing around with the pole for an hour, I found that
I could produce lots of sound effects and textures, but melody, groove,
and harmony seemed quite elusive. I spent another 30 minutes trying to
play melodies and licks, kneeling next to the pole, as my hands and
knees became colder and colder. Gloves were on and off; finger picking
became more and more problematical in the 40 below zero air. After 90
minutes, I was a little tired, so I stood up, put my gloves on again,
inserted some chemical hand warmers and held the guitar's strings up
against the pole. I stared off to the distant horizon, across the miles
of whiteness, and I idly strummed the guitar with a gloved right hand as
I slid the guitar's neck along the pole. After drifting into an
empty-minded trance for a while, I returned to the mundane world to find
myself strumming a peculiar rhythm pattern with my gloved right hand.
What did it sound like? It seemed American Indian in cadence, not
something that I had played before. It was quite enjoyable. Suddenly, I
realized that the American flag next to me was flapping with exactly the
same rhythm! The music had literally came to me OUT OF THE AIR. Next I
tried fretting and sliding against the pole to find melody and chords. A
riff jumped out at me. It was fun to play. Again, I drifted off into
no-mind state for a while, as I continued to play. My thoughts returned
to the pole and the RACE TO THE POLE that the heroes of the early age of
Antarctic exploration had participated in. Hmmmm? This rhythm fit my
idea of a SLOW race, as was the race to the pole. Suddenly I had a set
of musical ideas for a piece about that historic race and I was
instantly able to play it! I checked the frozen DAT machine, and it was
still operational. I ran off 5 takes of the tune without many mistakes.
This is the kind of inspiration that I had hoped for on the ice, and
here it was, like some kind of miracle out of the air, when I least
heart of Pole Station, the galley, sits under a larger geodesic dome,
erected back in 1975. A foot or two of snow each year had nearly buried
the dome. Orange living units with freezer doors fill the space under
the dome. Other shelters are large, long metal arches that cover the
machine shops and garages.
Saturday, the cooking staff had a day off and the beakers (science
staff) and others prepared the food, A colorful menu was posted on the
wall. Dessert was Bear Paw Parfait, a dish that you don't often get to
enjoy on a bear-less continent. It's funny how many folks back home seem
to think that there are polar bears down here. The only big, fierce
animal on this Southern continent is the Leopard Seal, who lives out on
the ice edge, by the ocean. A very long ways from here.
night we had a great dance party jam, running through some old
standards: Cissy Strut, Dark Star, and Ode to Billy Joe, among the
tunes. Cookie Jon, bass player in the band, remembers coming to see me
at the Fillmore, more than 10 years ago, when the HK Band played these
same tunes. As the notes spun out of my guitar through the many dancing
polies, I remembered a scene from my pal Kim Stanley Robinson's novel: ANTARCTICA.
Stan has traveled to Antarctica on the same National Science Foundation
Antarctic Artists & Writers Program Grant that has brought me to
the ice. A scene in that novel described a psychedelic guitar dance
party at Pole. At the moment that I read it, I realized that it might be
possible for a performing musician to apply for this grant, as opposed
to the writers, painters, and photographers that have preceded me. Here I
was, recreating a scene in the novel that had brought me here. Thank
is a close-knit and family-like community. The cramped living
conditions, harsh and beautiful environment, and the tremendously tough
work schedule mean that folks need to get along smoothly with each
other. They all work together to make Pole a safe and productive place.
They work harder than anyone that I have ever seen.
Sunday I played 3 solo acoustic guitar shows in the gym at 1 PM, 7 PM
and 9 PM, so that folks on different shifts would have a chance to enjoy
a short show. I'M SO GLAD, SPECIAL RIDER BLUES, HARD TIME KILLIN' FLOOR BLUES, THE FLINTSTONES, DROPPED D and THE SKUNK'S TEARS were
some of the pieces the emerged from my guitar. I imagined I felt Skip
James' ghost hovering over the pole in the blue deepness of the
Antarctic sky. I also spent a lot of time walking about shooting video
around the station for my future reports for the National Geographic Today television show.
yes, the exorcism ceremony! It turns out that El Gran Chingazo, the
snow/ice tunneling machine that is used to carve tunnels 40 feet below
the surface of South Pole Station has always been a problematical beast.
A figure of 57% downtime was mentioned to me. The alternative to
cutting tunnels with El Chingazo is hacking out the tunnels with a chain
saw and pulling the snow/ice blocks out on a human-drawn sledge. This
is tough work, especially since the tunnels remain at a constant minus
50 degrees temperature. Chingazo had recently become totally
unresponsive and as a last resort the mining and heavy shop crews turned
to exorcism to attempt to solve the problems. Big John and Bill invited
me into the heavy shop and showed me the altar of offerings that they
had constructed beside El Gran Chingazo. Richard M. Nixon's ghostly face
peered out from Chingazo's cab. The fragrant incense of diesel and oil
filled the air. I prepared my guitar and amp next to Frederick's
electric MIDI violin rig, the lights were turned out and many Pole folks
entered the shop, chanting and playing drums. A high exorcism, with
much shouting and dancing, followed; under the leadership of Bill and
Big John. I did my best to provide a crashing hybrid of Texas Blues
Guitar and Korean Salpuri Exorcism Guitar, as the MIDI violin exploded
with screams and shrieks. Suddenly the unmistakable sound of bagpipes
was heard and a piper marched in and joined the ceremony. Pole culture
certainly is special. Perhaps the exorcism has been my most memorable
experience on the ice? Maybe I took it too seriously, but as a long
time listener of different types of trance-inducing, exorcism and
shamanistic musics, it was easy to drift off into some other kind of
consciousness. Did the exorcism work? Time will tell. Back here at
McMurdo Station, I await further word from Pole.
my last morning I drop down into the snow/ice tunnels beneath the pole.
40 feet down, it is 50 degrees below zero, as promised. My guide is
John Wright, the bagpiper of the exorcism. John is a master of cutting
tunnels from the mining trade. He has come to the pole to cut the long
ice tunnels that connect the base to the subterranean "bulbs" where the
station's water supply is melted and the old bulbs where sewage is
disposed of. The tunnels are an impressive feat of engineering and
construction. John shows me how two tunnels, drilled into to meet,
"golden spike" style, meet up within an 1/8 inch of perfect alignment.
You can walk through about 1200 feet of tunnel and then it's necessary
to step into a warming room to reheat your body. There is no bright and
every present sunlight in the tunnels to warm your body in the extreme
cold. I was impressed with John's deep concern for safety for his crew;
which is so different from the concern for liability protection over
safety that I see in so much of the today's world. Bill and Scotty of
John's crew work with a chain saw and sledge to cut more tunnels through
he cold, hard snow/ice. Dressed in heavy clothing and covered with ice
dust from the chain saw, they look the part of workers in the farthest
extreme of human habitation. Or perhaps like albino coal miners, mining
albino coal. We are not in Kansas anymore, nor ON THE ICE; this is BELOW THE ICE.
I arrive back at McMurdo, ready to go diving again in the much warmer,
28 degrees above zero, fluid space below the ice, I find a
heart-touching e-mail poem from Pole's manager Katy Jensen in the inbox
of my iBook. -HK
(partially borrowed from Webster's II New Riverside University Dictionary)
pack and dance
Slide Guitar Around the World
"The dark underworld region through which the dead must pass before they reach Hades!"
I can't imagine it
--a week on the edge of it--
after whirlwind days of
I also can't wait
to hear it
through your guitar.
Thanks for the smiles you brought us, Henry.
POST POST SCRIPT
Bad news from Pole. Maybe the exorcism did not work and the spirits are angry?
waiting for parts for El Gran but on Monday we had a bit o' a freak
accident concerning the beast including a shattered punch and a sliced
pinky finger tendon for Big John Penney"