Sunday, August 17, 2014

2012 Onwards

Post PCAS, I couldn't leave Antarctica alone!

After doing my Masters in Antarctic Studies at the University of Canterbury, I enrolled in a PhD Programme at the University of Tasmania, looking at Representations of Antarctica in Cultural Production. I also took a position as a lecturer on an Antarctic cruise ship to share my knowledge and passion, It's a fascinating continent, and there are many more stories waiting to be told about the place, and to be created.

To find out more about my PhD project, please visit

Saturday, August 17, 2013

PCAS Project: Scott on Stage

After PCAS, my supervisor Elizabeth Leane and I worked my project up for publication, which was a very exciting and useful experience. If you'd like to know more about Antarctic Theatre, my PCAS project marks the start of my own fascination, and is the bridge between my background in German Literature Studies and my current field of Antarctic Studies. Then there is the paper we published - details are below:

Reinhard Goering's play Die Südpolexpedition des Kapitäns Scott (1929) tells the story of the famously tragic British polar expedition led by Robert F. Scott in 1911–12. As the first public staging of the story, the play created considerable controversy in Britain when it premiered in Berlin in 1930. A late Expressionist drama, it offered perspectives on the expedition quite different to those coming out of Scott's homeland. In this article, Hanne Nielsen and Elizabeth Leane contextualize the play within Goering's own career; outline its performance history; examine its reception in both Germany and Britain; and analyze the play text in terms of its innovative treatment of Scott's story. Hanne Nielsen is a postgraduate student at Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury. Her background is in Antarctic Studies and German literature and she is currently undertaking a study of representations of Antarctica on stage. Elizabeth Leane is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania, where she holds a research position split between the School of Humanities and the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies. She has written and edited several books, most recently Antarctica in Fiction (Cambridge University Press).

Hanne Nielsen and Elizabeth Leane ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ on the German Stage: Reinhard Goering's Die Südpolexpedition des Kapitäns Scott.' New Theatre Quarterly / Volume  29 / Issue 03 / August 2013, pp 278 - 293.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

White Christmas

'I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know...'

For most kiwis, dreaming of a white Christmas is an exercise in futility. Not so for the PCAS group who spent Christmas day camped on the Ross Ice Shelf with more snow than they know what to do with. Santa came to visit early on and roused a few sleepy heads from their icy beds, but Rudolph was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a Hägglunds served as both reindeer and sleigh, bringing a Christmas feast from Scott Base. The spread was impressive and a far cry from the pemmican Christmases of old: croissants, roast vegetables, ham, gingerbread and Christmas cake. We had a banquet, but where was the table? Cue: shovels. Before leaving for Antarctica we were warned that the course would involve much digging but none of us imagined that this digging would extend to creating a lounge suite out of a flat plane of ice.

Sue Ferrar’s rendition of a few Christmas favourites on her violin set a jolly mood as the students mucked in and dug. Antarctica is the continent of peace and science, so it was only fitting that upon finishing the final verse of ‘Silent Night’ we looked up to see a weather balloon slowly ascending and giving a shout out to the latter. Larger than the Canterbury museum, the weather balloons only go up twice a year, so to see one released was quite a treat. It was also a distraction from the lyrics of the next song, as the majority of us had had no experience whatsoever of ‘roasting chestnuts on an open fire’.

An open fire was nowhere to be seen, but we did kick off our Christmas meal with a toast to explorers past and present, savouring the nose of ‘whispers of gentle bonfire’ from our bottle of Mackinlay's Rare Old Highland Malt Whiskey. Diligent as we were, the class had taken it upon ourselves to become enlightened in every area of Polar history before departing for the ice. The story of Shackelton’s whiskey, discovered during the hut restorations and subsequently reproduced for commercial sale, was particularly intriguing. When a 9am lecture was cancelled we filled the slot with a talk from the owner of Whiskey Galore and came away inspired by the descriptions of ‘a whisper of marmalade’ and ‘a tease of smoke’. What better way to celebrate Christmas on the white continent than to follow in the footsteps of explorers of old?

Dinner was rounded off with the giving of secret santa gifts, with highlights including a hula skirt and ukulele, both of which appeared in later skits, and several chickens. Yes, they were real live chickens, but before everyone gets up in arms about spreading avian flu to the penguins, they were bought through Oxfam and gifted to poor families in Laos. A necklace made of the rock ferrar dolomite for H. T. Ferrar’s granddaughter also had great personal significance for Sue and caused all eyes to turn to our resident geologist, rendering the ‘secret’ in ‘secret santa’ redundant.

Christmas itself was far from redundant, despite the fact we were all far from home on an icy continent. The teamwork and laughter and really bad singing made for a fun day and created memories of a white Christmas we will treasure for years to come. Sometimes your dreams do come true, after all.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dancing With Erebus

A Poem in Three Parts:

‘Dancing with Erebus I’

On this continent
I dance alone
The weight of history
Lifted, like an Erebus plume
On a summer breeze

No ‘once we did’s
No ‘next you should’s
No steps too far
No abandoned dreams

Limbs licking the wind
Directing shadows to strive, to stretch
To stamp a purple existence on the snow
Right Here right Now

Here, with Erebus
I dance alone

‘Dancing with Erebus II’

The night stood still
Holding its breath
And casting long, long shadows

Shadows of purple
And out of the contrast,
A dancer

Liquid clad limbs
Licked by the breeze
Describing the silence

And Erebus
Offering an arm
to request the next dance

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ice Songs

"O penguin, have you ever heard the bagpipes play? Have you ever watched knees freeze beneath a kilt of Scottish pride? Have you ever been tethered and sung for your freedom and inspired headlines far across the globe? Go. Collect your stones. Remain ignorant of the nuances of tonal music. Raise your beak in salutation so the photographer can pretend that he, too was really, truly THERE."

While this sort of behaviour may not be condoned in Antarctica anymore, music is still very important down on the continent. From homegrown band nights to trippy wildlife soundtracks, there is far more for the ears to discover than the famed Antarctic silence.

Before leaving Christchurch I asked my musical friends to recommend music that would enhance the Antarctic experience. One thing I’d noticed was that all of the films of the continent were accompanied by sweeping orchestral tracks, designed to tap into one’s emotions and make one really feel in awe of the sights. In light of this, I decided I needed a soundtrack of my own in order to maximize the experience. Pieces suggested included Sibelius, Nielsen, John Cage’s string quartet, Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica’, and, more bizarrely, ‘Antarctica’ by the Weepies.

Despite having lofty aural aspirations before taking off, Bryan Crump’s suggestion of an "Anti ice atmospheric track" featuring Abba, A-Ha, Aqua, or JPSE turned out to be closer to the mark. Upon landing on the ice and boarding Ivan the Terrabus to be ferried over to Scott Base we were serenaded by the Beatles’ good old Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. Not exactly the coldest of tunes, but it set the scene for what would be an aurally interesting few weeks.

In our group we were lucky enough to have Sue Ferrar, who is not only the granddaughter of the geologist from Scott’s Discovery expedition, but also an accomplished musician. Her desire to travel to Antarctica was motivated by her family connection and she wanted to play her violin in the Discovery hut as a tribute to her grandfather. When she did it was quite something – an entire blog post of its own, in fact – but I can tell you now, hearing the violin articulate her version of the setting as it wafted over the hessian curtains was spellbinding. An improv musician, she let the violin tell the story she could see, and while she did so, people hardly dared to breathe.

The rest of our cohort were not so musically talented. The lad in charge of Christmas carols was not accustomed to celebrating Christmas on the summer side of the globe either, so while he was belting out the words to ‘Winter Wonderland’ we were all scratching out heads and thinking of the Beaurepaires ad. Sure, ‘Christmas on the Beach’ would have seemed a bit out of place on the Ross Ice Shelf, but the majority of us had had no experience whatsoever of ‘roasting chestnuts on an open fire’. That was just weird…

Something else that was weird but also one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard was the song of the Weddell seal. Whales sing underwater symphonies, but Weddell seals out-zane Led Zeppelin. Shooting stars ricochet under ice, strobing and zigzagging and bouncing off your eardrums inside of your brain in ways that the drab speckling of their blubber and rock-pool shine of their eyes would never have you believe. Rock-stars in disguise, they party to the underwater trace, enticing those more accustomed to the whales’ sigh to change the channel, dare to experiment, live a little. Next time we’re playing a party game and I have to choose an animal that knows how to party, lemurs are out and Weddells are in, baby.

All in all, Antarctica offers a very interesting soundscape and one quite far removed from the one I imagined before going down there. While it’s not really the done thing to force penguins to listen to our musical preferences these days, I will be tuning in to see what else comes out of the ice in years to come.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Time Will Tell

'I am just going outside and my be some time'
Captain Lawrence "Titus" Oates, March 1912

Just over 100 years ago Oates went outside, telling his companions he may be some time. Time has been a particularly relevant concept this summer, with the centenary celebrations of Amundsen and Scott’s journeys to the pole. We look back on these events as if they happened a lifetime ago, which for us it did. For Antarctica though, the age of exploration happened but a blink of the eye ago.

Antarctica herself is aging remarkably well and her clear complexion betrays nothing of her life history, stretching back to the breakup of Gondwanaland 25 million years ago. 23 million years ago the Drake passage opened up, isolating Antarctica from the rest of the world. Geologists throw terms like ‘million’ around as if they are regular units on a pair of kitchen scales but for most of us such huge time scales are hard to conceptualise. The contrast in scales present in Antarctica also boggles the mind. On the one hand there is the geological scale where 1.2 million either way makes little difference, versus the fleeting lifespan of a nematode on the other.

Not being a biologist, geologist or historian, I had not thought too much about defining time scales before my trip. One thing I did know was that I felt old before going. At 22 I felt like I was past my use by date. Having graduated with an Honours degree, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do next and felt like time was running out for me to decide. The traditional story goes something like this: graduate, get a ‘real job’, settle down, get married, buy a house, start a family. In that order. Everything seemed so linear and planned out and inflexible and I hadn’t really seen anyone buck the trend and champion the cause of any alternatives.

Spending two weeks in Antarctica changed that. I met so many people who were not only the best in their fields but had also had so many other experiences volunteering for search and rescue, working in ambulances, going to music school. All of them were over 25 but they all looked so young. I could have sworn that one of the cooks from McMurdo was not a day older than 19, yet he swore he was 30. It was like a Peter-pan effect, which perhaps it was in a way. Those wintering at Scott Base were acutely aware of the time lost back home by committing to spending 12 months down South. It was like disappearing to neverland, where one day and one night equated to 365 in the real world. People had dared to do things differently though, and that was key.

Perhaps it is only fitting that my watch should have chosen to start ticking backwards whilst out on he ice. Coming home, I realise just how much still lies ahead of me. Sure, I’m smaller than a nematode in the bigger scheme of time, but so long as I stick to inhabiting a human timescale, all sorts of things are possible. I may take me some time to get on the right track, but right now the eyelids have barely started flickering for the next blink.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Happy Feet

Forget Happy Feet, with these guys it's 'intelligent legs'...

... invading an ocean near you soon!

When most people think of Antarctica and wildlife, Happy Feet starts playing in their heads. Despite the best efforts of Warner Brothers and the makers of the old Bluebird chips ads, the waddly birds still waddle and tap dancing is not a major pastime down on the ice. That’s OK because the wildlife we encountered on our trip had quite enough pep as it was…

Let’s begin with the skua. Skua look like giant Mollymawks and are actually the same size as Adelie penguins. At Crary labs, McMurdo they have two dead birds laid out side by side as proof. Now, the penguins don’t look all that big when they scoot your way on their bellies, but transform that animal into one with an intimidating wingspan, dive-bombing you from above and you’re in trouble. Or rather, I was. It is never a good idea to take a short cut near a pond called ‘Skua Lake’. We were warned in advance that they dive bomb the highest thing around, so holding an ice axe aloft is a good tactic. Unfortunately I had no ice axe, so waving my arms around like a devout tongues-speaker and ducking at strategic moments was the go. The closest I’ve come to the ducking and twisting maze back home was playing Kinect xbox games. Perhaps their next release could be Antarctic themed, because ‘Skua Attack’ would be sure to get people moving.

Compared to such exertion, plunging my arms into water chilled to a healthy -1.7 degrees was a breeze. No, this wasn’t ‘pat a krill’, but it may as well have been because the range of animals in the Crary labs touch tank was just bizarre. Ogly eyed fish, pink kina, road cone orange sea spiders…. The sea spiders were really neat because they had all of their vital organs in their legs. I imagine if they ever made a zombie movie it would be full of single limbs limping after their prey in a bloodthirsty chase. Luckily for us we managed to keep all of the limbs intact and took all of the critters back to Scott Base for release out on the sea ice. No comment on how long they survived after that, but it was a nice thought.

Another nice thought that I never thought I’d ever think was how intriguing nematodes really are. The ‘wormherders’ in the science labs at McMurdo were all too happy to show us around and explain how they search through samples of dirt for the microscopic critters all day. We were especially lucky because they had just filmed a nematode being chewed by a tardigrade and spent three days debating whether the tardigrade was a) eating the nematode b) kissing the nematode or c) just really really dumb and looking for algae in the wrong place. This mystery was never satisfactorily solved, but it did inspire some microbiological song lyrics. For those of you wishing to enlighten young minds come bedtime, the tune can be found here.
5 little nematodes
Chillin’ out on the road
Hiding from hungry tardigrades (OM NOM)
One of them, he got caught
His chances then were nought
Then there were 4 wee nematodes….
Antarctic biology is smaller, creepier and more dangerous than I ever imagined. After experiencing a small taste of Antarctica's weird and wonderful ecosystem, I actually wouldn't be surprised if the penguins broke into song and dance whenever people weren't watching.Who knows what they'll find when they film the birds over winter? Chip manufacturers, stay tuned...