End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica
By Peter Matthiessen
National Geographic; 242 pages; $26.00
End of the Earth—a title that could fit more than one of Peter Matthiessen's books—starts with a 1965 bar bet in Ireland. Living then in Galway, Matthiessen is reading the classic South Polar exploration account The Worst Journey in the World, about Scott's final voyage south from the Ross Sea in 1911. When Matthiessen sees that two long-shot horses named Ross Sea and Antarctic Sea are running at the Galway Races, he bets on the first to win and the second to place. When they come in, he buys a round for his pub. "All my friends," he writes, "were happy to acknowledge that my stars were in order and my destinations preordained, and were only too glad to toast my resolve to visit the continent and behold the mighty emperor of all the penguins."
It wasn't until 1998, however, that Matthiessen's star, in the form of birding tour leader Victor Emanuel, finally brought him to the southern ice. Matthiessen was so moved by the experience that he returned again in 2001, in part because he had not yet seen the "mighty emperor," the largest of 17 species of penguins. This book is his haunting account of those two trips. It mixes his characteristically evocative descriptions of landscape and wildlife with tales of the explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries, the heroic age of Antarctic travel.
Natural history like the biology of the emperor penguin—the males, already hungry because they haven't eaten during two months of courtship, huddle in the subzero dark of the Antarctic winter with their eggs on their feet for another two months until relieved by their mates—alternates with statistics about global warming. The story of mat "worst journey in the world," on which Scott's companion, Bill Wilson, led the party that discovered how the emperors breed, contrasts with accounts of champagne parties aboard the birders' icebreaker. The differences between the early explorers' hardships and the modern explorers' luxuries, which include a helicopter-equipped iceboat that uses 14 tons of fuel a day, is jarring. Matthiessen acknowledges enjoying helicopter rides even as he attacks the fossil fuel industry.
But, as he writes about those who criticize the earlier explorers, "To bite at the ankles of those who risk, endure, and sometimes die in quixotic, failed endeavors should draw attention to the biter's posture, belly to the ground." End of the Earth is a splendid book, a celebration of Antarctica and an eloquent evocation of its appeal: "that yearning to return into white emptiness and ringing silence, that stillness underneath the wind."