Death and Other Possible Futures

Leslie Carol Roberts

(USA)

The archivist’s hair was bright red, and she had painted in a black streak. She stood out in the Canterbury Museum office, surrounded by neat grey boxes and files exploding with papers and photos waiting to be characterised. She slid across the counter the forms I needed to complete. 

We close in two hours, she said, glancing at her watch. 

Before you start, she added, let’s have a cup of tea.

On one level it seems obvious why an archivist would ask a researcher from 15,000 miles away to have a cup of tea. But this is Aotearoa/New Zealand and they don’t do it here. People tend to keep to themselves, tend to let those from faraway know they are from faraway and often ask, when are you leaving to go home?

As she heated up the kettle to make some gumboot tea, as she called it, which I knew was ordinary tea not fancy tea like Earl Grey, I took in the desk in her office, the stacks, the neatly arranged yellow pencils in a pale green ceramic cup. And a very official-looking name plate: The sort you see in 1950s movies. Kerry McCarthy.

I admired the ceramic cup.

The cup is from Japan. I’ve never been, but it’s on my list, she added a tad wistfully.

I guessed she was in her early thirties. 

When she delivered our mugs, I saw that she had put the milk and tea bag in the mug and was about to add the hot water. 

That’s odd, I said.

What?

Putting the milk in before the hot water.

Then she did an even odder thing for this island nation: She told me a personal story. Kerry’s mother, who owned a pub in the city of Dunedin, south of Otautahi/Christchurch, had taught her that ladies put their milk in with the tea bag, then add the hot water. 

I had issues with the chemistry of that order. We both then shared that we had, in part or in whole, come from solid Irish working class stock, and so things like what made for a lady’s cup and what made for a barmaid’s cup of tea were familiar cultural moments. 

Over the next year and a half spent in the archives with Kerry, we talked about the artifice of Antarctic exploration, which was my obsession and turned out to be hers, too. How the stories were told and shown with one main lens: Hero worship. Even the “hero diss books” that became popular in the 1980s, when a few British scholars started writing about Robert Falcon Scott in a less-flattering way still had all the artifice. The covers with the ice-crusted ships, the covers with the ice-crusted seas, the covers with men with ice-crusted faces. 

In the archives, me and Kerry, we also had these moments: I heard a lot about her past, her past partner in the sort-of famous band, how she travelled with them to Europe. The house they bought. The testy divorce. The acrimony. Me? I shared how I fell in love with the First Mate on the Greenpeace ship in Antarctica, an older man who had left school in England at 15 to ship out. He taught me about the brutal English class system. He taught me how to be brave in terrifying seas, to go outside on ice-watch in the pitch-black and hold binoculars in one hand while hanging onto an icy railing with another. He taught me how to be calm and even, as sailors need to be. And so I learned from him how to read the waves, the stars, the entire Earth and sky. He taught me what it felt like to leave me unexpectedly for another – as I later learned was his pattern. I had never told anyone else about this. After that last bit, about getting brutally dumped, Kerry said, let’s have a wine after work today? And so we began one of our many rituals: The glass of pinot noir at the Arts Center wine bar, people watching. Then I would go home and make frozen fish fingers for the two young children I had with another, another one who left me. This time with little ones.

Over the months in the archives, our brains fired away, responding to the prompts one or the other had thought up. Here is how we deconstructed fabled Antarctic histories: Through the stories of the simple seamen largely invisible in the books but present in the vernacular documentation.

There were few on the planet who were as interested in this aspect as the two of us, armed with tea and a unique coconut-laced, local wafer called the Crispie, diligently going through albums of snapshots. In this Antarctica, there were terrifying scenes of waves hitting ships from the stern and water swelling on the deck. There were men shaving and men bathing in semi-frozen lakes. 

The bather was a particular fascination for us. A Norwegian ski instructor named Tryggve Gran with the failed Scott expedition. None of the men who tried to walk to the pole and back with Scott, to “discover” it, made it. None knew how to ski, which of course caused some problems. How much could Gran really teach them in a short time? We would sigh and say, maybe if they had a better teacher.

But they could not have found a teacher with a better body, we decided. Gran was cut like a rock star ready to jump on stage–all wiry muscles and lean face. Paging Calvin Klein undie ads, I would whisper and we would both softly laugh.

In the Gran photos (they were all in one album), we can see from ground level Gran bathing in the lake. He is bent in half, a sort of yoga pose moment, looking down at the water. It is a beautiful image, his body, all the gorgeous ice, his cropped hair, see the hands reach down towards the ankles, a sort of Rodin or Claudel moment.

Me and Kerry talked about how painful that bath would have been, how even if the summer polar air was above freezing, there was a lot of ice in the water. And Gran did not appear to be in a rush. No siree. I had the sense that the photographer, another crewmate, was inviting us to locate where the pain of the bath resided: The dipping hands, the ankles, the bare genitals? 

The days we spent staring at him were among our brightest: His was a completely bizarre story the more we learned. He would later become a big fan of the Nazis and fly aeroplanes. 

Who knows how Antarctica impacted his move towards fascism, Kerry once asked. 

Maybe it made him a fascist, she added, seeing how effective it was to have a common “enemy”–the ice and how great it was to have a single hero-leader. 

We mourned how few of those Heroic Age writers detailed publicly the pain and the sorrow. Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote a luminous memoir of the Scott race to the South Pole, from the perspective of being the upper-class, near-sighted chap taken along because he could pay his way and money was in short supply. He was one of the people sent out to look for the Scott party when they were late arriving. This haunted him: They had not been that far from their next depot. 

I once said to Kerry over a glass of post-archival wine: Now, why you send the deeply near-sighted guy to look for people on an ice desert raises some questions, of course, but he never shared any insights about that.  

When you do rather eccentric research, there are not many people with whom you can speak candidly. It’s not the sort of thing you bring up at a dinner party unless you want people to run for their lives. So. This was a singular friendship with a very specific set of stories and facts.

Kerry was the one who taught me how all the so-called simple seamen had little Brownie cameras and they shot a lot of rolls of their time on The Ice.

There was tremendous poignancy in our work at the archives. The lack of interiority portrayed in the official Antarctic expedition photos of the Heroic Age. This amplifies the melancholy aspect of the snapshots. Most portrayed in the vernacular photos would not be known for their work on The Ice: The leaders made them sign contracts that said they would not write about or otherwise talk about it. It’s the same thing NASA does with astronauts: Go out and get some information for us, be heroes, and then shut the fuck up.

Yet in the vernacular images, little shiny black-and-white squares, you can almost hear the winded breath as they play football, as they chase dogs, as they chase penguins. The shifting perspectives of loading crates and dogs off the ship; the evening theatricals they wrote and performed–often dressed in women’s apparel they had specifically packed for their shows. (Or as I liked to say to Kerry, while we studied these with magnifying glasses: At least so the official record goes.)

The reality is, who really knows what it was like, outside these more casual photos, to live in that ice desert, without a radio, with some chance you would not be going home again.  

The effect of these photos, we decided, was that they felt both shockingly otherworldly. 

Many years later, I am back in Aotearoa and all of these images are in storage because they are renovating the museum. So I cannot see any of them. It is a crushing blow.

As I pondered the photo albums, I thought about how many of my formative years as a research scholar in the Antarctic humanities had been spent staring at carefully constructed images designed to communicate: Hero. We would sit in the archives, and we both understood part of our work was to describe the difference between human and hero and perhaps also to confuse it. What is the difference between intention and interiority? Why did they all edit out the pain of living in Antarctica? A human would feel tremendous pain in Antarctica, knowing he would be gone from home for years, and during some expeditions, knowing that thousands would die while they were gone. But there was most likely equally the sense that they were bringing home something good, some new revelations about the beauty and potency of Earth, and perhaps some of this would erase some of the pain. Maybe they also wanted the chance to show the world what they were made of, if even only for their shipmates: Not many humans get a chance to show the world what they are made of, and record it.

*****

The last time we worked side by side, the clock was ticking as we sat there. 

In eight or so years, an unknown faultline in nearby Whakaraupō/Lyttelton, the port for Otautahi/Christchurch, will spring to life, jarring and forever changing this world. 

Kerry will have birthed two children by then and be living in an architecturally significant home bolted to a rock wall on a hill near Lyttelton. The home will survive with massive cracks. All the others on the lane will be condemned and abandoned. I visit her and stay in the cracked house. We sip various things and talk about all the usual issues: What is being published around Antarctica, who got the story right, what was left out, what we might collaborate on in the future. 

On one trip, I am on assignment, writing about the aftereffects of the earthquake. In the morning, we wander the lane and peer into the windows of the abandoned homes. Once you were ordered out, you could not go back in. So we talk about how homes bring to mind photos of Chernobyl after the nuclear accident. 

One sticks in my mind: The house across the street from Kerry’s still has breakfast dishes on the dining table, boxes of cereal, milk, coffee mugs. Childrens’ toys are scattered around. When I try to fall asleep that night, I cannot. It feels like a haunted place. 

But Kerry and her family are in a bind shared by many: There is no place to go to. And things are weird with insurance. And they want their kids to have continuity in school. And they need to make money. Stress floats in the sky like the long white clouds.

Not too long after, she will begin to feel rather uncomfortable. Stomach issues. She will see a doctor. And then more doctors. She will recount all the doctor visits in a mild-mannered, not-a-big-deal way. Then get back to talking about Antarctica. She will later go silent from our correspondence and I will surmise she is busy with work and young children. I don’t want to pester her. There’s the cracked house and the janky, changed world she’s in.

Later I will learn the silence meant this: They will perform massive surgeries, removing her stomach. Kerry lives in the hospital for months at a time. She will be fed through a tube in her nose. Yet she survives. When we correspond, me in San Francisco, she in and out of hospital, I will joke, as is our way: Hey you are taking our who-can-be-thinnest competition too far. She will say, I keep surprising the doctors. They told me I would be dead by now.

*****

Now it is the late summer of 2023, February, to be precise. 

So. I find myself on a hot summer night in Otautahi/Christchurch on the islands called Aotearoa, my beloved Land of the Long White Cloud, typing Kerry Bridgett McCarthy, my colleague and friend’s name into a website called Find a Grave. I reach for a rough-textured mug of good-old gumboot tea: This is a power tea moment. We had a lot of small conversations about the right amount of milk to put into tea and when it was appropriate to do so and how long to steep. We called it tea talk. It eased our minds from larger pursuits of redefining a more working-class history of Antarctica. 

My current mug–milk after hot water, old habits die hard–made complete by the addition of a Crispie. We used to double down on tea and Crispies when we worked together. They come in sleeves and we would decide early on if it was a full-sleeve research day. Usually it was.

Oh, we would laugh, we’ll just not have them tomorrow, these lovely Crispies. 

Which we both knew was a lie.

Whakaraupō/Lyttelton Harbor is deep and perfect for ships. It is home to a rare, tiny dolphin species too. It is where the great expeditions of the Heroic Age of Exploration embarked for the Antarctic. They would live in Lyttelton, those brave and famed sailors, those unknown simple seamen, getting ready to make a run to the South Pole. I had taken the ferry from Lyttelton, a short hop across the water, to Diamond Harbor. The turquoise south Pacific water smashed noncommittal as it surged against the land. The harbour was jammed with weekend sailors, and as we pulled into the small quayside, children ran up and down the macadam path to the docks, some on skateboards or bikes. It was a steep walk up the hill, the sun was hot, and I worried about getting lost. 

But that is not how I actually felt it. It was not what occupied my mind when I was on the plane from San Francisco, coming back to a place where we both worked on research projects about the role Antarctica plays in the larger cultural imagination. 

There are to date 159 individual human memorials, or graves, in Diamond Harbour Memorial Garden, an ecological graveyard across the harbour from Whakaraupō/Lyttelton. Kerry chose her own gravesite: A final destination with a view. The caskets are all made from biodegradable, eco-friendly materials, and the bodies are placed in more shallow graves than the standard ones. The idea is that you become one with the place where you are laid to rest. The poetics of this are equally illuminating and sad. They feel like haunted details to me. She wanted to be in a spot looking back at Lyttelton. She appreciated the idea of having a final resting place that was also ecological, where her remains would become one with the land.

I walk towards her grave. I feel this: I am stopping by to see her. No one had definitively responded to my emails when I was trying to locate her grave. Some had moved away during COVID and had not come back to Aotearoa/New Zealand. Some were not sure where her grave was located. Her partner was teaching at a local university but did not reply. He and I were never close. Kerry was 53 when she died. She had wanted to go to a few places and somehow, even after rounds of painful surgeries and feeding tubes inserted, she did manage to travel to Hong Kong. She had really wanted to go to Japan, but that was not in the cards. I had not had the chance to say some important words about our shared work. So. A plane ticket. A lie to the customs man: Tourist? Yes, sir.

The house I am renting in Otautahi, during my sabbatical, is wedged between a chiropractor and a large hospice care facility, across the street from a loud, atrium-style bar where people sip sparkling wine in the still bright evening light. Live bands play all day on Sundays. Usually, it is reggae. Why? Who knows? In the high latitudes, summer means business, and the night is slow to come. It is bright until 9 pm. I spy the crowd at the bar across the road, all ages, leaning towards six-plus decades on the planet. But bars here are family affairs, so there are many, many large groups surrounded by silver wine coolers, laughing over the music. Red faces, shiny. Maybe sun-damaged to look that way. Photoaging is real in these parts.

As I type in Kerry Bridgett McCarthy to the narrow horizontal space for names on Find a Grave, I breathe and know how funny she finds this, one punk rock Antarctic researcher to another. She also feels a little bit bad: How this is what it came to, how I am the last one standing. My eyes well up. 

(I will soon learn her oncologist’s office is down the road from the house I have rented and that this was where she received an increasingly grim prognosis. This also feels like the only way things can be now, this is such a squeezed-in place, when it comes to things like clinics and schools and bars. Kerry actually outlived the most dire scenarios by quite a good stretch, lived to see her children grow into high school students, lived to make a few trips to places that had been on her travel list. She got her PhD in Antarctic Humanities, for which I was a reviewer. She lived to be forced to re-apply for her job as a curator at the Canterbury Museum when they did a reorganisation and she was not rehired, even though she bore more expertise on Antarctic vernacular photography than most likely anyone else on the planet. My antipathy for that institution is large for that reason, even though there are many happy memories embedded in its archives.)

I sat down on her grassy grave very gently. I have brought Crispies and a therm44os of tea but by Maori tradition it is tapu (taboo) to eat where the dead are buried. Fair enough. So I just set them out on the shaggy grass. I tell her about the flight there and some of the stupid aspects of Aotearoa/New Zealand now. I ask if she wants me to help get her dissertation published as a book. We used to talk about that aspect. 

Then, there is no more to be said. This stunning horror of not knowing what to feel about it all. There is a rough dark cross marking her grave and some flowers that were left there. The actual site is very tranquil and yet vibrant. I hear the sea and the seabirds. 

I remember when we would lose our minds over some photo and the echo of our laughter. How we knew too much about things no one else on the planet really cared about. What were these men photographing? Why? 

Outkast plays on my headphones: This was a song that was popular at the time we were side by side in the archives, although we tended towards more punk-sounds while working. Nothing is forever. Hey ya. Don’t want to meet your daddy. Just want you in my caddy. Alright now fellas, what’s cooler than being cool? Ice cold. Aw right. Let’s break this thing down in a few seconds. Lend me some sugar. Shake it like a Polaroid picture.

We looked long and hard at the photos they took on their Brownie cameras, didn’t we, I asked her. 

Indeed she said. We did a good job. Together we unlocked new knowledge. I laughed at this, tears streaming down my face.

Exactly, I responded to her, as we liked to intone: The coldest, loneliest place in the world.

Leslie Carol Roberts

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Leslie Carol Roberts has published nonfiction books, The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica; and Here Is Where I Walk: Episodes from a Life in the Forest, and contributed to several collections on how we perform ecological activism and thought. Her journalism appears in The Believer, among many others; her honours include a Fulbright Fellowship in Antarctic Humanities (the first in the world); an NEA; and global support grants from governmental agencies. She founded the ECOPOESIS Project, a global design and writing project to address the anxieties and imaginaries of climate change response and has led ECOPOESIS seminars and talks in Laos, New Zealand, France, the Middle East, The Maldives, and the United States. She is a graduate of the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, and has taught at Iowa, St. Mary's of Moraga, University of Canterbury, and California College of the Arts. Leslie is a research member of the UN SCAR-HASS Antarctic Humanities group.

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