Book Review: Dispatches from Continent Seven: An Anthology of Antarctic Science, by Rebecca Priestley

Available in bookshops nationwide, this book is being discussed as part of NZ Writer’s Week. Rebecca Priestley’s event Ice Science is at 5pm on Saturday 12 March, and she will talk with fellow Antarcticans Rebecca Priestley, Tim Naish and Rhian Salmon, chaired by Te Radar.

Icv_dispatches_from_continent_seven was pretty excited about this book, having enjoyed Rebecca Priestley’s previous science anthology work, and I was not disappointed. Antarctica is a fascinating place that most of us will never set foot on, and this anthology gives a great sense of what travelling and working there would be like.

The book is arranged into roughly chronological sections covering the first voyages attempting to “discover” Antarctica, early accounts of scientists and explorers who made it onto the continent, the growth of scientific endeavours from the 1950’s onwards, and finally a collection of recent writing on what study in Antarctica can tell us about climate change and our possible future. Rebecca Priestley has selected, edited and introduced each piece of writing to show us who each writer is, where they are and what’s going on at the time that their narrative takes place.

Although “edited” is an obvious description of Priestley’s part in the book, I kept thinking during the earlier historical sections that “curated” would be a more accurate term. As I read, I felt like I was being shown through an exhibition about the history of Antarctic exploration – each piece following on from the next but from a different perspective, well-contextualised and interspersed with pictures and occasional poems. The inclusion of modern poetry is an interesting choice, one that I appreciate in part because it allows small insertions of female perspectives into the inevitably male exploration narratives. I found the poem that starts the book off, ‘The frozen pages’ by Gregory O’Brien, particularly engaging: it gets the book off to a philosophical start, setting the scene for readers to consider the importance of the stories that follow.

The early efforts to reach Antarctica – so distant, so mysterious, so very, very cold – took place in the age of European colonial voyages. James Cook and his crew circumnavigated the area while making scientific observations. French lieutenant Jospeh Dubouzet mused about whether “taking possession” by planting a flag in a new place was ridiculous, before asserting that in this case it wasn’t, and describing the excellent Bordeaux wine used to toast their conquest. James Clark Ross delighted in going around naming things after his colleagues and benefactors. The major difference was that there were no people already living on Antarctica. Therefore the efforts to claim and conquer parts of this last continent did not involve any direct human conflict. There are, however, numerous instances of penguins having a bad time in these early encounters! Just before their otherwise peaceful act of flag-planting conquest, Dubouzet and company had cleared the area by hurling away all the resident penguins, who were “much astonished”. No doubt.

The writers give beautiful descriptions of the unusual and wonderful things they are seeing, while also conveying the discomfort and visceral struggle for survival. I had no idea that the aviator Richard Byrd had worked on Antarctica, but his story about nearly locking himself out while doing a solo meteorological measurement was brilliantly told and quite nerve-wracking. As things took a turn for the worse in Robert Falcon Scott’s 1912 diary excerpt (presented as a story about collecting geological samples) I suddenly realised “ohh, we must be approaching the part with ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’”. Actually that exact quote from Captain Oates was not included, but I am sure I will not be the only reader who anticipates it, and realises in the process that the story of Scott’s fatal final expedition has become iconic.

I was somewhat less gripped by some of the more modern excerpts about doing science in Antarctica – not due to any fault of the authors, for each piece is a good example of science writing and explains a particular aspect of physics, biology or cool technical gear very well. I think this is a personal preference: as a social researcher, I found the stories in which the scientist described their personal experience more immersive, while the technical explanations were interesting but easier to skim over. I particularly enjoyed the rather chipper-sounding physicist Colin Bull describing his team’s experiences in the 1950s (struggling across a windy valley while laden with gear, he finds himself repeating a quote from a colleague: “Only another ten thousand feet of this excruciating garbage”), and atmospheric chemist Rhian Salmon’s chatty blog from the early 2000s about a typical day while wintering over. My interest picked up further for the final section relating to climate change: scary and very important.

I will be passing this book on to the earth scientist in my household, who is certain to find different aspects of the stories more interesting. This is therefore an endorsement: people will take different things out of this anthology, and that’s great. Recommended.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

Dispatches from Continent Seven: An Anthology of Antarctic Science
by Rebecca Priestley
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249055

Book Review: See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious, by Greg O’Brien

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

You are a camera. Your eye is a lens. You open your eyes and images register inside you. Some images remain there a long time. Some might even stay with you for the rest of your life.’

cv_see_what_i_can_seeIf See What I Can See can be considered a guidebook to New Zealand photography, then Gregory O’Brien is our knowledgeable tour guide. He takes us through the many photographs in the book and teaches us how to see them. As well as being a painter, literary critic, and art curator, O’Brien has written many books of poetry, fiction, and essays. This is not his first book about art aimed at the ‘young and curious’; he has also written Welcome to the South Seas (2004) and Back and Beyond (2008). Both of those books won the Non-Fiction Prize at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young People. There is arguably no better arts writer in New Zealand, and in See What I Can See, O’Brien draws on his long term experience to showcase an extraordinary range of images made by New Zealand photo-artists.

See What I Can See may be pitched as being for younger people (I would say ages 9 – 15), but this book would make an excellent introduction for anyone interested in the subject. O’Brien’s approach is funny, anecdotal, and intimate: he’s a story-teller and we are drawn to the images by his stories. The history of photography features lightly in the book, and includes the construction of cameras such as Darren Glass’s ingenious Frisbee camera and the rise of the selfie. What is particularly special about O’Brien’s approach is the way he not only shows us how photography captures what is there, but how it captures what the photo-artist feels. So while photography can be historical, abstract, beautiful, mysterious, and documentary, it is also a individual’s perception of the world.

Such beautifully produced non-fiction books are a specialty for Auckland University Press. It is obvious that care has been take to reproduce images from many of New Zealand’s great photo-artists: Laurence Aberhart, Peter Peryer, Marti Friedlander, Ans Westra, and Brian Brake. The text states, ‘Great photographs can often take us to places where words can’t follow them,’ and it is an idea played out in the sections on hands and faces, and also the surreal studio dreamscapes. In the acknowledgements O’Brien states, ‘I have been lucky, over the years, to spend time with some great photographers. More than anything else, what I’ve learned from them is a state of attentiveness, of looking closely and working intuitively.’ The same praise can be given to O’Brien: he asks us to be attentive and to look closely, and through that attentiveness to see his idea of beauty.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious
by Gregory O’Brien
Published by Auckland University Press, RRP: $34.99
ISBN 9781869408435