Photographs by Erika Blumenfeld

First Passage

A journey toward motherhood
in the age of glacial loss

Watch extra video from the ship, read journal entries, and
listen to sounds from the Icebreaker here.

 

THE PILE OF PAPERWORK to deploy to Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is forty pages thick with medical histories, bloodwork, dental X-rays, EKGs, and a prying questionnaire that asks me to describe the frequency and type of alcohol I consume, my general emotional status, and whether or not I have hemorrhoids. I am asked if I want to be part of the “walking blood bank,” which means I would be willing to donate some of what flows through my veins should a medical emergency arise while I am on the ice. On page eight, one thin line reads: Pelvic Exam. Pregnant women are not allowed to sail south. My stomach tightens. My husband and I had hoped to start trying soon. But I tell myself that this rule makes sense; no one wants to have morning sickness and throw up on a glacier.

For many years I’ve heard that female fertility plummets in your mid- to late thirties. And so for many years, I’ve thought, Great, I have time. But one day I discovered time was running out, and I found myself wondering exactly where and when I’d meet the cliff face. This is also how I feel about the climate crisis. In both cases, what we do now will shape the future, which makes this particular era feel heavy with what it may or may not bring forth.

When I tell the doctor I plan to wait, she says, “You’ll be thirty-five then, which technically will make you a geriatric pregnancy.”

The gown’s thin paper barely covers my discomfort.

“I hate that term,” she adds quietly.

Then don’t use it, I want to spit. Instead I say, “Me too.”

I get dressed, walk past the pile of Parenting magazines, and swipe my credit card for the ten-dollar co-pay, glad to be taking, however small, the first steps toward something I have wanted for a very long time. Suddenly what was once nothing more than desire has turned into an official declaration of intent. It sits in computer script, the most recent entry in my medical file: Patient plans to attempt conception at the close of the coming year.

What does not appear there but is equally present, somehow, is Antarctica. Antarctica of permanent daylight come summer and permanent night during the season when the sea ice grows. Antarctica, that no human being had ever seen just over two hundred years ago. Antarctica, the continent where only eleven people have been born. Antarctica of glacial uncertainty. Antarctica, humming 9,093 miles south of my home in Providence, now acutely felt. Antarctica, and, more specifically, the policies that shape it, place their icy hands around my present and tell me how to act. Wait, they say, one full year.

 

 

MY LAST NIGHT on solid earth I sleep in a hotel called Dreams. From my table at the breakfast buffet, I can see my ship, the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer, tied up on the pier. Later I will ask the captain how much the icebreaker weighs, and he will answer: 10,752,000 pounds. It’s nearly the length of a football field, a distance most humans can cross in a minute. I squint through the smudged window, sip my second cup of coffee, and admit I know nothing about whatever it is I’ve gotten myself into.

When I had asked a male glaciologist what to bring, he told me, “Pack as if you were going to the moon,” bluster bending his voice toward deadpan. “But I’ve never been to the moon,” I said, then hung up. A few weeks later, Erika Blumenfeld, a photographer who had also traveled to Antarctica as an artist in residence, offered more helpful advice: “Pack twice as many tampons as you think you’ll need. Bring glove liners and long underwear because what the government will issue you will be too big to keep you warm. And bring baby wipes, because showers are sometimes infrequent, and it can feel good to be able to take care of yourself, however small the gesture.”

Of the fifty-seven people sailing south, sixteen are women—a figure that would have been all but unthinkable a few decades ago. In the lead-up to departure, I discovered that not one of fifty best-selling books on Amazon about polar regions is written by a woman about a woman’s experience in Antarctica. In the top one hundred, not a single female writer of color appears. Until the late twentieth century, most people––and in particular, most women and people of color––could only ever visit Antarctica in their minds. Their relationship to the ice was either nonexistent or deeply speculative, built entirely upon prior assumptions and representations. As Sara Wheeler put it in her book Terra Incognita, over much of the past two hundred years “the continent was little more than a testing ground for men with frozen beards to see how dead they could get.” The deeper I delved into this icy archive, the more I began to suspect that it was not Antarctica that I had been invited to behold but rather the authors themselves, and that particular turn-of-the-last-century impulse to conquer one of the few remaining “blank spaces” on the map.

Most of these books recalled the same half dozen events: Amundsen’s capture of the pole, Scott’s death eleven miles from One Ton Depot, Shackleton’s miraculous return, Mawson shooting and eating his sled dogs. It didn’t take me long to realize that these were the origin stories circulating around the only place on Earth with no original inhabitants, the tales that were told and retold by each successive generation. Some I could not finish. Most left me bored: stuck in the hero’s journey, that tired trope of exceptional individual overcoming harsh landscape so that their courage, stoicism, even humor might appear unmatched. In their stories, the ice is “pure” and “chaste,” “impenetrable” and “erratic.” The descriptors, like those often used to justify the subjugation of women, make the land sound alluring, fickle, fearsome—a place that intoxicates and so demands that those who enter her “mysterious” realms must ultimately exert control over them to survive.

 

 

DURING THE THIRD night of transit, the ship’s roll deepens. Unable to sleep, I lie in my bunk and watch the curtain. Every minute or so, the bottom of the gold-printed polyester swings out into the room, slow and deliberate, as though it were being willed to the vertical position by a magnet. Most everything in my slender cabin appears possessed. My steel-toed XTRATUFs skitter across the floor beside the chair I forgot to bungee to the desk and the notepad and pen I forgot to tuck into a drawer. In ship terms, this strange behavior is a sign that we are “taking it on the beam,” the boat running parallel to the waves, rocking side to side in what I will later learn is a twenty-foot swell.

Eventually, a little before five a.m., I decide to shower. I launch my butt over the side of the bunk, then lower my right foot in the half-light to the next rung on the ladder. The ship tips to the starboard side, and I lean against it. With one hand on the wall, I work my way toward the head. In addition to tampons, hand warmers, and size small glove liners, I’ve brought along a Ziploc bag full of prenatal vitamins. The label boasts folic acid (to prevent birth defects in the brain and spinal column), ginger extract (for help with morning sickness), iron (because a pregnant body needs extra blood). I pop a meclizine tablet and one of the earthy green vitamin-packed horse pills in my mouth, steady myself against the sink, and lift a palmful of liquid to my lips. The water, which has been sucked from the ocean and made drinkable through the ship’s desalination system, tastes like algae.

During our ten-day steam across the Drake Passage and into the heart of Amundsen Sea, different scientists on board the Palmer give presentations on research they plan to carry out once we reach our test site. If Antarctica is going to lose a lot of ice this century, it is going to come from Thwaites Glacier. That’s because it rests below sea level, making it vulnerable to warm-water incursions that cause rapid melting from beneath, which, in turn, could force the entire glacial system to collapse. Thwaites alone contains more than two feet of potential sea level rise, and were it to wholly disintegrate, it could destabilize the entirety of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, causing global sea levels to jump more than four times higher.

But the more I learn about Thwaites, the more profoundly I understand that many of our predictions about just how quickly sea levels will rise are tenuous, the models themselves based only on physical processes observed by human beings. Some have even begun to wonder if at the cold nadir of the planet—in this place that few have ever before visited, let alone cataloged in the methodical way that science demands—something we have never before witnessed is happening. The more I learn, the more I want to stand alongside this calving glacier, want to watch freshly formed bergs drop down into the ocean like stones so that I might know in my body what my mind still struggles to grasp: Antarctica has the power to rewrite all the maps.

 

 

ONE MORNING after nearly a week at sea, I walk up to the Palmer’s topmost deck and ask Rick, the chief mate, for permission to go out on the bridge wings. It is one of many safety precautions I’m getting used to: any time you are not inside, someone needs to know where you are headed and for how long you plan to be gone.

“I’ve got something for you,” Rick says. Because he knows I enjoy expanding my Antarctic vocabulary, I expect him to hand over a book of nautical terms or an atlas of the Southern Ocean. Instead, he points to the horizon. There it is, at 66° south: my very first iceberg.

I gaze, until my ass becomes painfully cold, at a little piece of what used to be Antarctica. It occurs to me then that all bergs are glacial-born, that this piece was once part of a parent stream. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, “to calve” means to give birth to a baby cow or to split and shed a smaller mass of ice. These definitions––of animals and of glaciers both––describe the moment one thing becomes two. My first iceberg then isn’t just an iceberg; it also appears as a kind of sentinel. Antarctica’s diminishing glaciers are responding to us—to our actions so many thousands of miles away—with their own admonitions: calved icebergs born outward, their bodies portending a wildly different world to come. Like the explorers of yore, I am projecting what I most desire and fear onto this chunk of frozen water, but not doing so feels treacherous in a different way. Eventually I turn my back to the boat and take out my phone. I hold the screen in front of my face, extend my arm as far as possible, and snap a selfie. In it, my smile looks forced, the berg almost indistinguishable from the clouds that scud along the horizon.

 

 

THERE IS A LITTLE ROOM on the ship called Aft Control, where I go when I need to be alone. It has a big wooden chair where the crane operator sits, a great view of the sea, and a mural of an alligator riding a snowmobile past a pack of penguins. Deep into transit, I head there with my Kindle and a notebook. But before writing or reading, I sit down and look out. See a plume of misty air and think, whale spout, then think, mistaken. Think, swell breaking, then, fin slicing the sea surface.

The orange A-frame rising from the Palmer’s back deck momentarily obscures the disruption, causing my thoughts to drift farther still. Opposite desires set this year in motion: to observe the last continent going to pieces and also to create life. I am in the middle of the first passage, crossing open water. Despite the distance that seemingly separates each of these impulses, both are frighteningly beyond my control. Calving or carrying— nothing I do will guarantee either coming to pass. Alone, with my mostly unobstructed view of the sea, I am beset by fear. It feels dangerous to link these longings and even more ill advised to commit both to print. I fear that pressing my want into the blank page before me might somehow undo the possibility of its being fulfilled. Some part of me says, That’s silly, don’t fret. Another responds, You don’t know anything yet.

Maybe a poem will help, I think, as I open Ada Limón’s most recent collection. In “The Vulture and the Body,” her investigation of fertility treatment and roadkill, she writes, “What if, instead / of carrying / a child, I am supposed to carry grief?” How brave she is to write about her follicles and their inability to bear fruit, I think, as I lean back and watch the horizon pitch up and down with the ship’s loping gait. I imagine myself into her position, sicken at the thought of struggling to get pregnant, and then I am filled with something like solidarity: no matter the outcome, ours is an age of loss. Like Limón, I hunger after that which no amount of hard work can secure in a world of wonders that we are dangerously good at unmaking. I keep reading. The following pages full of the stuff of life: pistachio shells and sugar snap peas and colts with their tails chewed off. Part prayer, part curse, her book suggests the only way to survive grief is to care for what remains with even more heart than before.

 

 

“THERE’S BEEN a medical emergency. The Palmer turned around fifteen minutes ago, set a course for Rothera base,” chief scientist Rob Larter says on the morning we are to finally arrive at Thwaites. “They have a doctor there who’s probably young and fairly inexperienced, but the plane comes from Punta Arenas twice a week.”

What, I wonder, are the ailments for which a few weeks would be too much time? A burst appendix? Brain aneurysm? I remember something my program officer said when I signed up for the mission: “It is easier to send help to the space station than it is for us to get help to you.”

As it turns out, one of the support staff is pregnant, and she fears the fetus is ectopic, a condition that could cause her to bleed out into her abdomen and die.

In my porthole, a ghostly gray tabular drags at the horizon. Each calved berg between here and there, each ice floe and bergie bit, will slow us down, making it less likely the help we seek will come soon enough.

At first a tacitly agreed-upon hush envelops the boat. It is as if we are collectively holding our breath. Time turns sticky like taffy as we spend a solid day and a half working back through the very same ice fields we crossed to get to the inner edge of Thwaites. Meanwhile, John Carpenter’s Antarctic horror film, The Thing, plays on the shipboard television in a loop. For a little while folks hibernate, retreating to their rooms to read or sleep. I write an article for National Geographic, finish season two of This Is Us, and read the first three chapters of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, each action wrapping me in warmth that comes from encountering social norms that, no matter how constraining, also register as familiar.

But on day three of medevac, when we finally pass Peter I, an uninhabited volcanic island, its mile-high cone shrouded in clouds, the mood shifts from funeral to slap-happy. With Rothera in reach and the patient’s health holding, we swing from sitting vigil to a different kind of desperation, that stir-crazy cooped-up feeling that flirts with madness. If we are to make it back to the Amundsen’s inner reaches with our will to work intact, we’re going to have to learn to keep ourselves distracted in the meantime. Bastien Queste, the physical oceanographer, founds a “Sauna Club,” which convenes each afternoon at 4:30 and is designed to help us work up an appetite for supper after yet another day of not doing much. Anna Wåhlin, the head of the Swedish submarine team, takes over evening entertainment.

The first time I show up for one of her bridge lessons in the 02 conference room, there are white plastic bowls full of Swedish candies placed at strategic lengths down the center of the table. Bastien picks up a little black licorice sailboat, pops it in his mouth, chews, then walks over to the trash can and spits the half-masticated lump out.

“The snacks are for shit,” he says. “But I’ll stay anyways.”

Unflappable Anna is not offended. There is something refreshing about her excitement at the possibility of holding a proper match. “Each round consists of three stages: the auction, play, and scoring. Bid one if you have at least twelve points and four cards in that suit and so on,” she says. I look at Bastien, who shrugs and looks back at Anna. “We’ll play openhanded at firstuntil you guys get the hang of it.”

The next night Bastien and I play together, and we bluff, partly to encourage the other team to bid higher than they ought to go, partly to entertain ourselves. After days of worrying about whether one of our shipmates will die, it feels delicious to do something low-stakes and, at the same time, risky. During the auction’s last round, the other team figures out our ruse, and to call us on it, they double down. I give Bastien a look that says, We’re sunk, then blow the first play, switching control to the other team.

The ship suddenly tilts to the starboard side. “Iceberg!” he chuckles. Then he leans in, throws a high card, and takes over the deck. As the plays progress, we work the trump, collecting trick after trick. The night is foggy, the Palmer sailing half-blind through the downy belly of the Bellingshausen Sea.

We play for two more hours before promising to reconvene the following evening. The high I get from the game is so pronounced that even after reading in my bed for an hour, I am nowhere near sleep. It’s midnight when I wander back up to the (physical) bridge. Luke, the third mate, points to a spot off the starboard side. I squint but don’t see a thing. Just when I am about to look away, a humpback sends up a spout, and out of the ocean it lifts its fluke in a long lugubrious undulation. At the top of the roll, the underside of its tail flips up: a lunar crescent in a bright white night without a moon. The sight of it is calming somehow, this big animal turning in the sea we share. Then down the whale descends into the ocean’s deep and with it so go I, back to my rack, to try again at sleep.

The following morning we arrive at Rothera. The patient is put in a small boat, brought over to Adelaide Island, where she boards a little red turboprop and takes off. In five more hours, after an extensive ultrasound, the doctor will tell her that the baby is a boy and three benign cysts are the cause of her pain.

 

 

AFTER WE CROSS again the Bellingshausen Sea, after we arrive at Thwaites and witness a massive calving event that causes the ice sheet to step back fifteen miles, after our sonar equipment discovers that the troughs feeding warm water beneath it are deeper than was previously thought, after we celebrate Bastien’s birthday with carrot cake and conclude the ping-pong tournament that started during the medevac, after the scientists gather up all the data they possibly can before the ocean freezes over, after we sail back to Chile and the data begin to refine the models predicting just how high and how fast sea levels will rise in the future, after all that, my husband and I start trying.

That fall, I contact Meghan Kallman, the cofounder of Conceivable Future, a woman-led collective that brings attention to the threat climate change poses to reproductive justice. Unlike other organizations that link long-term health of the environment to decisions made today about child rearing, Conceivable Future doesn’t advocate for population control or restrictions on a woman’s right to choose, but rather urges elected officials to stop underwriting the oil and gas industry. The collective’s argument is not born of the conservative logic of “fighting for the children,” nor does it rely on the punk allure of “voluntary human extinction.” Instead, it is messy and grounded, gaining its strength from its plurality, from the loose network of people who, by reckoning with the impact of the climate crisis on their reproductive choices, have become active as opposed to despondent, radical as opposed to stuck.

As I scroll through the testimonies on the group’s website, I feel as though I am eavesdropping on strangers talking about their deepest desires and how they have become entwined with what they most fear. The pregnant professor-to-be wishes to step outside the cycle of production and consumption, but can’t quite figure out how to do this while providing her unborn child with the care the child will need, so she vows to advocate for workers’ rights. A bearded white guy describes hiking with his mother in Iowa and how he finally found the courage to tell her that he plans to get a vasectomy because the atmosphereis warming. The Puerto Rican conservation biologist vows to raise his future children to be caretakers of the more-than-human world while acknowledging the deep privilege this position carries. Despite how unique each voice is, there is also an uncanny familiarity to it all. It is as though they are describing the various stages of the decision-making process I too have passed through.

In addition to all the staccato, starting and stopping of speech, the ums and eyeblinks, the searching for language to describe the indescribable, what unites each monologue is a deep desire to regain control over what is the most personal decision many will ever make. I am moved by the moment when, in the middle of Meghan’s video, she shifts her gaze away from the camera’s eye toward the corner of the room as she tries to figure out a way to talk about how her niece was born on a day when the temperature reached 105 degrees in northern Vermont, by which she means to say the child emerged on an Earth hotter and less stable than any humans have ever before inhabited. Her gaze lingers up there with the dust motes because what do you do with that knowledge? How can we act when the things we depend upon have become undependable? She seems to be saying something I have long struggled to articulate: if it is I who wishes a child into this world then I must also wish this world onto that child.

As fate would have it, Meghan is my neighbor. We meet at the vegan bakery in the strip mall between our two homes. She shows up with sunglasses on her head, strappy gladiator sandals, and dangly earrings in the shape of leaves. By way of personal introduction, she tells me that she teaches sociology at UMass Boston, serves as city councillor for Ward 5 in the town of Pawtucket, and is preparing to run for state senate. I tell her of my desire to become a mother and also about my recent trip to Antarctica. When I get to the part about the medevac, she asks a simple question: “Didn’t they have an ultrasound on the boat?”

“No,” I say. “Probably because pregnant women are prohibited from the ice.”

“Right,” Meghan says, lifting her left eyebrow, her voice deadpan.

Her question stays with me long after the caffeine has been metabolized, long after the blastocyst that will become my son sends out a root that lodges in my uterus. Like the pea that keeps the princess from falling asleep, the word ultrasound sits uncomfortably in my mind for months. It is a word some of the scientists used to describe the process through which the Palmer rendered an image of the seafloor. Now, months later, I am wondering why we were unable to provide the pregnant woman on board with the same kind of scan.

My Google search for “ultrasound” produces a bunch of familiar information at first: It’s the term for a sound wave with frequencies higher than the upper limit of what humans can hear. Porpoises and bats use it to locate prey. But I am more interested in the human history of this sound wave, how we harnessed this technology to see in the dark, and to what ends.

The Brits sent pulses of sound no one else could hear into the North Atlantic’s cold oblivion at the end of World War I. Nearly forty years later, Charlie Bentley used similar technology to measure the thickness of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. He chugged across it in a tractor-trailer, detonating explosives and recording he reply. During that same year, Ian Donald, a former captain in the Royal Air Force, invented the first obstetric ultrasound. With it, he could chart fetal development, sex the child, and identify if the mother was carrying more than one. “There is not much difference between a fetus in utero and a submarine at sea,” he said. “It is simply a question of refinement.”

While on board the Palmer, the Knudsen Chirp 3260 was tuned to pick up changes in the depth and composition of the seafloor. An OB-GYN sending sound waves into a woman’s body is looking for bone and flesh. In both cases, when the wave encounters something solid, like rock or skull, the line that appears on the display is sharp and clearly defined, while softer materials like sand or footpads make for a more granular image. Were we to have had a medical ultrasound on board, the three cysts in the patient’s belly would have appeared smooth and black as stones. And we would have seen alongside them the very beginnings of a human being unfurling.

Ectopic, I later discover, means “out of place.” As in how women are still at a deep structural level treated to this day, on the ice and elsewhere. When I first heard about the woman’s pregnancy on board, I was both elated and fearful—happy to have a mother at the center of this story and afraid that her presence was a kind of magnet that pushed us away from Thwaites. But that single word, ultrasound, like the pulses of noise it makes in the ocean, reveals what had previously been hidden: that it is also possible to say it was not the pregnancy that caused our evacuation but rather our inability to imagine a pregnant woman alongside Thwaites. This history of exclusion, then, contributed to our shared condition—the ship running circles in endless Antarctic light. Our chewing through thousands of gallons of petroleum so that two of us might be saved. O

This essay is excerpted from Elizabeth Rush’s forthcoming book, The Mother of All Things (Milkweed Editions, 2023)

Reporting for this story was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Watch extra video from the ship, read journal entries, and listen to sounds from the Icebreaker here.

Comments

  1. I felt like Elizabeth’s tagalong – a younger sibling confidante, perhaps – privy to the personal minutiae of being a woman heading to Antarctica. Peppered with references to the continent, to the history of its exploration, and to its probable future, her very intimate story exudes warmth & connection, in contrast to the icy enormity looming throughout the story.

  2. simply wonderful – both text and photographs in unity

    I lived for a while on one of the outer islands at the westcoast of Ireland – Erika Blumenfeld seascapes bring back memories.

    Thank you for publishing and have outside a paywall free for all to enjoy
    Hannes

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