Rebecca Priestley Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica Victoria University Press 22020
During lockdown I would pick up Rebecca Priestley’s Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica, read a few sentences and then carry them with me all day as everything felt awry. Little talismans of comfort yes, but I could never keep reading. I was looking through a tiny pinhole into the blinding white of Antarctica, Bill Manhire’s ‘Erebus Voices’ always coming back to haunt. So adrift. So terribly adrift.
This week the world still wobbles and it is impossible to find words to cover the anxiety and despair. My calendar is clear for the forseeable future, my blogs are back to steady transmission, I have fresh notebooks and anthologies underway, but I am finding it hard to function. There is a strong part of me that wants to sever all ties, to bake the bread and sow the seeds, to switch off social media and watch the wind in the manuka.
I have retreated to Rebecca’s book. It is nothing like I expected – and I now read in glorious stretches – because as much as this is a portrait of the wide white continent, it is a portrait of a woman writing and discovering, and of a planet under threat. How apt to be reading this now, how apt to be reading the words of a woman who exposes layers of anxiety, her multiple roles (academic, teacher, mother, partner, writer, traveller, human being).
This book is extraordinary because I travel to Antarctica to such an intense degree – I have never travelled like this in a book. It is as though I can taste and smell and touch an elsewhere through the sensory palette of the author, through Rebecca’s heart and mind engagements. When I put the book down I am dislocated. It’s like the Antarctica cold clings to me, like the danger and the beauty cuts into my skin. Like I can’t breathe. Like I am weighed down with a million clothes. But then I see the bush and the kereru and I start cooking dinner with the fire blazing and the music sweet in my ear.
Is there a word for this? The way a book can deposit you elsewhere so you are inextricably there?
I am cooking dinner and reflecting back on the self exposure, on the way Rebecca’s doubt and anxiety is not censored. How many books have been written with this erased, in order to be objective, rational, factual? I let a little doubt and personal admissions into Wild Honey but mostly I screened the humps and hurdles. I am thinking of the interwoven and complex narratives that layer up behind everything.
More than anything I am reflecting on the urgent need to care for our planet: on the way research is continuing to underline a need to make choices, both at a personal level and at global and national levels. Again this resonates profoundly at a time we cleared skies with our reduction in travel and consumption.
Having yearned and indeed tried to visit Antarctica from an early age, Rebecca takes three trips to Antarctica. The first with poet Alice Miller and the others with various scientists and students. Neville Peat’s review in Landfall traces the trips – I want you to read the book for yourself because this is a book of multiple discoveries. Self discovery, geological discovery, planet discovery – and the more you read the more you determine choices that need to be made. I am thinking too we can never take for granted what goes on behind the scenes – of writing a book, of travelling to Antarctica, of flying on a plane, of collecting data and examining precious samples, or writing a song, painting a painting, building a house. A home.
Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica is the perfect retreat when you are trying to plot your way forward in these pandemic times. I keep trying to talk about the book and find myself stuttering. I just sit in the chair drifting. Shut your eyes and picture the scene – with your bag packed and sugary snacks ready – and nestle into the exhilarating cold of snow and exhilarating heat of human and humane endeavour. Time to open my notebook. Time to bake the bread, and plant the seeds, and read a children’s book.
Rebecca Priestley is an associate professor at Victoria University of Wellington and director of the university’s Centre for Science in Society. Rebecca was science columnist for the NZ Listener for six years and is the author or editor of five previous books, the most recent of which is Dispatches from Continent Seven: An anthology of Antarctic science (2016). She is a winner of the Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize (2009) and the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize (2016). In 2018 she was made a Companion of the Royal Society Te Apārangi. She has an undergraduate degree in geology, a PhD in the history of science and an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters.
Victoria University Press page
Neville Peat’s Landfall review where he outlines the book