Leslie Carol Roberts’s The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica is a kaleidoscopic chronicle of lives spent engaged with the frigid continent at the bottom of the world. Part history, part travelogue, part memoir and poetry, the book is smart, entertaining, and heartbreaking by turns, and lit throughout by Roberts’s own unique, inquisitive, intelligent voice. If there were a literary prize for energy, curiosity, and nerve, the indefatigable Roberts—explorer, author, teacher, and parent—would win it hands down.
The first Fulbright Fellow in Antarctic Studies, Roberts has been to Antarctica three times. She has reported in the U.S., Thailand, New Zealand, and Australia, among other places, and written hundreds of articles and essays for magazines, newspapers, and literary journals, among them the Bellevue Literary Review, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Sydney Morning Herald. She teaches writing at the California College of the Arts and will be a distinguished writer in residence at St. Mary’s College in Moraga in 2009. Currently she is working on a book, Here is Where We Walk, about living in San Francisco’s Presidio.
VerbSap thanks Roberts for taking the time to answer questions from the editor.
VerbSap: Leslie, The Entire Earth and Sky is both a scholarly and intensely personal work, with a lyric quality that we don’t often see in traditional nonfiction. How did you settle on the narrative form for this book? What is it about Antarctica that makes poets of the most hardened characters?
Roberts: John McPhee once said, "It may take weeks to form this structure, to know where it's going to end, to know why it's going to end there, to know how it's going to get there." Some writers believe that structure shapes meaning and I am in that camp. I have a pretty methodical way of gathering information—this comes from my days as a reporter and feature writer. I don't "plan" my structure before I have all my notes in order. Instead, I do my research, chart it on a bulletin board with index cards, and then I study the cards. As I thought about the facts and stories and legends and my personal experiences of Antarctica, I would "test" each piece of information (only about 20 percent of what I found in my research and interviews made it into the book)—and this test went like this: Does this piece of information reveal something foundational about what Antarctica is? Finally, I had the good fortune of working with professors at Iowa who were either poets or scholars in poetics, and one of them, Ed Folsom asked me this: What is the syntax of Antarctica? Finding the syntax of Antarctica proved challenging and I don't think I wholly succeeded. But this was a large piece of my thinking as I marched through the past and present of the continent.
As to how that ice landscape shapes words, well, I think the answer is surprisingly simple. When you are in a place of such ecstatic beauty and horrible cold, you lose all bearings. Puny language does not begin to express how the place makes a person feel there. So, I think there's a large lesson in the essential role that wild places fill in our endless, and often futile quest, to understand what it means to be human.
VerbSap: Your first trip to Antarctica was in 1988, as a reporter on a Greenpeace vessel. You’ve been obsessed by the place ever since. The Entire Earth and Sky came out in October 2008. How did you organize and keep track of the mountains of material that you must have amassed over that 20-year period? How did you winnow it down?
Roberts: I guess I began answering this in the previous question. The fact is, one of the biggest challenges was simply remembering. When I was writing the book, and living in New Zealand for two years as a Fulbright Fellow, it was all Antarctica all the time. I did not read novels or nonfiction about anything else. I decided that in order to stay clear on my subject, all others had to recede. This worked in a number of ways, not the least of which in that it quashed a low-level anxiety I felt throughout the process; that is, I had this nagging question in the back of my mind, "why me? why am I writing about Antarctica?" This explains why the book contains a deeply personal narrative line, wherein I reflect on this question rather explicitly. I found over time that my own curiosity, the "why me?" was present in the journals and letters of other explorers. This had a certain tonic effect. It is, actually, a remarkably interesting link among all Antarcticans: Why we go there, what we love about it, why we cannot and will not stop thinking about Antarctica.
VerbSap: I’ve heard you speak about ‘agency,’ that is, of daring to make a subject your own and, in the case of authors, take it upon yourself to write with authority. You’ve traveled and worked around the world, and you have what a former editor of mine called moxie. What advice would you give to authors who find it difficult to garner that sort of daring? What motivates you to write about the diverse subjects that you’ve covered?
Roberts: I studied with Marilyn Abildskov at Iowa—she now teaches in the MFA program at St. Mary's in Moraga. She used to bash her fist on the table and say, we write what we want, how we want. I love that. It is so simple. I also got some key advice from the poet Christopher Merrill, who made me stop feeling sorry for myself when the book was first rejected. He said simply, courage. It's an overlooked piece of our lives these days, simple courage. We tend to turn to therapy and go on some inward examination. But the men whose lives I have studied for two decades were not cut of this cloth. For them, the world was real and it was meant to be explored. They were my models and guides. To other writers feeling a little overwhelmed or timid, I say this: Go out into The World, as you are defining it, and don't sit around wondering if you are on the "right" path. Trust yourself.
VerbSap: When I read about the curator Baden Norris’s penguin Percy I cried. Most of the injured penguins that he released eventually returned to the sea; Percy stayed. Why do you think penguins obsess us? What do you imagine they think about us?
Roberts: Penguins obsess us because of their lovely adaptation. They chose cold and ice over predators and warm waters. This hits a note for each of us. They choose to live their lives in a fierce way, one that says, hey, I can handle this. It is deeply amusing to me that penguins are portrayed as bumbling waddlers. Go meet them at home, see how they crash through cold seas and you will never, ever think them "cute." They are tough. They are also absolutely engaged with their current reality. I spent many hours sitting on the edge of an Adelie penguin colony at Cape Royd's—where Shackleton built a hut. These Adelies acted so casual, as though having me crouched on their fringe was the most ho-hum occurrence. Slowly, the curious ones would wander my way. The brave would actually take their bills and touch, gently, my sleeve. Satisfied with their examination, they would then stand next to me, and gaze out to the sea. I also think penguins are visually appealing. Clean black and white lines, a simple, repeated pattern. It's as though they had access to the Bauhaus and had their look "designed."
VerbSap: In 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American consciousness was shaped by exploration of the frontier, that is, by urban environments bumping up against wild places. By then, the frontier was considered closed. The questing U.S. turned overseas, and ultimately toward space. If we lose the ice of Antarctica—environmental consequences aside—are there implications for the world psyche?
Roberts: Thoreau once said—and I paraphrase—that we all need to know there is one place that is wild and free, without which we will all lose our minds. I think you can see this mass madness today—as the world shows so many signs of being "under stress" people continue silly discussions about where we can find more oil. The Republicans this election cycle have been particularly disgusting. Palin and her "drill baby drill" talk are absurd. I hear this and I wonder what channel their brains are tuned into—don't the wholesale changes we are seeing mean anything? Don't they understand that when we talk about the Earth's climate changing, it is not about, "gee whiz, too bad for those polar bears," –it's about the fact that nature will reshape itself and that new shape may be really bad news for human survival. The "world psyche" as you say is becoming ever more fragmented and collage-like. I think the implications of not checking into the current reality and changing our ways are obvious. But then again, I hang out with Antarctic scientists. These are not people who like to make dramatic projections. Scientific inquiry is quiet and methodical—yet I have had researchers from the British Antarctic Survey comment on how no one ever expected that "our little fires"—i.e. cars, etc—could affect the chemical make-up of the atmosphere to this degree. And yet they have. In a remarkably short period of time.
VerbSap: You’ve done extensive study of the science behind and the literature of climate change. Are you afraid for the future?
Roberts: Yes and no. One thing polar explorers are really good at is ploughing ahead despite fear. I think that as we look ahead, we don't have the luxury of simply being "afraid." That being said, as a mother, I fear for the future of my children, who are 16 and 11. I look at my little daughter skateboarding and wonder if she will live in a world that is so blasted by horrific storms, crops fail. I wonder about sweeping fires across newly dried out parts of the U.S. and Europe. But. I am an essential optimist. I believe we understand little about the longer-term "knock on" effects of our behaviors. Maybe, just maybe, we'll find something that sort of slows or "turns off" the warming. If we lose our ability to hope, we die.
VerbSap: I’ve read that you envisage The Entire Earth and Sky as being part of a trilogy. How will the other portions of the tale differ from this one?
Roberts: Well, because I believe writing is an act of grace—for all my organizational methods and obsessive research, I have a hard time projecting out the specifics. However, I see one piece being the story of Roald Amundsen, the first man to the South Pole. I see the final piece being a look at other attempts southward. I am deeply interested in the men who went south with Byrd. I had the good fortune to know James Van Allen, who was invited to go south with Byrd, but whose parents thought it was a "bad idea!" As you know, Van Allen became the father of the U.S. space program—after identifying the radiation belts that bear his name. He was a really unusual man and had been mentored by Thomas Poulter—the chief scientist for Byrd and who also became the man who saved Byrd's life when he was slowing dying from carbon monoxide poisoning in a remote Antarctic base. Van Allen told me how he helped Poulter make instruments to measure aspects of the ice. Imagine that: At a small college in Iowa, Poulter and his students imagined how to think about and measure an expanse of ice that had not been fully mapped and was, essentially, as unknown as the surface of Mars. Try to imagine the scene: It is 100 degrees on a brilliant Iowa August afternoon. A workshop filled with bright farmboys and each of them working to figure out how to know Antarctica. And then they built all the equipment themselves—welding, bending metal, creating huge, sci-fi ready equipment. How cool is that?