The news out of Antarctica this week is terrible.
You might assume that I refer to this week’s report of the looming, irreversible collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet that will produce a 10+ foot rise in sea levels in the next 100 years — but that is so terrible as not to qualify as “news.” That is apocalypse, a visitation from a Death Star of our own collective devising. No: I am referring instead to Ernest Shackleton’s determination once again to bring ponies to Antarctica.
Shackleton may be dead in some media (i.e., IRL), but on Twitter (@EShackleton) he is currently preparing for the Endurance expedition, his famous Antarctic voyage of material and animal loss and human perseverance and preservation. He is presently tweeting snippets of his journals, correspondence, and media coverage. Shackleton’s fellow pony enthusiast Robert Falcon Scott had also been on social media during the centenary of his “race to the pole” against Norwegian polar god Roald Amundsen, but died on Twitter as well as IRL on March 29 ’12 (1912 or 2012, as you prefer).
The ponies Scott brought to Antarctica had names like Nobby, Jehu, Snatcher, Bones, Chinaman, Snippets, and Jimmy Pigg. Like Scott they died in Antarctica. Unlike Scott their bodies were eaten for fuel.
The expedition for which Shackleton is currently preparing on Twitter will be his third time in Antarctica. He was an officer on Scott’s first Antarctic command, and had himself led an earlier mission aboard the Nimrod. In two expeditions the Britons had brought ponies the coldest, driest, and most inhospitable climate in the world.
Why ponies? Unlike Siberian huskies and other dogs bred for hauling sledges in the various northern Arctic regions, ponies are not known for their cold-weather hardiness. The Inuit, Sami, Yupik, and other indigenous peoples of the north do not use ponies, nor do the Scandinavians whose adaptability to polar conditions consistently led to Antarctic exploration success. (Neither the Inuit nor the Scandinavians used motor cars, either, as the Britons attempted in Antarctica, but that’s a Very Bad Idea for another yarn.)
Equine labor was culturally familiar to the British men who organized these expeditions; they were less comfortable in thinking of dogs as beasts of burden, as the northern peoples did. Dogs were domestic companions to Scott and Shackleton; horses or ponies were working animals. Ponies are shorter, stronger, and squatter than their horsey cousins. Their slightly thicker coats, surely, would help them withstand Antarctic winds.
But in reviewing his first command, Shackleton himself was beginning to realize that “In hindsight, the ponies were a mistake.” The ponies suffered from awful seasickness on the ocean voyage. Their circulatory systems could not handle temperatures of -40˚C. Their narrow, tender hooves broke through the ice or fractured from the chill despite the small pony showshoes crafted for them. They drowned, they died from cold, they were shot, they were eaten by the men. “During my Nimrod Expedition, the ponies kept freezing,” Shackleton admitted on Twitter the other day. “When they move about, they sweat. In extreme cold this means the ponies are constantly crystallizing. Dogs don’t crystalize. They pant.”
This is very good logic. (The story of the Endurance dogs is also a yarn for another time.) Roald Amundsen, flush from his international triumph of flagging the South Pole, took the time to drop by Shackleton’s London office to offer him some advice — to “talk me out of ponies and into dogs and skis,” Shackleton tweeted on Wednesday. “Yes, I was considering using ponies again…” he confessed; even more embarrassing, he wrote, “I had still not learned to ski.” This was another British maladaptation (see the Very Bad Idea motor car) to polar conditions. “Amundsen was right. I knew he was right.”
Will Shackleton bring ponies on the Endurance expedition? There are several forms of ecomedia to which to turn for the answer, but for now I am hanging on the timeline as the expedition planning unfolds on social media. I am hoping for a pony-safe outcome.
I’m haunted by these polar ponies. So much death attends exploration. There is the vast colonial violence of the usual practices of imperial ventures. There are the accidental deaths attendant upon what Kristin Jacobson has called “adrenaline narratives.” It is easy to say that humans do not belong in places like Antarctica, but they choose to travel there for reasons that have their own centrifugal imaginative and scientific force.
But the heroic frame through which historic polar exploration is often presented hangs awkwardly when ponies enter the picture. Here stand the polar ponies, heads hung low from their doubled burden, hooves fractured from and fracturing the frozen terrain on which they stand. These are not chargers or stallions or steeds for conquerors; they are plodding, dumpy, matted beasts whose very name-ending encodes their diminution. I am feeling for these ponies — feeling as these ponies — especially this week as the Antarctic ice sheet collapses under our feet, and the Earth with it.
Hester Blum: Long time listener, first time caller.