Poetry in a Cold Climate: Ron Smith found his muse in Antarctica's vast icy wilderness

Jan 20, 2010 at 4:00 am

Air Force Colonel Ron Smith keeps his cold-weather gear in the bedroom closet of his sparely furnished apartment in the Central West End. "I call it my Antarctica closet," he says, dragging out a nylon bag. "In this bag, you have everything you need to survive in the cold."

Smith pulls out a thin parka. Aside from the faux fur that lines the hood, the coat is not much different from those worn a century ago by the first Antarctic explorers. He finds the pair of reflective goggles he used to protect his eyes from snow glare and a pair of thermal mittens.

"Gloves won't last you 25 minutes at the South Pole," he explains. "The only things that work are double-layered mittens. They don't separate your fingers."

He digs out a pair of ungainly black boots with a special felt lining to prevent the thick rubber soles from conducting cold from the ground, and snow pants with a bib to protect his entire body from the wind.

"The wind is your biggest enemy in a cold environment," he says. "The first thing you do in a survival situation is to build a wall of snow to protect yourself from the wind." At arctic survival school he learned how to build an igloo. "It keeps you active all day so you stay warm, and then you have something to sleep in."

A properly constructed igloo and an arctic sleeping bag, like the one jammed into the bottom of Smith's pack, are enough to keep a person warm enough to sleep through the night, even at subzero temperatures. Smith knows this from experience: Because of the extreme cold, airplane breakdowns in Antarctica are not uncommon, and he has spent several nights stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Smith is 54 years old. Tall and thin with close-cropped hair, he served twelve years with the Air Force's Operation Deep Freeze, eventually rising to commander in 2004. In December of 2008 he was transferred to Scott Air Force Base, where he currently serves as the Air National Guard adviser for strategic planning.

Now, even after a year in St. Louis, Antarctica is never far from Smith's thoughts. The background picture on his computer monitor shows the snowy landscape outside his dorm room window at McMurdo Station, headquarters of Operation Deep Freeze, the code name for U.S. operations in the world's fifth-largest continent.

Beside his survival kit sits the most important souvenir of his dozen seasons on the Ice, as its human inhabitants call it, a hefty leather briefcase filled with the journals that contain the raw material for his latest project.

Smith has written more than 1,000 poems. Most of them are about Antarctica's frigid landscape — just over 99 percent of its treeless surface is covered with ice — or as he writes, "this cold soaked/cradle of blue floes/and flotsam." Last year he collaborated with a Portland, Oregon, sculptor named K.A. Colorado on a series of sculptures that feature Smith's words engraved and embedded in resin and glass masquerading as chunks of ice.

A show of their work, called Polar Dialogue 2009, opened at the LA Artcore gallery last fall and in April will move north to Vancouver, British Columbia. After that, Smith and Colorado hope to bring the sculpture to St. Louis. Their purpose is twofold: They want St. Louisans to appreciate their art, but they also want them to understand the fragility of the polar environment.

Blue bowl to the brim, the ocean will cleave
its ice, its habitat, the wingless a-flight;
losses our children may never relieve

"We're going to have a sculpture out of real ice and engrave a poem on it," says Smith. "As it melts, I'll read poetry. It's a metaphor for the melting Arctic Ocean and global warming. We want to make people aware artistically of the spirituality and pristine environment in the polar region. It's beautiful and fragile, and the 99.9 percent of the population who will never go there will never know what they lost."

More people have scaled Mount Everest than have been to the South Pole, and for those who have crossed Antarctica's vast wilderness — as big as the United States and Mexico combined — the experience is indescribable.

"When you see Antarctica for the first time," Smith says dreamily, "it's an intense event in your life. Unless you've been up in the Arctic, there's no sight that can compare to it. You fly down from New Zealand into the Ross Sea as it narrows to McMurdo Sound. There's a whole white continent in front of you. It's shimmering white. It's unreal. It's surreal, like the moon. The Transantarctic Mountains cut the continent in half. You can see the beginning, but not the end."

Great White Antarctica—
Vapid carnivore arose
and railed ivory reef of hoar;
trapezoids tossed through a
blue tableaux, scavenged by
seekers of whale and secrets

It's been nearly a century since the so-called "heroic" age of Antarctic exploration, back when Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton raced across the ice to map the desolate windswept continent, study its rocks and animals — and find the South Pole.

On December 14, 1911, Amundsen's small expedition, traveling by dogsled, was the first to reach the Pole. Shackleton had come within 100 miles three years earlier but had to turn back because he and his men were running dangerously short on food. The great tragedy, though, was Scott, who arrived at the South Pole, just 34 days after Amundsen. "Great God! This is an awful place!" he wrote in his diary.

On the way back to base camp at the edge of the Ross Sea, Scott and his four-man crew ran into a ferocious blizzard. One died of fever. Another went insane and walked out into the storm. Scott and the two remaining men starved to death, just eleven miles from the depot where they'd buried extra food and provisions.

Smith feels a kinship with these early explorers, particularly Shackleton, who was a great lover of poetry. "They all learned from the other guys' mistakes," he says. "It's what makes some people great."

Aside from a short-lived attempt by the Nazis to claim the Antarctic territory during World War II — and an attempt by the British to stop them — Antarctica has been the domain of scientists. They study earthquakes, volcanoes, subatomic particles and the solar system. At the South Pole, it's quiet enough to hear a seismic shift thousands of miles away, and the atmosphere is so thin, it's possible to see into deep space.

Thirty-nine countries maintain facilities on the Ice, but the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, prevents anyone from making territorial claims on the land or using it for anything besides research. In the past ten years an increasing number of cruise ships have started to prowl the continent's outlying islands, but no one is allowed beyond the shoreline without the permission of the National Science Foundation.

As a member of Operation Deep Freeze, it was Smith's job to ferry scientists back and forth to the NSF's research outposts, including the South Pole, a two-hour-and-forty-minute flight from Air Force headquarters at McMurdo. Smith flew approximately 1,000 missions, primarily in C-130 cargo planes that take off and land on retractable skis. The operation runs from September 1 to March 1, when as many as 1,000 people live at the base, crammed into dorm buildings.

During the height of summer — mid-December to mid-January — when the sun never sets, temperatures can rise to as high as 30 degrees. When the long Antarctic winter hits and the mercury plunges to 50 degrees below zero, the number of residents at McMurdo dwindles to 100.

"Where we stay, at McMurdo, is like a Western mining town, like in Wyoming or Montana or Colorado," says Colonel Tony German, who was Smith's flight commander during part of his Antarctic service and remains a close friend. "There's a lot of heavy equipment and a dirt road."

McMurdo, known to residents as Mac Town, has a movie theater, a bowling alley, a church (called, naturally, Chapel of the Snows), two bars, a greenhouse and Antarctica's only ATM. Communication with the outside world is limited mostly to e-mail. There's no cell-phone service. "That's why generals always look so happy in pictures," Smith jokes.

Smith first arrived in Antarctica in 1996, when the Air Force took over Operation Deep Freeze from the Navy. He'd joined the military fourteen years earlier, after stints as a bartender and a semiprofessional basketball player in Nottingham, England. Trained as a navigator, he flew humanitarian missions to Bosnia and Somalia, bringing food to war and famine victims.

One summer he went on a two-week mission to Greenland. "We flew over the western shore," he remembers. "I saw glaciers and fjords. I'd never seen anything this untouched or natural or beautiful. I thought, 'If I could fly up there, I would love it.'"

For aviators to ski-plane
slippery clouds
flipped upside down,
plated from pale to gray,
intimate textures to pilots,
the limit of a dry rainbow,
ever wary of a shadow
buried in crevasses
cloaked in snow

Smith learned that the 109th Airlift Wing, the Air Force's polar unit, was looking for 200 people to staff Operation Deep Freeze. He immediately applied for a transfer and was the first officer hired.

"I didn't know anything about polar ops," he admits. One of the first things he did was ask the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, then in St. Louis, to make an aeronautical map of the area around McMurdo Station; none existed before. He still keeps the map, the size of a bed sheet, in his Antarctica closet.

Throughout Smith's tenure, Antarctica remained a mysterious, bewildering place. "There's so many things there we don't understand. Like the properties of ice."

McMurdo Station sits on a volcanic island and is relatively stable. It's surrounded by the Ross Ice Shelf, which is not. The shelf is 200 to 300 feet thick and is the size of France. "The glaciers coming off the Polar Plateau push the ice shelf outward ten inches a day," Smith explains. "The ice buckles and moves around the island. When the ice hits the rocks, it starts moving at different speeds."

The Air Force built one of its main runways out on the ice shelf. "Once the ice buckled on the runway," Smith recalls. "It was too small to see, but when the planes landed, they bounced. One pilot almost lost control. We had to call in the scientists and engineers to analyze what was going on, to map out the undulations and figure out the forces at work."

In 2003 an iceberg the size of Rhode Island broke off the shelf and blocked the channel leading to McMurdo Sound. At the time, it was the largest moving thing on Earth. For Smith and the rest of Operation Deep Freeze, it was a catastrophe.

"None of the currents could get in," recounts Smith. "The sea ice got thicker and thicker. We had 40 or 50 miles of ice instead of 20. When ice sits, the salt and brine leaches out of it and decomposes the ice and makes it weaker. Dust would blow over the ice and turn it brown. When sun hits the ice, the dust particles heat up and increase the rate of melting. The sun melted the top layer of ice, and we had planes sitting in a foot of water. We didn't know what was happening. We had to evacuate the planes."

Eventually, the iceberg floated out to sea. But it may be a harbinger of more environmental disasters for Antarctica. In the past 60 years, thanks to global warming, the continent's average air temperature has risen five degrees. The warmer weather has already affected the Antarctic ecosystem: the iconic tuxedoed Adélie penguins have begun to die off because the ice they used to cross to reach their richest feeding grounds has melted away.

the primitive cry
of raging ice
collides with ravenous
brutality of light

According to a recent report by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, 87 percent of the continent's glaciers have shrunk significantly in the past 50 years. The ice shelves have been retreating as well, causing the glaciers to move more rapidly outward from the Polar Plateau and melt when they find the warm currents flowing southward. The committee predicts that by the year 2100, global sea levels will have risen four feet and six inches because of Antarctic ice-melt.

Smith has become something of an expert on the Antarctic environment. This past November, when the U.S. military and state department met in Germany to discuss a new Arctic policy, Smith was invited to speak on global warming. "I was one of the only ones there who had worked in the Arctic and Antarctic."

Smith had less success making himself heard at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last month. He'd flown to Denmark at his own expense in the hope that he would be able to participate. But security was so tight he couldn't get near the buildings, let alone the meetings.

Smith wrote his first poems when he was thirteen. He gave them to his art teacher, who told him he had talent. But there wasn't much time for writing at the science and engineering high school he attended in Baltimore or during the early years of his flying career when he was married with three young sons.

When he was 40, he went to upstate New York, home of the 109th Airlift Wing, to train for Operation Deep Freeze. "The kids stayed in Baltimore," he says. "I was alone at night. I started writing about the snowfall. When you're in the Air Force, you go on missions all over the world. It's intense and emotional. But when you're in the military, you do your job and maintain a stoic outer shell. The only way for me to express these things was by writing them down."

wordspray you never wanted
to touch, yet it pushes you
out to scale this frigid ledge
of perception, when your
best is to pretend; feign
fearlessness leaning against
the bar.

None of his colleagues was aware Smith wrote poetry. The first his friend German heard of it was when Smith sent him a poem he'd written about a holiday visit to German's family. German was surprised and pleased. "He caught the hustle and bustle of our family," he remembers. "It was very profoundly written."

In Antarctica, Smith worked eleven hours a day, seven days a week. "Work in that environment is very intense," he says. "The cold polar environment never goes away. You walk out the door, it's there. You go to the plane, it's there. Everywhere you fly, it's there. Nature dominates. Your first impression is, 'How could anybody survive in a place like this?'"

Nature dominates in Smith's poems, too, which he composed in his dorm room during his few off-hours. As a commander, he felt uncomfortable having a drink with the enlisted men at the Southern Exposure bar. But he also felt alienated from the outside world, even from his family.

"Coming off the Ice after a long time down there was like coming back to a world that couldn't relate to me...estranged in some ways," he says. In 2000, midway through his time in Antarctica, he and his wife divorced.

Smith's poems are mostly free verse, musical and heavy on alliteration. By the time he left Antarctica, he had amassed a full manuscript, which he's now shopping to publishers. He has published his poetry in literary journals, the New York Times and McMurdo's paper, The Antarctic Sun.

Other poets have written about Antarctica, notably Donald Finkel, a long-time English professor at Washington University and father of Riverfront Times editor Tom Finkel. But most of them have been visitors, invited by their governments as part of arts programs. Smith is one of the few who has actually lived there.

"Sometimes it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," quips German. "We get that experience every six months whether we want to or not."

One visitor was Lynne Cox, a writer and polar swimmer who has traversed, among other places, the Northwest Passage, the Bering Strait and Antarctica's Neko Harbour. Two years ago, Cox, who was working on a book about Shackleton, contacted Smith to see if there was any way she could get to the South Pole. There wasn't, but the two remained friendly. Smith told her about his poetry, and last year Cox introduced him to K.A. Colorado.

Colorado began as a snow sculptor 25 years ago. In the late 1990s he traveled to Antarctica with a group of Argentine researchers. Since then, most of his work has been about climate and cold. He considers his most important work his ice-core sculptures.

Ice cores are long, thin samples of ice sheets. Like tree trunks, they have rings that scientists can read to determine the ice's geographical history. Colorado's cores are made of resin or glass, with cut-up pieces of scientific papers or books about Antarctica and climate change embedded in the center. The sculptures themselves range from blue-green to pale yellow, and the outer layer is clear enough to read the words inside.

"Ron's experience in Antarctica mirrors what I do," Colorado explains. "It's the experience of dealing with deep cold.

"My personal feeling," he continues, "is that deep cold is essential to our biological makeup. Most people gravitate toward warmth, but deep cold was instrumental in developing the ideas of habitat and storing food."

Smith flew to Portland last March to meet Colorado. He describes their collaboration in almost romantic terms: "Our hearts were aligned."

"It's a fantastic interplay between two artists," Cox says of Polar Dialogue. "I've never seen anything like this before. It's really interesting. They're trying very hard to explain this other world to people who have never been there and will never get there."

a wilderness-weir
amassed in light—
unsullied science of
to beacon cosmos;
its chalice before me,
beauty's chaste
so beyond
so benumbed
so before

To bring the show to St. Louis, Smith figures he and Colorado will need about $10,000 to cover the cost of transporting the sculptures and renting studio and display space. He's begun applying for grants.

"St. Louis is a good venue for doing something very active, performance-wise," he says. "There's a huge artistic and academic community in a small area."

Smith isn't sure whether he'll ever return to Antarctica.

"Artistically, there are a number of projects it would be interesting for me to work on," he says. "Ken Colorado is getting into more artistic symbolism of climate change and is talking about taking an ice core with my poetry embedded in it and planting it in Mount Erebus." Erebus is one of Antarctica's two volcanoes. Another friend, St. Louis photographer Michael Eastman, has been talking about publishing a book of Antarctica photos accompanied by Smith's poems.

For the past several months Smith has been campaigning to rename all the airway reporting points between Christchurch, New Zealand, and McMurdo after Roald Amundsen's sled dogs, a salute to Antarctic history. The name change will become official in June, but no one will fly the route until late August when the first members of Operation Deep Freeze report for duty. Smith isn't sure whether he'll be invited on that flight.

"Going to Antarctica is not easy," he says. "You have to get the permission of the National Science Foundation. I don't want to go through the Air Force. I want to go as an artist not a military guy.

"But do I feel I have to go?" he continues. "No. A poet from New Zealand, Bill Manhire, went down there as a special envoy. He was there for a few days, enough to have things to write about. Someone asked him if he wanted to go back. He said no, because it was so amazing he didn't want to dilute it by taking more trips. He wanted to keep the awe-inspiring element. I understand why he would want to keep that sacrosanct in himself."