Saturday, 15 February 2020


Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica by Rebecca Priestley        {Reviewed by STELLA}
What is it about Antarctica that both repels and fascinates us? It’s the place of, for most of us, the unknown: a dangerous, fragile and expansive place; a place of exploration and on-going discovery, one where you can now more easily ‘tourist’ to. In Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica, science writer Rebecca Priestley takes us with her on her journeys into the great white terrain. Built around her three trips to the ice, the first in 2011 and the final one in 2018, we are not only taken on three very different trips but also travel alongside Priestley with her increasing knowledge of the science that is being carried out there, and her fears and concerns, personal and professional. This is not just a science book, although it will satisfy the rational and fact-acquiring reader; this is an appreciation, a very human and often humorous one, of those who work on the ice, and an admiration of their painstaking work: data collection, analysis and projections. It is a nod to early explorers and their fortitude, as well as an awareness of the cultural significance of Antarctica — its role in our imagination, and through the work (text and art) that has emerged from the Artists to Antarctica programme which has been running since 1957.
Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica draws us in due to Priestley’s deft observations of the landscape and the people. We, with her, feel despairing and hopeful, concerned and elated. And while the descriptions of the ‘cold’ and how to pee on the ice will become repetitive, this is all part of our immersion in this landscape. Anxiety runs like a constant companion throughout the book — Rebecca Priestley’s anxiety, I think, is a hound bounding beside her — sometimes distracted by prey in the distance but always returning to haunt. She is scared of flying, something that several successful journeys to the ice does not diminish. She is anxious about getting cold and disorientated, a real and constant concern for an extreme climate; and she is anxious in the greater sense about our future and the climate changes occurring — a real and constant threat. Yet, still this fascination with this extreme place, with the wonder that is the earth and the way in which we live on it. Priestley writes with a direct style that will appeal to a wide readership — to anyone who wonders what it would be like visit the ice and to anyone concerned about our future — and she asks questions of herself and her reader about our human role in fragile ecologies. 

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