Editor’s Note: This interview preceded the April 16 presentation by Susan Fox Rogers at the Center for Environmental Innovation and Education, part of Beacon Institute’s Third Thursday series of lectures, interviews and seminars. More on Susan at the conclusion. — JC
Susan Fox Rogers is an author, professor of writing, rock climber, backcountry skier, kayaker, environmentalist, avid hiker and birder. These are more than handy identifiers. These are enduring passions. Susan takes none of her interests lightly. But polar exploration is her obsession, and has been since childhood.
Susan’s home bookcase is lined with volumes about the poles. She studies the polar explorers and speaks and writes of their exploits with a scholar’s authority and an adventurer’s yearning. During the austral summer of 2005, she spent six weeks in Antarctica as part of a National Science Foundation writer’s grant. And in 2014 she finally had the opportunity to visit the Arctic, which we also discuss below.
In the Introduction to her book Antarctica: Life on the Ice she writes:
I made a day trip by helicopter to Robert Falcon Scotts’ hut at Cape Evans on Ross Island. This was Scott’s base in 1910 on the journey that ended with his death and the death of four of his crew. The story of his expedition is one of the saddest in Antarctic history and is my favorite. As a young girl, my father filled my head with stories of the South Pole . . . so to visit the hut where they lived was a sort of pilgrimage.
The daily lives of these explorers I so admired became clear to me as I looked at Cherry-Garrard’s bunk bed and noted where Ponting processed his photos. When I saw toothbrushes propped in glasses at the head of some of the men’s beds I wanted to weep. For me, their lives were contained in those toothbrushes.
In her elegant telling you meet these great explorers on the most intimate terms. But you also meet Susan: the adventurer helicoptering, trekking and ice skiing about the Antarctic, the pilgrim seeking out Captain Scott’s hut preserved on the frozen ice-scape, the child entranced with her father’s stories, the polar historian reflecting on Scott’s expedition, the intrepid writer collecting tales from the diverse cast of characters who spend part of their lives working at the bottom of the world.
Meeting Susan in person is better still. And you should not miss that opportunitythis Thursday at CEIE. I should disclose here that Susan is a dear friend and has been for most of a decade. But that makes me all the more authority on why you should make your way to CEIE on April 16. Below is from our conversation about her polar journeys and her writing.
John Cronin: The early polar expeditions have been your passion since childhood. How excited were you about finally setting foot on the ice?
Susan Fox Rogers: I did the most corny thing a person can do: I knelt and kissed the ice. The plane I flew in on was a Hercules LC 130—it has skis to land on the Ross Ice Shelf, so what I kissed was a couple hundred feet of ice.
Experiential learning is of greater importance than ever before.
JC: People often speak of a visit to Antarctica or the Arctic as akin to landing on another planet. Was that your experience?
SFR: Since I went to both places to make them “familiar” this is an interesting question for me. I wasn’t looking for the moon or another planet, I was looking to understand how people eat in these places, where they sleep. So what I focused on when I arrived in McMurdo was that we make foreign places “home”—there’s a library, a gym, three bars in a town of 1,200 (during the Austral summer). Once you step out of “civilization” it is other-worldly, because as the land devours you, all of the ways that you orient yourself are truncated: there are no smells, few sounds (most man-made), a limited color palate, and one sensation: cold. The Arctic was much less foreign—there’s water, land, shacks on land. Empty land, but still land teeming with birds and other wildlife like fox.
JC: In The Heart of the Antarctic Ernest Shackleton wrote disturbing throw-away lines such as, “We are very hungry these days, and we know that we are likely to be for another three months” — not the worst of his privations by a long stretch. Do you now have a fuller understanding of why he and other polar explorers were willing to endure the suffering they did?
SFR: Let’s just be clear: some people enjoy physical suffering. All of these early explorers did and modern day explorers love it as well and brag about who has endured the coldest temperatures (that would be the Russians at Vostok), who has weathered the worst storm, who has had the craziest experience. When I suffer (I am one of those people who heads toward cold and hunger, toward physical pain) I am intensely alive. And then: when it’s over, it’s pretty sweet.
JC: In your book Antarctica: Life on the Ice, you write of our encounter with silence. It is a profound and moving piece. You say you craved the silence but once you were deep inside a 1200-foot ice tunnel at -57°F, your nervous system essentially rebelled.
SFR: I think people are drawn to extreme places and situations because they do learn about themselves—it’s an intensely personal experience standing cold in a tunnel at the bottom of the world. I was embarrassed by my claustrophobia in that tunnel—breathing was hard because of the cold, because of the altitude–and I wanted to keep going, to get to the end of the tunnel. But I couldn’t. I wimped out. That’s humbling. It’s good to be humbled!
JC: You want to go back to Antarctica. What do you have left to explore and learn there?
SFR: I had a very special deal while in Antarctica—I got to see a half dozen remote camps, the South Pole, and McMurdo. Most people who go get to see a fraction of this because they are working, whether a scientist or a dishwasher. I would like to go there and work, to experience the ice over a longer period than six weeks. I used to think I wanted to winter over but I don’t think I have what it takes, both physically and mentally to make it through the cold and dark.
JC: Your teaching is certainly influenced by your remarkable pursuits outside the classroom. What should be the role of experiential education in the 21st century?
SFR: In our digital age, experiential learning is of greater importance than ever before. When I show my students a water chestnut seed or a bald eagle—doesn’t matter, really—they are intrigued and delighted. And then they start to ask questions. You cannot learn if you aren’t curious. It’s hard not to be when you start looking outside.
In addition to Antarctica: Life on the Ice, check out Susan’s latest, My Reach: A Hudson River Memoir, about her kayaking journeys along the Hudson. Susan is the editor of ten collections of essays including Solo: On Her Own Adventure. She teaches a course on the Hudson River and the creative essay at Bard College. She is at work on a book titled Learning the Birds. Visit Susan’s terrific blog, and watch for her on the Hudson any given time of day or night.