Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right
Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
“Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles
The longest night has finally come to a close. After four months of solid darkness the light returned quickly, growing steadily brighter each day. It’s been six months since we last saw the sun’s golden light. Technically the sun breached the horizon on the equinox, September 22, however due to atmospheric distortions it was visible on Saturday September 21. We’ve had a number of stormy days of late providing us with a few glimpses here and there. It circles us now, skimming the horizon, rising in imperceptible increments – a slow and steady spiral.
On Saturday morning I walked out to the ‘end of the world’ – the edge of activity here at the South Pole. Beyond stretched the polar plateau unbroken, unmarked, hundreds of miles of snow and ice ending abruptly to drop off into the sea.
By the time I reached the edge, with all signs of life and human presence behind me, I was well frosted up. My fleece neck gaiter was thick and stiff with ice, a little area melted by my warm exhalations. My eyelashes were coated with thick globs of ice – freezing together or to my gaiter if I was slow in blinking…I pulled off my thick mitten and melted them clear with my bare finger tips, dropping the chunks of ice onto the snow by my feet. I had learned the hard way not to try with just my glove liner. It froze to my eyelashes and then my hand was stuck to my face and my eye was still frozen shut – starting to panic I yanked my hand away, pulling out half my eyelashes with it…which I guess got the ice off too…but not something I wanted to repeat. It was amusing to be sure, but a little uncomfortable.
My eyes open and free of ice I snuggled down into my warm layers, pulling my hood up against the wind, narrowing the gap between hat and gaiter. I stood blinking at the horizon. Thermal layers within the atmosphere distorted the sun shifting it like a mirage – a wavering, shifting orb of incredible brightness and beauty. My eyes watered and I remembered you’re not supposed to stare at it…blinking, I looked down at the snow by my feet, a negative image of the sun burned into my retinas. I felt both over and underwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the light, by the emotions from the past six months, by the thoughts of the season ending and having to face the beautiful and terrible world again, of having to deal with cars and advertising and money and strangers…so many people! Overwhelmed by joy in the sun’s return, in awe of its utter magnificence and yet at the same time by a sadness at the knowledge that unless I return for another winter I will never again see the southern stars pirouetting overhead at noon, or the aurora australis dancing across the sky, illuminating the frozen plateau in a wash of green.
Simultaneously, I felt underwhelmed – a sentiment of “Well, that’s it then.” Resignation. The sun came back and life goes on. These next six weeks will fly by and then I’ll be off and away. I struggled with a deep, welling sense of regret and ache at the troubles and drama of the season, at the fact that a small number of angry people had decided they didn’t want to be here and had tried their very best to bring us all down. That’s been the hardest part of all – the people, but it always is.
“The exceeding brightness of this early sun
Makes me conceive how dark I have become.”
― Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play
Sunrise here is not as quick and dramatic as at lower latitudes. I took an entire month to transition from the first hint of dawn to the sun itself rising above the horizon. There’s no point in standing and watching it, all you’ll see is the sun sliding sideways 15 degrees per hour. So after a few minutes my fingers were numb and my toes began to complain of cold. I shook myself, glanced up at the sun one last time and turned to walk back to the station. The wind was in my face and my skin ached with the windchill below -100F. The area between my eyes was uncovered and I felt the budding of an ice cream headache. I held my mitten over the gap of my eyes, careful not to let it freeze to my eyebrows or eyelashes, and listened to the crunch of snow beneath my feet as I trudged back towards the station. I thought about returning to the real world, to a world where the sun rises and sets every day! 364 times more than here.
Back inside I got a cup of tea and noticed I was wearing my ‘inside clothes.’ I had absolutely no recollection of changing. I decided I was hungry and went to get a bowl, but by the time I got to the bowls I forgot what I was there for and so got a spoon to stir my tea and returned to my room…I woke one morning recently severely confused as to whether it was 6am or 6pm – had I laid down to close my eyes before dinner? Or was this a new day? TOAST.
A friend of mine passed away last month in a climbing accident. We worked together on the Juneau Icefield in 2008. The sunrises and sunsets on the icefield are some of the most spectacular I’ve ever witnessed. Breaks in the clouds during this long sunrise reveal an awe inspiring display, reminding me of Kevin’s description of the sky on the icefield: The snow gave way to sky and an explosion of contrast between white earth and ferocious sky drew the air from my lungs and left me feeling entirely insignificant.
Rest in peace Kevin Volkening