I had my hand stuck in a toilet in one of the nine bathrooms on the ship Arctic Sunrise when Tim Lewis pushed his tousled head through the door to tell me they would be showing a movie that evening about a virus that was devastating the whole world – except the Antarctic. Tim, a freelance marine biologist, was a member of a scientific expedition organized by Greenpeace and it was part of his mission to listen to whales, a task he threw himself into as if listening to a symphony from another world. I was concentrating on scrubbing out a dirty spot of unpleasantly explicit origin, and so I absorbed his information absentmindedly. At that moment, in January 2020, I had no way of knowing that Tim was not simply describing yet another disaster movie.
After two weeks in the Antarctic, the only information we had received was that the Chinese journalists who were to accompany the next stage of the expedition had canceled their trip because a novel virus had surfaced in Wuhan. I didn’t watch the film that evening. We were in Paradise Bay, 400 kilometers south of King George Island, the base where we had deplaned and boarded the ship. It was the first time I had ever seen this very clichéd name adorn a landscape with such due justice. The ice wasn’t white, but blue. Paradise Bay and its 50,000 hues of blue were too fascinating to glue myself to a screen. If I had known the film was also a prophecy of coming pandemic times, I might have watched it.
To reach the Greenpeace ship, which had spent nearly a year on a pole-to-pole voyage researching the effects of the climate catastrophe, I had undertaken my own journey, smaller on the map yet much bigger in terms of my own inner geography. Three years earlier, I had quit being a writer who looked at the world from São Paulo, Brazil’s largest, wealthiest city, to move to the epicenter of the destruction of the Amazon, to a city called Altamira. I was defending the idea that if the planet’s biggest tropical forest is essential to the control of global heating, it is imperative that we shift our understanding of what the center is and what the periphery is. When the climate crisis becomes the greatest challenge along the human path, the Amazon becomes one of the centers of the world. And since defending an idea is not enough – it must be lived – I migrated to the forest and began writing from the Amazon.
Living in a city in the Amazon means living among ruins. Not between blocks of concrete left by an earthquake, but on naked land, calcined by the sun, the wreckage of what once was forest. Attacked on all flanks, Altamira is also a front line in the climate battle. Ranked number one among Brazil’s most violent cities, it brings two sides of this war together, with one side (public land thieves, loggers, gunmen) killing the other side (those who place their bodies to defend the forest). I saw friends lose brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers to bullets delivered to the right address. I learned to go to sleep and wake up in fear. I acceded to living with my senses in a permanent state of exhaustion.
Everything about the Amazon is in excess. The colors, the sun, the storms, the mosquitoes flaying your skin, the sounds and smells of the planet’s greatest biodiversity. The forest is never silent. Or neutral. Your body is constantly assailed by stimuli that come by sky, land and water, and it reacts. In the Amazon, we can only be in relation to all the others who also are. There is no way you can take an absence from your body in a tropical forest where life bursts ferociously forth every second.
My friends from Brazil’s large southern cities or European countries who have come to visit me usually get sick before their fascination has had a chance to set in. They blame it on the food, the climate, jet lag, on all the obvious things. I’m convinced that has nothing to do with it; rather, their reactions are about their own bodies, usually subjected to artificially climatized environments and abruptly exposed to the uncontrollability of nature. It is also the shock that occurs when an existence lived without a body, in front of computer screens or amid jungles of bytes, is suddenly forced to corporify. When these people who have been trying to live solely in their minds step into the forest, they are immediately forced to become flesh, and they no longer know how. The libidinous fame of the tropics derives from this phenomenon: a body that is relentlessly assaulted by its senses and goes back to desiring.
When Greenpeace invited me along on the scientific expedition to the Antarctic, I was grappling with these excesses. I was in Altamira. It was almost Christmas Eve and some of the people whose lives I follow as a journalist needed to find a place to hide. This happens every year. During the holidays institutions are on recess, environmental and human rights organizations have their annual shutdowns, and the forest leaders who are facing death threats have less protection and need to flee. For them, Christmas may bring an early crucifixion. It is a particularly tense time in the Amazon, where everyone seeks refuge and tries not to move. The only New Year’s resolution is to stay alive.
I travel a lot, both inside the forest and to different countries around the world, since the struggle for the Amazon has no chance unless it is global. But I only see myself as whole amid the ruins of Altamira. Everywhere else, I feel I’m at some theme park, like Disney World. Especially in the wealthy, organized metropolises of Europe or the United States, where most people consume as if the planet were a department store with an inexhaustible stock. Altamira makes me real. Only reality is absurd; people’s illusions are always neat and clean. Feeling real inside what’s real is my kind of truth.
I accepted Greenpeace’s invitation to Antarctica because Antonio Nobre, my favorite Earth scientist, convinced me how important it would be to be able to draw links between these two front lines in the climate war, the center and the end of the Earth. Nobre is a leading voice in disseminating the idea of ‘flying rivers’, one of the masterpieces of tropical forests. Every day, Amazonia releases a river bigger than the Amazon over our heads. Through the transpiration of trees alone, 20 trillion liters of water fly into the atmosphere every twenty-four hours. As a great climate regulator, the forest is not the planet’s lungs but its heart, and these flying rivers are the veins of a complex circulatory system pushed ever closer to collapse by human destruction.
The thirty-three crew members and guests whom I met on the ship were of thirteen different nationalities, but they shared the awareness that we are living at a defining moment in which humans have become a destructive force capable of altering the planet’s climate and body. Some of those aboard studied scientific reports and some produced them, but everyone on that ship knew that pandemics would grow more serious and more frequent due to the reality defined by Greta Thunberg with these words: ‘Our house is on fire.’
But knowing and living are different levels of experience. When the virus brought humans to their knees, I remembered the great shaman of the Amazon’s Yanomami people, Davi Kopenawa. Many years ago he warned us of the risk of xawara:
When the white people tear dangerous minerals out of the depths of the earth, our breath becomes too short and we die very quickly. We do not simply get sick like long ago when we were alone in the forest. This time, all our flesh and even our ghosts are soiled by the xawara epidemic smoke that burns us . . . If the breath of life of all our people dies out, the forest will become empty and silent. Our ghosts will then go to join all those who live on the sky’s back, already in very large numbers. The sky, which is as sick from the white people’s fumes as we are, will start moaning and begin to break apart . . . [The sky] will collapse from end to end. For this time there won’t be a single shaman left to hold it up.
In the Amazon I learned that shamans do science in poetic prose. Incapable of listening, our world of white Western tradition does not understand this.
We were in the Antarctic to listen. But nothing I’ve ever listened to, seen or lived before prepared me for this world in which I did not fit. In a small dinghy, in silence, we launched ourselves into the sea, traveling past ice-blue sculptures. I identified them as blue, but their hues didn’t exist in any palette I knew. It was as if we were traveling along a path of giant, silent cathedrals, in shapes more sophisticated than our species had ever dared create. Around our boat, penguins performed synchronized swimming while leopard seals sailed aboard floating ice statues, sleeping away as if no humans were around. We were aliens without having left the planet. But the effect of our massive presence was there. Every few minutes, a series of rumbles pierced the landscape. The Antarctic was melting.
If Altamira had tossed me into the brutal reality of ruins, of a world destroyed by humans, the Antarctic and its nonhuman peoples were still ignorant of all our destructive power, even though the climate crisis was corroding it from the inside. The animals dwelling there could sense something transforming, but they didn’t decipher us as a threat. They limited themselves to ignoring us. There, I learned what a world once was, and could be, without us.
The first sign that I was entering an entirely new universe was the stamp. Or rather, the non-stamp. We left Chile from Punta Arenas airport, boarding a small plane for King George Island, where a number of nations have scientific bases. There was no barrier where some government agent asked for my passport and, based on his country’s biases, and on his own, decided whether or not I was worthy of crossing the border. The only thing that happened was someone asked, ‘Chile or Russia?’ This question is just so they know which base to dispatch your luggage to. In that geography, Chile and Russia are side by side and might get together to have a beer or vodka after work. Instead of landing on the beach, my group’s luggage was mistakenly sent to Russia. It returned safe and sound.
This doesn’t mean there is no control in the Antarctic. You have to request authorization to visit each country’s base and also to conduct research or take a tourist trip. But there are no walls, no police, no stamps. When I reached the Antarctic with my body, I understood it as a utopia that realizes itself, the utopia of a world without borders. Antarctica, I discovered there, is the name of everything I fight for. This insight hit me so hard I cried when I disembarked – for the beauty of a living idea and because I was stepping where I shouldn’t. The Antarctic was a utopia realizing itself, but my species – me – doesn’t fit there. I am not alone in being out of place. There are more tourists, more fishing boats and more mineral exploration vessels. Worse, this utopia is melting.
Almost every day we left the ship and jumped into a dinghy wearing five kilos of clothes reminiscent of astronauts’ outfits, and duly disinfected so no microorganism would migrate from the ship to the Antarctic continent, triggering a biological catastrophe. Tim took his hydrophone – basically a waterproof microphone hanging from a long cable – and tossed it deep into the ocean. This time, we would listen not to the whales but to the bottom of the Antarctic sea.
The hydrophone was twenty meters underwater. Tim took off his wool cap, slipped on his headphones and closed his eyes. The six of us – a polar guide, two Greenpeace activists, two journalists and one cameraman – observed every change on his face in silent expectation. First, his look contorted into a scowl. Next his expression transformed into one of surprise. And then came a wry smile. At last Tim said: ‘I have never heard anything like it. Not what I expected at all.’ I think he was enjoying the suspense, but we just wanted to shake him. After twenty more meters of silence, Tim added: ‘It sounds like dripping, like the inside of a gorge.’
One by one, my companions stuck the headphones on for themselves and listened. They described what they were hearing in quite different ways, some like a plumber might describe a leak, others like a monk might describe nirvana. I rifled through the dictionaries in all the languages I knew and could not find a single word. Ever since disembarking in the Antarctic, I had searched for but not found the vowels and consonants that could convey what had never existed in my repertoire. The words I had available to me described situations, objects and creatures similar to those from other worlds, but they did not seem exact enough for that completely different universe. The Antarctic was beyond language, and our languages – whether the English shared by everyone there or my native Portuguese – failed in this new world.
Words missing or falling short – this was not a new experience for me. I face a similar challenge in the Amazon. The words I know do not encompass these wholly diverse territories. I had realized I would have to initiate myself in Indigenous languages to fill in the gaps, or else learn to live with voids. Traveling became a journey not just between concrete territories – rock, oceans, mountains, rivers and gorges – but through the worlds of languages and of language. The Amazon has condemned me to live in the between-worlds, at different steps (or missteps) along the trail between the languages I know and the many Indigenous languages that have lived there for millennia.
There is no human tongue native to the Antarctic, which makes it a territory not outside of languages but outside of language. The explorers – British mostly, the ones worshipped as heroes – basically described what they saw through their own beliefs. Despite the enormous obstacles and incredible doses of despair they confronted to reach the ‘frozen continent’ – at times forced to eat their own boots or even their dead companions so they wouldn’t starve to death submerged in snow and ice – they failed to step away from themselves.
For 4.5 billion years, not a single human whisper was heard in the Antarctic. The first men reached this territory just 200 years ago, when steam engines and electric lighting were already a regular part of life for citizens of the north. New research suggests an older human presence, as well as the possibility that Polynesians reached the continent centuries before the first European ‘pioneers’. They were men (literally, men) of their times, and their mission was to dominate. Language, as history has proven, is a prime weapon for those who intend to take possession of lands and build empires. It is fascinating to reread James Clark Ross, the British navy officer who ‘discovered’ the sea now baptized in his honor. In 1841, he wrote in his diary about what would happen to the seals and penguins after their encounter with the explorers: ‘Hitherto beyond the reach of their persecutors, they have enjoyed a life of tranquillity and security, but will now, no doubt, be made to contribute to the wealth of our country.’ And so it was: up to 2,000 penguins a day were boiled to produce oil. And when compassion for these birds led to their legal protection, it was the whales’ turn to near extinction.
This was the allure of the mission for scientists like Tim, deciphering the language of the nonhumans who have inhabited the Antarctic for thousands of years, and decolonizing themselves in the process. Among the most-studied aquatic animals, dolphins, for example, have their own vocabulary. Each individual can display its own signature whistle or identity. And whales can be recognized by their clans. When clans travel together, they learn. One clan can absorb sentences from another. Whales are themselves and are also others, once they have lived the experience of connection. Listening to, registering and then recognizing their sentences across the decades can tell the story of these whale clans, as well as the impact of the climate crisis on their lives.
At that moment, however, Tim wasn’t hearing whales. For the scientists on the expedition, he was listening to something tremendously terrifying and unprecedented. Like us, Tim was listening to the sound of the Antarctic melting. What resembled the notes of a magnificent symphony was in fact a requiem. When snow falls, air bubbles are trapped and compressed inside of glaciers for years, centuries, or even millennia. The rumbling we heard on the surface was water escaping into air. What reached us from the depths of the ocean was the opposite: the sound of air escaping into water.
Shortly before our arrival, on Christmas 2019, the Antarctic had suffered its worst recorded ice melt. Less than two months later, in February 2020, an Argentine base registered a record high of 18.3 degrees Celsius. These records will almost certainly be broken again in the coming years.
As the planet overheats, the sound of thawing grows louder and louder. Almost 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is locked up in the Antarctic’s snow and ice. If the whole Antarctic ice sheet melts, sea levels will rise at least fifty meters. Well before this, the world we know and built will be radically disrupted. When I understood what I was listening to, what came to my mind – even in the middle of the snow and ice – were the shamans of the tropics, who call white people ‘the commodities people’. The accusation echoed in my head: ‘You, the commodities people, are eating the entire planet and bringing the sky down on all our heads.’ The sound we were listening to in that bay bearing the name of paradise was the sound of the climate catastrophe. If humans do not stop eating the planet, one day this sound will stifle all others. And there will be nothing but silence.
On that night without night (since light is perpetual in the Antarctic summer), I went up on deck. I was looking for some icy calmness so I could process within me the sounds I could not name. Then came a shock – I was jolted by decibels that my brain interpreted as noise because my synapses could not decode them. What I heard was the sound of ‘That’s the Way (I Like It)’.
A cruise ship had dropped anchor near us, and the passengers were dancing as if there were a tomorrow in an immense hall converted into a disco. Suddenly, this was the sound of the end of the world. And it too had to be listened to, to understand what it had to say.
‘People think Antarctica is isolated. That is a myth,’ the scientist Marcelo Leppe, director of the Chilean Antarctic Institute, warned us before we boarded. ‘The changes are so great it is hard to put them in words. I have seen glaciers retreat by one hundred meters, and parts of the land become so green that it almost looks like a golf course.’ In that summer of 2020, 73,000 tourists visited Antarctica.
I still hadn’t recovered from KC and the Sunshine Band when the tourists cornered us again. We were about to get off the Arctic Sunrise and board a dinghy that would drop us at Hannah Point, 145 kilometers southwest of King George Island. It was early morning, and the plan was to accompany the penguin scientists while they studied the island. Ignácio Soaje, known as Nacho, the Argentinian second-in-command of the ship, came to notify us it wouldn’t be possible. We would have to wait until early afternoon. The reason was not some approaching storm, or even a fold in space–time or the Abominable Snowman. The (un)reason was the one-hundred-plus cruise-ship tourists who wanted to be alone on the island. The sight of scientists researching the impact of the climate crisis on penguin colonies would destroy their illusion of an isolated Antarctic, of an adventure in a place nobody reaches unless they have a lot of money, of their fantasy of being twenty-first-century Shackletons or Scotts.
There had been a tense radio discussion between the Greenpeace vessel and the cruise ship since 6.30 that morning. Business interests won the tug of war. Cruise liners have an arrangement: when one stops at an island, all others vanish from sight. Tourists pay dear for the promise of feeling unique – about 1,000 US dollars a day, sometimes much more, depending on itinerary and cabin type. Some travel advertisements refer to potential customers not as ‘tourists’ but ‘explorers’. Their commodities are the Antarctic, unattainable but to a few. ‘I’m the only one here, my name is Amundsen,’ the selfie caption might read. A small problem, however: around the corner, a line of ships wait their turn to be ‘isolated on the last frontier’.
For tourists to have this ‘experience’, six scientists were obliged to interrupt their research and wait until that afternoon, when the weather turned and time in the field shrank. The change meant the scientists ran the risk of coming ashore on rocks to reach the heart of the island, because weather conditions kept our light boat from landing where access was better. ‘How strange,’ said a perplexed Noah Strycker, scientist, writer and self-proclaimed ‘bird nerd’. ‘Tourists used to like talking with us. They thought it was another story to tell when they got home.’ I pointed out, sadly, that at a time when truth has become a matter of personal choice, science and scientists are becoming pariahs – although merchants of illusions and buyers of illusions alike have to rely on state-of-the-art science in their efforts to affirm the Earth is flat or pretend they are isolated.
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