Horizons of uncertainty

I am in Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America, waiting to embark on MV Greg Mortimer to work the final voyage of our Antarctic season.

The experience of flying across from Australia was one of biosecurity checks, anxiety, fear, discrimination, even repulsion from one airline counter assistant.

I cannot guess what the world will look like in 20 days time when I return to port, which new borders will close, which new biosecurity actions will be imposed to help protect us all.

I only know that now more than ever is the time to draw upon our core human values: kindness, compassion, generosity, courage. From the tiniest acts to the largest actions.

This photo I took on the morning of leaving Hobart is a reminder of earth’s eternal beauty. Wishing everyone, on land, at sea, flying high above the clouds, Bon Voyage.

A Radiance of Women

When I began working in my late teens, I was largely innocent to inequities between work opportunities for women versus men. It seemed the unquestioning norm that men, primarily, took up leadership roles while women, primarily, took supporting roles. After all, things had come a long way since my mother’s time. Back then in the fifties, as a young married woman her bank would not allow her to have a savings account in her own name, and employer rulings meant that many in her circle, once married, were compelled to surrender their careers.

Mrs+D+front+coverRecently I read Lynne Leonhardt’s meticulously researched Step Up, Mrs Dugdale, a novel based on the life of Australian suffragette Henrietta Dugdale. Henrietta’s story set me firmly down within the awful confines of a late 19th and early 20th century world, where married women were regarded as property with no legal rights of their own, where the efforts of a few battled long and hard for a move toward equity, for changes to unjust marital laws and property ownership, for a woman’s right to vote—freedoms I take as givens in this cruisy 21st-century world.

2017 Robyn at the Helm -- by Karen Povey Arctic 2017

Photo ©Karen Povey

Thanks to the courageous voices of each generation, women in Australia are largely afforded choice and opportunity. I am thankful for the choice to take up writing studies at a time and age that was right for me, for the opportunity to forge a self-made career rich in experience. In my seasonal shipboard role, which began in 1998, I am part of an exciting momentum that places women as leaders, acknowledged for their skill, experience and personal qualities. May such recognition cast itself across all the colours of the spectrum.

IWD 2020 logo

As thoughts turn to International Women’s Day 2020, my shout of cheer goes to the radiance of women I know, whose extraordinary lives enrich and inspire my own. Amongst them are adventurers, artists, archaeologists, ambassadors, animal lovers, bush walkers, biologists, birdos, carers, caretakers, climbers, climate crusaders, coordinators, educators, editors, gardeners, graphic designers, glaciologists, garlic growers, heroines, historians, hairdressers, kayakers, killer cooks (the harmless variety), larrikins, life savers, leaders, literary agents, managers, mothers, mentors, medicos, naturalists, novelists, performers, peace makers, potters, poets, polar guides, photographers, publishers, playwrights, readers, recyclers, swimmers, students, scientists, stewardesses, snowshoers, ship’s officers, speech pathologists, station leaders, Scrabble lovers, travellers, teachers of little ones, teachers of big ones, trail blazers, tireless volunteers AND fellow Zodiac drivers.

Top Shelf: Donna Mazza

Photo: ©Sarah Mills

Fauna lays bare an electrifying genetically re-coded future so real, so terrifying, so close, I can feel its baby breath soft against my cheek.’—Robyn Mundy

I am thrilled to introduce fellow author, friend and colleague Donna Mazza. I have known Donna since we were postgrad writing students at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Donna about to graduate, me just beginning. More recently we were colleagues at Edith Cowan University South West in Bunbury, Western Australia, where Donna, lover of fine literature and funny looking chickens, works as an Arts lecturer.

The south west of WA is an extraordinary region of farmland, vineyards, tall tree forests, beaches and surf—a place that beats a little more slowly than city life. But how might the future look for Stacey, a young mother, newly pregnant through genetic engineering? How far will a mother go to save her child? Donna Mazza’s novel Fauna artfully navigates this terrain. As one of its early readers I found this story to be a chilling, entirely arresting window into the reachable future.

I posed some questions to Donna about the work and her writing:

Your new novel Fauna is about to enter the world, to give birth, you might say. Its main character Stacey is a pregnant mother of two, living in a familiar though somewhat bleaker Western Australia, 17 years into the future. The title itself is a sobering choice for a story that offers a different slant on motherhood. Tell us about the story and the questions you set out to explore.

The story has a provocative concept about Stacey carrying a child who is not entirely human, but I feel that there are many issues that it raises about motherhood. I particularly set out to consider the invasive nature of contemporary childbirth and its relationship to technology. I think it has changed the way we think about life. Having the window that we now have to look into ourselves as we create life is quite a wonder and as we unpick the code of our DNA that seems to raise even more wonders.  That doesn’t only apply to humans, of course. In Fauna, I wanted the sense that the characters are also living in our own aftermath: that the damage we are doing to the world sits all around them as the world goes on, continuing its journey and leaving its wake, and its consequences.

How did the ideas for the novel first come about? 

It was reading about the new CRISPR technologies and the potential to raise extinct megafauna that started my wondering for this novel.  I first wrote about it in my short story ‘The Exhibit’ and applied what I had been reading to extinct humans instead of extinct animals.  The short story never really felt like enough to fully tease out the ideas and the more I read around it the more I realised that eventually we would be able to do this and if we were able to then somebody, somewhere probably would.  As I deepened my research on the Neanderthal people, I found that contemporary science has a much more sophisticated understanding of them, their intelligence and their lives. I gathered all kinds of precious details and wove them into Fauna through my research.

How would you describe your process of writing? I mean, do you set plot points along the way, or does the story carry you along to where it wants to go?

I like to have a scaffolding when I write so I had some structural plot points as guides along the way for Fauna, helped by the markers of pregnancy, birth and childhood.  But it was a loose structure, with plenty of creative space in it for taking the story where it needed to go. I don’t have a failsafe method of writing but I do my best writing in intense bursts. These don’t come out of nowhere and I am always ‘working on it’ mentally, building the scaffolding for the story.

Your debut novel The Albanian was published in 2007 after winning the illustrious TAG Hungerford Award. You began writing Fauna around 2017. I remember you quietly saying to me that throughout that hiatus you felt you had become a stronger writer. Tell us more about that realisation.

I think if you’re a writer and an avid reader, like me, you never stop learning and I hope that I can say that to you again next time I have a novel written.  I learned a lot between novels by writing short fiction and poetry and also from my reading and teaching.

In 2018 you were named the Mick Dark Flagship Fellow for Environmental Writing and awarded a residency at Varuna, the National Writers House. How did that residency influence your writing?

That was a wonderful three weeks of reading and writing and writers. I met some wonderful and encouraging people who urged me forward with my journey to publishing Fauna.  I also realised something about myself and my relationship to writing that I will carry into the work that I do in the future – that I try to share the emotional and physical experience of my characters in the hope that the reader can empathise and feel something of it too.

What advice do you have for fellow writers?

Make time and don’t give up.

Do you have a favourite paragraph from Fauna?

The nights and the days. I have forgotten my name and the chapters that have gone. I have no knowledge of what will come or how I have moved from place to place. How they have all lived around me. Their coming and going in a world above the surface, where the wind blows and sun shines. Down here, inside this thing we slip into the gullet. So slick with saliva that little force is required to swallow it down. So many things here that I cannot name. Through the miasma all I see is her eyes, her cheeks drawing in, the rim of milk at her lips.

Donna Mazza’s novel Fauna, published by Allen & Unwin, is available in bookstores from 4 February 2020.

Homage to the wild

Returning home from the icy south, especially at the tail end of an Antarctic summer, is a play of the imagination. I have an image of the ocean already settling with the winter freeze, the penguin rookeries now empty, whales heading north to temperate latitudes, and summer’s window, which tolerates visitors of the human kind, sliding firmly closed.

Every part of Antarctica’s summer offers unexpected rewards. The key is to drag on the insulating layers and get out in it, regardless of the weather. I took the images below during March and April 2019 voyages to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia. It is always tempting to single out photos from ‘best weather’ days, but I’ve resisted. The times when we venture out in wind and snow, when the cold bites and the warmth of the ship feels like heaven to return to, are when I feel most alive.

2019-03-22-RM-South Shetlands-IMG_6112

Tabular bergs break from ice shelves far down in the Weddell Sea and travel north with currents to round the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. ©Robyn Mundy

 

2019-03-30-RM-Moltke Harbour-IMG_6941

This katabatic wind sprang to life unannounced in Royal Bay, South Georgia. ©Robyn Mundy

2019-03-30-RM-Moltke Harbour-IMG_6889

On this same day, the trip from shore back to the ship earned a nod to the skill and fortitude of my expedition team mates. ©Robyn Mundy

2019-03-31-RM-Jason Harbour-IMG_7058

I’m a sucker for a spectacular sky. These lenticular clouds at Jason Harbour, South Georgia, demanded a stop in the Zodiac to bring out the camera. ©Robyn Mundy

2019-04-02-RM-Salisbury Plain-IMG_7317

Salisbury Plain, South Georgia. This colony of king penguins with their brown fluffy chicks is a sight to behold. ©Robyn Mundy

2019-03-15-RM-Cuverville humpback-IMG_5584

This young humpback shared itself around our Zodiacs and kayaks for over an hour, spyhopping, rolling, diving beneath each boat and extending a flipper. He/she was so attentive to each of us that my colleague Roger later said, ‘It felt rude to leave.’ Cuverville Island, Antarctic Peninsula. ©Robyn Mundy

2019-03-15-RM-Cuverville humpback-IMG_56102019-03-15-RM-Cuverville humpback-IMG_5509 lowres

Ant2019 by Katherin Jafari

This season we shared a voyage with dear friends from Perth, WA, who embraced Antarctica and got to experience every kind of weather. Good on you, Katherine & Kev! ©Katherine J.

Readers on Reading

In this post I invite an inspirational guest reader to share a little about their life and a recent favourite book. 

Rachael Mead (1) copy

Rachael Mead

I first met Rachael Mead in 2011 during a writing residency at Varuna the Writers House, a sanctuary set on the edge of Australia’s Blue Mountains. I spent my time there with an inspiring group of women writers, sharing dinners, ideas, snatches of our own writing. During a casual conversation Rachael told me of her husband, a paramedic who, on Rachael’s birthdays, would paint her a replica of a favourite famous painting. The image of that gift as an expression of love grabbed me. Rachael gave me permission to explore the idea in short fiction which slowly, glacially, led to ‘The Forgeries’, most definitely NOT a story about Rachael or her husband, but about the fragile nature of creativity.

TFITP coverThis small window into Rachael’s life introduces a talented poet and short story writer, arts reviewer and bookseller, who lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills in South Australia. Rachael’s had an eclectic life, working as an archaeologist, environmental campaigner and seller of books both old and new. She has an Honours degree in Classical Archaeology, a Masters in Environmental Studies and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide. Rachael is the author of four collections of poetry, and I recommend all of them: The Flaw in the Pattern (UWA Publishing 2018), The Sixth Creek (Picaro Press 2013) and the chapbooks Sliding Down the Belly of the World (Wakefield Press 2012) and The Quiet Blue World (Garron Publishing 2015).

I invited Rachael to share something she treasures about her life.

Rachael: Being able to travel. My husband and I met on an archaeological excavation and since then we have leapt at every chance to experience the wild and lonely places of the world, whether it’s throwing the swags in the back of the car or heading off on overseas adventures. I’ve been extremely privileged to have visited Antarctica twice, camping on the Ross Ice shelf in East Antarctica and crossing the Drake Passage by ship to the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The only continent I’ve yet to visit is North America but, with an Iranian stamp in my passport and a history of environmental activism, ticking this continent off the list may prove a little challenging under the current administration. In the meantime I’d love to do a little more long distance hiking, so early in the New Year we hope to lug our backpacks around the western end of Kangaroo Island, which lies off the coast of South Australia.

Clockwise: Kayaking in South Georgia, 2013; Rachael with orphaned Lowland Mountain Gorilla while volunteering in Limbe Wildlife Rescue Centre, Cameroon 1996;  Imax Crevasse, Ross Ice Shelf, East Antarctica 2005. Photos ©Rachael Mead

On Instagram I’ve been following Rachael’s recent wind-whipped adventures around Iceland and Scotland. Was there a favourite book along the way?

Living MountainRachael: I love researching the ecological and cultural histories of the places we visit, so while driving through the Scottish Highlands I read a title that had been on my ‘must read’ list for a while. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd is a gorgeous piece of nature writing and deservedly a classic. The book is a loving, lyrical and ecologically precise account of the Cairngorm Mountains by a woman who spent much of her life exploring this harsh and beautiful landscape by foot. Shepherd wrote this book in the mid-1940s but it remained in her desk drawer until 1977, finally finding a publisher at the same time that other classics of the genre by male writers such as Matthiessen, Chatwin and McPhee were being published to great acclaim. As a lover of nature writing, reading this book was an absolute delight, not only as a poetic and intimate account of a wild landscape but as a landmark piece of nature writing by an extraordinary woman. Every time I used a Scottish five-pound note (which bears her portrait) it felt like I was paying tribute to a newly discovered literary heroine.

Another ‘must read’ piece of nature writing is this poem by Rachael Mead from The Flaw in the Pattern, the first in a sequence of seven poems chronicling each day of a trek though the Tasmanian wilderness.

These clouds that cap the world

Walking the Overland Track, Tasmania – Day 1

We set out, climbing towards the tight lid of clouds,

our whole week hanging from our collarbones.

This land casts timelessness at our feet,

unfurling like an old rug, ragged and enormous.

We are superimposed here, stepping into an epic.

Trees glow in wet light, the sky flat as an ironed sheet.

Everything is so magnificent it feels ridiculous, like words

in the mouth of Dorothy Parker. This is beauty beyond

necessity, the way it usually is, but on its own terms,

the golden mean redundant and symmetry just a neat idea.

For seven days we will walk, each carrying our own burden

of what we think we need, our sweat and aching joints.

We tread the silvered vertebrae of the track

one foot after the other, learning the bleakness

of repetition. The sky drops on our heads,

fog enfolding us in silence and cold.  Ahead,

I watch my partner’s shape dissolve then reappear

fiercer than ever, like love over time. I draw endurance

from my aquifer and keep pushing through this weather

that has nowhere better to be, striding among

these clouds that cap the world, my hair netting sky.

Read more of Rachael’s poetry and see her photographic images at: http://rachaelmead.com/

Arctic jewels

20180822-RM-Røde Ø-IMG_3648 cropped

Home again on the tail of three magical Arctic voyages aboard Polar Pioneer, exploring Svalbard and East Greenland. While every voyage sees a keen focus on wildlife—that dream of seeing the mighty polar bear, King of the Arctic—Svalbard and East Greenland are crowns crammed with all kinds of precious gems, from the large to the tiny. Here below are some of the wonders I love about the high north. I hope you’ll enjoy them too. — Robyn Mundy

ROCK

20180813-RM-Gateau Point-IMG_2901

Gateau Point, Scoresbysund, East Greenland ©Robyn Mundy

20180816-RM-Bjorneoer-IMG_3332

Bjørneøer (Bear Islands), Ø Fjord, East Greenland ©Robyn Mundy

20180812-RM-Blomsterbugten-IMG_2668

Lake Noa, Blomsterbugten, East Greenland ©Robyn Mundy

ICE

20180807-RM-Kongsbreen IMG_2237Kongsbreen, Svalbard ©Robyn Mundy

20180814-RM-Kap Stewart-IMG_2957

Kapp Stewart, East Greenland ©Robyn Mundy

20180815-RM-Røde Ø-IMG_3017

Røde Fjord, East Greenland ©Robyn Mundy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TUNDRA

20180822-RM-Røde Ø-Broad-leaved Willowherb-IMG_3602

Broad-leaved willow herb  ©Robyn Mundy

20180826-RM-Sofia Sund-Mouse Ear Chickweed-IMG_4161

Mouse-ear chickweed  ©Robyn Mundy

20180821-RM-Kap Stewart-snow buttercup-IMG_3581

Snow buttercups  ©Robyn Mundy

20180825-RM-Antarctic Havn-purple saxifrage-IMG_4120

Purple Mountain Saxifrage  ©Robyn Mundy

20180812-RM-Nanortalik-IMG_2843

Arctic cotton grass  ©Robyn Mundy

20180816-RM-Bjorneoer-IMG_3468

Tundra reflections ©Robyn Mundy

WILDLIFE

20180808-RM-Hamiltonbukta IMG_2320 cropped

Arctic fox in summer coat, Ytre Norskøya, Svalbard   ©Robyn Mundy

20180815-RM-Harefjord-IMG_3261

Muskox, Harefjord, East Greenland  ©Robyn Mundy

20180803-RM-Kap Lee-IMG_1839 cropped

Svalbard reindeer, Kap Lee, Svalbard  ©Robyn Mundy

20180801-RM-Kvitoya-Kraemerpynten-IMG_1705 cropped

Polar bear, Kvitøya, Svalbard ©Robyn Mundy

ALONG WITH A TRIBUTE

…to MV Polar Pioneer, our ice-strengthened Russian workhorse that makes it all happen year after year. For those of us who have been working with her since her maiden voyage in 2000, it is bound to be a sad farewell this time next year, the Arctic 2019 season being her final with Aurora Expeditions before she steams away toward shiny new adventures.

20180811-RM-Myggebugten-IMG_2382

MV Polar Pioneer ©Robyn Mundy

Antarctica

 

20171208-RM-Gold Harbour-IMG_2877

King penguins at Gold Harbour, South Georgia, in the early part of the Antarctic summer. ©Robyn Mundy

What a crazy and unexpected year 2018 has become, thanks largely to a new part time work role that I happily agreed to, having exploded into a juggernaut. The consolation I hold onto (and it’s a big one) is that my efforts might make a positive difference. But with many hours consumed, I have turned into an absent friend and non-communicator. My work desk, once stacked with writing research and photos and scribbled notes of dialogue, has been taken over by To Do lists and a utilitarian work diary, Week To A Spread. Christmas cards relegated to the side table are gathering dust, remnants of glitter glinting from their envelopes, the senders, still waiting to be acknowledged, unaware of how precious their greetings are to me. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry). A stack of novels waiting to be read occasionally glares at me from my bedside table; they’ve all but given up. I’ve abandoned testy Twitter and gone for Instagram — a voyeur rather than a contributor — because there’s something lovely, and effortless, in ‘liking’ a world of beauty, travel and glee beyond my own.

Well, enough of that. Time to post a few images with a reminder that just back there, just beyond the corner of my sights, lies another world. Antarctica. I hope you enjoy this photo selection from four voyages, November through January, to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia. It’s not all blue skies and sunshine. You’ll see a dolloping of wild weather and snowfall which, for those of us onboard, often makes for some of the most memorable moments of all.

IMG_0411

You think getting ready for work takes a long time? For this chinstrap penguin at Hydrurga Rocks, preening is a major undertaking to coat every individual feather and hard-to-get-at spot with waterproofing oil before heading back out to sea. ©Robyn Mundy

20180103-RM-Point Wild-IMG_7411

What makes this glacial berg so blue? The bluest ice is often very old ice from far down in the glacier, compressed under tremendous weight. Air bubbles have been squeezed out of the ice, allowing light to penetrate deep into the ice and reflect blue light waves. The penguins don’t mind a bit of blue ice either. ©Robyn Mundy

20180107-RM-Godthul-IMG_8269

About one in every 300 Antarctic fur seals are born blonde. No one but we onlookers seems to take much notice. ©Robyn Mundy

20171215-RM-Beagle Channel-IMG_4143

No getting chubby on one of our Antarctic expeditions. Our boys take healthy eating to heart… 😉

20171215-RM-Beagle Channel-IMG_4169

But our wonderful stewardesses and Hotel Manger sneak a few extra tidbits onto the plates 🙂

20171201-RM-Enterprise Island-IMG_2435

Early season at Enterprise Island, where pancakes of ice form with cold overnight temperatures. Nearing winter, these pans coalesce to form a sheet of sea ice that covers the ocean until the following spring. ©Robyn Mundy

20171222-RM-Paradise Bay-IMG_4931

Skontorp Cove, and who can resist a glacier on a perfectly still morning? ©Robyn Mundy

20180121-RM-Scotia Sea storm-IMG_9792

Kayaks and Zodiacs lashed down as we cross a wild Scotia Sea. ©Robyn Mundy

 

 

20171201-RM-Enterprise Island-IMG_2413

It’s not only the remarkable place but the people we travel with that makes working in Antarctica so special. ©Robyn Mundy