Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Between two lungs

"Gone are the days of begging
The days of theft
No more gasping for a breath
The air has filled me head to toe
And I can see the ground far below
I have this breath and I hold it tight
And I keep it in my chest with all my might
I pray to God this breath with last
And it pushes past my lips
As I gasp"
- "Between two lungs" by Florence and the Machine

I love the air at the poles. 

Photo by Tess Cole
I realized it on my first Arctic expedition in 2011. I was standing on the bow of the icebreaker Polarstern, gazing out to the horizon and feeling the wind on my neck. I breathed deeply and relished the feeling of a thousand icicles filling my lungs. I think that was the day I fell in love with the Arctic. Cold air makes me feel clean from the inside out. 

When I was little, my doctor used to say I had "tricky airways." I don't know exactly what he meant by that because he never diagnosed me with asthma, but every cold I got turned into bronchitis. I remember feeling the tightness in my chest whenever I was sick, and I couldn't blow up a balloon until I was in my twenties. 

These days, my affinity for polar air is not physiological, it’s psychological. My lungs have long outgrown their childhood restrictions, so it is my mind that relishes the cold. When I breathe in the crisp, dry air, all traces of stress vanish from my psychi. I feel clean and empowered and new. I relax – which says a lot, because polar regions pose countless logistical difficulties to research. I have run into roadblocks and seen missions aborted. I have struggled against bad weather and transportation snafus. But in the end, the mountains, the wildlife, and the snow-draped landscapes - even the gale-force winds on bad weather days - all enthrall me. They elevate my soul. My heart lives at the poles.

My time at McMurdo Station is drawing to a close, but I can tell you this: I will return. As soon as I get home, I will begin reading and researching and shaping a project that will carry me back here. Antarctica is the coldest, driest place on Earth, and I honestly thought I would have to wait many more years - decades, even - before I ever made it to the southern continent. I am grateful beyond measure for the chance to experience Antarctica and get a foot in the door with the U.S. polar community. This month has been an incredible adventure. There are so many unanswered questions I want to pursue at the bottom of the world, and I am determined to return to this captivating place.

Standing in the middle of the ice shelf, I scan the mountainous horizon one last time. I draw my last breath of the cold polar air and hold it in my lungs. And I walk up the steps into the plane.

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