Gretyl Erlich from excerpt The Future of Ice A Journey into Cold TIERRA DEL FUEGO The straight course is hacked out in rounds against the will of the world. —D. H. LAWRENCE January. Perpetual freshness, raw cliffs, a leggy forest, an unpolished sun: that’s what I’ve come to love about the end of the world, the uttermost part of the earth, latitude 55 degrees south, last stop before Antarctica. Up under the eaves at the torn end of the Andean cordillera, snow blasts rock walls white and a hanging glacier crumbles. Ocean ends. Ice recedes. Time sweeps upward in the form of southern beech trees; wind rams it back down. I’ve come here to hike a seventy-mile circuit in the southern Andes. It’s summer but it feels like winter. The trees are bent as if picking up something that had fallen. There is no sunrise, no moonrise, no sighting of the Southern Cross, only storms braiding and unbraiding themselves. Lately my travels have mimicked the high-altitude circumpolar routes taken by arctic and antarctic birds—south polar skuas, great skuas, long-tailed jaegers, sanderlings, and arctic terns. While we travel the same routes, we are seeking different kinds of weather: they are driven by a tight summer-and-light-seeking schedule ordered by magnetic field lines and sun-compass routes; I’m looking for cold, meandering through wintry landscapes when and where I find them, trying to see if the season of winter is shrinking, and why. Morning. A single blade of light rays down. I walk the length of the natural harbor below Ushuaia. The town hangs on a hill backed by green peaks. A glut of birds sweeps overhead. Gray-headed albatrosses cross paths with ones that are black-browed, and these pass giant petrels and southern fulmars, as three olivaceaous cormorants flap hard on the water below. Straight south, somewhere between Drake Passage and the South Sandwich Trench, a couple of arctic terns I saw nesting at the very top of Greenland, near Warming Land, have just completed their 107-day trip to these southern waters in search of a twenty-four-hour sun. But here they’re getting winter minus the darkness: rain turns to sleet, and in the direction of Cape Horn there is a whiteout of summer snow. Before me is the historic Beagle Channel, named for the ship that brought young Charles Darwin here, to el fin del mundo. It was just before Christmas in 1832 that the HMS Beagle turned into the Strait of Le Maire, then the channel. It is a fragment of South Atlantic water into which Drake, Ross, Cook, Fitzroy, Darwin, Joshua Slocum, and Rockwell Kent, among many others, sailed. They were searching for passage to Asia, looking for gold, or just looking. This coast was once home to the Yamana Indians, who traveled these rough waters by bark canoe. In the mountains behind Ushuaia lived the Selk’nam (also known as Ona) Indians, guanaco-robed hunters of the harsh Fuegean mountains and plains, whom the Yamana feared. Today the channel is stippled with whitecaps, the bitterness of vanquished Indians still washing up on its shores. “Is right here everything end,” Derek Walcott’s Odyssean figure said. What ended was a time when there seemed to be room enough for everyone. Now the odyssey we human beings in the “developed world” have embarked upon is almost too darkly insane to contemplate. The scandal of “improvement” has meant that we’ve reduced the parallel worlds of spirit, imagination, and daily life to a single secularized lump. The process of empire building is a kind of denigration. Nothing that’s not nuts and bolts and money-making is allowed in. My toes curl over the edge of the continent dipping into almost freezing water. The westerlies howl. The sea is all slivers and splints, straits and rocky knobs, shinbones and arm bones, hermit islands jutting into desolation bays, as if the history of this place, with its hundreds of shipwrecks and decimated native cultures, were imitating landscape. Or is it the other way around?