What’s the coldest, driest, windiest, most remote place you can think of? Chances are you’re thinking of ice, snow, penguins and Antarctica. Very cold, very remote. Would you want to go there? Well, of course – why wouldn’t you??
For about ten years, starting in 1996, Creative NZ and Antarctica NZ ran a joint initiative called Artists to Antarctica. (Other countries including Australia, US and the UK ran similar programmes.) The initial recipients were Bill Manhire, Nigel Brown and Chris Orsman, and many others followed: poets, authors, painters, sculptors, print-makers, composers, jewellers, dancers and photographers. Margaret Mahy went in 1998/99 and Tessa Duder in 2007/08.
This CNZ/ANZ partnership ended in 2008, and today Antarctica NZ runs its own Community Engagement Programme for media, artists and writers. The emphasis is on showing people how amazing Antarctica is, and hopefully getting them involved in the projects.
New Zealand is a small country, but down in Antarctica we really pull our weight. We have an important presence there and strong links to its history. Even here at home, there are many Antarctic memorials if you know where to look. In Wellington, for example, we have Mrs Chippy’s grave in the Karori cemetery and the Byrd memorial on the top of Mt Victoria, and we talk about cold winds coming “straight from Antarctica” – which is sometimes literally true!
My own interest in Antarctica was probably sparked by the stories of the Heroic Age explorers, but when I asked a group of Year 9 and 10s what they knew about Antarctica, only one mentioned the South Pole, and none of them seemed to know about Scott, Shackleton or Amundsen. (Random fact no 1 – there are actually four South Poles. They are the Geographic South Pole, the Magnetic South Pole, the Geomagnetic South Pole and – my favourite – the South Pole of Inaccessibility.
Even after reading every Antarctic book I could find, taking the Victoria University online course on Antarctica (the only science course I’ve ever taken at uni) and attending Winter School amongst a host of Antarctic experts, there are still many things I don’t know about this remote and mysterious continent. “How do you know if you’ve reached the South Pole, if it’s not the same as the Magnetic South Pole?” my daughter asked me yesterday. I’ll get back to you on that one... )
One of the things I discovered by taking the online course - highly recommended, you can enroll as a continuing education student, so you pay smaller fees - is that Antarctica is formally designated a continent set aside for peace and science. This seems a wonderful idea (even more wonderful if it had been set aside for peace, science and art.) The course also showed me that art and writing has been a part of Antarctic history ever since Captain Cook first ventured south and he and his crew wrote about and drew what they saw.
Antarctica has always been a place that I wanted to visit, but it’s difficult and expensive to get there. It’s also a place that children can’t go to. When Antarctica NZ called for applications last year, I put those two facts together and came up with a proposal. The application process was a drawn-out one, with hints that I had moved on to the next stage but still no final confirmation until June 2016.
When I got that confirmation email, I felt equal measures of delight and terror. Actually, maybe this was a crazy idea? Hanging out with scientists, doing outdoor field training on the ice, wearing nine pairs of gloves – none of these are things I would normally do. I’m not a very outdoorsy person; I can’t even ski.
But as writers, I think it’s important for us to step outside of our comfort zones, not to write the same thing over and over but to try new things, even if we’re not sure if they will work. And this writing challenge is definitely taking me outside my comfort zone.
Since then, I’ve met with the staff at Antarctica NZ to work more on my proposal, which is titled Children's eyes on Antarctica. My trip will be happening in early December (leaving Christchurch on 3 December) and my main focus will be on these projects:
Ask me about Antarctica Send me questions about Antarctica, and I’ll try and find the answers and post them on my blog.
Thinking about Antarctica Day I'm putting together a Schools Pack so teachers can plan a day around the idea of being at Scott Base - with links to Antarctic photos and information online, and art, craft, writing and science activities, but also topics like clothing, safety measures and other aspects of living and working down there. You could use this while I’m down on the ice, or on 1 December which is Antarctica Day, or any time really – even next year.
Winter Letters I really like the idea of getting kids to write letters to the wintering over staff. I’m still planning how this will work, but it would be a great way to build connections between NZ kids and the Scott base staff who remain down on the ice over winter.
How can you get involved? I’ve already had some help from the wonderful school librarian community and from teachers at schools where I’ve done school visits.
1. Follow my blog
2. Use the Ask me about Antarctica button to send your questions – anything you or your family, your class or your students want to know about Antarctica - and I’ll try to find the answers! They don’t have to be super academic or scientific questions – you can see from the list already there, under Your questions, that they cover all sorts of topics.
3. Email me if you’d like to go on my mailing list to receive the Schools Pack, be part of Thinking About Antarctica Day, help write Winter Letters or would just like to stay informed about what I’m doing: [email protected]
Thanks for your interest! I really appreciate it.
Lastly - you can read the full list of all Antarctic alumni here.
And applications are now open for the 2017/2018 season – have a go!
For more info on Philippa and her books, visit her New Zealand Book Council online biography here.