I wrote this a month or so ago for the Antarctic Sun so the holiday season is a bit out of date, but it’s still an interesting piece.
This is probably the first time in my life I’ve been so deprived of smell. Sure I’m on the windiest, driest, coldest, an arguably the most lifeless continent on earth, but it never dawned on me when I signed on to come to McMurdo that I wouldn’t be smelling much pleasant for about 130 days. Day to day we smell diesel exhaust, household and industrial cleaners, sweat, deodorant, dirty coats, unkempt offices, cigarettes, and lots of human smells, yet for most of us summer workers it’s been over 2 months since we smelled a rose. Well maybe that is a bit much, but try remember what a blade of grass and what the flavor life on rich soil smells like while you’re here at McMurdo.
Lonnie Clayton mentioned the lack of smells several weeks ago during his talk on Deep Freeze One, which described when they settled McMurdo in 1955. His reference was more along the line of a memory he had while on the ships sailing across the sea and being able to smell life as you got near the coast. That thought of being able to smell life has stuck with me as I keep running into smells that I miss from home, especially when I run into a smell like pine during the Christmas season. If we were at home in the states, we’d be walking around, in and out of stores or houses where wreaths and pine trees.
In town we’ve got decorations going up like fake Christmas trees with great ornaments and fake wreaths with garland and decorations all over. I’m sure as time goes on people will get out the Santa costumes and more Christmas music will start being played (in more moderation then the US), but there’s definitely something missing when you don’t have a log burning in the fireplace and a real pine Christmas tree being heated by the Christmas light, and Christmas dinner in the oven. Of course the kitchen here does put on a brilliant meal for the holidays and we are indeed treated to the pleasant smell put on by the hardworking people in the kitchen. This is probably our olfactory savior. Not always good food, it is always interesting to walk behind 155 and get a sense of what the next meal might contain. At night you can get the smell of freshly baked bread or sometimes you can tell when we are having fried chicken just by the smell. They give us life in food and remind us that there’s a world out there beyond this beautiful landscape.
Yet it is the holiday season and we exist without smells like pine. Here in McMurdo, no trees grow. We have no dogs, we have no grass, nothing alive but humans, a green house, and undoubtedly lots of bacteria that like the cold. It’s a desert of snow, ice, and lava rock where the dry air sap everything clean of water, the cold destroys most life with ice crystals, and the 6 months of darkness kill most life. The smells that we bring with us and that of snow and wind are what is possible here. Sure we might get smells of the sea when the ice breaks up, but for now when we smell sage, red pepper, lavender, or even someone who’s put a bit of cologne on, it’s a shock to the system. It’s a bright spot in this deprived bubble we live in on this harsh island 30 miles from the continent.