Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Saving the Pole – not such a strange idea


A week ago today I experienced a peculiar pang when John Sauven, the leader of Greenpeace in Britain, told me his group wanted to save the North Pole.

A curious notion, is it not? Save The Pole. Certainly a much less tangible one than Save The Whale or Save The Planet, not least because geographically, the North Pole is not actually a place, merely a location – 90 degrees North – in the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean.

What Greenpeace means, of course, is that it wants to keep the heart of the Arctic inviolable, it wants to make the top of the world a zone protected by international law from the rush for oil and other minerals now being facilitated by the rapid melting of the sea ice as the climate warms (ice which, this very day, is reaching its late summer minimum and, depending on which satellite measurement you use, is either the lowest or the second-lowest on record).

But the reason I felt a pang was that to me, the North Pole is indeed a place, one I have visited, and one I remember with undiminished vividness; and the idea of saving it entailed the idea that it might be despoiled, which once visualised, I found painful in the extreme, not to say intolerable.

It is the strangest spot I have ever been to on this Earth. There was no sound there – none – in the still air. It was in April, and a lemon-yellow sun was revolving at a constant height around the empty blue sky, with no morning, evening or night, so time was measured as Zulu, Greenwich Mean Time. The ice was brilliant white with blue tints and, when you walked on it, it clunked metallically under your boots with a sort of dull echo, as the ocean was just a few feet beneath. Sometimes you would sink down in it up to your thigh and be afraid you would go right through, and die.

The temperature was 38C below zero – I had brought a thermometer to measure it – a level at which the ink in your pen freezes, so you have to write in pencil. I needed the pencil for an interview. The interviewee was Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, the explorer. With a companion, Charlie Burton, he was engaged in the Transglobe Expedition, a trek around the world via the two poles, billed as "The Last Great Journey On Earth". The pair had crossed Antarctica and now were crossing the Arctic, unsupported, on Ski-Doos, or motorised sledges.

It was Easter Sunday, 1982. With my own companion, Brendan Monks, my photographer partner, I had been sent to interview them by our newspaper, the Daily Mirror, when they reached 90° North. The trip cost £25,000. Then. The Mirror did things like that in those days. It was an extraordinary paper, one which, as it was trying to be The Guardian for ordinary working people, I loved and believed in, as did most, if not all of the staff.

We had travelled up into Arctic Canada to Alert, the base at the tip of Ellesmere Island, which is the most northerly inhabited place on Earth, and then flown 500 miles to locate Fiennes and Burton in a Twin Otter, a light aircraft fitted with skis. We had not come empty-handed. We had brought a bottle of Burton's favourite drink – Jack Daniels – and a large Union Jack we had bought in Montreal, for if we hadn't, when we got back the Mirror picture desk would have said: "Yeah, but where's the one of them with the Union Jack?"

I find it hard to separate the flood of memories. I remember getting into the Twin Otter to interview the phlegmatic Fiennes with my trusty freeze-proof pencil and saying, "Sir Ranulph, you've sledged it here over in the ice, unsupported, in 58 murderous days – you must have a tremendous sense of achievement" and him replying: "Not really, no."

I remember getting out of the Twin Otter wondering what I was going to write about and seeing Burton, who had a drunk a third of the bottle of Jack Daniels, playing golf with our Union Jack.

I remember getting a corny fit and writing at my feet my initials, and the initials of my then girlfriend, linked with an arrow through a heart, and thinking, lovers have scratched this for centuries on the surface of rocks and the bark of trees, but I bet I'm the first to do it in the ice of the North Pole.

But most of all I remember the sense of wilderness. I have been to a few truly wild places, such as the Amazon or the Sahara, and a few truly wild places in Britain, such as the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland, but this was the wildest of all. This was the epitome of wilderness, the place on Earth most removed from the human race and all its works.

Wilderness was seen as worthless, once. Not any more. Now on an ever-more crowded and degraded planet, wilderness answers a longing in many people for an unspoilt world, for a world as it was from the beginning, and I know that at the North Pole I caught the sense of it, that this was the alpha and omega of untouched purity.

That it should be transformed into a factory, with drilling rigs and oil spills, seems to me an insufferable conception, and that was the pang I felt when Greenpeace said that they wanted to save it – I remembered, in fact it all came flooding back to me, what there was to save.

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