Red parkas

Eri Pinto

Johnson, Big Dead Place, 103-116

According to the introductory quote by H. G. Wells, history is an ascent from primordial slime towards “freedom, power, and consciousness,” a process of which human life is presumably the culmination (103). However, Johnson challenges this sanguine view, portraying the human presence in Antarctica as something repulsive. At the same time, Johnson, too, is part of that presence, repeatedly drawn back to the continent. He uses irony and humor to negotiate and poignantly communicate his conflicted feelings about human life on Antarctica.

Arthur’s photography documents that his teddy bear “was here.” The souvenirs clutched by employees even in their sleep are not only a material obsession but, specifically, trophies earned by being on Antarctica (109). If these cues seem obscure, the problem of human presence also asserts its significance in the recurring red parka, connotatively powerful language, and overt references to anthropogenic environmental problems.

Throughout the chapter, the red parka reappears as a mark of glaring, disturbing human presence. Employees in this gaudy garb “clog” the railing (110). With a degrading voyeurism, they enjoy the wildlife until they get bored and move away as from a fireworks show (110). Also, it is “a McMurdoite in a red parka” who intrudes pettily on Butch by telling him, “I think that’s probably against the rules to sit on that” (111). When Johnson notices Howard Dell standing nearby, he wonders, “What’s that asshole doing here?”(110) Howard wears the standard red parka, he always wants to sell something, and his is not the only presence “here” that raises questions. Johnson’s attitude toward him suggests a real disgust toward commercialism in human relationships. He also ridicules bureaucratic hypocrisy regarding the “repulsive thought” “that each worker is in business, selling his labor to an employer” (105). There is an ugliness to human life that Antarctica could do without.

Johnson also uses imagery and figurative language that presents human presence negatively. For example, he says, “We sped down the hill to a patch of snow scarred with skidoo tracks and footprints of recent visitors to IMAX Crevasse” (107). Humans have “scarred,” wounded and marred the snow. The crevasse itself is majestic and pristine in contrast to small, infectious humans: “This crack in the ice was indifferent to our dimensions. We were warm microbes infecting the frozen wound” (107). The ruthlessness of human creations on the earth is implied in descriptions of the boat’s movement through ice. It “crashed through the powerless terrain,” producing a sound “like crumpling Styrofoam, but deep like a toothache”  (109, 110). 

Johnson also mentions specific environmental problems. He writes, “McMurdo is about loud machines that leak oil, and meals of ancient frozen chicken. Where a behemoth ozone hole makes the summer sun a relentless blazing sphere that will sear the eyes and plant tumors in exposed skin” (114). The station’s wastes include heavy metal and radioactive contaminant (109). Boats are said to kill off seals with the facility of popping grapes (109). As his boat, which burns 4,500 gallons of fuel per hour, tears through ice, “The effects were mesmerizing and too numerous to watch” (110). The movement, like human presence on Antarctica and on Earth, produces effects that are complex and overwhelming.

Richard Byrd considered Antarctica “the most peaceful spot in this world, due to the absence of women” (113). Admiral Reedy called it “the womanless white continent of peace” (113). For Johnson, though, the problem is not women. Perhaps, though, everybody is a problem.

Unlike Margaret, Johnson does not present an image of himself as a lover of the earth. It would be too easy to denounce humankind while approving implicitly the parasitic message of The Giving Tree (114). His distaste for institutions comes with a sympathy for people. Still, moments of sad regret surface even as the reader laughs. Lenny’s behavior at the bar, which led to the dismissal that opens the chapter, was not declared “out-of-place” or “inappropriate” (104). What about the human presence on Antarctica? The chapter’s ending exemplifies Johnson’s conflicted stance. Attached as he is to the comforts represented by the “soothing industrial purr” of his loader, he senses an ambiguity in the changes from a time of wooden ships, changes as final as the season’s end.

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One Response to Red parkas

  1. hsherlock says:

    I think that you are right in saying that Johnson portrays the human presence as repulsive. The key word here is portrays. Other than recounting the blight of humanity on the ice, he never seems to take the next step and own his implied convictions. Pointing out absurdities is one thing, but making moral and ethical judgments is another. Maybe this addresses the conflicted stance you see. I also like the fact that you pose the idea that Johnson does not portray himself as one who loves the earth. Personally, I am challenged by his inability to tell us what he does love.

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