Nicholas Johnson, Big Dead Place, 135-148
In chapter 7 of Big Dead Place the author makes reference to the psychological consequences of the crash of a commercial airliner into Mount Erebus. Two of the salvage workers reportedly became “resentful that because of the crash Antarctica might become anthropomorphized as ‘hostile and evil.’” (137). Johnson seeks to dismiss this idea by balancing the emotional indifference and cruelty in Antarctica with references to violence and carnage in the warm open spaces of North America.
First, Johnson recounts the aftermath of the plane crash. The horrific scenario of passengers “being tossed into nearby crevasses” and turned into “flaming fragments” underscores the unfortunate reality of air travel (136). What then follows is a callous summary of incidental events. Johnson reports that recovery teams availed themselves of, “Some bottles of champagne, wine, beer, and brandy” that “had somehow survived the crash” (136). What must have prevailed here was pure pragmatism, or was it something else? In reference to body bags that held the remains of the deceased, Johnson recounts that, “juices frequently squirted out as the bags burst, and on one occasion a handler who caught the body fluids full in the face earned the admiration of the others as he wiped his face with fresh snow before continuing his job” (138). One can interpret his reaction to indifference or to a defensive maneuver. Either way, there is an obvious repression of emotion. Elsewhere in the chapter Johnson describes instances in which the members of previous expeditions perpetrated acts of cruelty upon animals. Robert Byrd, “disgusted by their eating each other’s shit, ordered a litter of pups killed” and, “Richard Byrd and some other men, standing on the ice edge, stabbed whales with shovels until they bled”(140). Finn Ronne and an assistant tortured two penguins for an hour in an effort to deliver two dead specimens to the Smithsonian Institute (140). While these examples are disturbing, they are not unique to human history or human nature.
Johnson also focuses on other more distant, yet complementary examples of suffering and cruelty. He recounts the story of Perry, a menacing co- worker who as a child took shots at birds and puppies (140). Interestingly, Johnson writes, “when Perry, who lived two doors from me, put up his first door decoration-a grainy black and white photocopied picture of a deer being hit by a car, its body contorted in the split second just after impact-it was if a famous explorer had moved in next door” (140-141). Johnson also recounts the viewing of safety program videos, some of which seem to have nothing to do with Antarctica. Or do they? He takes the troubling details of another plane crash, this time United 232 in Sioux City, Iowa and shares that, “witnesses describe how the plane ripped open on impact and some of the passengers, still buckled in their seats, tumbled down the runway end over end, eyes wide open and alive, until they weren’t anymore” (145). Finally, Johnson shares the events at a restaurant in Texas when, “a gunman drove his truck through the front door and shot people as they devoured chicken and spuds from the all-you-can-eat buffet” (145). In fact, the victims “were consolidated for easier murder” (145). We are obviously left then to consider the relationship between the violence witnessed in great abundance in Antarctica and in the fields and towns of Iowa and Texas.
By introducing vignettes of suffering from beyond Antarctica, Johnson is successful in drawing attention from the fact that the continent is a particularly cruel and violent place. Robert Byrd is really no different from Perry and a plane tumbling across the tarmac in Iowa yields no more or no less potential for human drama than one that slams into a mountain at the bottom of the earth. To Nicholas Johnson, human nature trumps the significance of place.