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Original Issue

Indoor Adventure

End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica
By Peter Matthiessen
National Geographic; 242 pages; $26.00

End of the Earth--a title that could fit more than one of Peter
Matthiessen's books--starts with a 1965 bar bet in Ireland.
Living then in Galway, Matthiessen is reading the classic South
Polar exploration account The Worst Journey in the World, about
Scott's final voyage south from the Ross Sea in 1911. When
Matthiessen sees that two long-shot horses named Ross Sea and
Antarctic Sea are running at the Galway Races, he bets on the
first to win and the second to place. When they come in, he buys
a round for his pub. "All my friends," he writes, "were happy to
acknowledge that my stars were in order and my destinations
preordained, and were only too glad to toast my resolve to visit
the continent and behold the mighty emperor of all the penguins."

It wasn't until 1998, however, that Matthiessen's star, in the
form of birding tour leader Victor Emanuel, finally brought him
to the southern ice. Matthiessen was so moved by the experience
that he returned again in 2001, in part because he had not yet
seen the "mighty emperor," the largest of 17 species of penguins.
This book is his haunting account of those two trips. It mixes
his characteristically evocative descriptions of landscape and
wildlife with tales of the explorers in the 18th and 19th
centuries, the heroic age of Antarctic travel.

Natural history like the biology of the emperor penguin--the
males, already hungry because they haven't eaten during two
months of courtship, huddle in the subzero dark of the Antarctic
winter with their eggs on their feet for another two months until
relieved by their mates--alternates with statistics about global
warming. The story of that "worst journey in the world," on which
Scott's companion, Bill Wilson, led the party that discovered how
the emperors breed, contrasts with accounts of champagne parties
aboard the birders' icebreaker. The differences between the early
explorers' hardships and the modern explorers' luxuries, which
include a helicopter-equipped iceboat that uses 14 tons of fuel a
day, is jarring. Matthiessen acknowledges enjoying helicopter
rides even as he attacks the fossil fuel industry.

But, as he writes about those who criticize the earlier
explorers, "To bite at the ankles of those who risk, endure, and
sometimes die in quixotic, failed endeavors should draw attention
to the biter's posture, belly to the ground." End of the Earth is
a splendid book, a celebration of Antarctica and an eloquent
evocation of its appeal: "that yearning to return into white
emptiness and ringing silence, that stillness underneath the
wind." --Stephen J. Bodio