Coping with icebergs in October

THIS is the wrong time of year to think of polar icecaps. Falling leaves and a little frost on the pumpkin are about all most of us can handle. Yet no newscast of the week past was judged complete without aerial photographs of those young whales battering their heads against six-inch Arctic Ocean ice off Alaska to maintain breathing holes while the Army National Guard, environmentalists, and the oil industry joined forces (for once) to cut a channel allowing the trapped creatures access to deep water.

All that sky. All that ice. And the beleaguered whales. Despite their size, they appeared like insects caught in a frozen white cocoon.

By coincidence, the week of the thrashing whales found the reputation of Adm. Robert E. Peary floundering in the same icy region. Supposedly the first man to reach the North Pole, 80 years ago next April, Peary and his achievement are being questioned by Dennis Rawlins, a Baltimore historian and astronomer, who claims the explorer never came closer than 121 miles.

Peary, too, is in a trap - unable to vindicate himself, even as his accuser is unable to prove him a hoax.

The Antarctic has been in the news as well as the Arctic. Adm. Richard E. Byrd, the first man to fly over the South Pole, is being commemorated by a stamp on his 100th birthday. His son, Richard Jr., was on his way to a centennial ceremony in Washington, D.C., when he disappeared mysteriously, later turning up dead in a warehouse.

There is a photograph of the younger Byrd at age 12 in the back of a limousine, traveling up Broadway as part of a 1930 celebration of his father's feat. The boy is trapped between banks of flowers, like the whales in their breathing hole, and there is a look of curious, unspeakable sadness on his face. He spent the next half century living in the shadow of his father, and the last, uncompleted journey was only the final lap of a lifetime of wandering. He was a revering rather than a bitter son, but nonetheless doomed, like a Telemachus retracing on maps the travels of Odysseus.

Arctic wilderness can take many forms.

``Alone,'' Admiral Byrd titled his autobiography, and these whales, these human beings, seem condemned to a loneliness beyond even the loneliness of a desert.

Theirs is a world of refrigerated emptiness, the abstraction of snow and ice - a landscape clinically white, mercilessly cleansed by cold.

Here is the opposite of Bali - here is a puritan's paradise where passion and emotion are frozen. Even a smile cracks the mouth, a laugh freeze-burns the lungs.

This is the heart of winter, if winter can be considered to have a heart.

In the center of white loneliness, all that gives it focus is the white page of the inevitable diary on which the explorers record their aloneness. How do the stiff fingers write? How does the ink manage to flow? How does a heart still beat with hope?

The word ``survivor'' is used casually, glibly, nowadays to herald the most ordinary display of determination. These durable specimens - whales and humans - deserve the compliment. Their persistence finally warms the ultimate chill and lights up the ultimate whiteness, otherwise as bleak as the blackest night. The heroism performed on such a stage (in the words of Elizabeth Bishop) makes ``these white peaks spar with the sun.''

A Wednesday and Friday column


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