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2. People in the Landscape
By Gretchen Legler
Genre: Non-fiction
Year: 1997 Category: Student Examples

From the outside the hut looked cheery and neat--all tidy and ship-shape, with sharp corners and beautiful wood and little blue-tinted windows. It looked like a place where you could be perfectly comfortable and warm, huddled around a stove with a mug of cocoa in your hands, listening to a story, watching the snow fall. But, said my friend Tom Learned, as we stood at the door, this hut, the Discovery Hut, had the saddest history of all the huts built in Antarctica by early explorers. Tom, who works at McMurdo Station, has made a hobby out of studying and photographing the huts, and offered on this day to take me and Ruth Hill, a McMurdo electrician, on a tour of Discovery Hut, built by Robert Falcon Scott and his men in 1902, when they were on their first expedition to reach the South Pole. Under the eaves outside the hut was a pile of frozen canvas and on top of the canvas lay a mummified seal. Tom said the seal was hauled up from the cold sea, only several hundred feet away. Probably it was going to be cut up and boiled for blubber, but someone never got around to it, and now, almost 100 years later, there it lay. I touched it and it was hard and cold and black. Tom knocked before he unlocked the door and slid the bolt back. "Knock, Knock. Honey I'm home. Oh no, not blubber again!" he laughed. There was a snowdrift in the doorway that we had to climb over and on the wall in the entryway the snow had blown into delicate sculpted patterns. "Smell the blubber in the air" Tom said. "What does it smell like?" I asked. "Fishy," he said. Ruth and I put our noses to the air and sniffed. I could smell it, after all those years. There were frost crystals on the ceiling. The walls were black from the smoke of burning blubber. Scott's men anchored their boat Discovery in Winter Quarters Bay, right next to hut, and used the ship to live in during the winter. Scott and his men mostly used the hut itself to store things in and as a place to put on plays. The hut was built with prefabricated materials brought from Britain, in the design of an early Australian squatte's hut. Scott also used the hut again for storage when he came back for another try at the Pole in 1910. He never returned from that trip. He died on his way back to his main base at Cape Evans, after reaching the much sought after South Pole shortly after Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. The hut was actually lived in by members of the Ross Sea party of Ernest Shackleton's expedition in 1914. Shackleton was going to start his journey to the South Pole from the Weddell Sea, on the other side of the continent, while the Ross Sea party was going to start at Cape Evans and lay depots of supplies all the way to the Pole, so that Shackleton would have supplies for the last leg of his Transantarctic trek. Only, things went wrong, and part of the Ross Sea party got marooned at the Discovery Hut, just 20 miles away from their companions at Cape Evans. They ended up having to overwinter in the Discovery Hut because the sea ice had melted and they could not walk the 20 miles to join their friends. The overland route was full of crevasses. "Bleak" is how Tom described their winter in the hut. "Bleak." Under the best of circumstances the hut never got above freezing. It was so cold that the men had to pile up crates and cover the crates with blankets, trying to make walls in an attempt to create a smaller space around the stove so that they could keep themselves warm. They even started tearing down the hut itself for fuel to burn. They slept in a big pile on a wooden palette on the floor--all five huddled up for warmth. They got seals and carved them up and boiled them and used the blubber for light and also for food. In the rusting frying pan atop the rusting stove I saw petrified frozen pieces of blubber. In a pile near the door lay hunks and slices of blubber and the backbones of seal, piled up, waiting to be eaten or boiled. "Blubber was everything," Tom said. "Everything." Crates and tins of all sorts and sizes littered the hut. I walked around in the dim, cold light, my feet soft on the lightly snow-covered wooden floor, and saw blue and orange Huntley & Palmers Biscuits tins, tins of Bird's Baking Powder, Fry's Cocoa, handmade lamps from cut up tin cans in which they burned blubber with a piece of cloth for a wick, Hunter's Famed Oatmeal, cans of corned mutton, rusted tins of sardines, an old hardware catalogue, a can labeled Beach's Golden Plum, a big box that had written on the side "Captain Scott's Antarctic Expedition 1910--Homelight lamp oil", crates that had written on their sides in black letters "Special Cabin Biscuits Supplied by Spratts Patent Limited--Navy Army & Expedition Biscuit Manufacturers London", a box of cubed sugar, a crate marked "Special Dog Biscuits--Use on the Voyage." By the stove in a bucket along with a hatchet was a pile of blubber. A burlap bag full of dried up onions lay open on the floor. In a corner lay a box that once held Coleman's Whole Meal marked for "The shore party." On a low table lay a pile of wool mittens, leather mittens, and seal skin boots. In one corner I saw broken chairs, shovels, and spare sled runners. Around the other side of the door in the entryway hung three nearly 100-year-old, half-carved frozen mutton carcasses and a penguin skin and skeleton. On one shelf I noticed a slab of frozen petrified blubber hanging on a nail. I thought it an unlikely place for a slab of blubber. "Why is that there?" I asked Tom. "That was the last place they threw it," he said. The whole hut was like this--it had an unexpected feeling of urgency and abandonment about it, as if whoever was there couldn't wait to get away.


What I tried to do in this piece of writing was focus on people in the landscape, in this case, by writing about an artifact that people left behind--the hut. I put in a lot of detail about what I saw in the hut, including the colors of the tins, the smell inside, the color of the walls, even that my feet sounded soft on the floor. I put in some history about the hut. I tried to convey a feeling about the hut--that it was "sad" as my friend Tom said. Another thing I did was I put in some pieces of conversation between Tom and me. Just from what he says, you can tell he is a man with a sense of humor.

Writing Exercise

Focus on an "artifact" in a place you have been or know well. It doesn't have to be a house. It can be anything--an old car, a bucket, an old piece of ivory. It could be a big ruin--such as an abandoned mining town. Try to include details about the object itself (details of the five senses--what do you see, smell, hear, touch, taste) and some of the history of the object and the place. Write about 250 words. 

Copyright 11.24.97


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