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Dirt and Decay in the Clean Land of Ice

The South Pole is one of the cleanest places I have ever been. Outside, the environment is absolutely pristine and essentially unchanging. There is no soil, no solid ground, no vegetation or animal life for many miles. There is no weather, except the wind blowing snow across the vast ice plateau. There is nothing for the wind to erode but the layers of ice and snow. There is nothing that disintegrates or decays or accumulates in the treads of your boots as you walk around outside. Any dirt or dust we encounter is due to our activities here and is made from the materials we import and use on the station.

The new station itself is kept exceptionally clean, so even the imported dust and grime is kept to a minimum. Everyone on station takes turns cleaning the bathrooms and common rooms, and a janitorial staff works around the clock to keep everything looking new.

So, it’s with some irony that I will also cite the South Pole as one of the dirtiest places I have been. Rather, I should rephrase that–it is the place where I am regularly dirtiest. All of our water on station comes from melting ice, and this requires a huge amount of energy. Consequently, there are stringent restrictions on water use. Yes, we have running water and modern comforts in the South Pole Station, but we are allowed to take no more than two two-minute showers per week. After a while, you get used to it, and your regular showers back home seems like an extravagant indulgence. But even so, there is something funny about the contrast between the scruffy, sweaty, unwashed population and our spotless station and pristine environs.

Because everything in the station is so new and clean, there is also something endearing about any object that has been here long enough to show wear and tear, decay and change. When I am not working out at the Dark Sector Laboratory next to the telescope, I set up my laptop in the science lab in the main station. Like every other portion of the station, this lab is spotless and new. It was with some perverse pride that I claimed for myself one of the oldest most pathetic chairs on station as my seat for daily work when I first got here. These supposedly were the chairs from the galley in the old dome, and have seen years of constant use.

My proudly chosen decaying chair, supposedly from the old dome galley.

A week ago, a shipment of brand-new chairs came in and we replaced all of the old chairs we had been using in the science lab. I helped to carry the old chairs out and place them in the ‘non-recyclable’ garbage bin out behind the station. It’s silly to develop affection for something so nasty and downright uncomfortable, but I was a little sorry to see the chair go. However, if there is one other fact of the South Pole it’s that anything useful gets reused until it completely falls apart. I have already spotted those chairs appearing in common spaces and personal spaces around the station, looking just as out of place in most of those as they did in our high-tech shining lab. Out of place, in a way, like all of our messy human activities in this stark white place.

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