Reading Response #3 – Gretchen Legler’s “Moments of Being: An Antarctic Quintet”

Gretchen Legler

Here I confess, Gretchen Legler is a favorite of mine. I have come to her work fairly recently, and I find in her words a model for my own work, a kindred spirit.  I don’t take this word – spirit – lightly. Spiritual writing, as I believe “Moments of Being”  to be, is often conflated with religious writing, and certainly it can have a religious focus. But generally any writing that invites us to think of ourselves as a small part of a larger world can be said to be spiritual. A lot of spiritual writing has a nature focus, though it certainly doesn’t have to; you can write a spiritual essay set in New York, or a diner, or your own apartment.

One thing to take from this essay is Legler’s use of structure. First, note how she divides the essay into five sections, set off by Roman numerals. This has an episodic effect, and allows her to focus on one aspect of her experience in Antarctica at a time. It also allows us as breaks in between to consider her words before shifting gears, adding to the spiritual effect. In this case, each section stands alone. In the first she gives us an overview, and context for her stay; in the second section, she takes us on a walk, and maps us through the place as she walks, while also reflecting on her own ideas, often in conversation with Thoreau; in the third, she writes poetically about wind; in the fourth, about Antarctica’s color and light; and in the fifth section, she brings it full circle, weaving together many of the elements from the first four sections. Notice that she begins as she ends – lying on her back, looking up and reflecting on the world around her. This synergy is used as a framing device, bring the essay to a close.

I also want to draw your attention to the first two paragraphs, as they illustrate a common technique used in travel writing. She begins in scene, giving us a very specific moment that places us in the cave with her. Then, in the second paragraph, she gives us context – the where, what, when and who elements. Also notice how carefully she maps us through the essay, never leaving us confused as to where we are. She even introduces us to the people along the way. By the end, we feel as if we ourselves have been to Antarctica.

What are your thoughts about this essay? Please comment below about your thoughts of this as a spiritual essay, what that means to you, what structural elements you see her using and/or your general impressions of the piece.

12 Comments for “Reading Response #3 – Gretchen Legler’s “Moments of Being: An Antarctic Quintet””

Diana Ramstad

says:

From the first words, Legler had me entranced about Antarctica and her entire Journey, I grew fascinated to find out what she was taking notes on. The breathtaking cave makes me want to research how to be a writer on expeditions like this. She writes seemingly effortlessly about this cave, “are so overcome by the blue.” The cave had me picturing how breathtaking the cave is and picturing what she felt as she described her Journey.
My favorite though of Legler’s descriptions was her sanctioned walk across Antarctica and how prepared she had to be even for that, carrying a backpack full of supplies. “If I did not arrive at Lake Hoare by dinner-time, there would probably be a helicopter sent from McMurdo to find me.” This captures the stark reality of her Journey and how others were looking out for her even as she walked seemingly alone in Antarctica.
Legler’s references to Thoreau, add to the quality and substance of what Legler is trying to get across on this Journey. His piece ties together her attempts to get across what a spiritual Journey she is having. Her reflections about being happy to see Base camp after hours alone show that while glad to have been alone to reflect. Legler did also needs the company of people to add to her life and her stories as well.
Her descriptions of the wind gave me thrills and chills. Wind can speak to people either in the right way or in a negative way or in many other ways. “The Wind howling in around the seams in the McMurdo galley door is a sound I will remember from Antarctica.” This is descriptive and gives me the reader a clue that this is a special memory that Legler will always hold dear to her heart in life.
Legler’s beautiful descriptions of light, especially the northern spring light, gives me the chills. This indeed does feel spiritual; perhaps I too connect to this after all living in Alaska as I do. I see ice every day on my window as ice builds up. As I clean my car, what I observe around me in Fairbanks. So I find her descriptions relatable and breathtaking.
Legler’s reference to “single Dome camp” as “simple and spare: a small runway, a collection of tents and canvas James ways surrounded by mounds of snow-buried gear and supplies.” It is, in my mind, a metaphor for life and even Antarctica itself. This is the last of her descriptions in this story of a new place, and it is a fitting closure.
The entire piece of writing shows an honest reflection of a place hard to describe. This is impressive, and yet Legler’s writing is refreshing and straightforward. She shares a lot of herself with strangers people she will never know and yet now know her better than they and her ever thought would happen.

Jennifer Karulski

says:

This was a perfect example of a segmented essay. It was funny that the book used “Glacier!” as a natural disaster no one was going to try to cash in on. A bit too slow moving to be gripping. Legler took her experience with glaciers, ice, and snow of Antarctica and put together a multi-faceted travel piece. If she had merely used chronological order, it could have gotten boring. Even breathtaking scenery and extreme conditions can get boring if that is all that’s being offered. She used the format of segmented essay to create a much more vivid experience by focusing on different characteristics of the experience, such as wind, ice, color. In addition, she broke off in ‘riffs’ about Thoreau and his similar experience in the wilds of New England. The setting was drastically different, but Legler found the common ground, in the human experience of untamed places. This gave the reader context in which to place Antarctica. Yes, its big, cold, and deserted, but we saw how she experienced it and connected it to the human condition.
I like how she used sensory details to pull the reader into her experience. Few of us could understand the physical reality of that cold continent, but the author’s detailed, even poetic description made us feel like we were living it as well. Not only the physical conditions of the space, but how they affected her emotionally and spiritually. At the same time, she added little snippets that anyone could understand. Being asked how she wanted her steak became a common ground between her and all readers. Who doesn’t understand the pleasure of having a hot meal waiting after being outside for hours, regardless of the weather?
I enjoyed this essay. Did it make me want to go to Antarctica? Absolutely not! I am no fan of the cold, I don’t have any interest in challenging myself, nor do I have much of a spirit of adventure. I’m boring, I know. However, I did feel like I got as close to the Antarctic experience as one can get without actually going. Pictures and videos are great, but her description of the impact the color blue had on her were more descriptive than any other form of media could have expressed. She gave us an all-inclusive vicarious trip through her writing.

Isabelle Jacobson

says:

I agree with your observation that the description felt poetic. It really did have the condensed wording and gorgeous sensory details like a poem could provide, and that’s always been a style I’ve been drawn to both reading and writing. I really appreciated this piece, and I agree that her descriptions of the environment and her experiences offer more than a video or photo.

Isabelle Jacobson

says:

My initial reaction to this piece by Gretchen Legler is to the structure itself and not necessarily the content, although that was impressive too. I really like episodic pieces because they allow authors to write various scenes or have multiple meanings for a single piece without requiring extra paragraphs to transition through scenes or thoughts. Transitions can sometimes make a piece too long, or muddy, or just generally less clean and direct. To avoid even risking that altogether, a piece can be separated into chunks, which I really like and I think it worked really well for this piece in particular. I also like the content. She describes beautiful images and describes action in a way that takes the reader along with her rather than just giving a summary of action. It’s really immersive and I think it would be immersive for someone who hasn’t ever experienced snow or cold before. I haven’t experienced it like this, but now I feel as though I have. I think a really important takeaway from this is that the author should not just speak to the reader, but bring them down into the text and make them experience it. Another thing I appreciated was just how she described a world that is oftentimes described the same way by so many authors. She made the descriptions unique and personal, and while I can’t take her description away from the piece to use for myself, I realize how important it is to describe a common visual in a new and exciting way. Even “boring” scenes can be incredibly powerful or interesting if described in a unique way. This actually can make it more powerful for the reader, when an image they are familiar with is changed. As a spiritual piece, it clearly takes the reader on a descriptive journey. My takeaway from this was to not only physically take the reader on a journey, but show them an internal journey as well and allow them to make realizations about the author, themself, or both.

Ana

says:

As I read the first two parts of Legler’s essay, my mind drifted off, thinking of other things. I had to reign myself back in and reread some sentences. I think it partly had to do with it being an essay of place. I’ve often found these types of essays to be harder to read as I am such a visual person, I want to ‘see’ it. However, throughout the last three parts, I definitely connected to her writing. For me this connection came was due to Legler’s descriptions of ice, mountains, the wind, and the daylight and darkness of living in Antarctica. These are all things I could relate to living in Alaska. There’s a popular place in Valdez near the Valdez Glacier that everyone calls the ice caves. Lots of people venture out there to explore the ice as it’s accessible by foot. The blue hues and shear size of the ice is pretty spectacular. The wind was also something I connected to after living in Valdez. Seeing wind rip through valleys, or stir up snow on the tops of the mountains is pretty incredible.
I did ‘Google’ a few things so I could get a visual of what Legler was experiencing (McMurdo, Jamesways, Antarctica on a map, Edward Wilson watercolor paintings of Antarctica). Seeing these images provided a deeper understanding of Legler’s writing. I also connected strongly to the idea of spiritual writing and feel Legler’s fifth part did a wonderful job of showing this connection. I loved her last sentence! I’ve also felt a strong connection to the idea that we are part of something greater than ourselves. These feelings come on strong at times and they’re something I feel deep inside my being. It happens when I’m flying and look out the window at the beauty and vastness below, or when I’m hiking in Thompson Pass. I really appreciate Legler’s ability to make these spiritual connections between ourselves and the natural world around us.

Katherine Keith

says:

Gretchen begins her essay by lying on her back looking up at the crystals in amazement at the expansive blue. Gretchen is pondering where the mystical blue begins and where it ends as if in inquiry about life itself. She is unable to contain it and is overcome by the enormity of this world. This blue wonder starts looking out across the universe like expanding dark matter.
As the essay concludes, Gretchen begins to internalize her experience and awareness. While once again laying on her back she writes, “How comical I must have looked, and how tiny: an amalgam of flesh and bone, nylon and rubber in the midst of that Titanic ice.” Continuing to marvel at the vastness of the world around her, rather than look outward, she looks at her legs, arms, and boots covered in snow; she considers just how small our place is in the universe and finds that comforting.
Throughout the essay, the five parts break down her relationship to life, land, and spirit via her experience in Antarctica. Among the parts there are clear common arcs. I love the brave arc of using Thoreau throughout the essay. I say brave given his mastery over nature writing. Another arc throughout the essay is a sense of spirituality. There are numerous one liners such as, “As I walked I pondered how the world was reached through the self, how the universal comes of the particular, the immense from the intimate.” My favorite is, “It became a light like water, washing over everything, washing everything down to its barest, clearest bones.” Gretchen captures the sense of ripping away and purification that sometimes needs to happen before growth, personal or otherwise, can occur,
I could write an essay about her essay! Without a doubt Gretchen Ledger has made it to the top of my list of writers that I’ve come across in a very long time.

Aubri Stogsdill

says:

Reading response #3

The repetition of the word blue in the opening paragraph really made me think about the color. It drilled the blue feeling into my mind as I read. As she described what had to be done in order to get into the first cave, she uses the pronoun you. I was imagining squeezing through the spaces and taking the step down the steep incline. By pulling “you” in, the author made me part of the picture.

It wasn’t until the second paragraph of page 286 that the essay began to feel ‘spiritual’ to me. While the descriptions of the author’s experience were interesting and detailed, they felt to me like nothing more than really good descriptions. But as this next section got going, I was pulled into the thought process, adventure, and searching the author was experiencing.

In section three, the descriptions of the sounds the author heard were particularly interesting. She repeats the word, “…whoop…” four times as well as saying, “pushing me. pushing me along. hurrying me along,” The movement in this phrase is tangible. Even the way I read the word ‘pushing’ as I read this line really communicated the sound of the moment.

I found it interesting how Legler quoted Thoreau’s work throughout the essay. It is as if she is taking him with her, or he is the one that is guiding her through her Antarctica experience. She relates nearly all of her ‘spiritual’ statements to things that he had written previously. In section 5, she says, “I, like he, marveled at how wild the space around me was…” This statement pulls the two authors together and shows the kindred spirit that Legler feels to Thoreau. In the last paragraph, Legler is on the ice, and she says, “Here I was upon it– Thoreau’s solid earth!” Here is another connection to the writing of Thoreau.

Legler’s descriptions of her experiences in Antarctica are incredible. As someone who struggles to know which details to share and which to omit in writing, her example is inspiring. She gave a great balance of descriptions of the outside world as well as descriptions of her inner world within those experiences, making it easy to ‘join’ her in the experiences.

Erika Goddard

says:

After reading this, I have definitely become a fan of Gretchen Legler. In just the first few paragraphs, Legler takes the reader to Antarctica, painting the world in full color and depth. Her sensory details are really fantastic that it makes you want to go and explore the caves itself, but it still gives a satisfying feeling. Any writer can give a brief description of a scene and move on, but Ledger adds more character into the scenery that things like wind become lifelike. Just by how she describes the blue of the sky and ocean as “a frosty, vague, and endlessly deep hole in your heart” just captures the attention and brings an engaging a beautiful perceptive. It’s really poetic like that.
The structure of Legler’s essay helps the reader understand her thoughts of her life and spirituality just from her experience in Antarctica. All parts are clear and common for the reader to follow as the words takes them on a journey. It’s fulfilling and engaging to read. They say a picture can paint a thousand words, but words can paint a picture as well, which Legler captures fantastically.

Logan McGinnis

says:

From the beginning Legler’s voice does a fantastic job of painting such a vivid picture. She informs us that the cave is blue, but she doesn’t just stop there. She goes on to delve deeper, overly emphasizing the color blue. This creates such a powerful feeling and evokes emotion for the reader, as if they were right there along side her. She does this again in section three when describing the wind and also in section four with the sunlight. I like this tactic as it not only sets the scene but attaches the reader to the text.
The overall structure I think works so well. I actually tried something similar with my memoir and wish I would have seen this before. She delicately splits off her experiences into sections but emphasizes something different within each, but then at the end brings them all back together which I absolutely love. Her knack of storytelling along with her incredible ability to describe really hooks the reader and forces them to see what she sees, feels what she feels, and so on. I think this way of righting is so engaging and would love to take some pointers from this essay and work them into my own stories.
I’m not sure if I was just caught up in the description or the actual story but not once did I considered this story to be religious. However, once mentioned I could definitely see how it could be connected. I think nature is so often associated with spirituality because of that connecting factor. To link oneself to the world in which they exist is beautiful and to see something like this, the wonders of Antarctica would be simply breathtaking and she writes this in such a way that every emotion she felt on her journey is penciled into every line and paragraph.

Liz

says:

It’s fitting that I read her essay during an epic snowstorm in Ketchikan, because I felt like I was there! That’s the great thing about good travel writing: that it transports us to the place where the writer wants us to go. I also find there’s often a sense of the spiritual when a person writes well about a particular place, especially one that is so wild. Her references to Thoreau ground her in a literary tradition that deals with nature and wilderness, and of walkers, or “saunterers.” I’d never heard the etymology of saunter, so it was very interesting to think of it as coming from the pilgrims, or as meaning “sans terre,” both terrific ideas of what it means to be a wanderer.
Legler’s description of turning on an overhead light “where you have been reading quietly with only your bedside lamp,” is terrific, because it’s such an easy thing to visualize. She has a few such metaphors and visual allusions, like the long description of the sort of blue she saw in the ice caves in the first section. The fifth section is my favorite, and like so much spiritual writing, the ending brings me to tears. Legler helps us to to understand the experience of being there – in part because the thing that she does is so childlike, something we can all relate to. Making her snow angel feels like the completion of her journey, which is why she puts it at the end of the piece, but most likely it’s not the very last thing she did in Antarctica. More likely it happened somewhere in the middle, so it’s a good reminder that we can shape our narratives to create an arc, to give the reader a more complete picture. This is the benefit of not using a chronological narrative, but of looking back over our time in a place and finding the themes or the way in which the experience came full circle.

Stef

says:

What struck me about this essay is that the author takes us right into the depth of an Antarctic ice cave. We are not being introduced to the context of the author’s exploration of the color blue or the author herself until after the first paragraph. I didn’t completely understand some of the metaphors in the first paragraph, which might have otherwise been a more emotional introduction to Antarctica. ‘Blue so blue it was like gas that faded away into more and more intense blue violet’ — maybe I’m not enough of a physicist to fully appreciate this comparison, and ‘Beauty so expansive I could not contain it — I had to break to let it in’. I spent days contemplating this expression, as I feel that it holds a key to a level of appreciation for the color blue that is otherwise impossible to access. But I wasn’t able to ‘break in’. Overall though, this immersive introduction worked really well to grab my attention and left me with a lot of questions, some of which were answered in her following paragraphs. We learn that the author was on expeditions in Antarctica, where she spent time as a guest for the National Science Foundation’s Artists and Writers Program. After this brief introduction of the broader context of her stay, she focusses in again on the color blue. What fascinates me about this first essay is her ability to zoom into very detailed observations of a seemingly microscopic feature within a vast landscape, and then zoom out effortlessly to contextualize her entire trip. She does this multiple times throughout this short piece. The second piece struck me in that she was able to braid so much logistical information (I had to look up all of the places mentioned) with her personal reflections of the landscape and Thoreau’s writings. This creates a powerful narrative of the scenery! In the third piece I specifically liked some of her imagery about the strong winds — I could hear it hauling and whistling, and I could feel it press against my body. Wind is my least favorite ‘natural phenomena’, and I could relate to everything she was writing about. I also enjoyed her descriptions of Antarctic lighting, and the detailed examples she used to illustrate the extreme light conditions worked really well to convey a sense of space and time. My favorite part of this essay was the last part, and I think her repetitive imagery of things (or people) getting buried quickly by the snow drifts highlights her insight of her smallness and powerlessness and insignificance. Overall I really enjoyed the fragmented structure of the essay and think that it worked better than perhaps a chronological structure. This gave her the freedom to explore and dive into various details, themes, without having to follow a specific timeline.

Lucie Anderson

says:

What I love about this essay is how she connects so deeply with the landscape. This essay is not just about describing Antarctica, it’s about the way in which we as humans connect with the Earth and see ourselves among the landscape. “As I walked, I pondered how the world was reached through the self, how the universal comes of the particular, the immense from the intimate.” I love this quote from section two and I feel like it embodied the perspective throughout the essay. Legler’s way of slowing down to notice the particulars of the landscape truly does make it universal. As noted in the description above, most people who read this essay have never been to Antarctica, yet Segler creates the experience of it for us so vividly on the page that I certainly feel like I have after reading it. However, I still want to experience the blue for myself.

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