|Science in Antarctica|
Nestled among the many nondescript sheds, metal storage barns, snowy yards of wooden crates, brown cargo containers, bulldozers and pickup trucks, is a little white shed with a bright red strawberry, a yellow sunflower and an orange carrot on the side. Just these alone stick out like a green thumb at McMurdo Station, where everything else is a drab gray, brown, white or institutional minty green.
This is the greenhouse, and the domain of Lenore Hinson, who doubles as McMurdo's gardener and the proprietress of the station's store, Aurora Storealis. From the outside, but for the garden motif on the walls, you'd not guess this was a place of greenery, humidity and light. It's not just any greenhouse either, it's a hydroponic greenhouse, meaning all the plants in it grow in water, rather than dirt. And a greenhouse in a town where, by law, nothing grows. No flowers. No tiny potted tomatoes. No herbs. No nothing. It is against the Antarctic Treaty for anyone to grow anything in Antarctica, except under controlled conditions, such as in the greenhouse, and even then, flowers are not allowed.
You find green at McMurdo Station in the fake plants that sit on desktops. Some of them, like the ficas I recently mistook for real, can fool you. And then there are the ubiquitous pictures and postcards above people's desks, on bulletin boards, in dorm rooms--pictures of green valleys flooded with wildflowers, misty green lakes, Amazonian rainforests, waterfalls, peaceful glades. Green, green, green. Living green. People here seem thirsty for it. But it doesn't exist for real except in the greenhouse.
That is why when you walk into the greenhouse you are shocked by the light, the warmth, and the humidity. Lenore keeps the temperature at about 70 degrees, with about 60 percent humidity. Normally, McMurdo is zero percent humidity. On a day like today the difference between inside and outside is startling. Today, says Lenore, coming up to the greenhouse really feels like climbing Mt. Everest. It is a short walk from the galley and dorms, but fighting the wind and blowing snow make it seem like an adventurous trek.
After you take off your parka, mittens, goggles, hat, neck gaiter and balaclava, you hang them on hooks in the greenhouse entryway. Then you open the door into a foil-lined jungle. The blast of heat and light makes you pause, maybe put your hand up to your eyes. Opening the door you imagine you might be walking onto the Holodeck in Star Trek. Today, Lenore's friend Corky Self, a McMurdo fireman, is lying in the hammock that is strung between the rows of lettuce, his arms folded behind his head, his eyes half closed. He waves and smiles. Corky likes to spend time in the greenhouse helping Lenore. That way, he says, he gets to graze. He says he could sit up in the greenhouse and nibble sugarsnap peas all day long and be perfectly happy.
In this greenhouse, made entirely from materials that were on their way to the garbage can or were recycled, the trays that the plants sit in are made of large-diameter white plastic piping. Each tray is a piece of plastic pipe that has been cut down the center lengthwise and has had a metal top fitted over it. In this metal top are evenly spaced holes. In each hole a smaller piece of plastic pipe sits vertically. Each of these short tubes is fitted with a piece of netting in the bottom, and filled with vermiculate (recycled from the packing material that the science cargo comes in). This is where Lenore plants her seeds. As the plant grows, the roots will reach down through the vermiculite, through the netting and into the nutrient rich water that circulates through the pipe.
Everything Lenore knows about hydroponic gardening she learned on the job. She's been looking after the greenhouse at McMurdo for two seasons now. Hydroponic gardens, says Lenore, can usually get twice the yields of soil gardens. The theory is that with hydroponics, the plants do not have to mine for their nutrients-the nutrients are immediately available in the water. The lights in the greenhouse are sodium mercury lights and they are on all the time. Lenore pollinates the flowering plants herself with a small paintbrush, doing the work that in nature bees would normally do.
On another day, I visit the greenhouse when Lenore is training someone else to work there as a volunteer. The person she is training is Reno Romero, an Alaskan, who works at McMurdo as a fireman. The first thing Lenore does is show Reno how to check the pH and nutrient levels in the water. pH is a measurement of acidity or alkalinity, specifically a measurement of the concentration of hydrogen atoms in a solution. pH 7 is neutral. Lenore uses a special computerized tool, which automatically tells her the levels. The pH for various vegetables ranges from 5.8-6.2 for beans, 5.7-6.2 for lettuce, 5.8-6.2 for peppers and 5.8-6.0 for tomatoes. Lenore generally wants the pH of the water to be around 6.3. If the water isn't right she adds acid or base. She also measures the temperature of the water, which she tries to keep between 59 and 77 degrees F. She also measures the conductivity-the amount of nutrients in the water. If the plants need more food she adds nutrients that come prepackaged in bags labeled A or B. Next, she shows Reno how to check the humidity in the greenhouse, which she tries to keep between 40 and 60 percent.
For those who don't get a personal training, there is a sign on wall that lists the necessary greenhouse tasks. It reads: Mist plants, Inspect plants, Fill humidifiers, Pollinate the flowering plants (there is a paintbrush in the desk drawer), Check for insects. I ask her if she's ever seen an insect in the greenhouse and she laughs. No, she says. That's a joke. The only insects in the greenhouse are the ladybugs, flies, bees and butterflies made from paper and colored with Crayons and taped to the walls, along with frogs and snails and other garden inhabitants.
Next Lenore shows Reno how to cut the greens and collect them in large plastic bags. They talk quietly with one another as they reach across the rows of rhubarb chard and buttercrunch lettuce. Lenore weighs everything and records the weight in a book. She insists that anyone is welcome to come to the greenhouse and harvest the vegies as long as they record what they take. She's concerned about keeping track of what she grows and what gets eaten because she writes up monthly reports, which she forwards to the station manager and her boss. She's been told that the information is passed along to someone at NASA who, potentially, will use it in studies related to future missions to Mars.
Lenore has had the best luck in the greenhouse with salad greens, although she has tried radishes, broccoli, and melons. The maze of white pipe in the greenhouse is topped with rows and rows of buttercrunch lettuce, arugula, romaine, black seeded simpson, red salad bowl, rhubarb chard, swiss chard and herbs ranging from coriander to dill to basil to sage. Tomatoes have also done well. She tells me about the monster cherry tomato tree that nearly overtook the greenhouse this past winter, creeping up the wall, then along the ceiling like a morning glory vine. In another room in the greenhouse, Lenore has planted cucumbers, japepeno peppers and bell peppers.
Lenore breaks some suckers off the tomato plants and the air is full of that dense tomato smell, the smell of green. She and Reno sit on five-gallon plastic white buckets and pick basil and sage for the galley. The air fills again with the aroma of the herbs. The three of us start talking about food. I tell them about the meals my friend Mary and I cook in Alaska--roast lamb with rosemary, apple pie, herbed new potatoes. Reno tells us about a salad dressing with basil and balsamic vinegar. We talk about how we love to cook. I talk about my garden back in Minnesota, about the boxes and boxes of tomatoes we'd bring in each fall. The greenhouse seems to elicit these memories from people. On another visit there, the light and heat and the simple green joy of the place inspire my friend Charlotte Potter, who does housekeeping at McMurdo, to remember the gardens of her youth. "When I was a kid," she said, "I'd go out in the garden with a bucket of water and a paring knife. I'd sit and pick the tomatoes and carrots and wash them and eat them-I'd have my shaker of salt right out there with me."
At dinner the night Reno and Lenore picked two bags of rhubarb chard and lettuce, the greens showed up in the salad bowl, making me feel, for the first time, at home in this faraway place; making me think about how important it is to know where my food comes from. By necessity most of the food eaten at McMurdo this time of year is frozen food. From the last week of August to the first of October no flights land at McMurdo. During the winter, from February to August, the same thing is true--there is no way to get fresh food to McMurdo. During the summer, however, from October to the end of January, there are plenty of what Antarcticans call "freshies" coming in on regular flights.
On average, over the Antarctic winter, Lenore figures she harvests about 100 lbs. of lettuce, 3 lbs. of herbs, 6 lbs. of tomatoes, and 5-6 lbs. of peppers per month. During this past winter that was enough to provide fresh salads and greens at every lunch and dinner for the winterover population of approximately 150. There was even enough in June (in the deep heart of the Antarctic winter) to send a "freshie" bag over to Scott Base, the New Zealand base about two miles from McMurdo. Lenore wrote in her June report, "frustratingly enough, they lost their entire production to a freeze."
Lenore seems a little disappointed that the greenhouse doesn't have a more important role at McMurdo, given the role of fresh food in morale and diet, and given the opportunity the greenhouse might provide for research. The current station manager says he has sent people he thinks might be depressed up to the greenhouse, suggesting they sit in there three hours a day for a week. Lenore gets paid to work in the greenhouse about two hours a day. But she thinks her boss is warming up to the idea of expanding the greenhouse, or at least hiring someone to work more hours to staff it.
This will probably be Lenore's last season in the greenhouse. She has decided that she'll move on next year, go to graduate school in Intercultural Management in Vermont. She says, thoughtfully, "It's so easy to keep coming back here. You meet so many neat people and people travel to the neatest places and are doing the neatest things, so it's easy to get caught up in it." She pauses again and recites a quote she has memorized: "The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken."
On the way out, I ask Lenore to pose for me
beside the carrot and sunflower on the side of the building. She
cheerily obliges, bundling up in her parka, pulling the hood with its
fur ruff so far over her head that her face doesn't show. Outside the
wind whips around the corner of the small building, taking our breath
away, and for a moment we all lean into it. Lenore plops herself down
on a snowdrift and poses for a picture, the white rising up all around
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