Authored by Elaine Martyn


In the closing program of our 20-day journey to Antarctica, one of my fellow faculty members invited us to write a letter to ourselves, that she would then mail to us six months from now. What a gift, I thought, to be able to receive such a letter.

Before I came on this journey to the end of the Earth, I invited my closest family and friends to consider writing me a letter to read on my trip. I had thought that we would be without any means of communicating and as a lover of 19th century literature, there has always been something so romantic about opening a letter and corresponding through the simple beauty of what people choose to share in their missives.


Thanks to my gorgeous community, I came on this expedition with the most precious gift: 56 letters from a collection of my dearest family, oldest friends, supportive colleagues, and even some strangers. Opening these words of love, humour, reflection, and encouragement each day became a ritual I held with honour, and the variety of content was incredible. From hand painted ‘protection paintings’ representing hope to photos of travels past, to anecdotes of daily life, to artwork from my nephews and nieces, to one friend creating a care package of 10 letters containing email correspondence dating back 20 years. I have laughed and cried daily as I read these letters from the heart.


The power of language to cast a spell on us, has certainly been present on this ship as well. First, the playfulness of incorporating ship-based puns with punchlines on leadership, friendship, and allyship was essential. Perhaps more nuanced, is the desire to embrace the diversity of the scientific, technical vocabulary of Antarctic and climate-related communication that are either unfamiliar or infrequently used in my daily life, but which I now want to resurrect: words like cryosphere, geology and ecology, or the distinction between seabed and sea ice, and the playfulness of terms like bergy-bits.

On a ship of 100 women representing 25 countries, and even more nationalities, I have cherished the complexity of uncovering words that don’t have a corresponding definition in English. I love that our collective of women and non-binary people have let the essence of these words come to us, rather than being caught up in trying to define them. Intonation, expression, and touch are part of the definition, beyond the words themselves. We have a common lexicon onboard, using words like the Cameeroonian kilijam or the French Bon Appetite (is there an American version of bon appetite? We haven’t been able to think of one yet) to communicate with joy and love.

We’ve been working in a values-based model on the ship, and one of my core values is Courage. I see it alive in so many of the women on the ship and those who have journeyed to this majestic place before us. Whenever I speak about courage, I always remind myself that you can’t spell courage without rage. And courage comes from the French, rage of the heart.

Today, I opened one of my letters from my partner, Dusty, where he reminded me that heart and earth are spelled with the same letters. As we swirl through the Drake Passage, I am called to take courage. My heart is full of love for the earth, the jumble of emotions of this immersion into Antarctica has been transformational.  Imbedded in that is a reminder that my heart has been reopened with renewed love for this planet, fuelled with the letters that surround me. We must be courageous in our actions for this earth, our heart. My gratitude for a community committed to turning letters into words representing action with love.

All Photo Credit: Elaine Martyn