Inside Mawson’s Huts
With my heart in my throat, I stepped inside Mawson’s Hut today – the odour of damp wood and time in one’s breath, a strange expansion of space as the interior seemed so large compared with the outside of the structure, subdued light, and the stillness of the place, a sense of history and lives lived, adventures and tragedies, the romance of the heroic era.
It is silvered with hoar-frost, a miraculous crystalline beauty of flowering water ice, weird argent forms growing in the sixfold symmetry of snowflakes, over every surface, a patterned chaos and so delicately, finely beautiful. Yet what is striking about the place are the artifacts – the cheap paperback novellas, the tins of chemicals, discarded filthy clothing, finnesko, an umbrella, frozen black potatoes, graph paper, things unbelievably printed with the year “1911” – stuff that you see in museums or antique shops, scattered in disarray, frozen in time – some perhaps where they were left; an index of who put them there – a trace – just as every nail was hammered at some time by some person, so many years ago – the building is redolent of the lives of its inhabitants, despite the interventions of time and visitors.
I stood there alone in silence and it seemed to breathe. We see a counterbalance of two forces – the torrent of wind and snow and ice, weathering and dissolving the structure; the material energy of human construction resistant to this in its manufactured forms inside – a battle already lost, as the wind flows through aeons; the artifacts struggle for a century. You see Ninnis’ initials painted on his bunk, a tragic death recorded and read at the time by other now-dead men; Hurley’s darkroom bearing the pencilled line upon the pine boards – “near enough is not good enough” – a litter of chemical bottles and cardboard boxes for glass plates, autochrome and Paget plates; a tiny den of industry recording the life here where it first occurred – you could feel it amidst the ruin.
The mystery of Mawson’s room, like the intractable historic figure – glittering with crystals like a fairytale – the chair haloed with light, and the dark damp bed, with the pillow covered in mattress ticking, a massive efflorescence of iceflowers on the shelves, a still life of a bowl, scattered pictures, the Rococo voyeuristic erotica of the Fragonard print of “Girl on a Swing” still stuck on the wall beside the bed, enshrouded in ice – another next to it I recognise but cannot place – Rembrant? Holman Hunt? Pre-Raphaelite?
Things in darkness under the bed, frosted and translucent ice – a mound upon the floor. It felt eventful, waiting, almost as if someone was to return after a hundred years and resume occupancy – a strange sense of having been deserted or left behind, as the empty chair awaits sitting-in or indicates the absent form of the body. It was strange and impressive, that all this was done so long ago, so far away from anywhere, in a genuine terra incognita of its time – and the place remains hardly known and barely trod, and so it should remain. A paradox.