Alison Haynes

Tell us a bit about yourself as an artist 

I am a scientist (a biologist) and writer. I’m also interested in art. I have an intermittent drawing practice but currently photography is probably my most consistent means of artistic expression. I worked as a journalist and editor/writer before turning to science, and now enjoy a writing practice as part of my wellbeing routine, as well as working on science communication pieces, and a book centred on my Antarctic experience.

My work as a scientist involves moss, which is one of the few plants that survive in Antarctica. I study urban moss, which is a pioneer in our towns and cities, able to exploit niches like pavement cracks and dimples in the edges of car parks, where other plants cannot survive. I went to Antarctica to investigate how moss colonises bare land when glaciers retreat, not so dissimilar to the urban environment in some ways, where new substrates replace native vegetation.

Why did you want to go to Antarctica?

One of the reasons I went back to study biology was to go to the kinds of places you couldn’t just turn up at, to experience the world in a different way – being in the outdoors for longer, having more time to observe. I never really thought I’d be able to go to Antarctica, so it wasn’t an ambition or anything, but I jumped at the chance. It’s wild, remote, has beauty. Camping in Antarctica would certainly be out of the ordinary! I was curious to experience the cold, the landscape, the rocks, the animals, and of course, the smaller life forms like moss and lichen. I regarded it as an adventure. It was certainly that. It’s not everyday someone asks you to go to Antarctica and I had no difficulty saying yes. What would it be like? How would I feel? Would it feel alien or would I relate to the land? What animals might I see? How would the days roll out?

When did you go to Antarctica?  What were the trips?

I went in February 2020, via Punta Arenas with a team from Brazil, as a collaboration between the Universidade Federal de Viçosa and Sharon Robinson’s Antarctic moss lab at the University of Wollongong. We flew in a Hercules military plane to the Chilean airbase, Frei, on King George Island, then were on a Brazilian navy ship, the Ary Rongel and were taken via Zodiacs to Demay Point on Admiralty Bay. There were seven people in my group. Two support personnel and five scientists including myself. We had individual tents to sleep in, plus a communal kitchen tent and a bathroom tent. I was away for six weeks in all, four of them camping on the island. I returned to Australia on March 14, three days after the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 pandemic.

What did you think of the experience?  What were the challenges?  What interested you particularly?  Any particular stories from the voyage?

The trip was amazing. It was challenging on many fronts – I was with people I didn’t know, who spoke a language I didn’t speak, yes, it was cold and the conditions difficult. No showers for a month, wearing layer upon layer at night to stay warm, a restricted diet. But it was stunning to be somewhere with so little sign of humans. There are many bases on King George Island, but we walked to our field sites and while we might see a ship on the horizon, or a helicopter fly overhead, mostly we saw rocks and snow and animals and clouds and water and ice and sea. It was like a reset in my mind. At night you heard elephant seals snort and fur seals bark, sometimes penguins and other birds. Many stories – the time we had to cross an icy stream several metres wide because we’d been caught out by the tide; the Very Windy Night when several camp items were blown out to sea; the five hour postponement of our pick up from the island, due to bad seas.

What did you make of the experience?  How do you think about it now?

Where to begin? It was an incredible experience and I came straight back into pandemic life, so processing it was unusual. It seems like a dream now. It was difficult but also wonderful – seeing glaciers, going out in the field (walking better than stopping as you got quickly cold). The people I was with were friendly and welcoming and made the most of the experience. I just wanted to soak up as much as I could. It was strange going back to a city after being in the wild. Everything seemed built on top of the natural world, which it is, obviously, but I was aware of it like never before.

Any other thoughts?

I’ve called the little collection of pieces I’ve submitted as part of the exhibition ‘Breakfast in Antarctica’ because it uses packaging from the ‘tostados’ (crackers) we had for breakfast with cheese, and also the beautiful bright yellow butter packaging. After mending my boot liner one day in the communal kitchen tent with the needle and thread I’d brought along, I felt a strong urge to do something creative with my hands and made these little collages over the next few days after going out in the field.

While mending my liner I’d experienced a little pool of loneliness as the rest of the group laughed and chatted in Portuguese around me, ignoring the fact I was doing such as great job on my boot liner! But by using the same needle and thread in a different way, with the sunny colours of the packaging, I turned the feeling around. In extreme situations it’s normal to feel tired, or sad, or lonely at times. My strategy is to let these emotions pass through you like the weather – then they don’t stick around for long!