Archive for Polar Regions
A century ago this week Robert Peary and Frederick Cook locked horns in the “The North Pole Controversy,” an epic media battle that dominated news on both sides of the Atlantic for months. For readers it became a scandalous and impossibly compelling story, a post-Victorian Jon vs. Kate with furs and dogs.
John Tierney took up the story in the New York Times yesterday morning. To Tierney’s credit, he avoids the temptation to spend his entire column regaling the reader with evidence of Peary or Cook’s rightful attainment of the Pole. (He does take a position: neither man made it).
Instead he takes an interesting behavioral, rather than historical, approach to the question: why do the supporters of both explorers defend their man against all reasonable arguments? The answer, he argues, is that they become psychologically (perhaps neurochemically) committed to their candidate in a manner that is hard to alter. The use of the word “candidate” here is intentional since Tierney reports that this phenomenon is well measured in people supporting politicians and political parties.
Also reported yesterday was the discovery of a “lost world” in Papau New Guinea. A team of scientists (big discoveries always follow sentences that begin with ”A team of scientists…”) discovered a unique, pristine ecosystem in the crater of Mount Bosavi. The team found more than forty new species, including the world’s smallest parrot, the world’s largest rat, and a herd of grazing brontosauruses. (I’m making up the rat part).
The use of ‘Lost World’ is an interesting way to describe this ecosystem not simply because it conjures images of Jurassic Park, Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name, and a whole genre of early twentieth-century adventure books, but because it’s not an obvious (and therefore not an unconscious) description of Mount Bosavi.
Accounts of the volcano, its geographical and biogeographical riches, have been appearing for forty years in academic journal (see for example Records of the South Australian Museum 15 (1965): 695-6; Mammals of New Guinea (1990): 236) and even further back in popular literature. Jack Hides and other Australians were writing about the Mount Bosavi in the 1930s.
But “Lost World” sounds better than “Relatively Unknown Ecosystem” especially if it’s timed to coincide with a 3-part BBC Special on the expedition (titled “Lost Land of the Volcano”). Perhaps these are the necessary evils of science reporting in the digital age, a realm in which writers have two or three seconds to convey meaning and produce interest. Maybe these are the white lies required to raise the profile of meaningful and interesting projects. “Lost Land of the Volcano” pulled in 4.1 million viewers last night, an 18% share. Maybe the title of this post should be “Cow-Sized Rat Kills Cannibal, Saves Scientist.”
Explorers’ narratives only get you so close to the truth. They are — like all memoirs — public documents, manuscripts that are written to be read by others. Yet they sometimes reveal things unawares. For example, Robert Peary’s 1910 book, The North Pole, is not a source you would consult to figure out if Peary really made it to the North Pole in 1909. But the book reveals much about Peary’s view of the North Pole quest and his ideals of leadership (or, to be more accurate, Peary’s views as channeled through his ghostwriter). Describing the final push across the polar pack ice in April 1909, Peary states:
This was the time for which I had reserved all my energies, the time for which I had worked for twenty-two years, for which I had lived the simple life and trained myself as for a race. In spite of my years, I felt fit for the demands of the coming days and was eager to be on the trail. As for my party, my equipment, and my supplies, they were perfect beyond my most sanguine dreams of earlier years. My party might be regarded as an ideal which had now come to realization-as loyal and responsive to my will as the fingers of my right hand. [Peary, North Pole, 270-271]
Peary’s view of his expedition “as for a race” is telling. Seeing the North Pole as the finish line in a contest rather than a region to be investigated, Peary tended to look at other explorers as rival contestants rather than colleagues or collaborators.
Peary’s view of his team as “fingers” is also revealing. It shows that Peary thought of leadership as a something dictated from the top. Teams should not exhibit independence or creative judgment, any more than fingers should challenge the mind that directs them.
While Peary’s attitudes were common among explorers, they were not universal. Alexander von Humboldt used his expedition narrative to give voice to peoples often omitted in travel literature, in particular, the Spanish and indigenous Americans who made his researches possible.
Explorer-scientists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace had good reason to feel competitive: both arrived at the theory of natural selection independently. Yet while Darwin learned of Wallace’s discovery with a certain amount of gloom, he co-reported Wallace’s work with his own. Wallace, for his part, upheld the priority of Darwin’s claim. Both men remained on good terms.
Is it your field of work that determines your approach to your peers and employees? Or other factors — class, family, work culture, personality? As I worked on my dissertation, I remember looking warily at works that approached my topic too closely. While some of these works ultimately proved helpful, they seemed dangerous at first: objects just below the waterline which might force me to change course, or worse, send my thesis to the bottom.
Yet graduate school was also a time of generous acts. We grad students kept an eye out for one another: writing down citations for each other, photocopying sources, drinking beer, listening to bad practice speeches.
Now I’m fortunate to belong to a community of generous peers: people I seek out for advice, to read early drafts, recommend books, or suggest lines of thought. These are not the only ways to approach life in the Academy – I know of a few Pearys in the field – but fortunately I see them only at some distance, marking out territory and planting flags.
Apologies for the spare postings over the last two weeks. I’ve been doing a lot of out of town projects. Last week I was down in DC where Story House Productions is putting together a documentary on the Cook-Peary North Pole Controversy of 1909. They interviewed me in the historical newspaper room of the Newseum (just off the National Mall). Museums are strange places anyway, but after dark they become positively surreal.
I was also up in Maine working out the kinks of an exhibition I am curating at the Portland Museum of Art called “The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration in American Culture.” The show examines many of the same themes as my book (no surprise). But where my book was limited to 18 black-and-white prints, the exhibition delivers a much broader range of paintings, photos, and illustrations. The point is to show how the Arctic of these images represents a hybrid-world: a vision of polar regions, colored by the aesthetics and preoccupations of the Americans who traveled there.
You can see some of the images of the show here.
I gave an interview about the exhibition on Channel 6 while I was there.
The show opens this Saturday and runs through 21 June.
Why do people climb 8000-meter mountains? Free-solo the Eiger? BASE jump the Eiffel Tower? Motives are tricky things.
My work on Arctic explorers gave me a way to think about it.
Nineteenth-century explorers had their own answers to the “why” question. In the 1850s, when U.S. exploration of the Arctic began, explorers defended their missions by describing all of the commercial benefits that would accrue from their expeditions: new routes to Asia, new whale fisheries, new technological innovations in ship design. (Interestingly, NASA features a similar-sounding set of commercial benefits when it justifies its current plan to return humans to the Moon and Mars).
Then, in the 1880s, explorers changed course, justifying their exploits by anti-commercial motives: we explore because it is impractical. We explore to escape the strictures of the civilized world. We explore for the sake of exploring. Or, in George Mallory’s translation for mountain climbing, “because it’s there.”
In the language of day, the explorer had succumbed to “Arctic fever,” a term used over and over again in the last decades of the nineteenth century to describe the seemingly irrational behavior of explorers in putting themselves at risk:
“The northern bacilli were in my system, the arctic fever in my veins, never to be eradicated.” Robert Peary, 1898
“The polar virus was in [my husband's] blood and would not let him rest.” Emma DeLong, 1884
Explorers are ” infected with the same spirit.” Frederick Cook, undated
“Arctic enthusiasm is an intermittent fever, returning in almost epidemic form after intervals of normal indifference.” McClure’s Magazine, 1893
As I tried to make sense of “Arctic Fever” for my book Coldest Crucible, I concluded that all of this talk of fevers was just another means to show purity of motive:
The disease may seem to be nothing but a playful literary metaphor, but it had serious functions. Arctic fever located the urge to explore in the human passions. It was a condition that afflicted the heart against the better judgement of the mind, operating beyond conscious control. Why should anyone attempt to reach the North Pole when it served no useful or scientific function? Because -explorers claimed- they felt irrationally compelled. In this way, Arctic fever masked rational motives for voyaging north, namely, the promise of celebrity and financial reward.
While explorers spoke about their irresistible compulsions, they were simultaneously working out huge publishing contracts, product endorsements, and lecture fees. At the time I wrote my book, it seemed to me that all of this talk of instinct, true spirit, experience of the sublime, etc. was just a matter of bait-and-switch: finding motives that would impress paying audiences and would hide the true, mercenary motives behind them.
I haven’t abandoned this line of thinking entirely, but after reading the first chapter in Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Cast Its Shadow, I think I need to revise it.
Coffey’s book is about the effects of extreme adventure on the people left behind: spouses, parents, and children who have to come to terms with the loss of loved ones. She starts her book with interviews of adventurers who talk about their motives in putting themselves at such risk.
“Endurance, fear, suffering cold, and the state between survival and death are such strong experiences that we want them again and again. We become addicted. Strangely, we strive to come back safely; and being back, we seek to return, once more to danger.” Reinhold Messner
“I was totally possessed. The experience was like some inner explosion. I knew it would somehow mark the rest of my life.” Wanda Rutkiewicz
Coffey’s list of climbers who speak about this compulsion is impressive. It extends beyond the elite, celebrity climbers such as Messner and Rutkiewicz to include those who do not have agents, publishing contracts, or product endorsements.
I am realizing that it’s not enough to label this exploration “fever” as merely a savvy form of marketing. It is clearly a psychological manifestation too, one that Coffey links to the impact of extreme risk on biological factors such as adrenaline and dopamine.
Coffey also describes the way that such extreme experience can have, ironically, a quieting effect on adventurists, making them feel less moody, more even-keeled, more able to focus on the present moment. Indeed, more than one climber described climbing as an escape from distraction, a way to concentrate on the task at hand, to live in the moment, to experience things more fully.
At times, it made me wonder if there a common psychological profile for elite climbers. The frequency of people referring to attention and distraction sounded very similar to interviews conducted by Dr. Edward Hallowell in his book, Driven to Distraction, a book about attention deficit disorder (ADD).
The point here is not to throw out one label in order to replace it with another. But Coffey’s book is making me realize that my work on the history of exploration should not only play out at the level of nations, empires, commerce, and popular culture. I need to make room for the individual, a tangled world of emotion, experience, and behavior.
I know that many of you are thinking “No duh! This is standard stuff for climbing books.” True enough: Will power, spirit, fear, endurance, ecstasy: the meat and potatoes of adventure literature. But cultural historians are trained to think of personal motives as ultimately unknowable, a black box that should not be opened. To psychoanalyze the historical subject is like touching the third rail in the subway. Dangerous terrain.
At times I think about getting rid of my laptop, dumping it into the trash or tossing it over the guardrail on I-84. It works perfectly fine. But its role in my life increasingly bothers me. It feels invasive, a tool that has become a crutch, mediating almost all of the activities of my life: my communications with students, friends, and colleagues, my meeting place for committees, spreadsheet for calculating grades, library for reading newspapers and searching archives, store for ordering books, entertainment center for films, sports pages, and blogs.
I find myself thinking — dolefully, wistfully — of paper and pencil, of writing notes on index cards, thwacking out papers on a typewriter, writing letters on rough-edged stationary, reading books slowly and deliberately on my couch rather than gutting them like fish on the deck of a ship.
Most of all, I don’t like what my laptop does to the way I think. I used to spend a great deal of time tunneling in on subjects, digging into the arcana of history like a wood bore. Now I feel I spend a great deal of time skittering over subjects, a flat rock thrown over a calm pond. I cannot place all of the blame on my laptop. It comes from having too many things to do.
Being too distracted is a lament common to Americans and Europeans since the 18th century. Do our lives benefit from the conveniences of modern life? Or are these conveniences a subtle gloss that separates us from the vibrancy of raw experience? A laminate that protects us from the authentic life? Or, as Thoreau puts it:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear… [Walden, ch. 2]
I think Thoreau draws this dichotomy a bit too starkly. My feeling is that all of life is authentic; experiences are real no matter how mediated they are by technology or modern convenience. Still I’m not letting my laptop completely off the hook. For all of its impressive powers, the networked computer is crack cocaine for the skittering mind, the gateway drug of associational thinking.
Still, I won’t throw it away. First, it doesn’t belong to me and I would have to pay back my dean. Second, it has brought me into contact with fascinating people and amazing places, a New World of information that I absorb in bits and pieces.
Ok, enough deep thoughts. Here are some new links I’ve uncovered in my skittering hops across the pond.
Google recently worked out a deal with Life Magazine, scanning decades of photos and putting them in a historical archive online. This is a fabulously rich collection of twentieth-century images, particularly in the field of exploration. Try out, for example, terms such as expedition, voyage, underwater, capsule, and planet. You can also search Google for life photos directly – just enter your search term followed by “source: life”. When this returns a list, specify “images” in the tab at the top.
The Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library offers a much smaller set of archival images, five to be exact. But the five images in question, European maps of discovery from 1520-1792, are too rich to be missed. Each map offers a snapshot of European geographical knowledge of the world, from the shape of continents and novel modes of map projection, to elaborate cartouches showing the lifeways of native peoples.
Finally two sites I just learned about today. The first is Big Dead Place, an online journal devoted to Antarctica, edited by Nicholas Johnson, author of a book of the same name published by Feral House Publishing in 2005. Johnson has some great interviews and analysis of South Polar exploration.
For an impressively massive list of all things Antarctica, also check out Dr. Elizabeth Leane’s Representations of Antarctica which breaks up the subject into categories of fiction (juvenile and adult), short stories, poetry, films and television, as well as literary and cultural criticism.
As a student of exploration, it would be fun to tell you that my eureka moments come at the end of long days of dog-sledding, bear-wrestling, and artifact-gathering. In truth, there are very few eureka moments and no bears. Most of my discoveries appear in hermetically-sealed, humidity-controlled Special Collections rooms. I’m usually wearing cotton gloves and the librarian watching me has taken away my pens.
But I had a eureka moment last night, ex bibliotheca. I was at a holiday party, sitting with a small group of people I had never met, cradling a large gin and tonic. We took on a whirl of topics: Apple computers, school bus driving, Thai massage, history education, and technical rock climbing. On this last point, people had much to say because, despite our different backgrounds, everyone was either a hiker or rock-climber. (This might seem a remarkable coincidence except for the fact that our hosts, Michael Kodas and Carolyn Moreau, are uber-climbers themselves, something probably reflected in their pool of guests).
Gerry, sitting to my left, picked up a copy of The Alpinist and showed me an article about solo free-climber Steph Davis. In the article, Davis is free climbing an outrageously sheer cliff, the “Pervertical Sanctuary” of 14, 255 ft Longs Peak in Colorado. Davis has no ropes, no parachute, no net, no way of preventing death if she falls.
“What’s up with this ?” I asked Michael (not Michael Kodas), a highly skilled rock climber to my left. “I mean, after all, would ropes and harness be that much of a buzz-kill?”
“Ultimately it’s about focus. The climber has to be in the moment. Make this hold or die. Now the next one. Now the next one.”
Although Michael uses ropes, he remembers his most dangerous climbs with searing clarity: the texture of the rock, the shape of the flake, the tortured movements he uses to pivot his body in space.
Although I write often about the commercial hypocrisy of Arctic explorers of old (and some Everest climbers of new), I can appreciate the beauty of a mind in focus. It shines brightly to me through the thicket of distractions, of cellphones and Blackberrys, of text messages and twittering feeds, of listservs and Netflix deliveries. The ability to cast one’s mind on something and fix it there is powerfully appealing.
Would I dangle my body off a 4000 ft cliff to find it? Probably not. But I understand how intoxicating others would find it. And this bears on a bigger issue. Sometimes it’s easy for historians to forget the human beings behind their historical subjects. Or in my case, to see explorers’ drive for fame and glory and forget the powerful psychological underpinnings of dangerous travel. Historians do this on purpose, I think, for fear of imparting motives that are not borne out by the texts. After all, it’s easy to track faked photos, product endorsements, and publishing contracts, but harder to read minds and motivations. And yet these psychological motives are real, something I need to take more seriously in my work.
So to Michael, Gerry, Nikki, Trace, and Topher, it was great to meet you last night. Thanks for including me on your voyage of discovery.
History of exploration was just becoming a hot topic in the Academy when I started my graduate work in the mid-1990s. Academic interest attached itself to post-colonial studies, focusing on regions of the globe where Europeans and Euro-Americans had done most of their empire-building: Asia, Africa, and the Atlantic World.
The world of Polar exploration, however, remained quiet, a terra incognita of historical scholarship. Meanwhile, non-academic historians were churning out polar books in droves, on Robert Peary, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and others. I suspect that all of this attention caused academic historians to shy away even further, to view polar exploration as suspect, a popular rather than serious subject of inquiry.
It was in this environment that Beau Riffenburgh published his pathbreaking book Myth of the Explorer. Here was a scholarly approach to a “popular” subject, in this case a behind-the-scenes look at the most sensational explorers of the Victorian World. Riffenburgh’s book shattered explorers’ claims to be men of a different world, men built of a different mold. It showed how deeply embedded these men were in the world they left behind, in their values, their careers, and their financial dealings.
Myth of the Explorer thus offered academic historians a bridge to the other side, a way of approaching the sensational explorers with a different set of aims, a different list of questions. Although it is now out of print, Myth of the Explorer remains an essential resource for historians of Victorian exploration and it is cited in the works of Robert Kohler, Felix Driver, Graham Burnett, and Felipe-Fernandez Armesto. Its influence certainly extends to my own book Coldest Crucible.
It is a pleasure to welcome Beau Riffenburgh to Time to Eat the Dogs.
Your first book Myth of the Explorer looked beyond the heroic images of explorers slogging it out in the field to examine explorers’ actions back home, particularly their financial dealings with the popular press. This was a very different kind of exploration book when it came out in 1993. What led you to the project and your approach to it?
I long had been fascinated by exploration, particularly of the polar regions and Africa. I decided after working a number of years in publishing to go back for a PhD just because I wanted to spend several years researching something that really interested me. I had previously earned an MA in journalism, and also had strong interest in the history of the press. My PhD thesis, upon which Myth of the Explorer was based, allowed me to use these two interests to look at the other. Since the press played a significant role in sponsoring, promoting, and creating an interest in exploration, it seemed logical to use the press of the time as a vehicle through which to view exploration. At the same time exploration could be a subject by which to test several hypotheses that I had about the way the growth and use of sensational journalism is generally presented in studies of the history and development of the press.
How was it received?
In general, the book was received very well by reviewers. It was published by a small publisher, but it interested Oxford University Press enough that they sought it out to publish in paperback. I would like to think that it helped influence a number of scholars who have done studies since then.
You served as Publication director for the NFL in the 1980s, writing a variety of books about American football. Did your work for the NFL reveal to you any links between modern sports and 19th century exploration?
I was the senior writer for NFL Properties, the publishing and licensing branch of the NFL, and I essentially was director of historical research. I can’t say that my work there revealed any particular links between sports and exploration, but the switch between the two is not as bizarre as it initially sounds. I was one of several people around the country who conducted a good deal of research on what was sometimes known as the Ohio League, the informal grouping of professional football teams in Ohio and a few surrounding states before the founding of the NFL in 1920. This included many of the teams that went on to join the NFL, such as the Canton Bulldogs. I would like to say that the foremost scholar in this field, and one who is a marvellous researcher, is Bob Carroll, an independent researcher who lives in Pennsylvania and was the key founder of the Pro Football Researchers Association.
Anyway, the main point here is that much of this research was carried out by carefully going through old newspaper accounts of football games in order to obtain data held there but seemingly otherwise lost. When I began my PhD, I continued using nineteenth-century newspapers as my primary data source, and was able to use essentially the same collection methods. In other words, although my subject matter changed dramatically as I went to exploration, my methods remained similar, so it was not a huge change in what I had done before.
In recent years, you have published a number of trade books on exploration. Your latest book, Exploration Experience: The Heroic Exploits of the World’s Greatest Explorers (National Geographic Society, 2008) combines your essays with reproduced documents, photos, and artifacts from famous expeditions. How did the experience of writing Exploration Experience and these exploration books differ from writing Myth of the Explorer?
My two major books of the past five years have been Nimrod (published in the US as Shackleton’s Forgotten Expedition) in 2004 and Racing With Death in 2008. The first was the first account of the first expedition led by Ernest Shackleton, the British Antarctic Expedition (1907-09), on which he attained a farthest south. The second is an account of Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expeditions, primarily his Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-14), on which he made perhaps the most amazing Antarctic journey ever. Both of these are scholarly books, written after extensive research in the archives where original materials are held, but, hopefully, written in a manner than will appeal to a general reader. I believe strongly that there is nothing stopping a book from being both scholarly and interestingly written.
Exploration Experience is a different type of book, in that it is heavily illustrated and contains, as you mention, memorabilia from numerous expeditions. Moreover, it is an attempt to give a look at the overall history of exploration, touching on the highlights rather than giving extensive detail about any one expedition. It was fun to write because it includes accounts of exploration in Asia, South America, Australia, and other areas that I had not written extensively about previously. The text is not one long narrative, but rather shorter highlights about different expeditions, so it is a totally different — but equally enjoyable — writing technique.
These differed from Myth of the Explorer in that they were more aimed at a general audience, whereas all along I felt that Myth of the Explorer would be more appropriate for a more specialist audience. I would like to think that all of them are enjoyable reads, but I think it is safe to say that Myth of the Explorer was not something that would grab the exploration enthusiast so easily as my more recent books.
Myth of the Explorer offered a sober, often critical portrait of Victorian explorers. Trade books on exploration, however, tend to be more forgiving of explorers’ motives and actions. Do you feel any tension in moving from one genre of writing to the other?
No, I try to follow the academic process throughout. I collect and analyze data and then present it in a fashion that I feel is fair, hopefully unbiased, and hopefully interesting. Nimrod, once to the ice, is, I hope, an exciting tale of adventure, but the materials for it were still compiled carefully and following the same “rules” of research as Myth of the Explorer. Since I have been writing and editing for a living for more than 25 years, stylistic changes in books are not excessively difficult to make, as shown by the fact that I have written a different book on a different aspect of the Mawson story in a different style. I hope it will be coming out in a year or so.
As an American living in England, you’ve had ample opportunity to compare national cultures. Do Britons and Americans think differently about exploration?
I can’t say that I think folks in Britain and the us think differently about the processes of exploration, but there tends to be a different emphasis perhaps. Regarding the polar regions, older generations in the UK grew up with the story of Robert Falcon Scott as something that everyone knew, and he was a great imperial hero, along the lines of Livingstone or Gordon. Perhaps because of this, and because of the Shackleton connection, in recent decades the Antarctic tends to have been a stronger general interest than the Arctic. The greatest American polar hero, on the other hand, was Robert E. Peary, an Arctic explorer. So although this is a huge generalization with all of the weaknesses that can be expected to accompany it, one finds a bit more Antarctic interest and knowledge in the UK and a bit more Arctic interest and knowledge in the US. This has somewhat changed with the Shackleton-mania that swept through the US and with the growth of tourism to the Antarctic, but it is at least a broad difference. And none of this is to say that neither country had any interests in the other region, as obviously Byrd was a great American hero and the British had any number of Arctic expeditions. Similarly, most Americans will learn more about Lewis and Clark and other explorers of North America, while many folks over here will be much more familiar with African exploration, for which many British explorers were key figures, such as Livingstone, Burton, Baker, etc.
What do you think about the United States’ current Vision for Space Exploration, a plan to send astronauts back to the Moon and ultimately to Mars?
I think that space exploration is very exciting. However, I do think that it is a totally different process than the exploration that was carried out in the nineteenth century. Then, to a great extent, it was based on man’s heart, will, and personal strength and determination. Now the man going into outer space would play a key role, but a very different role, since he is a part of a much larger package that requires a great deal more technological involvement. I think that much of the shift has been from man’s inner strength to his intellect.
What’s your next project?
I am currently working on a follow-uo to Exploration Experience that concentrates on polar exploration, using the same format. I am also hoping to write a lengthy book about an explorer in a totally new (for me) area of the world, but I have been asked by the potential publishers not to discuss it at this time.
A mystery to whet the appetite. Beau, thanks for speaking with us.