Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Polar Regions

What Kind of Explorer are You?

Robert Peary

Robert Peary

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.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

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.

New Arctic Exhibition

Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio, Gerard Mercator, 1611. A polar projection showing islands and open water at the North Pole.

Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio, Gerard Mercator, 1611. A polar projection showing islands and open water at the North Pole.

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.

News History Gallery, Newseum, Washington DC.

News History Gallery, Newseum, Washington DC.

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.

Gigantic Iceberg Seen By the Arctic Ships, From a Sketch by an Officer of the Valorous, Illustrated London News, 1875

Gigantic Iceberg Seen By the Arctic Ships, From a Sketch by an Officer of the Valorous, Illustrated London News, 1875

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.



Maybe I Was Wrong

Summit of Denali, courtesy of Exposed Planet

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.”

George Mallory

George Mallory

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-book

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).

driven-to-distraction

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.



New Worlds

Life cover from 22 February 1954 featuring shot of film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Life cover from 22 February 1954 featuring shot of film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

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.

typistsillouette

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.

big-dead-place

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.

Lessons of the Free Solo

Steph Davis free soloing The Diamond

Steph Davis free soloing The Diamond, Longs Peak, Colorado

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.

The Room of Discovery

The Special Collections Room

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.

Steph Davis free soloing The Diamond, Longs Peak, Colorado

Steph Davis

“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.

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