Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Publishing

Web Review: ExplorersWeb

Theodore Roosevelt on Safari

Theodore Roosevelt on Safari

There is a freedom that comes with studying dead people. We, the historians of the not-so-recent, learn about our subjects in archives and newspaper columns, from photos, maps, and bank statements. We reveal what we’ve learned, personal and perhaps unflattering, knowing that the people we’ve researched cannot talk back to us, sue us, or toss rocks through our windows. (This is work best left to other historians). Still there are times when I meet my subjects sort of. I often talk shop with modern-day explorers at meeting and lectures, some of whom share the goals and sensibilities of the people I study. This is always a welcome experience for me, but one that often feels a bit strange, since I look at the work of past explorers with such a critical eye. What has been refreshing to find, however, is how self-aware and historically-minded many modern day travelers and explorers are.

Tom and Tina Sjogren, founders of Explorersweb.com

Tom and Tina Sjogren, founders of Explorersweb.com

For example, take the site ExplorersWeb.com, a clearinghouse of information about extreme travel in the polar regions, the oceans, mountains, and space. It is the brainchild of Tom and Tina Sjogren, two Swedish uber-travelers, who provide daily updates about expeditions in the field as well as their own exposes of expeditionary bad-behavior, from selfish guides, and faulty equipment manufacturers, to climbers who fib about their summit climbs. The reports of Explorersweb have not been without controversy, particularly from veteran mountaineers who’ve been the object of scrutiny. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a look at.

Explorersweb.com

The Last Imaginary Place

B. Bellotto, Veduta Fantastica

Two thousand years ago, a new innovative culture emerged in the world, one which established large, wide-ranging settlements and networks of long distance trade. Between 500 and 1500 CE, this culture began to expand, developing new technologies which allowed it to move into other regions thousands of miles from its place of origin. Ultimately, these technological advancements allowed it to dominate and displace the native peoples who lived there. By 1000, it had establishing a place for itself in a new system of trans-Atlantic trade.

I speak not of Romans or Vikings but of the Inuit, who developed from the Old Bering Sea people two thousand years ago on the coast of Alaska. The Old Bering Sea people lived in large, year round settlements and established long-distance trading networks. They developed or acquired the bow and arrow as well as the means to hunt bowhead whales. Shortly thereafter, they began moving northeast, towards the Arctic shores of North America, displacing the Tuniit, an Arctic culture that predated them by hundreds of years. It is not clear what drew the Old Bering Sea people east, but evidence suggests that they were eager to acquire metal impliments brought by Norse peoples who began to occupy Greenland.

Old Bering Sea Culture Equipment

Old Bering Sea Culture Equipment

All of this information comes from Robert McGhee’s new book “The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World.” McGhee’s Arctic is no wintery wasteland, but a dynamic place, the crossroads of many different cultures: Asian, American, and European. At 270 pages, McGhee can hardly be comprehensive. But he manages to tell his stories of Arctic history with an impressive cast of characters: Inuit, Tuniit, European, and Siberian.

One of the goals of McGhee’s analysis is to destroy the myths that still haunt our image of the Arctic and its peoples. For centuries, Europeans described the Inuit as the primitive children of nature, a timeless people who scratched out a living in the same manner as their stone-age ancestors did thousands of years before. In truth they had much in common with their European counterparts. They were expansionist, adaptive, and quick to exploit the resources of their environment.

McGhee also manages to link his broader points to personal experience. On the Inuit for example he states:

The realization that the Inuit are not a peripheral people was forced on my mind one night on the coast of Chukotka, as I climbed by myself over the remains of the ancient community at Ekven. A few kilometers up the coast, the low night-time sun was throwing an orange glow on the rocks of Cape Dezhneva, the most easterly point of Asia, and on Great Diomede Island halfway across the Bering Strait to Alaska. In the bright calm night I suddenly had the overwhelming sense that I was not standing at the distant margin of a world, the end of the earth, as far as one could travel from Europe. Instead I was standing at the very heart of another world, a nexus that for millenia had linked the peoples and cultures of Asia and America. It was a world in which many nations and cultures had flourished, among them the Inuit and their way of life.

The Diomede Islands of the Bering Sea

The Diomede Islands of the Bering Sea

This is a terrific book. I’ll be writing a more formal review of it soon for The Historian.

Centre de Recherche sur la Littérature des Voyages (CRLV)

Voyage en Suisse, en Lombardie et en Piémont, 1834 (CRLV)

I have worked on Arctic exploration for over a decade and have been feeling lately that it’s time for a change. I like exploration too much to leave it as a field of study (as is probably obvious from this blog), so I have been digging into the literature on another love of mine, mountains, specifically the role of mountains in the work of nineteenth-century scientists.

I don’t have any method for starting new research projects. I have a “if time, pursue this” file, but most of these ideas feel stale by the time I get back to them. So I usually set off into the literature much the way less-than-smart dogs take to being off the leash: running around sniffing randomly until they find something good, chasing it till it runs out, then running some more until they something else. I pursue this approach until I find food. Methodological rigor comes later, usually about the time I need to apply for a grant.

In any event, I was in my dog phase a few months ago, when I started to realize something about the secondary literature on mountains. There are some divisions I expected to find according to discipline (lots of material in art history, for example, not that much in the history of science). But there were also some divisions I didn’t expect, namely differences according to nationality. In particular, it seemed to me that French scholarship on the intellectual history of mountains was very well developed whereas Anglo-American literature was still getting off the ground.

How much do we miss by not wading into the literature of other languages, other countries? It depends upon the research question obviously. But in my case, it’s something I need to do. I can read French, with effort, fingers gripped to the side of my desk. This too must change. I have been on the lookout in the last few weeks for serious exploration blogs or sites outside of the U.S and the U.K.

One of the best that I’ve found is the Centre de Recherche sur la Littérature des Voyages (CRLV). This site has been around for a while, offers an impressive, searchable bibliography of primary literature on exploration (by author and location), a list of CRLV publications, schedule of conferences, and series of conference podcasts, some of which have abstracts and transcripts. Impressive.

I’ve been happy to note more traffic here from other countries, particularly Scandinavia. If you think I should be aware of exploration-related sites, please drop me a line.

Digital Archive: Strange Maps

NASA map of astronaut routes over the Moon, superimposed over soccer field

Blogs are living things. They have their own cycles of growth, promiscuity, maturity, and senescence. Some rise above the tangled bank to reach the sunlight of popularity. Most crowd against each other in fits of collective navel-gazing. They soon decline in daily hits (the holy measurement of blog vigor) and die quietly in the shadows of the over-committed author. Given this instability, do blogs have the staying power to be archives?

Thomas Jefferson’s proposal for dividing territories into ten states

Certainly not. While the political blog DailyKos may outrank the Library of Congress in daily web traffic, I am confident that L of C will still be hosting their Lewis and Clark materials in 2020. I don’t know what DailyKos will be doing (running a small country near Seattle perhaps). In short, blogs are not archives. Now that this is established, let me announce an amazing blog archive: Strange Maps. It is weird, historical, and snappy. If its mondo collection of bizarre maps is not exactly comprehensive, it is far-reaching in scope.

Not all of these maps have to do with exploration of course. So why feature Strange Maps here? A few weeks ago I wrote a post in which scholars weighed in on the various meanings of exploration. William Goetzmann and others view it as a process of continual re-discovery rather than a single moment of impressive flag-planting. In this spirit, Strange Maps is a place which discovers and rediscovers information about the world and projects these ideas in space. Perhaps this is an abstract and delirious way to describe the site – so to get a better idea, visit it yourself.

Strange Maps

Dutch map showing the oceans of Mars

A Question For You

I’ve been talking with Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda about starting up a wiki, an open source database for people working on subjects in exploration. There is, of course, wikipedia. But a quick perusal of their main page on exploration lead me to think that this will only deal with nuts and bolts issues in the field (i.e. lists of explorers, timelines, regions, etc). What about a database that would include (perhaps even focus on) issues that were too wonky or obscure to be of use for a general interest resource like Wikipedia? As Will states in his post:

Wikipedia’s rules demand that pages be summaries of topics–not storehouses of all available information; and it is forbidden to post original scholarship there. Wonks need to turn elsewhere.

This, perhaps, puts some of us on edge. We don’t mind talking shop about general subjects, but sometimes it feels a bit dangerous to start revealing archival discoveries in advance of a published article. Perhaps this is a real concern, though I’ve never known someone to get scooped in this manner. When I’ve heard about it happening it was in the context of faculty members using material from research assistants or advisees without properly citing it.

The Exploration Wiki deep within Cheyenne Mountain

Even if it were true, it seems that there are all kinds of “common source” subjects that are both useful and non-proprietary. For example, I wrote a post last week on the historical connotations of exploration. This seems a bit too precise for the wikipedia discussion on exploration At the same time, my 500 word post is only the tip of the iceberg on ideas about exploration – I would love to know what others think about this: anthropologists, geographers, lit critics, and general public. Even if the wiki entry was nothing more than a compendium of various historical references to the subject, it would be useful I think. It also seems to me that a lot of us work on fairly obscure figures or ideas in the history of science and exploration – why not have a place for all of this esoterica to live?

Missing: Obscure Explorer, Needs Home.

At the same time, I don’t want to be pouring my energies into something that should be done through wikipedia, a blog carnival, or some other medium. Or, whether such a project should come under the heading of a larger wiki (e.g. the history of science) In any event, I would love to hear your thoughts, dear reader. Is this worth pursuing?


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