Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Explorers

Wild Thing

Woodwose (detail), Albrecht Durer, 1499

Woodwose (detail), Albrecht Durer, 1499

Whether going up mountains, down rivers, over canyons, or across the pack-ice, adventurists often express a malaise with “civilized life” back home. In the wild, the drudgeries of the mall-shopping, lawn-mowing, 401K-filing world fall away, and with them, the barriers to authentic experience. Says Mt Everest climber Stephen Venables:

Although you don’t deliberately seek an epic, you know that one day something like that might happen. When it did happen on Everest, it was harder and more prolonged and draining than anything I had ever done, but also more exhilarating than anything I had ever done. It was like a watershed. It was something I was probably never going to repeat again. [quoted in Maria Coffey, Where the Mountain Cast Its Shadow, 137]

Why does civilization make some people feel so queasy that they’d travel to the most dangerous places on earth to find relief? A common answer is that human beings are not well-adapted to the world they inhabit, that some deeply buried instinct drives us to leave our suburban ghettos and take up high-altitude mountain climbing. A related argument holds that humans are innately curious, so curious that they are impelled, like cats near washing machines, to explore at any cost.

I don’t like these explanations. No one doubts that human beings have inherited behaviors, all animals do, but humans have proven remarkably plastic as a species. Speech patterns, fashion, diet, and language all show how impressionable we are to environment, experience, and culture.

Perhaps this reveals my bias too: as a cultural historian, I tend to think of explanations that are cultural rather than biological. In this case, I am inclined to believe that explorers and adventurers find catharsis in the wild because, well, they have learned to think of such places as cathartic.

Historians such as T. J. Jackson Lears and Gail Bederman have built a strong case for this argument. Looking at a wide array of evidence from the 19th and early 20th centuries, they link the urge to return to nature with cultural events. In particular,  “going native,”  Primitivism, and the Arts and Crafts movement all gain popularity just as Western societies transition from agricultural to industrial economies. For Lears and Bederman, the “call of the wild” has less to do with the feral impulses of the human psyche, and more to do with the disorienting world of the industrial city.

Tarzan of the Apes (Cover), Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912

Tarzan of the Apes (Cover), Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912

Yet, I will admit, the “call-of-the-wild” impulse cannot be entirely explained by culture either.  If we travel back in time before industrialization, we can still find a certain malaise with civilization.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Allan Ramsay, 1766

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Allan Ramsay, 1766

Living in 18th century Paris, Jean-Jacques Rousseau railed against the vanities and corruptions of civilized life. He found role models in the islands of the South Pacific where native peoples lived – so he thought – more virtuous lives closer to nature.

The Fight in the Forest, Hans Burgkmair, 1500 CE

The Fight in the Forest, Hans Burgkmair, 1500 CE

We can go back even further.  For Medieval Europeans the “Wildman” was a common, if legendary, figure in art and literature.  Often, wildmen represented civilized men who, in the throes of madness, grief, or unrequited love,  cast off everything and entered a state of nature. They reverted to savagery,  acted violently, and lost their powers of speech and reason.  Yet when these wildmen, by chance, were returned to the civilized world, they often emerged better for the experience: stronger of spirit and purer of heart.  Such was the case with Merlin of the King Arthur legends.

Even the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates to at least 2000 BCE, features the feral wild-child Enkidu, a boy raised by beasts and ignorant of all of civilization’s pleasures until seduced by the temple prostitute Shamhat. No industrial cities here.

What to make of all this? Perhaps there is something of the “call-of-the-wild” that strikes deep, beneath the reaches of culture (is there such a place?). From what we know, it appears that human beings spent most of their 125,000 year history in motion, as nomadic,  itinerant tribes. Only in the last 10,000 years or so have we put down roots, developing agriculture and the foundations of complex, specialized societies. Is this restlessness a a biological shadow of our long journey as hunter-gathers? A vestigial organ of the civilized psyche? I never used to think so but I wonder.


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.

Call Me Starbuck

Guy Waterman

Guy Waterman

On February 6 2000, Guy Waterman drove his Subaru Impreza to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, hiked up Mt Lafayette, and in the windy -16 degree night, let himself die of exposure.

Waterman was a man of many gifts and torments, a climber, writer, and environmentalist who lived for thirty years with his wife Laura Waterman  off-the-grid in Vermont.

Of these torments, which drove him into deeper and deeper isolation, Waterman said little. Yet he wrote about them through the characters of literature. He was Shakespeare’s Ariel battling the witch-child Caliban. He was Milton’s proud Satan. He was tragic Prometheus. He was Melville’s Ahab.

Prosper and Ariel, William Hamilton, 1797

Prosper and Ariel, William Hamilton, 1797

Ahab.  As I read Laura Waterman’s spare, graceful memoir, Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage , it seemed an appropriate metaphor for Guy Waterman.

Then, this morning, reading Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, Ahab surfaced once again.  Near the summit of Everest in 1996,  David Breashears and Ed Viesturs come across a body near the Hillary Step.

They found [Bruce] Herrod’s body clipped on to fixed ropes with a figure-eight rappel breake. He was hanging upside down, his arms dangling, his mouth open, and his skin black. “Like Captain Ahab,” Breashears later wrote, “lashed to his white whale.” [Coffey, 118]

It made me pause. One hears different many different literary metaphors for explorers and adventurers, but rarely Ahab.


Successful explorers find comparison to Odysseus, the brilliant, cock-sure hero of Homer’s Odyssey. (Confined to the scurvy-ridden cabin of Advance over the long winter of 1854, Arctic explorer Elisha Kane would keep up the spirits of his men by reading them Alfred Tennyson’s Odyssean poem “Ulysses”) Those explorers who perish are commonly portrayed as Icarus, a boy whose joy with altitude overcame good judgment, causing him to fall to earth.

Both of these are figures are imperfect but bright of heart. Ahab is a different creature, a man of darker spirit, a figure turned in upon himself. Ahab’s travels to the ends of the earth bring no discovery or enlightenment; he sees only the white whale. Ultimately his obsession brings tragedy to all, not only Ahab, but to those who follow him.

Is Ahab the true spirit of extreme adventure? You would not think so reading most adventure literature. While these books reveal some of the dirty laundry of expeditionary life, they mostly chronicle struggle and attainment, heroism and transcendence.  Indeed, elite climbers often speak of the transcendent moment as the Holy Grail of high-altitude climbing, that thing which brings them back, time and time again, to the most dangerous mountains in the world.

Yet transcendence, going beyond oneself, is the opposite of obsession, a psychic tunneling-in so extreme that it diminishes or excludes everything around it: Golem’s ring, Ahab’s whale, Herrod’s mountain.

Grim metaphors indeed. Perhaps the legions of 8000-meter peak baggers and Seven-Summiters should read Moby-Dick, digest the moral of Ahab, and then turn their attention to the Ahab’s Quaker First Mate Starbuck:

[H]is far-away domestic memories of his young Cape wife and child, tend[ed] to bend him … from the original ruggedness of his nature, and open him still further to those latent influences which, in some honest-hearted men, restrain the gush of dare-devil daring, so often evinced by others in the more perilous vicissitudes of the fishery. “I will have no man in my boat,” said Starbuck, “who is not afraid of a whale.” By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward. [Melville, Moby-Dick]

If this seems too tame or Quakerish for the modern climber, perhaps they’d learn more from a more modern Starbuck, the character Kara “Starbuck” Thrace of the Sci-Fi channel’s Battlestar Gallactica. Thrace is a woman of many demons, of violent appetites. Her thirst for transcendent experience has no limits.  But ultimately she channels her dare-devilry into objects of common interest, the search for Earth, the return home.

Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) of Battlestar Galactica

Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) of Battlestar Galactica

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’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.

The Gertrude Bell Archive

Gertrude Bell with Sir Percy Cox in Mesopotamia, 1917Gertrude Bell and Sir Percy Cox, Mesopotamia, 1917

My students are usually pretty good at the why questions of history. Why did the French revolt against their King? Answers include “Peasant frustration.” “Anger at the monarchy.” “Expensive bread.” It’s the when questions that cause students trouble. Why did the French revolt in 1789? What particularities of this historical moment led to the great unraveling of the French Monarchy?

La Liberté guidant le peuple, Eugène Delacroix, 1830

La Liberté guidant le peuple, Eugène Delacroix, 1830

This pattern holds true for discussing women in history, or more specifically, the actions of women travelers and explorers. Why did Annie Peck climb the Matterhorn (1895)? Or Fanny Bullock Workman the Himalayas (1899-1912)? Why did Mary Kingsley canoe her way up the Ogawe River in Africa (1895)? Or Nelly Bly circle the globe in 72 days (1889)? Student answers usually come in some variety of “They had to prove something to the world.” Ok, fair enough. But here is the more interesting question: Why did they all feel the need to prove it at the same time?

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, 1797

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, 1797

Mary Wollstonecraft certainly felt she had something to prove. Enlightenment novelist and historian, philosopher and feminist, Wollstonecraft authored A Vindication of the Rights of Woman a full 136 years before Britain fully granted women the right to vote in 1928. But living at the end of the 18th century, Wollstonecraft is something of an outlier in women’s history, a person whose beliefs and actions were at considerable remove from the rest of society. Peck, Workman, and Bly, by contrast, were part of a large social movement that extended across the Atlantic, a movement that gleefully assaulted the idea of a “separate spheres” for men and women.

Fanny Bullock Workman, holding a "Votes for Women" newspaper at 21,000 ft in the Karakoram

Fanny Bullock Workman holding up "Votes for Women" sign at 21,000 ft

In this sense, Gertrude Bell was a women of her time: born in Britain, Oxford educated, Bell was an omnivorous learner and traveler, fluent in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and German. She voyaged around the world twice and took up a passion for mountain climbing in the Alps all before “settling down” in the Middle East as archeologist, author, and British political agent during the First World War. She collaborated with T.E. Lawrence to draw up the modern political map of the Middle East including Jordan and Iraq. Yet Bell remains hard to categorize. Sitting at the center of British political activity in the Middle East, Bell also served as honorary secretary of the British Women’s Anti-Suffrage League.

Bell left 1600 letters, 16 diaries, and 7000 photographs, all of which are in the possession of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Now the University Library has begun a four-year project to put these materials online. Here for example is Bell’s description of her ascent of the Aiguille du Géant in the Alps:

Demarquille was frozen. I gave him my big woollen gloves. My hands were warmed by the rock work, but I continued to shiver, though not unpleasantly, almost until we returned to the foot of the Aiguille. We crossed a bit of snow and turned to the left under the Aiguille where we found a hanging rope – it was just about here that a guide was killed a fortnight ago by lightening, after having accomplished the ascent by a new road up the N face said to be easier than the old. The first hour or so was quite easy. Straight up long slabs of rock with a fixed rope to hold by. Then a flank march which was rather difficult; the rocks from here to the top of the NE summit are extremely steep. At one point my hands and arms were so tired that I lost all grip in them. A steep bit down, a pointed breche and a very steep up rock leads to the highest summit where there is a cairn.

Aiguille du Géant

Aiguille du Géant

The Gertrude Bell Archive is a work in progress. Not all of the materials have been scanned. It does not have keyword or full-text search capabilities. Still it deserves to be filed as a bookmark in your growing list of exploration archives.

For more on women explorers, see posts on

Digital Archive: AfricaBib and Women Explorers

Digital Archive: Conrad Martens

Conrad Martens

Conrad Martens

Before I starting working on the frost-bitten, scurvy-riddled, dog-eating world of Arctic explorers, I researched more inviting places, such as Valparaiso Chile, “the Vale of Paradise.” In the 19th century, Valparaiso was a popular port for European and North American voyagers, a place for crew to load up on provisions, repair hullwork, mend sails, and dive into debauchery before the long sail across the Pacific.


The U.S Exploring Expedition stopped here, as did the U.S. Astronomical Expedition, and even HMS Beagle, disembarcking a sprightly young, recently-graduated Charles Darwin into town for some quick surveys of the Cordilleras before heading out into the Pacific (with a minor port-of-call in the Galapagos on the way). My masters thesis “Describing the Vale of Paradise: Valparaiso Chile in the Years after Humboldt” looked at the way these various scientific expeditions talked about Valparaiso, and more importantly, how they rendered it in images.

Eglise de San Francisco, Valparaiso Chile, Conrad Martens, 1834

Eglise de San Francisco, Valparaiso Chile, Conrad Martens, 1834

Darwin did not leave much in the way of illustrations of the town, but the Beagle’s draughtsman, Conrad Martens did. Martens’ landscapes are quiet, almost languid, places, a world apart from the pulse-pounding wind-swept, volcano-erupting landscapes of his fellow Romantics. As I sat in the stacks of the Wisconsin Historical Society looking at these far away places, they gave me a feeling of Darwin’s world…an imperfect impression to be sure, but a feeling nevertheless. Thanks again to the Beagle Project Blog, great conduit of all things Darwin, I have learned that Martens work is now available for all to see at the Cambridge University Library’s website. They have scanned two of the four extant Martens sketchbooks made from the voyage. They include, be still my heart, lovely Valparaiso.

View of Valparaiso from the Bluffs, Conrad Martens, 1833

View of Valparaiso from the Bluffs, Conrad Martens, 1834

Digital Archive: James Cook

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook

In his book New Lands, New Men, William Goetzmann describes the 18th and 19th centuries as the “Second Age of Discovery.” The First Age of Discovery, kicked off by the Mediterranean powers of the 15th century, developed maritime routes to Africa, Asia and the Americas.  Best known of these early discoverers is Christopher Columbus who sought to extend Spanish dominion, proselytize natives, and bring home piles of loot, objectives followed by his 16th and 17th century successors.

By the 18th century, however, the goals of exploration had changed. Empire and commerce still had their place in voyages of discovery, but they increasingly made room for other, secular objectives such as natural history, ethnography, and natural philosophy, changes that reflected new attitudes about knowledge and learning back home in Europe.

Captain James Cook, who led three expeditions to the Pacific in the 1760s and 1770s, became the poster-child of Enlightenment voyaging. Of modest birth and education, Cook was not himself a philosopher of nature. But his command of three discovery expeditions – to study the transit of Venus, discover the extent of the Antarctic continent, and investigate the possibility of a Northwest Passage – set the benchmark for scientific expeditions to come over the next century. Cook’s chronicles and those of his men of science (Joseph Banks and Johann Forster) provided models for the expeditions of Jean-Francois de la Perouse (France), Alessandro Malaspina (Spain), and Charles Wilkes (United States) among others.

Cook’s serendipitous discovery of the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 (which he named the Sandwich Islands) was also, ultimately, the cause of his demise. After a series of quarrels with Hawaiians of the Big Island, Cook was killed in a skirmish with islanders on the beach of Kealakekua Bay.

The Death of Cook

The Death of Cook

The National Library of Australia and the Center for Cross-Cultural Research have developed an impressive website on Cook’s legacy, South Seas: Voyaging and Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Pacific. Focusing on Cook’s first voyage, South Seas offers accounts from Cook, Joseph Banks, Sydney Parkinson, and John Hawkesworth. A world map of Cook’s route allows the viewer to zoom in features of interest, identifying the dates of Cook’s passage, landfalls, as well as diary entries for dates mentioned. A set of four “Cultural Atlases” offer maps and descriptions of the native peoples which Cook visited in Tierra Del Fuego, the Society Islands, Botany Bay, and Endeavour River. South Seas also offers some indigenous histories and European reactions to Cook’s voyage.

Cook welcomes visitors to Waimea, West Kauai

Cook welcomes visitors to Waimea, West Kauai

There are a few “links to nowhere” on South Seas. Perhaps the project ran out of funding before it was fully completed. But even in its unfinished form, there are gems here for the student of Enlightenment voyaging.

Also on Cook see:

The Mariner Museum’s Age of Exploration

The Historical Record of New South Wales on Google Books

Many of the full text books on South Seas are also available on Google Books for viewing or download