a meandering and eccentric history of arctic exploration: part 3

a meandering and eccentric history of arctic exploration: part 3

San Francisco, California
November 30, 2012
196 days until the Arctic Circle journey

According to a widely-held concept the discoverer is considered the first person to have kept a record of his discovery. While moving about in the polar regions I have come to the opposite conclusion: the discoverer is he who does it last.” – Lennart Meri, from the foreword to A History of Arctic Exploration, by Matti Lainema and Juha Nurminen.

Aside from the archaic insistence on the male pronoun in the above quote, I find a great deal of truth in this statement. This is something I was trying to get at in Parts 1 and 2 of our meandering history: that to talk about exploration at all, it’s important to consider the idea of discovery.

To “discover” something carries the connotation that you are the first to observe a thing or process, identify a new substance, point out a new idea, reach a new shore or conclusion, solve an unsolved problem, or draw attention to something which, supposedly, no one else has. The trouble with this idea is that human societies, until recently, were separated by mountains, seas, deserts, and languages. A few individuals may have traveled to these new places and made contact with others, but most of the population stayed home, hearing stories filtered through ear and after ear and mouth after mouth. The accuracy of information is always dependent on the person who reports it. As much as we like to think that fact is fact, there is always the reliability of the person doing the perceiving. There’s a story that illustrates this idea, which I will now mangle for you:

Two blind guys are standing next to an elephant: one is at the head, where he can feel large ears, tusks, and a trunk. The other is standing at the rear, where he feels thick, pillar-like legs and a long tail. They argue on and on, each insisting that the part they are observing is real and valid and factual. Though both are correct, neither can see the whole elephant, so they argue until they die– each insisting their perspective is the truth. (I looked up the myth later- it’s six blind men, but each can only feel one small part of the elephant. So I remembered the “gist” of it… but not the details, illustrating my own point.)

six blind men... and an elephant
six blind men… and an elephant

To say that one individual “discovered” North America, or the Anglerfish, or the rings of Saturn is similarly misleading: this land mass, this benthic creature, these bands of space dust, they already existed long before a human being came along and stepped on, harpooned, photographed, charted, netted, studied, guessed about, measured, pickled, or planted a flag on/in them. Even with things invented, like ligers, religion, and twinkies, there is a certain amount of gray area to keep in mind. We tell ourselves that we “own” or “claim” these things because we “created” them, which is sort of like a bad parent yelling at a child, “I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it!”

Curiosity and innovation are natural drives, not just for people, but for lots of animals… but the important thing to keep in mind is that the map of what we know is always expanding, always changing, yet our lifespans (and therefore our collective short-term memory cache) stays about the same. This means that if you grew up in the 1980’s, your first “discovery” of Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael were as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, not as renaissance painters, and your first exposure to the song I Fought the Law could have been when you bought Give ‘Em Enough Rope by The Clash in 1980, though later you might have “discovered” it again at Poo-Bah Record shop on a 1960 album, In Style with the Crickets, which itself contained a remake of Jerry Lee Lewis’ Great Balls of Fire, originally written in 1957 by Otis Blackwell. If none of these songs rings a bell, children of the 80’s, try Tainted Love, the 1981 angst-anthem by Soft Cell (it was originally recorded by Gloria Jones in 1965). But wait, 90’s kids will know it as a Marilyn Manson song. Millenials, you might prefer the 2006 Pussycat Dolls version. My personal remake favorite? Shock Treatment’s version of Madonna’s Material Girl. Seriously… I love human beings and their constant remixing of DNA and music.

As Lennart Meri pointed out above, the way we learn about history is the reverse of how it happens: first we learn the immediate, then, if we are curious, we may trace it back to it’s origin… though the further back you go, the more fragile, the more thumb-smudged, the more hearsay, the more interpreted and re-interpreted our knowledge becomes. Within a few generations we reach the shimmery wall where history begins to become legend. Add a few more centuries, and you move into the territory of myth.

Paul Revere's midnight ride... legend? Myth?
Paul Revere’s midnight ride… legend? Myth?

All of this is not to say we should not value our collective maps, or the adventurous people who saw an “uncharted” place (at least uncharted to his or her communal memory), and decided to go there. And by “uncharted” territory I mean the physical, the intellectual, the mystical, the scientific- all the realms of discovery. People spend their finite lives figuring out how to make each other happier, more healthy, more comfortable, (a lot more often, I would argue, than they try to make each other miserable) through the act of exploration and discovery. And each new person is a new map and a new adventurer. My best friend’s child, at three or four years old, was scolded at pre-school for coloring a rainbow with red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet… and black. The teacher said, “there is no black in a rainbow.” The child said, “MY rainbow has black.”

a rainbow in a storm has black. so there.
a rainbow in a storm has black. so there.

So now that I’ve gotten all this qualifying out of the way… I promise our next installment will be all about our first arctic “discoverer” Pytheas the Greek, and his magical mystery tour of 325 BC, to a land called “Thule.” (That’s Iceland, for you 21st century video boys and girls). Or maybe he only made it to Norway or Shetland and was off the charts? We’ll see….

England, Scotland... and Thule.
England, Scotland… and Thule.
a meandering and eccentric history of arctic exploration: part 2

a meandering and eccentric history of arctic exploration: part 2

San Francisco, California
November 10, 2012
216 days until the Arctic Circle journey

A person I love very much asked me the other day, “Why do you care so much about ships? About sailing? About a history you have no direct relationship to?” And I answered… “I don’t know. But when I was a kid, my mother used to say she thought I was the reincarnation of JMW Turner, an 18th century Romantic painter known for his depictions of shipwrecks, storms, fog, and light. Reputedly, he went so far as to tie himself to the mast of a ship in order to experience the elements of a storm at sea.”

Of course, this admission, spoken to said loved one while riding public transportation late at night, was met with a facial expression which prompted me to go on to mention, somewhat defensively, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, the work of psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, who spent many years in India meticulously documenting cases of spontaneous recall of former lives by children. The continued facial expression of my loved one prompted me then to admit… “Look… truthfully? The jury’s out. I have a hard time believing anything that I don’t experience directly… but my mind is open.. and I have definitely experienced some thingsthat lead me to believe these things are possible, even make sense. But I’ve learned to keep them to myself unless I want people to stare at me with that same look you are giving me right now.”

Of course, then he leaned over and said, “Sorry… I missed everything you just said. I can’t hear anything because of the people yelling behind me on the bus.”

Which is sort of how things work, right? We are all trying to figure shit out, trying to let each other know what we see, what we feel… lobbing these little gifts of hope at each other, pointing out the window to say, hey, look at that magic thing!! Only to have our best efforts at grasping the meaning of it all be drowned out by drunk people on the bus. And  to be fair, we each take our turn at being the loud drunk.

So why do I feel this incredible affinity toward the sea, toward exploration, and this deep, curious undertow toward navigating the oceans?  The truth is, I don’t know. I just know that when I dream… in my deepest dreams… I dream of ships.

So I was going to continue from where we left off in (Part 1), wherein I started to tack my way toward who it was who first started to explore the arctic, with the various tools of nautical navigation that were developed to allow people to cross the open ocean. I mean, it’s hard enough to hug the coastline and hope that the fog does not come in, or that a wind doesn’t blow you out to sea.  In fact, one year my family rented a boat to go out on Lake Shasta to watch the total eclipse of the moon. Everything was great until… well… there was a total eclipse of the moon! No lights on the shore, no moon to illuminate the shoreline. Total darkness stretched in every direction, except for the stars. That’s the last time anyone laughed at the amateur astronomer among us!

Imagine then, what it took to outfit a seagoing canoe with provisions, and head deliberately toward the open ocean, where the only reference points are the sun and moon and stars, the flight paths of birds, the wind, currents, and clouds? This is exactly what the Polynesians did over nearly six million square miles of the central Pacific Ocean.

I realized as I began to write this second post, that I am taking a lot of knowledge for granted– actually, starting the story in the middle. I’m assuming we all know how to navigate, that we all understand the basics behind how we get from one place to another, how we “find our way.”

But as I put forth in part one, not everyone does navigate the same way. Some go by street names, some orient by cardinal directions, others know landmarks- a diner, a gas station, a firehouse, a silo- the 21st century default navigation tool is a map– but more specifically, a map that depicts roads. Modern maps are not for ships, or people on horseback… they are for cars. Bikes and pedestrians can half-ass their way using a modern map, but anyone who has accidentally started up a freeway ramp on your bike will know that the king of labeled reality nowadays is still the combustion engine.

And labeled reality is the key word here. Before we can follow the wake of those who first explored the arctic, we’ve got to talk about how we label reality. Making maps is probably one of the earliest and most universal forms of communication we have… and we are taught to think of maps as tools that are objective depictions of how to get from here to there, and what you might see along the way, or find once you arrive.  But we do not all see the same way. We have been taught to “read” road maps or globes or atlases, and in that learning, we come to take them as a full depiction of what truly exists, when they are really a specific version of it, influenced by the maker, and what he or she thinks the user wants to know.

Take this map of Paris (circa 2012), hand-drawn by a young New Yorker, for a young New Yorker, and showing, coincidentally, where to find Chinese food:

This map reveals a little bit about where to find Chinese food in Paris, but it reveals a lot more about the world view, aesthetics, desires, and biases of the map creator.

Similarly, take the Hunt-Lenox map from about 1510, one of the oldest known globes, which shows a bunch of islands and galleons the size of New Hampshire floating around where we now understand North America to be… oh, and on the far right, just below the equator: hic sunt dracones, Latin for “here be dragons.”

It’s arguable that the map from 1510 could be considered deeply inaccurate if what you are after is Chinese food… or North America. But it does illustrate a point about the nature of history that I wanted to bring up before I start blundering my way through names and dates about who was first to find Iceland or who planted their ice pick furthest North.

All maps- and history is nothing more than a verbal map- depend upon the biases, knowledge, integrity, intent, and desires of the mapmaker, or the recorder of the history. That said, we can agree on general facts, and even better, we can revel in the breathtakingly different experiences that come out of the pursuit of that understanding.

Also, remember… the new does not replace the old… it just builds a nest amongst the ruins. Take this map of where not to look for Chinese food in Paris:

You should really check out the cartography history of the catacombs. Click this image to explore!
a meandering and eccentric history of arctic exploration: part 1

a meandering and eccentric history of arctic exploration: part 1

San Francisco, California
October 31, 2012
224 days until the Arctic Circle journey

A note before we dive headfirst into this fascinating subject, particularly fascinating because at the moment I type these words, I know as much about arctic exploration as would fit in a bat’s teacup.  I come from a long line of storytellers, all of whom favor the Melvillian style. If you haven’t read Moby Dick, you’ll have no idea what that means, but I bet you have an uncle or an aunt who, when you were a child, told stories in that frustratingly meandering fashion where, just as you thought you might find out what was going to happen to the guy hanging by a nosehair off the 250-story buliding, they were suddenly reminded of a rooster that used to attack them every time they were sent out to collect eggs in the chicken coop, and of course that story led to another, and on and on. I would hazard to suggest that this is, though infinitely frustrating when you are young, the best sort of storytelling, as it connects all experience together, and eventually, like stoned people listening to Pink Floyd, lets us discover that far-flung conversations that seem to lead away and away and away from each other eventually find their orbits, and come back to us to close their loops.

I promise you that this little history I’m about to embark upon will be the same- like the whaling journeys that inspired Melville to write his stories, we will cast about together for clues of our quarry- in this case, not just exploration of the arctic, but exploration in general. How do we do it? What drives us to do it? How do we keep from getting lost, what side-stories and adventures happen along the way, and how do these discoveries relate back to what we already know about ourselves? Storytelling is how we watch ourselves change.

All right, here we go.

I have a very good sense of direction, and navigate both by maps and by landmarks. But I also possess this other sense I would describe as an internal wayfinder: there is some magnetic, peripheral pull inside me that is telling me where I am in relationship to my surroundings at all times.  I have experienced losing this internal mechanism twice: the first time I was ascending from a deep SCUBA dive on a wreck off Catalina Island. I was coming up from about 95-100 feet down, and when I reached about 35 feet, my air bubbles suddenly bent to the left and began to travel sideways. It was one of the most disorienting experiences I’ve ever had, because all of the visual cues- bubbles, light penetrating the surface- appeared to be turned 90 degrees from where they “should” be. I was experiencing vertigo, something I had read about when studying for my diving license, along with nitrogen narcosis and the bends.  The description of vertigo was very little like the actual experience of it. Nothing can prepare you for your sense of up/down/left/right to suddenly change places 90 degrees. I imagine this might be what a flounder feels like when its eyes begin to roll sideways and migrate toward the same side of its body.

All I knew to do was trust the laws of physics, and follow those bubbles to the surface, though I could have sworn I was twisted sideways and swimming horizontally. As I passed through 20 feet and reached my decompression stop, I could actually see the surface, which appeared to me like a vertical wall on my left side. When I started the final ascent, my up/down/left/right lurched, then fell back into place, and I was clearly headed up.

The second instance of losing my internal wayfinding sense happens almost every time I go South of Market Street in San Francisco, where all the roads suddenly shift 45 degrees. Market Street cuts diagonally across all of the streets on its way East toward the bay. The result is that the streets, which in their higher numbers run West-East, begin to swing North at 13th. By the time Market reaches the Embarcadero, the streets are running North-South, paralleling the avenues to the West. Did I lose you? That’s what the city does to me every freaking time I venture into SoMA. Here’s a map, so you can see what I mean. (And just note that 3rd street and Columbus Avenue are a total outliers… they do what they want.)

Anyway, all of this is to say that the internal mechanism that keeps me righted in space can, at times, utterly break down. Then I have to rely on landmarks. I know that a certain street or lane or boulevard ends up in a certain place, so if I walk to a corner and find a cross-street, I can visualize myself on the the map of SF to the left, and know where I am, even if my wayfinder is telling me something different.

I’ve even been able to use this combination of wayfinding and an internal map in a place I once worked that had no visibly named roads, and only one settlement for miles in every direction. That summer I worked as a beefinder (yes, a beefinder) on Santa Cruz Island. I used pig trails to find my way through gullies and narrow canyons. At first, this was terrifying, but it took only a few days for this new style of orienting to settle into place. I had rocks I recognized, certain trees, geologic formations, forks in roads, even sounds: if I could hear water running I knew I had to be near a certain stream. If I could hear waves breaking I not only knew I was near a beach, but depending on whether the waves were crashing against rocks, pebbles, or sand, I knew exactly what beach.

Every couple of weeks, to get on and off Santa Cruz Island, I took a Navy boat that ran from Port Hueneme. It was about a 90 minute ride between the California Coast and Santa Cruz, one of the channel islands. If it was a clear day, I could spot the mainland (or the island, depeding which way I was headed), about halfway into the trip. On a foggy or hazy day? I could see nothing. No directions.  In enough fog, all the light became ambient so there was no way to track it to judge East and West. That Navy boat had a compass, and radar, and sonar, and radio communication, so of course the skipper knew where we were at all times.

But, and now I begin to loop back to my original thread– when exploration of the Arctic began,which goes back at least to the 3rd century BCE, there was no radio, no sonar, and no magnetic compasses. So how in the heck, when you are sailing in open sea in uncharted waters, do you know where you are?

Next time, we go into methods and tools of navigation by sea, some invented 1700 years before Pytheas navigated the amniotic sea.