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.

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