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 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.