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!