Monday, April 10, 2017

Space is the Place

It's not that long ago -- well within living memory, as I can attest from my own childhood -- that space truly was seen as "the final frontier," with all the problematic baggage that the word implies. Westerns were sure-fire TV ratings gold; the future of space dramas was a lot less certain. When Gene Roddenberry first pitched Star Trek to the networks, his tagline was that it was basically a "Wagon Train to the Stars." Kids like myself grew up building models of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space capsules, ate Space Food Sticks and washed down our breakfast with Tang; to grow up to be an astronaut was way cooler than being president. On July 20, 1969, I stayed up with my parents, glued to the fuzzy video of Neil Armstrong stepping out onto on the surface of the Moon.

But what would we do in space? Why, if we really did "come in peace," was the whole concept of the "space race" built around besting the Soviets? Would we build space stations? Moon colonies? How about Mars? And, even then, there was a vague awareness that, although our appetite for space exploration was vast, the funding and public support it depended on was far from infinite. It was not entirely a surprise, then, when after the first few Moon landings, public support began to dwindle; the Apollo 13 astronauts famously didn't even merit a live TV feed, at least until their mission turned potentially tragic. The Space Shuttle program, though less ambitious in exploratory scope, continued to capture the American imagination, despite (or perhaps in part because of) the loss of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Yet with costs rising and mission goals elusive, its days were numbered, and the last shuttle, Atlantis, landed at the Kennedy Space Center in 2011.

NASA has certainly achieved some remarkable benchmarks since then -- their New Horizons probe made it all the way to Pluto, and took dramatic images of that no-longer-quite-a-planet and its moon (one might even say it wasn't entirely an unmanned probe, as it contained 30 grams of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930). But with budgets in question, the future of human space travel -- one might not deem it properly "exploration" -- is now largely in the hands of private concerns such as SpaceX.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Into the Wild

It's become a new site of pilgrimage over the years since Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild first told the story of Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp -- the abandoned Fairbanks City bus, #142, that stands a in a clearing a couple hundred feet off the legendary Stampede Trail, a track first blazed by a miner to his claim back in the 1930s. If airfare to Fairbanks and a ride to the trailhead aren't on your calendar, or in your budget, you can even see it on Google Earth, where it's marked "Stampede Trail Magic Bus," a name which invokes another, mobile bus, a.k.a. "Furthur," aboard which Ken Kesey, Wavy Gravy, and others of the Merry Pranksters embarked upon trips of another kind in the 1960's. This bus had been towed (along with another now gone) to the site as temporary shelter for workers years before, and had been fitted with box-spring beds and a stove; when the work was done, the bus was abandoned.

It now has a granite plaque, placed by his family, marking the bus as the end of the trail for McCandless. When his body was found there by moose hunters in September of 1992, his family had not known his whereabouts or even heard from him, for more than two years. A young man full of promise, an A-student with a degree from a top college, no student loans, and a $25,000 start up savings from his parents, he seemed like a young man who had it made. And yet, before he departed on his curious quest, he'd given all that money to charity, burned the cash in his wallet and (soon after) abandoned his car. Changing his name to Alexander Supertramp, he traveled by hitch-hiking, crashing on couches, and working -- apparently hard and well -- at a series of farm jobs. He made friends everywhere he went, and yet at the end, he didn't want anyone to go with him. Krakauer, a journalist for Outside Magazine, was hired to do a story, which he did (it appeared in 1993), but he was still unsatisfied. Tracking down more of McCandless's friends -- some of whom contacted him after seeing the article in the magazine, helped fill out the picture, while Alex's few leavings -- postcards to friends, notes scribbled in the margins of books, and such -- offered the bare outlines of a journey.

Into the Wild, the resulting book, became a huge bestseller, and in 2007 was adapted as a film by Sean Penn. And yet, despite the book's immense popularity, readers have remained divided: for some, McCandless is a true hero, a voyager of the spirit whose restless trek symbolizes everything great about the human desire to explore the world -- while for others, including quite a few Alaskans, he's just one of the apparently endless stream of inexperienced, foolish, and just plain stupid people who head out into the wilderness without the knowledge, skills, or materials essential to surviving. The debate is not an entirely new one; as Krakauer observes, a similar argument has long raged over Arctic expeditions such as that of Sir John Franklin, which -- though sanctioned by the British Empire and provided with what was though the best equipment -- canned food, two enormous ships, flour, buscuit, and rum -- proved unable to survive in the harsh Arctic climate, even though, a few miles from the stranded ice-bound vessels, Inuit families were enjoying a rich meal of seal meat and muktuk, and bouncing healthy babies on their knees in their snug igloos.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Exploration as Sacrifice

Rudy Wiebe has Sir John Richardson put it succinctly: "They must want more than they have. That is civilization." For centuries now, western societies have been dominated by the economic system and philosophy of capitalism. Capitalism holds it as an article of faith that everything can and must grow; as a result, the majority of all profits must be plowed into expansion, to make more things, and thus more profits. Such a system depends, of course, on things such as cheap labor, and at some point -- later if not sooner -- will run aground should it ever produce a prosperous global community with no one left to exploit. But of course, by then, everything will be done by robots -- right?

But there has been another way of dealing with profit, that is whatever is excess, "more than one needs," and that is to destroy it. The French social theorist Georges Bataille, in his masterful but little-known magnum opus, La Parte Maudite (The Accursed Share), looked at several human societies in which the value of labor and/or goods was deliberately, sometimes spectacularly, sacrificed. The Mayan civilization that raised pyramids to the sun also raised human hearts, freshly ripped out of human chests, to that same deity. They also took many of their most precious jewelry and ornaments and threw it into pits, from which modern archaeologists have reaped a treasure. Bataille's second example are the Northwest Coast indigenous peoples, such as the Kwakiutl, with their tradition of potlach or "give away." Wealth, for these people, consisted of how much one was willing to give away; to give away everything and impoverish the self was the ultimate measure. Thankfully, those who were thus self-made destitutes had only to attend another potlach to recover at least some of their former belongings. His third example is the culture of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism (prior to the Chinese takeover). In Tibet, nearly 25% of the population were monks and nuns, and another goodly share of the populace were involved in directly or indirectly supporting them. With such a significant population producing no food, durable goods, or other services, what was sacrificed in Tibet was, essentially, labor itself.

Bataille associated sacrificial cultures with an ancient awareness of the superabundance of the sun, but also observed that western civilization, prior to and up through the industrial revolution, also valued sacrifice in various ways. War, for one, could be regarded as a form of sacred sacrifice, one raised to a horrific level of perfection in the trenches of World War I. Even the domestic "war effort," in WWII, loudly proclaimed the virtues of sacrifice -- both by direct measures (ration stamps and restrictions on raw materials) and ideological ones (the planting of Victory Gardens, scrap metal drives, and (in Australia) a campaign against too much spending, led by the swastika-branded "Squander Bug.")

It's fascinating to see exploration in a similar light. True, in the colonialist tradition, early modern exploration was followed by -- if not directly constituting -- the exploitation of the people and resources of the newly "discovered" territories. And yet, as the various empires of the world covered its surface with their flags and maps, there remained a few places where -- precisely because it did not appear that there was anything of value -- exploration could resume its proper beneficent scientific place. The millions of pounds that the British government spent on Arctic expeditions fits this bill, as does similar expenditure (some of it indirect) on the quest for the pole. But perhaps best of all, the exploration of space -- which involves vast sums, and very little prospect of remuneration -- constitutes a sacrifice of this kind.

And exploration has one other feature that resonates with the need for sacrifice: loss of life. Franklin's expedition is the most potent example, but it was a rare Arctic voyage that did not lose at least a few good men; the U.S.-led Greely expedition (1881-1884) lost all but six of its 21 men, with widespread allegations of cannibalism.  The US and Soviet space programs suffered a number of casualties, beginning with the Apollo 1 command module fire fifty years ago (3 dead), followed by the 1986 Challenger disaster and the 2003 disintegration of the shuttle Columbia on re-entry. The speech -- written by Peggy Noonan and delivered by President Ronald Reagan -- memorializing the Challenger astronauts is widely regarded as one of the finest speeches of its kind; Noonan's choice to evoke the earlier voyager Francis Drake firmly cemented it within both the tradition of "knights-errant" of the sea, and that of sacrifice:
I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.
There's a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, "He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it." Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake's, complete.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Woman in the Polar Night

In his introduction to A Woman in the Polar Night, Lawrence Millman notes that is author, Christiane Ritter, had no interest in any of the "Arctic Grails" that drove most northern explorers -- the northwest passage, the pole, or the discovery and naming of some unknown spot. And yet, he notes, she could appreciate the Arctic in ways that those "great explorers," with their "Grail-oriented blinders," could not. Hers was an exploration, not of lands to be named or passages to be navigated, but of the inner nature of life and consciousness in a world in which everything that she -- along with most people of her class and background -- took for granted as much as the air they breathed. It's an exercise in long subtraction: the subtraction, at first, of creature-comforts and little things, then of greater ones, such as predictable food, predictable weather, or the ability to just go get another something when something important breaks or is lost, and at last the subtraction of human company itself.

It's notable that her journey begins in relative luxury, aboard a German cruise-ship with its deck-chairs, its "illuminated coffee lounge," and snug, comfortable beds -- just the sort of cruise ship that presently navigates these regions, though now they are even larger and more luxurious. It's a perfect contrast to the life that awaits her in the little hut with its felt roof, ancient broken stove, and puttied-shut windows. Her sojourn begins in endless day, continues through seemingly endless night, and becomes for her an almost cosmic sort of rebirth, a witnessing of life's great circuit that forever changes her perspective on civilization. Indeed, as Millman notes, not long after her return home, after her family estate catches fire and burns to the ground, Christiane is not perturbed or mournful, but secretly grateful. For the fire had done what ice did: reduced her life to its essentials. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Lost City of Z

Lost cities used to be the stock in trade of fanciful maps of parts of the world that had never been explored. From the "Seven Cities of Gold" that lured the Conquisatdors, to "Agartha," a city at the center of the earth (reached in some versions via Symmes's Hole), to Seron, a city supposed to have been founded by Noah the moment he stepped out of the Ark, these imaginary metropoli dotted the maps of the ancient and early modern world. As the modern era of exploration dawned, and previously unknown cities were discovered amidst the jungles of Cambodia (Angkor Wat, 1860) and Belize (Xunantunich, 1895), the thought that perhaps some of the cities of legend and rumor actually did exist became a compelling one. And perhaps no one was more drawn to them than Percy Fawcett, a British geographer-adventurer whos idée fixe was to discover the city he named "Z," which he believed might be the famed "El Dorado," a lure for explorers since the time of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Which brings us to the present volume. David Grann is -- as he points out himself -- no explorer. Unlike Fawcett, whom he describes as ribbed with rippling muscles, he's more the "98-pound-weakling" type, a balding homebody whose initial interest is just a professional one as a journalist. But, as with the Franklin story, the Fawcett mystery has a viral way of infecting its hosts, producing a state of mind which can only be treated (though perhaps never cured) by going to the very places where Fawcett was last seen.

A fair amount of the early chapters, alas, are mere fluff. As exciting as it is to do research in primary-source archives, sitting at a desk with papers for hours doesn't necessarily make for page-turning reading. Grann also takes the approach -- a mistaken one, I feel -- of giving us Fawcett's entire career in semi-fictional flashbacks in which what's missing in the historical record is imagined and reconstructed. None of it amounts to much until we draw near to Fawcett's final, fatal expedition; this is where the real drama begins. That Fawcett would take his eldest son, as well as that son's closest friend, speaks to a rather unusual set of criteria -- the theory that strong emotional bonds would support and magnify the relatively limited experience of the expedition's younger members.

Enough is known to say that the bond between Fawcett's son Jack and his best friend Raleigh Rimmell, was the first to fray. Young Raleigh was swept up in the hullabaloo and hype that smoothed the months leading up to the expedition -- but once actually embarked upon it, he soon became sullen and overcome by lassitude. From earlier chapters, we've already learned that Percy Fawcett would press his men to carry on to the point of illness and death; would have done the same with his own son, or his son's friend?

On the fate of the expedition after it passed from contact with the western world we learn little -- Grann tells tales of multiple searchers and theories as to what happened, which in the end become a bit of a jumble. What's arguably the most fascinating claim of them all -- one based on a skull recovered and thought to be Fawcett's, until its identity was disproven using the explorer's spare set of dentures -- merits scarcely a page. And in the end, Grann offers up a seeming-resolution that ends up feeling anticlimactic, however interesting its archaeological evidence.

But you must be the judge: how does this tale differ, in its substance and its telling, from the Franklin stories, or the fabulous tales of Poe? Is it worse to lose fingers and toes to frostbite or to have various worms and parasites burrow and make one's flesh fetid? Or are both tales not much more than a sort of vain machismo against an unrelenting, and ultimately indifferent, natural world?

Your thoughts below.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Arthur Gordon Pym

We all know Edgar Allen Poe for his brilliant, terrifying, and macabre tales, but his one novel-length work, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, is far less familiar. And yet, I would claim it as quite possibly his finest work, a tale whose conceit -- that Poe is merely shaping and refining a narrative given to him by Mr. Pym -- and whose deft evocation of the genre of travel and exploration narratives, were so effective that the London office of Wiley and Putnam was prepared to publish it as "an American contribution to geographical science" -- until they learned that Pym was, in fact, a fiction.

The effect was very carefully obtained. Poe had devoured any number of nautical narratives, and always had some navigational manuals, along with the Encyclopedia Brittanica, close at hand. The giving of facetious specifics, such as the name of the ship "Grampus," and the illustrated plates of the strange hieroglyphics, all added to the sense of realism. Most significantly, Poe drew from the hollow-earth theory of John Cleves Symmes, along with the exhortations of Jeremiah Reynolds, both of whom argued that an expedition should be dispatched to investigate the "hole" in the earth at its Southern pole. Remarkably, the U.S. Congress voted to fund exactly such an expedition, but by the time of its launch less fanciful heads had prevailed, and the United States Exploring Expedition -- the first launched by its young nation -- made remarkable progress in the "South Seas."

In Britain, the seeming marks of authenticity caused some to mistake it for an actual travel narrative; among those duped was the publisher George P. Putnam, who planned a join publication with his friend David Appleton, declaring that "this man has reached a higher latitude than any European navigator. Let us reprint this for the benefit of Mr. Bull." Putnam later ruefully noted that "the grave particularity of the title and of the narrative misled many of the critics as well as ourselves, and whole columns of these new ‘discoveries,’ including the hieroglyphics found on the rocks, were copied by many of the English country papers as sober historical truth”

Nor everyone, of course, was taken in by the initial ruse; the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine castigated the book, declaring that:
A more impudent attempt at humbugging the public has never been exercised; the voyages of Gulliver were politically satirical, and the adventures of Munchausen, the acknowledged caricature of a celebrated traveller. Sinbad the Sailor, Peter Wilkins, and More's Utopia, are confessedly works of the imagination; but Arthur Gordon Pym puts forth a series of travels outraging possibility, coolly requires his insulted readers to believe his ipse dixit.
Together with this novel, we'll be seeing Peter Delpeut's film Forbidden Quest, which assembles an enormous amount of "found footage" of polar expeditions to lend reality to an equally facetious tale, this time lent an "air" of reality by an elderly Irish ship's carpenter. Like Poe, Delpeut draws from the "hollow earth" theory, using it to explain the presence of Eskimos at the South Pole, as well as his narrator's otherwise miraculous return to civilization.

In the end, both narratives are best enjoyed when the ruse is realized -- for it's only then that we can, unlike other creatures, take pleasure from traveling along the edge of our own deception. But what did you think? Did this seem to you a real narrative? Or at some point, was the spell, perhaps abruptly, broken? And what did you think of it then?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Weird and Tragic Shores

Charles Francis Hall may well be the most singular explorer in the entire history of the western fascination with the Arctic regions. Unlike the vast majority of such men, he never served in the Navy or merchant marine of any nation, nor did he have any family or local connections with whaling, fishing, sail-making or any other nautical trade. Although he published a sort of newspaper in Cincinnati, it would be a bit of a stretch to call him a “journalist,” and while for a time he had a business making engraved seals for business use, he himself was not a particularly accomplished engraver. Never apparently much of a family man, he more or less abandoned his wife and children when he first set off for the Arctic, and they were almost never the subject of his letters and journals. Indeed, if it were not for the singular leap he made out of the ordinary life of commerce and middle-class life, he might very well have never made much of a mark in any of his endeavors. Hall’s destiny was to do one thing, to do it with faith and fury and a determination which bordered on the monomaniacal – and yet, in so doing, he revealed a deeply humane and conflicted character, at once absolutely unique and yet absolutely a man of his time.

One of the most notable aspects of Hall's career was his close reliance on his Inuit guides, "Joe" Ebierbing and "Hannah" Tookoolito. Throughout his career, they were Hall’s most faithful and trusted companions, accompanying him on numerous sledging expeditions, providing food and shelter, and translating and interpreting at hundreds of interviews with Inuit who had stories to tell about the Franklin expedition. No only were they tireless and constant in their support for Hall’s often very demanding Arctic plans, but, between expeditions, they accompanied him throughout the United States, as well as permitting Hall to arrange for their exhibition in New York and Boston to raise funds for further missions, as well as appearing alongside him on his east coast lecture tour (see here for details of his Providence engagement).

And yet, astonishingly, they remained constant despite the death of two of their children while working for Hall, even though in each case the deaths were at least partly due to Hall’s demands – in the first case, for exhibitions and lectures, and in the second, for a difficult sledge-journey to King William Island (their second child, indeed, was named “King William” by Hall). Hall could be an imperious master, especially when his ‘sacred cause’ of finding Franklin’s men was at stake; Ebierbing, in his only surviving letter, recalled that during the attempt to reach King William, “Mr. Hall tease me all time. Make me go their [sic].” Yet not once, during the entire time of their association, did “Hannah” or “Joe” waver in their service to this man who, without their assistance, would likely have never earned the sobriquet he so dearly coveted – “Charles Hall, Arctic Explorer.”

When Chauncey Loomis arrived at "Thank God Harbor" to exhume Hall and conduct tests for arsenic, he -- like Owen Beattie -- felt that establishing the cause of death would be sufficient service to science and history to justify disturbing his bones. As this photo shows, the body was in considerably poorer shape than those uncovered at Beechey Island, although traces of his beard can be seen. Loomis felt the evidence was less than conclusive, but for my part I am personally convinced that Hall was poisoned with arsenic, most likely by Bessels. The "smoking gun" may well be a series of letters I came upon just a year ago, in which both Bessels and Hall corresponded with the young sculptress Vinnie Ream, letters in which Bessels seemed quite smitten.

Hall's death had many reverberations. One of the documents I found among the Hall papers at the Smithsonian was a printed copy of a petition circulated in Congress by Hall's widow, Mercy Ann Hall. In tones that evoke those of Lady Franklin, Mrs. Hall allowed that her late husband, "in his devotion to duty, was unsparing of his family and himself," asked only for "tender consideration" and some small "pecuniary assistance" (i.e, money) -- the amount was not specified. She was eventually granted a pension of $40 a month (about $750 in today's currency).

"Joe" and "Hannah" returned to Groton where, as Joe wrote with some pride, their daughter Panik "go to school every day." Alas, there were not many more days remaining; her health had never been good, and she died at the age of nine. Hannah herself followed her adopted daughter to the grave on New Year's eve of 1876; Joe returned to the Arctic, and died some years later under uncertain circumstances. You can visit the graves of Hannah, little "Butterfly," and Panik at the Star Cemetery in Groton CT -- this article has a photo I took of the gravestone.

We'll have many judgments to make about Hall, but love him or hate him, it's hard not to admire his persistence. And, in a field of endeavor crowded with fateful, haunting endings, his may well have been strangest of all. Weird and Tragic shores, indeed.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Discovery of Strangers

Explorers have been depicted in popular fiction almost since the dawn of exploration itself, and in nearly all of these tales, the explorer was the hero, boldly sailing forth into uncharted waters, or striding forth into unmapped lands. Anyone who grew up in this age of heroic literature would have known Phineas Fogg, Professor Challenger, and Fraser of Africa as well as they knew their real-life counterparts like Henry Morton Stanley,  Sir Richard Francis Burton, or Fridtjof Nansen.

But there has always been a sense that, particularly from the view of the people who were already living in places that European explorers sought to penetrate, that some of these men were less than heroic, or that -- even if their intentions were benign and scientific -- that they brought with them presuppositions about the inferiority of the peoples and cultures they encountered. And then, of course, there were those who came after: the whalers, loggers, and (before too long) missionaries, seeking to impose their religion. Their self-presumed superiority often led to misunderstandings, mistrust, and abuse, all of which tended to increase as the cultural balance shifted and more and more strangers arrived.

John Franklin's second Arctic expedition -- his first made mainly by land -- was in some ways a paradigm for all these problems. He had been charged by the Royal Navy with locating and mapping the shores of the "Polar Sea," a presumed body of water which, as of that time, very little was known. He was accompanied by only four naval personnel: Dr. John Richardson, who was to be the expedition's surgeon-naturalist; George Back, a junior officer known for his endurance and resourcefulness, Robert Hood, a midshipman (a sort of cadet in the Royal Navy system), and John Hepburn, the sole ordinary sailor of an officer-rich party. To actually transport them and their supplies, a group of hired voyageurs -- French-speaking trappers who knew their way around a canoe -- were employed, but were regarded as no better than servants. It was, even before the expedition
Charlie eats his boot (The Gold Rush, 1925)
reached its destination, a recipe for disaster. Several other factors contributed: an ongoing rivalry between fur trading companies meant that supplies that had been expected were late or missing; the party was delayed in reaching its initial camp ("Fort Enterprise"), and Franklin ends up making extraordinary demands for meat and furs from the region's indigenous the Tetsot'ine (called by outsiders the Yellowknife). Delays of various kind ensue, leading Franklin to depart too late, a decision which later leads to his trying a seeming "shortcut" over the barren lands, one which will cost the lives of eleven men. Those who survived had to live on lichens and burnt deerskins, having already boiled and consumed all the scraps of leather they could find. And yet, incomprehensibly to many today, Franklin was hailed as a hero, the "man who ate his boots"; he was promoted to Captain, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and wrote a best-selling book about his journey.

Wiebe recounts the story via multiple narrators, each with his or her own distinct voice and presence. A student of indigenous history, he fictively re-creates the native perspective on the arrival of these demanding strangers, but he also gives the explorers -- prejudices and all -- license to tell their tales as they see fit. Even hapless Hepburn, who emerges as a man of strong personal character despite his humble upbringing and the low expectations of some around him, gets to add his testimony. The result is a multi-faceted narrative -- shifting, recounting, re-telling -- that resists being boiled down to a single story. At the same time, though, it leaves little doubt that the hubris and sense of cultural superiority of the English were, deep down, the main cause of the catastrophe.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Last Imaginary Place

The Arctic remains one of the few places on earth that simply to visit is viewed as a rare accomplishment. Not many of us have business that takes us north of the Arctic Circle, and it's not most peoples' idea of a summer vacation (although this past year, the Crystal Serenity luxury liner transited the Northwest Passage, the first ship of its kind to do so; the least-expensive tickets ran to $21,850 (not to mention an additional $50,000 insurance policy in case of "emergency evacuation"). More modest tours have been taking place for years (in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I'll be working as a shipboard lecturer on one of these in August of 2017). This route, which was long so deadly and daunting that there was doubt it would ever be sailed, is fast becoming an open waterway, and -- as a result -- the source of controversies over sovereignty. Canada regards the passage as internal Canadian waters, while the International Law of the Sea classifies it -- so long as readily navigable -- as an international strait. Meanwhile, on the Russian shores of the Arctic ocean, dozens of oil and natural gas leases are being sold, and the Russian government has filed a claim for continental-shelf rights to such leases which extends from Siberia to the pole itself. The record-low sea-ice formation in the winter of 2016-2017 may bring open water to a far wide region than ever before seen -- indeed, it may lead to the appearance of an actual Open Polar Sea, a hitherto-chimerical historical myth.

Robert McGhee wants to alert us to these issues, but more than that: his key point is that this seemingly still-blank point on our mental maps has, in fact, a history of its own. Significant parts of that history were shaped by encounters -- not often friendly ones -- between Europeans (starting with the Vikings), Americans, and indigenous peoples such as the Inuit (pronounced ee-noo-eet). On the indigenous side, people were puzzled by the arrival of these strangers, who had great wealth in wood and metal but did not seem to know how to live on the land; on the European side, the encounters were marred by greed (see Martin Frobisher's quest for gold) and cultural prejudice. It was not until the nineteenth century that an ostensibly more "enlightened" exploration of the Arctic commenced; this is the era of Sir John Franklin's expedition of 1819-1822, which is fictionalized in Rudy Wiebe's A Discovery of Strangers, as well as of his final, ill-fated expedition of 1845, on which he and all 128 of his men perished. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017


In this senior seminar we’ll explore the literature of exploration itself, from the early modern era to the present. What has driven human beings to explore? What’s the relationship between exploration and risk? Where do we draw the line between exploration and exploitation? These and other questions will guide us through our readings – historical, poetical, historical-poetical, tragical-historical, poetical-comical, and many other literary avatars of the urge to look around our corners, to be “the first that ever burst / into that silent sea.” Students will each choose a specific moment or mode of exploration, follow and represent it throughout our discussions, and weave it in to a final seminar paper. Our books will include McGhee, The Last Imaginary Place; Krakauer, Into the Wild; Loomis, Weird and Tragic Shores; Grann, The Lost City of Z;  Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym; Ritter, A Woman in the Polar Night ; Wiebe, A Discovery of Strangers; and DeGrasse Tyson, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.