My son Will Setrakian presented a plan: On Friday Oct. 3, his high school would host the first night game in its history. Unfortunately, this game coincided with my book launch at the California College of the Arts. What to do?
For me the answer was obvious: This was a child who has seen his life uprooted to follow his mother's work and research: Iowa then on to New Zealand as a Fulbright Fellow. Will has changed schools, countries, learned to follow rugby and love meat pies. He and his sister are my most loyal and enthusiastic supporters. Now is the time for football, not book launch parties.
So, Will, here is a rough sketch of what I will say tonight. And of course, I will begin as I always do with a small dedication to you and your sister, to our years as a trio marked by good cheer and the courage to try new things.
The Entire Earth and Sky is a kaleidoscope of legends, stories, field notes, images, reports, history, letters, and research, wherein I attempted to render an impression, at once vast and microscopic, of the effect of human beings on the land and ice we call Antarctica, and its effect on us.
Antarcticans – explorers, scientists, artists – are odd people. We love quirky facts about our place, our people. We collect things related to Antarctica, ash trays, stuffed penguins, underpants, wine bottles, jewelry made out of seal teeth.
Explorers of yore were like this, too, as far as I can tell from reading their diaries and letters. I spent four months in Antarctica over three trips and more than two years in New Zealand doing archival and field research for this book – which means sitting with retired people researching their family lineage in well-lit rooms, going through boxes of dead people’s stuff. Sexy. I had a Fulbright Fellowship when I did this, so people wanted to help me. But many people told me they found my quest odd: Why Antarctica? Why go there? Why go there three times? Why read about sailors who no one had ever heard of?
I never found the right answers to these questions: I mean, I could tell them I went South twice as a reporter with Greenpeace and then once on my own. I could say, what I found was solace in the fact of those explorers’ lives: They set out for the literal unknown, and those of us so inclined, the writers, artists, and dreamers, the geographical explorers in our midst, well, we all share some piece of that instinct of yore. Nomads. Curious about what is over the horizon. There is not a shopkeeper among us. And we have an irritatingly huge capacity for hope. We cannot, will not, give up.
And now it is time to travel to Antarctica.
I want you to leave tonight feeling you are provisional experts in Antarctic histories – it’s an easy continental history to master, the human history really doesn’t begin in earnest until 1895 and then for about 40 years, so few people travelled there, you could count the number of ships that went down there to explore on your two hands.
First you have to know the British All-Star Team of failed Polar explorers. Each came up with new ways of not succeeding. Yet they became brilliant heroes.
(As an aside: I’m not “bipolar” so I can’t answer questions about the Arctic explorations of Franklin nor of his group’s cannabalism None of that goes on in the Antarctic, by the way.)
So. There was Franklin in the North, and Scott and Shackleton in the South. Franklin and Scott paid with their lives, Shackleton’s fame is predicated on the fact he managed to stay alive. Forget important explorations. None of his guys died and that is his main to claim to fame: He never lost a single man to the ice.
The most successful explorer of all time was a Norwegian named Amundsen. So we’ll leave for Antarctica on a quote from this great adventurer – first through the
Northwest passage, and first to the South Pole on December 11, 1914. (Scott arrived on Jan17, 1912, and wrote in his diary, Great God this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.”) He also found a letter there from Amundsen, asking him to deliver it to King Olaf on his behalf.
“Victory awaits those who have everything in order. People call this luck. Defeat awaits those who fail to take the necessary precautions. This is known as bad luck.”
FRANK ARTHUR WORSLEY
“It was late in April; the southern winter was upon us. Daily, while watching for the sun, I went up the 150-foot rock to the north of the camp to watch the extent and movement of the ice starting to drift past the island on the northeast current. Broken-up floes and streams of ice – scouts and skirmishes of the vanguard of the Great White Fleet – had already appeared. Borne each year from their icy fastnesses in the Antarctic by the broad stream that pours up through Bransfield Strait, they spread out in the winter through spillways of the South Shetlands, enveloping Clarence and Elephant Islands for weeks at a time.” – Frank Worsley, “Shackleton’s Boat Journey.”
When Frank Worsley picked up a chronometer on Easter Monday, 1916, the fate of 28 men lay in his skill as a navigator. Luckily for the men of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, Worsley was a brilliant navigator. And he was about to steer a course that would become the greatest feat of small boat navigation known to man.
Shortly after breakfast on that cold Antarctic morning, the sun obliged Worsley and he was offered a clear enough horizon to get a sight for rating his chronometer. This device, the last in working order of the 24 with which the Endurance had set out on Dec. 5, 1914, allowed him to begin calculating the longitudinal path ahead.
Worsley and four others, including the famed explorer Shackleton, then set out in search of land and help for the crew. They had an inauspicious beginning, overballasting their cramped, converted life boat, called James Caird after a generous expedition donor, which caused “slowness, stiffness, and jerky motion,” according to Worsley. Worsley had argued with Shackleton that a heavy boat would be a wet boat, but Shackleton, worried about underballasting, took other counsel. Worsley, of course, was right. Close to 30 years as a Pacific sailor and ship’s master had built an understanding and instinct about the sea that surpassed any other of the Endurance’s crew. The boat was pounded by seas, and the men and all their gear were soaked relentlessly by frigid sea water. The other two lifeboats were used to ferry their supplies, including Worsley’s sextant and navigation books. Then it was time to leave Elephant Island, a place the men had taken to pronouncing, Helephan, Worsley writes, to describe the Hades-like existence to which they had been reduced. Their fate had always been linked inextricably to Worsley’s skill as a navigator; now, however, this was brought into sharp focus. His task was to move the Caird through close to 800 miles of howling, early winter, polar seas to the whaling station at South Georgia. How does one put into words the meaning of this boat launch? It was, so emphatically, their last hope. Frank Worsley was 43 years old. The New Zealander had been at sea since the age of 15. He has been described as an exceptionally tough and able seaman, with an equal measure of courage, strength, and spirit of adventure. He would soon prove to them that he was, to use a modern cliché, the man.
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