Thursday, August 20, 2015

Greenland and the End of Exploration

The roving celestial beasts of Lascaux’s Paleolithic hunting scenes and the scurvy-ridden, snow-blinding odyssey of Shackleton’s Antarctic survival may be distant in time and space, but the events and their retelling share a coeval impulse. Remote exploration and extreme risk are palpable vestiges of our intrepid and predatory ways, but that these acts inform our oldest tales about our place in the world seems almost unrecognized today. 

Among the "uses of adventure" in traditional societies--from Greek mythology, the Upanishads and ecstatic shamanism in Siberia to creation myths across the Americas--individual heroism and group survival often recur, followed by revelations of nature's secrets, the cosmos, and our own origins. Adventure is possibly the oldest, most persistent subject matter we share through our stories. This historical pairing of legendary feats and their retelling appears so intrinsic to our being that we're numb to its remarkable peculiarity.

In today's literary marketplace, daunting feats in wild nature hold little appeal. How did this reversal come about? We remain fascinated by secrets, yet contemporary writing (fact and fiction) revels in individual experience, where the inner lives of characters are explored as exotic landscapes, conjured or real. Besides this turn toward inner landscapes, narrative style is emphasized equally if not more than the tale recounted--Salinger, Hemingway, DF Wallace are pioneers of this mannered approach. 

A surfeit of grandiose Everest accounts surely helped dig this grave, but the bulk of adventure writing today is low-brow, unartful or vain, approaching kitsch. Few adventure writers escape the scorn of the high-brow critic--Thesiger, Mathiessen and Gretel Ehrlich are prominent exceptions. A random pick from my Africa shelves reveals Facing the Congo: A Modern-Day Journey into the Heart of Darkness by acclaimed travel writer Jeffrey Tayler. A literary expatriate attempts Conrad's famous voyage, this time in a dugout canoe. Instead he collides with Congo's surreal poverty and extreme destitution, recoils, then finds himself grander for the experience. Self-glorification and the voyeurism of disaster tourism disguised as adventure lit? Little surprise then that the genre feels spent of originality and nuance, resorting instead to spectacle, gimmick or humor. 

I've started a short survey of expedition writing in Greenland, beginning with Knud Rasmussen's canonical Across Arctic America (1924) through to Gretel Ehrlich's lyrical This Cold Heaven (2001). The series comprises an array of accounts that track the genre's high points in the post-Heroic Age of exploration. Epic exploration effectively died in Greenland, which had long served as a staging ground for attempts on the North Pole and elusive Northwest Passage. Once these prizes were claimed, their sponsors and celebrity explorers feted, exploration's Heroic Age ended with Peary's 1909 contested claim to the pole.

Undervalued and invisible to the prize seekers of the former era, in Greenland arose a new vision of exploration and the writing it produced. The new crop of adventurers was void of fame seekers, wealthy patrons seeking new lands in their name, nations stalking glory by funding high-risk/high-return expeditions.

Rasmussen was the first figure to break the lull of this hiatus, famously testing his hypothesis of the continuity of Inuit peoples from Greenland to Siberia over five years of dogsledding, inaugurating a new mode of inquiry and exploration into human origins. Thor Heyerdahl would try a similar approach in the South Pacific (Kon Tiki, 1947), sailing a balsa raft from Peru to Easter Island and demonstrating, he believed, that the culture behind the island's famous monoliths originated not in Polynesia but with Amerindians of South America.

Subsequent Greenland explorers like Jean Malaurie deepened this appreciation of indigenous peoples as terra nova, inspiring similar approaches in the Amazon (Levi-Strauss) and Congo (Colin Turnbull). Other notable Greenland travelers arrived by accident; their nearly fatal encounters with the island rewrote their artistic careers and legacy entirely (Rockwell Kent). More recent adventurers such as TM Kpomassie (An African in Greenland, 1977and Gretel Ehrlich are more lyrical and romantic than outright expeditionary, but chronicle the deep power of remote and hostile locales to ignite our imagination by testing our physical and psychological limits. In Greenland, art and the trials of endurance have a long synergy. The literature around these efforts avoids the clunky kitsch seen elsewhere, Congo and Everest being the two most obvious examples. 

I'll be shopping this one around, so stay tuned for the full article. 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Inside Ebola

(c) P Casaer
Last year's media coverage of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa riveted me on two fronts: seeing how western society reacted to the threat of a highly mobile, lethal virus and how the affected nations themselves (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) managed the trauma, on the heels of decades of conflict and instability.

If you work in this business, you have friends who worked there inside one relief effort or another. Their stories are illuminating, for no man-made conflict presents so starkly the moral dilemma of Ebola: the patient you are treating is a vector of lethal contagion. In war, by contrast, we work primarily with victims of conflict, less the combattants themselves. Lethality is once removed. Ebola means handling live hand grenades, their safety pin already pulled; the infected are landmines we knowingly tread upon. 

The bravery of those who choose to do this work is astounding--particularly national staff who have nowhere to run, no voluntary exit as expats do. Ebola, the great divider: gone are the disaster tourists, the adventure-seekers, the self-glorifiers among us.

And yet where in the media did we see anything that gave us reason for empathetic pause, an unblinking gaze sufficient to register the shared humanity of this apocalyptic visitation? It was nowhere to be seen. This past weekend in Brussels I was fortunate to see Affliction, Peter Casaer's new film from inside MSF treatment centers in the affected countries. Populated by care-givers, patients and their families, the film captures the human impact of this epidemic in ways we know are essential, yet were curiously absent as the crisis unfolded and global panic spiked.

Check out the trailer -- the film has been submitted to the Toronto International Film Festival

Friday, May 15, 2015

Jon Turk profile in summer edition of Adventure Kayak

Happy to see my profile of kayak explorer Jon Turk finally out, quite a while in the making. Thanks to Adventure Kayak for appreciating the importance of Jon's message.

An excerpt: "The real distinguishing factor for Turk, the core of his wonderful anachronism, is that small-craft exploration is not an end in itself, but a means to develop and test explanations for unanswered questions in human history. How do Arctic peoples relate to their Asian forebears? How did the earliest migrations to North America happen, what beliefs motivated them and what tools or vessels helped them traverse incredible distances?

“It’s boring to just recite details from the trip,” says Turk. “I’m more interested in what grand journeys like Ellesmere, and the massive migrations undertaken by our ancestors—what do these teach us? What wisdom do they impart, and why have humans undertaken such journeys throughout history?”

Against the current tide of photogenic free climbers, big wave surfers and kayakers dropping over 200-foot waterfalls, Turk echoes an older tradition of scholar-explorers who sought answers in the wild, beyond the reach of laboratories and scientific debate."

Full article here. Longer Q&A with Turk here

Friday, May 08, 2015

Magical drinking in Congo

Like alcohol anywhere, palm wine is a formidable social lubricant but its undercurrent of magical thinking sets it apart. Amos Tutuola, Nigeria’s answer to H.P. Lovecraft, first chronicled the ritualistic, surreal excesses of palm wine in his 1952 novel. I first tasted palm wine ‘in the bush of ghosts’, and rightly so—the phrase figures in the title of Tutuola’s follow-on experimental work.

Read the entirety of this little rumination on palm wine over at Roads & Kingdoms, a newish site I'm quite infatuated with. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Commemoration and critique -- Tim Hetherington four years on

Memorable for their fleeting dignity and searing panic of private moments in battle, serendipitous snaps of civilians and combatants with poignant acumen, his early photos miraculously wove the social, political and economic threads of a conflict into a single image--a West African Breughel sans folly or satire. This was the young Hetherington: still mystified by the paroxysms of humanity in the throes of war. 

Not a bad start, but embedding in warzones is not hard to do--anyone can become cannon fodder, and journalists have been accessing armies and frontlines for over a century. Yet to the casual observer conflict imagery from Liberia proved little had changed since Conrad's 'heart of darkness'. Tim saw the perverse effects of the 'new savagery': visually exciting but reinforcing our dismissive misanthropy all the same.  
With the award-winning Restrepo, Hetherington's lens came full circle. Too well known to recount here, the film unpacks the mystery of why young men are drawn to the combat experience. It's an attraction shared in degrees by aid workers and war journalists. War is the only opportunity we have in society to love each other unconditionally, to die for each other. 

Instead we get Che Guevara's face on a T-shirt: what greater insult to minority political struggle can there be? 

See the full article over at 3Quarksdaily.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The other Lonestar state

While writing a commemorative piece on Tim Hetherington recently, Liberia was fresh again in my mind. I pulled up a short rumination on post-conflict Monrovia from a few years ago--it's still got some kick so I repost it here. With the Ebola catastrophe the country seems condemned to cyclical bouts of rebirth and dread. Amazing people, our Liberian brethren, too bad about the phantom institutions and navel-gazing leadership: nothing Gates money or the WHO can fix.


After a couple of rain-soaked days and nights in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital and on record as one of the world’s wettest cities, it was time to venture out for a quick run.

There is no green space in Monrovia, only piles of human waste and decades of accumulated debris from buildings rocked by fourteen years of civil conflict. The decline is accelerated by the pounding rainy seasons and years of neglect. Utterly evaporated is the Monrovia described in Graham Greene’s Journey without Maps: "a life so gay, with dancing and the cafés on the beach." From my lodgings in a dilapidated convent near the beach, I thought I might head in that direction. I’ve always associated coastlines with escape and was needing one now. 

Read the rest of this travelogue over at 3Quarksdaily...  (image: Chris Hondros, RIP)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cold Remains in Greenland

There's a lot of Cold War wreckage scattered around Greenland. This 'parallel life' of the eighth continent is rarely associated with the country's more famous Inuit and Norse cultural heritage, its sealskin kayaks and narwahls.

A lovely photo essay of the ultra-remote icecap, along with several abandoned listening posts from this lost era, appears in this month's National Geographic. Murray Fredericks stands tall behind the camera.

My own article on this fascinating but little known dimension of 20th century Greenland is now out on Warscapes, a site devoted to writing on life and culture in places of extreme conflict, insecurity or marginalization.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Upcoming publications on Greenland and Jon Turk

This site seems quiet but I've been busy with a couple of articles that will appear shortly. I'll post the links here.

One is a profile and interview with Jon Turk, award-winning endurance sea kayaker and scholar-explorer. We talk about the state of extreme adventure today, the current preference for stunts over long-term expeditions to test scientific or sociological hypotheses, such as early human maritime migration, as Turk has done. This profile will appear in the May issue of Adventure Kayak, successor to the beloved Sea Kayaker magazine, recently discontinued after a thirty year career.

The other article on Greenland, following my visit there in 2013, will appear on the excellent travel site Roads and Kingdoms as part of a series on breakfasts in obscure locales. We ate a lot of fresh Arctic char on our late morning breaks while paddling Greenland's fjords.

I'm also working on a survey of expedition writing staged in Greenland, beginning with Knud Rasmussen's canonical Across Arctic America (1924) through to Gretel Ehrlich's lyrical This Cold Heaven (2001).

Still shopping this one around so stay tuned. 

The state of Françafrique and French privilege for Africa’s most venal

In the 1960s, post-colonial Africa was the most hopeful place on the planet. Post-partum exuberance in Europe’s former colonies was infectious and abundant. Yet fate has not been kind to sub-Saharan Africa. From Namibia to Guinea to Somalia, the path of most sub-Saharan nations has traced an arc of intimate complicity with the predatory appetites of their former colonial masters. Nowhere has this neo-colonial continuation of anti-development and enrichment by and for the few been more evident than in France’s former colonies.

The nature of governance in these ex-colonies attests to the abiding power of the self-serving instinct and immediate gain, over and against the long-term goal of national progress. Such is the confounding irony of Africa’s entire post-colonial era in nations previously occupied by France, Britain, Portugal and Belgium alike: why is the colonial, predatory model of governance so faithfully re-enacted by ruling African elites? It’s as if all that negative conditioning only succeeded in instilling a predatory instinct in the new ruling class. Why are Mandela-style visions for collective prosperity not more common, given the shared experience of subjugation and occupation across the continent?

Read the rest of this analysis of Françafrique over at 3Quarksdaily.