Category Archives: Travel
More great beach reading from Nathaniel Philbrick. This time he tackles a now mostly forgotten expedition known as the United States Exploring Expedition (or US. Ex. Ex.) which took place between 1838 and 1842. Led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes the expedition consisted of six ships whose charge was to explore and survey the Pacific Ocean. Consisting of Navy officers and seaman, and a corps of scientists, the expedition was one of the most successful in terms of discovery, in American history. Included among its many accomplishments are the charting of the coastline of Antarctica for the first time, becoming the first expedition to reach and map the Fiji islands, charting the area surrounding the Columbia River in Oregon whose ownership was a matter of dispute between Great Britain and the United States, climbing both the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes in Hawaii, and by providing the first accurate explanations for the formation of the coral atolls that dot the South Pacific. They encountered numerous indigenous peoples throughout their journey, and cataloged and took samples of enough flora and fauna to fill a museum, and indeed it was one of the first collections added to the new Smithsonian Institution. Despite this enviable record of success however the expedition is all but forgotten now.
Philbrick’s purpose for the book is twofold; first to bring the accomplishments of this expedition back into the U.S. canon of human exploration, and second, to provide a narrative that explains why it’s accomplishments have been so overlooked. The expedition itself had adventures worthy of anything one might find in a Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling or Daniel Defoe novel – including angry cannibals. All of this is expertly dealt with by Philbrick whose writing is always clear and compelling. He brings something else to this work though, something that I thought was a bit lacking in his other books, and that is a real talent for illuminating the personalities of those involved in the events he describes. This is fortuitous as it was these personalities that were at the root of the expeditions later obscurity. I’m not going to go further than that because I don’t want to accidentally reveal any spoilers, for while this is primarily a book of history, it reads like a great adventure!
Really excellent beach reading. A story that I had never heard of before, but which was a sensation at the time. It is the story of the Arctic Polar Expedition launched in 1879 aboard the U.S.S. Jeanette commanded by George DeLong (who the DeLong archipelago in the arctic sea is named after). The expedition was launched at a time when theories about what the North Pole contained were varied and usually ill informed. The predominant theory was that the pole was surrounded by a girdle of ice, but itself was open water, and may even be warm…by some theories tropically warm.
Previous attempts at reaching the pole had failed. All had tried to reach it by creeping up the coast of Greenland. Ice inevitably stopped these expeditions. This new attempt would try to reach it via the Bering Strait based on a theory that a warm current of water known as the Kuro-Siwa drove far enough north to weaken the ice pack and provide an open water route to the pole. What happened to the crew of the USS Jeanette is extraordinary – and I am not going to relate it here because I do not want to ruin it.
It reads like a Jack London novel on steroids!
If you are off to the beach this year and looking for something to wile away your time…bring this book. And no doubt, Hollywood will want to get in on the act as I cannot imagine a better story for the big screen!
This was one of those books that made me wish I had taken a much earlier interest in literature and creative writing. I am absolutely sure I would have gotten more enjoyment from this book than I did had that been the case. Commentary I’ve read about it compares Annie Dillard’s work to Thoreau and the other transcendentalists. Of course, I had precious little exposure to them in school so the comparison is largely lost on me. I did not pursue creative writing beyond the minimum requirements imposed on me as part of my course of study, so the style, rhythm and cadence of this work didn’t resonate with me at anything but a superficial level. So, my opinion of it will necessarily be based on my experiences and education.
I kind of view this book the way I would look at an abstract painting; like an artist trying to portray their feeling about a physical place or object through their art, the author here is trying to do the same with words. The book I think employs a narrative form and consists of several reflections and internal monologues on nature, existence, life, death and religion. It all revolves around the environment near the authors home adjacent to Tinker Creek in Virginia. The book is divided into four sections representing the seasons, and within each section chapters that enhance and amplify the larger theme.
I really enjoyed much of this, particularly sections in which Dillard would focus her observations on a particular animal or event. Monologues describing her efforts to get close to the muskrats living in the creek, her fleeting attempts to observe fish and insects were very enjoyable. She also did a wonderful, almost mystical, job of incorporating the latest (at the time) discoveries in the fields of physics, astronomy and chemistry into the narrative as though those aspects of the physical world were as much a part of her immediate surroundings as were the insects, birds and reptiles she was observing.
Some parts I didn’t buy, particularly the overall theological theme. Dillard describes her work as a theodicy – the study of why a benevolent God would allow manifestations of evil in the world. The cut throat existence most living beings endure in nature are used as examples. The often cruel and gruesome ways many of “Gods” creatures meet their ends is used as the anchor point for this exploration. Being an atheist I don’t believe there is any deeper meaning other than that evolution provides for. Creatures exist and evolve as a consequence of the environment they live it, not because some benevolent God has allowed it. So these themes had no resonance with me.
She uses the concepts of via positiva and the via negativa, with the first half of the book being the former and the last half the latter. The first refers to the notion that God is present in nature and is in some way knowable. The second refers to a God which cannot be comprehended and therefore what happens in the world are only attributes of God’s will and not a knowable truth. Dillard finds the latter more attractive based on her observations of the natural world as represented at Tinker Creek. Of course from my perspective there is no will at work here as there is no supreme being to work that will. I understand things as part of a quantifiable and understandable process that doesn’t contain the mystery Dillard see around her.
Nevertheless I came away from reading this feeling closer to the nature Dillard describes than a dry recitation of fact could ever convey. I think there is something in all of us that wants the world around us and our place in it to have a higher meaning. I think that desire is a result of an evolutionary impulse. Yet, it is within me and works such as this satisfy some of that need.
Bucket Source (Pulitzer Prize Winner for General Non-Fiction)
Purchase at Amazon.com Here
A wonderfully written book on a topic that is probably not well known to most people. With the life of George Bird Grinnell as the vehicle, this book explores the death of the old west, the rise of the conservation movement, and the campaign to save the last herds of wild Buffalo.
At its peak the population of wild Buffalo in America ranged as high as 30 million individuals. In the course of 40 years that population had dwindled to little over 1,000. For Native Americans the Buffalo was the primary source of sustenance. For the United States Army, killing the Buffalo was a way to resolve the “Indian problem.” Add to that unchecked hunting of Buffalo for hides, robes and as decorative accouterments for Gilded Age homes, and there was no way it could survive the onslaught. It was only through the efforts of a handful of men that the last remaining individuals were saved.
George Bird Grinnell is probably someone who should be more well known. A central figure of the early conservation movement, he played a pivotal role as owner and editor of Forest and Stream magazine, lobbying for and finally achieving protections for Yellowstone National park and the remaining wild Buffalo that lived within its borders. That herd, which had dwindled to only 23 by the early 20th century, now numbers about 4000 thanks to Grinnell and those he was able to enlist in his cause, including Theodore Roosevelt.
A scion of an elite family, his father became wealthy providing financial services to some of the great barons of the Gilded Age. Escaping that life through the influence of one of his college professors, Grinnell made several trips west on various expeditions were he interacted with many of the west’s most famous figures, including George Armstrong Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody. It was through these experiences, along with the tutelage of Lucy Audubon, (John J. Audubon’s widow), that Grinnell developed a love of the west, and an ethic of self sacrifice.
The author made an excellent choice focusing on Grinnell because he represents in one man the transition from the conspicuous consumption and lust for wealth that characterized the Gilded Age, to an ethic that demanded America’s natural and cultural heritage be preserved even if it meant the sacrifice of profit – something we should be paying attention to today.
Though perhaps not intended by the author, this work should be regarded as a cautionary tale, as in many ways we are witnessing a return to the Gilded Age ethic that nearly destroyed our natural heritage and completed the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. As we witness rollbacks in protection for the environment, denial of the effects of man made climate change, and a return to the mindset that the earth and its resources are here only to enrich us monetarily, we are forgetting the lessens learned by such short sighted behavior only 100 years ago.
I’m not all that familiar with the history surrounding the birth of the conservation movement or of the rise of the new west, so I cannot comment with any authority on the accuracy of everything in this book. I have seen comments that point to some inaccuracies. However, I have not seen any criticism of its value as a popular work of history, or that these few inaccuracies detract from the power of its message.
Very enjoyable. A mix of irreverent humor, spot on satire, and some really devastating observations. And, it makes a serious case that the South is culturally, economically, and politically different from the rest of the country, how it is holding back progress, and why secession might actually make sense.
If you are a died in the wool southerner you will not like this book…some of it is pretty devastating IMO.
Not perfect by any means, but…it makes you think!