Like so many others, I have often been in awe of Shackleton and his adventures in the Antarctic. Penguin, capitalizing on literature’s arctic obsession has published a small excerpt from his journals - around 80 pages worth - as part of its Great Journeys series. This book covers Shackleton’s efforts with a bare handful of his men from Elephant Island to the whaling station on South Georgia, some 800 miles away, in an open boat little bigger than a rowboat. It is the most exciting part of his journey, and the most worth reading. (If you want to know more about the rest, I highly recommend the Shackleton miniseries by Channel 4, with Kenneth Branagh. Alternatively, this song by the Weakerthans.)
Shackleton writes sparingly, covering the details and with little gilding of the lily. He is rather impartial, as well. For instance:
Then there was a small bird, unknown to me, that appeared always to be in a fussy, bustling state, quite out of keeping with the surroundings. It irritated me. It had practically no tail, and it flitted about vaguely as though in search of the lost member. I used to find myself wishing it would find its tail and have done with the silly fluttering.
I thought this was a strange and unheroic reaction, and so I looked around online, and I found this from Worsley’s diaries:
A small bobtailed bird flew & fussed around us with terrific energy. The only time I heard Sir Ernest swear on this passage was when this little fellow buzzed around. It faintly annoyed us all, but for some reason it irritated him, tho he may have sworn at it to amuse us, thinking ‘anything for a laugh or to buck things up.’
That made me chuckle to myself. At another time, I nodded along:
Then I took out to replace the cook one of the men who had expressed a desire to lie down and die. The task of keeping the galley fire alight was both difficult and strenuous, and it took his thoughts away from the chances of immediate dissolution. In fact, I found him a little later gravely concerned over the drying of a naturally not overclean pair of socks which were hung up in close proximity to our evening milk. Occupation had brought his thoughts back to the ordinary cares of life.
This reminded me of Bertrand Russel’s statements about not wasting your time thinking about things, but doing instead.
Shackleton waxed poetic in only a few points. Since these were a bit different from the normal “at that point I noticed my fingers were no longer moving”, I noted them. For instance:
Now we clung to a battered little boat, ‘alone, alone, all, all alone, alone on a wide, wide sea.’
This is from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, of course. (He thus joins the band When In Rome in having Coleridge as an influence.) At another point, he almost quotes a poem verbatim:
That was all of tangible things; but in memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had ‘suffered, starved, and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole’. We had seen God in his splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of men.
This seems to be from this verse, The Call of the Wild, By Robert William Service.
Have you suffered, starved, and triumphed, grovelled down, yet grasped at glory,
Grown bigger in the bigness of the whole?
‘Done things’ just for the doing, letting babblers tell the story,
Seeing through the nice veneer the naked soul?
Have you seen God in His splendours, heard the text that nature renders
(You’ll never hear it in the family pew),
The simple things, the true things, the silent men who do things?
Then listen to the wild,—it’s calling you.
At another point, he referenced a phenomenon I’d noticed elsewhere. Joshua Slocum, in his solo voyage around the world (the first thus achieved), mentioned that he saw another man on the wheel when he was seasick in a storm in the north Atlantic.
When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.’ Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels ‘the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech’ in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.
I have no explanation for this, except perhaps that hypoxia and mild shock would lead to irrational behavior, which seems a paltry excuse for what was obviously a meaningful moment for these men (and for Slocum). If anyone has found other occurrences like this in the adventure literature, I would be very interested in hearing about them.
Finally, this passage touched me, as a fellow sailor.
There is a brotherhood of the sea. The men who go down to the sea in ships, serving and suffering, fighting their endless battle against the caprice of wind and ocean, bring into the own horizons the perils and troubles of their brother sailormen.
This winter, I have four friends rowing across the Atlantic. I hope to meet them in Antigua, where they should arrive after 40 days, and where I once lived myself on my father’s boat in the harbor. As they go, I’ll be thinking on this passage often.
Pick up Shackleton’s journals if you haven’t read them yet. They’re an excellent, gripping read.
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