I noticed the other day while moving our globe during some spring cleaning how far north Trisha and I have twice been—in April 2015 when we traveled to Iona, Scotland, 56° N—and in June 2001 when we went to Copenhagen, Denmark, 55° N.
Both locations are on the lefthand page of this photograph of facing pages from our Oxford Atlas of the World, which shows latitudes between 50° and 90° N. The cities on that page include London, Prague, Dublin, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Reykjavik, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Whitehorse, and Skagway. (I Include the last two as homage to a favorite boyhood radio show, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.”) The map on the righthand page of the atlas shows points below 35° S, that is, 20 degrees of latitude fewer than the facing page. Compare it with the lefthand map: there’s nothing there.
The mass in the center is uninhabited Antarctica; the only cities, on the extreme edges of the page, are Melbourne, Australia, and Hobart, Tasmania, on the lower right. The Tierra del Fuego region of Chile and Argentina is on the upper left. Lily, in her junior year at Wesleyan, spent a semester abroad in Santiago, Chile, and traveled to Tierra del Fuego, basically the ends of the earth. If she’d gone to an equivalent latitude in the northern hemisphere, she might only have been in Dublin.
I was impelled to get this down by a book I just started reading, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, by Francis Spufford. Published in 1997, the book was mentioned in a piece in a recent New Yorker, “Literature’s Arctic Obsession,” by Kathryn Schulz, with the subtitle: “The greatest writers of the nineteenth century were drawn to the North Pole. What did they hope to find there?”
Spufford writes that Charles Darwin, in The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), “became interested in the climatic imbalance between the hemispheres:
In the lower half of the world, the tropics continued much further to the south than the corresponding zone on the other size of the Equator did to the north. Then there was a comparatively thin region of temperate weather, and below that a sudden transition to sub-polar cold much sooner than in the north. At the latitude of 54° south one would find oneself amidst the frozen interior of South Georgia. 54° north, by contrast, put one amidst the comfortable hotels of Harrogate, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where glaciers were scarce.
Darwin, according to Spufford, went on: “If the hemispheres were transposed, there might be tropical seashells in Portugal, puma and jaguar in Spain, hummingbirds and parrots in Denmark, perpetual snow in Scotland, a sheet of ice across Switzerland.”
Spufford’s purpose is to explain the fascination of climate fantasies to 19th century European writers (few of whom I’ve read), and I’m going to leave him there and talk about me.
I’ve been reading about north and south polar exploration since, as a teenage page shelving books in the Forest Hills NY Public Library, I discovered Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, an account of the 1914 expedition to Antarctica led by the Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton’s story is forever being retold. (Right this minute there’s a musical off-Broadway called Ernest Shackleton Loves Me that I suppose I’m kicking myself for not having thought to try to write.)
If you don’t know it, it was indeed incredible. In September 1914, Shackleton and 56 crewmen set out with the hope of crossing Antarctica by land. Their sailing ship froze fast in pack ice and eventually sank. The men sailed 350 miles in three lifeboats to an uninhabited island in the South Shetland Islands, landing on April 14, 1915. Shackleton and five others set out in one lifeboat and reached South Georgia Island, a whaling station 700 miles away, on May 8. They landed a remote beach and were prevented by the weather from sailing any farther. So Shackleton and three of his men walked 32 miles in 36 hours over a mountain range to the whaling station. Everyone was eventually rescued. No one died.
I won’t list everything I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot, intrigued not only by the people who competed to be the first to reach the North and South Poles but also by those who claimed to have reached one of those goals despite having failed. The most dramatic and poignant story to me is the one that gave Spufford his title.
In 1910, Robert Falcon Scott, a British naval officer, mounted an expedition to the South Pole. Scott and four others reached the pole on January 17, 1912—and found a note from the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen saying his team had been there four weeks earlier. On the return to their base, Scott and his companions failed to connect with a resupply team. One of Scott’s men died and another, Lawrence Oates, was crippled by gangrene and frostbite. On March 17, Oates left the tent and never came back. Scott and the other men died, 11 miles short of a supply depot.
According to Scott’s journal (a remarkable thing about so many explorers in so many different climates and geographies is that they kept eloquent journals), Oates said: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
I first read about Oates in Mark Girouard’s The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (1981), a book that influenced my novel Saint Mike (1987). Girouard’s first chapter, “1912,” begins with a detail from a 1913 painting, “A Very Gallant Gentleman,” by J.C. Dollman, who imagined Oates’s last walk. Scott, in his journal, wrote: “We know that poor Oates was walking to his death…it was an act of a brave man and an English gentleman. We all hope to meet the end in the same spirit and assuredly the end is not far.”
Reading stuff like this, I’m reminded of a newsbreak heading the New Yorker used to use but no longer does: There’ll always be an England.