This has been the most intriguing Art Assignment so far. By asking us to imagine something, but at the same time imagine something we are passionate about David Brooks really does set our minds on an adventure. Or at least he set my mind on an adventure.
The first thing I had to do was sort through the things in my head that I’d like to see. And, of course, I may end up seeing them in my lifetime. I thought about dodos. Possibly because I like dodos and because David’s talk led my brain that way. But I know what a dodo looks like, even if it’s only in taxidermy. Then my brain zoomed in on one thing I’ve always wanted to see, but which my brain has sensibly decided is out.
For a long time I’ve been fascinated with journeys to the South Pole, specifically Scott and Shackleton’s expeditions. I’ve thought about how I would love to embark upon such an adventure. But I know my mental aversion to quiet, and my body’s aversion to cold, despite the financial cost, makes a future journey very unlikely. But the thing is, I’m not interesting in the Antarctic as it is now. I’m interested in it when Scott and Shackleton were there. I’m fascinated by the mindset of these men who literally went to the ends of the earth, with the idea of staying there for years. The risk, and the sacrifice was huge. What is more, they experienced the place in a way we never could. In a way we’ll never experience anything. With the mindset of someone who lived before we knew so much. Before we understood everything. They were the last of the great explorers. People who literally stood on the edge of the unknown. And they stood on that edge while the world was rapidly changing around them. So, even when (back in the ‘real world’) we felt like we were learning so much, they were down in the Antarctic still experiencing that wonder. The wonder which is largely absent from our modern world. Imagine that? Experiencing something so new, so unknown, so far away from home, from safety? It fascinates me and frightens me in equal measure. A particular journey that really brings out these feelings in me is the 1911 journey to Camp Crozier made by Bill Wilson, Birdie Bowers, and the young Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Truly, it’s Apsley that I think about.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard was only 25 when he accompanied Bill Wilson and Birdie Bowers to Camp Crozier to collect Emperor penguin eggs. Scott was very keen on his men accomplishing scientific research and experiments while they were in the Antarctic, and Wilson particularly wanted to collect some Emperor penguin eggs from the colony at Camp Crozier. Apsley’s job in the expedition was to be a ‘jack of all trades’, but he became a particular favourite of Wilson’s. The three men marched 100km to collect the eggs, and while out, they were struck by a tremendous blizzard that, on one night, blew the tent clean off them. But they made it back alive. However, Bill and Birdie later died alongside Scott in their tent, on their journey back from the pole, as the young Apsley waited for their return at an outpost.
To me, Apsley’s story perfectly sums up that place that frightens and fascinates me so. The place that looks out at the unknown. A cold, dark place. Where the safety of knowledge and the safety of home is all so far away. Because even though Bill and Birdie were with him that night in the blizzard, after they died it was his memory alone. Which, to me, makes it darker and lonelier and less safe. Later on people would spread stories that Scott, Wilson and Bowers had taken their own lives in their tent. They hadn’t. But young Apsley wasn’t to find out for years after and he would be plagued with guilt. Imagining that if he had travelled out further from the outpost he might have been able to save them. No doubt, he felt some guilt anyway. As you can tell I have a lot of sympathy for Apsley. I have sympathy for the fear and the darkness that he endured, in his environment and in his mind. But I also deeply respect him, for taking such risks, for standing on the prow of the unknown.
It’s hard for me to explain how I feel about this man, this place, this state of mind, this time in history. But when I came to articulate it I had a surprisingly simple image in mind. The image of Apsley and his companions in the dark nothingness, perhaps with their packs? A blanket? Some rocks behind their heads? But for some reason I only really imagine Apsley there.
I have vague ideas of what Camp Crozier might have looked like. The presenter, Ben Fogle, did a documentary and stood in the area. He stood there in stark sunlight and talked about how desolate it seemed. But to me, it didn’t come close. Even if it was geographically the right spot. Even if it was at night, in a blizzard, it could never be as it was for Apsley. Even if someone were to spend the night there in such conditions it would be completely different. They would have safety, security and knowledge on their side. The unknown wouldn’t exist for them. As I write that, I realise that that’s maybe what I want to see and never will, the unknown. That’s what Apsley experienced and lived to remember, the true unknown.
I’m currently listening to Apsley’s autobiography, ‘The Worst Journey in the World’, so I know I will learn more about what happened on that journey to Camp Crozier. I’ve also found a very good Guardian article that elaborates particularly on what happened to the eggs themselves. But I don’t think it will make much of a difference. Even if I learnt that they were surrounded by Emperor penguins and had a good supply of food etc. Because to me, it’s psychological. To me, it’s Apsley in the darkness. It’s being the most lonely, the most scared, and the most brave.