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How Polar Explorers Survived Social Distance

Polar explorers, at least those who had sailed from Europe or America, spent their winters immobilized in the total darkness of Arctic and Antarctic winters. They were confined to frozen-in ships or huts; they relied on the pantry meals they crafted from tinned provisions. Their worlds were dark and weird, time telescoping around them.

Although it’s spring, I too have had time lately to feel dark and weird, any intellectual liveliness flattened; the darkness and weirdness are stymying my ability to wrap my mind around what is happening. I think this is why I can’t get a handle on the stakes (or even the genre) of any comparison of historical polar expeditionary isolation to our present distancing, echoes of the language of heroism aside. The usual scales and registers of things—time, food, health, leadership, human relation—feel incommensurate to an account of this moment.

But I made a list nonetheless. Here are some of the things polar voyagers — identified by expedition leader and approximate date — did to fill the time they spent socially and physically distant from their customary world.

These range from the early flush of aspirational best-life practice to the eventual abandonment of any habits of human decency. Cut off from what they called the outside world, polar travelers made their own world the center of the universe. Still, their sense of inner polar community depended on hoping there was still something to which to return, outside.

    1. Danced for exercise, to the music of a barrel-organ (Parry, 1819)
    2. Tried to learn new languages, from Danish to Inuktitut (various expeditions)
    3. Took up new hobbies, such as carving large-font type from wood blocks (Austin, 1850)
    4. Imagined the rich inner lives of their dogs (various)
    5. Read popular novels such as Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Belcher, 1852)
    6. Assiduously wrote in their diaries (all)
    7. Staged farces and other theatricals, such as Miss in Her Teens, Queer Subject, Box and Cox, and King Glumpus (various)
    8. Kept lists of rando dinner table conversational topics, such as ability of peacocks to stand an English winter; the advisability of saying “good morning” at breakfast; crinolines; Schopenhauer’s views of womanhood; and the braying of an ass (Scott, 1902)
    9. Wrote up mock police reports on penguin crimes, such as when Tubby Flipper attacked his mate (Scott, 1911)
    10. Gave themselves pen names such as Fragggoff Idonthinkks, Pitiful Punster, Abigail Handicraft, Pincher, Jus. Slender-brain, Nils Scraggles, Querulous Frigidity, Snip Quill-Drive (various)
    11. Sketched pictures of “Pretty Men” in a notebook labeled Private (Kane, 1855)
    12. Had sex (most-all)
    13. Composed speculative fictions about the end of the world (Shackleton, 1907; Scott, 1903)
    14. Analyzed their vivid dreams (most)
    15. Relaxed standards of dress and cleanliness (all)
    16. Lectured each other on arcane topics (most)
    17. Lamented their inability to focus on reading and writing as much as they wished (almost all)
    18. Threatened to behead those men not contributing to the expedition’s amusements, and then claimed it was just a joke (Parry, 1819)
    19. Complained about the smell of gas (Scott, 1903)
    20. Passed around a burn book about the stupid things the commander said (Fiala, 1904)
    21. Shot to death a shipmate who was stealing food (Greeley, 1883)
    22. Performed blackface minstrelsy (various)
    23. Ate the bodies of their fallen companions (Franklin, 1847)
    24. Returned in good health to their previous social and professional worlds (only some)


Hester Blum: Long time listener, first time caller.

Photograph from Scott’s last expedition Terra Nova (1910-1913) showing the interior of the hut at Cape Evans with Cherry-Garrard, Bowers, Oates, Meares and Atkinson. October 1911

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