100 years ago today, on January 16th 1912, Scott and his men discovered that Roald Amundsen’s team had beaten them to the South Pole. From Wilson’s diary:
January 16. We got away at 8 a.m. and made 7.5 miles by 1.15, lunched, and then in 5.3 miles came on a black flag and the Norwegians’ sledge, ski, and dog tracks running about N.E. and S.W. both ways. The flag was of black bunting tied with string to a fore-and-after which had evidently been taken off a finished-off sledge. The age of the tracks was hard to guess but probably a couple of weeks - or three or more. The flag was fairly well frayed at the edges. We camped here and examined the tracks and discussed things.
- quoted in Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World
100 years ago today, on February 5th 1912, Scott and his men were approaching the end of the plateau on the way back north towards the Beardmore Glacier. In the afternoon they encountered open crevasses. From Scott’s diary:
Our faces are much cut up by all the winds we have had, mine least of all; the others tell me they feel their noses more going with than against wind. Evans’ nose is almost as bad as his fingers. He is a good deal crocked up.
100 years ago today, on February 17th 1912, Petty Officer Edgar Evans collapsed and died near the bottom of the Beardmore Glacier, during the return journey of Scott’s Southern Party from the South Pole.
100 years ago today, on Saturday March 3rd 1912, Captain Scott and his three companions were pulling their sledge hard against ice crystals which had formed on the surface of the Great Ice Barrier.
Amongst ourselves we are unendingly cheerful, but what each man feels in his heart I can only guess. Pulling on foot-gear in the morning is getting slower and slower, therefore every day more dangerous.
I now see very plainly that though we achieved a first-rate tragedy, which will never be forgotten just because it was a tragedy, tragedy was not our business.
And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, ‘What is the use?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal.
- Apsley Cherry-Garrard, ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ (1922)
There is so much I could quote from Cherry-Garrard, and I have. His prose is direct and impassioned; it reads as if he is sitting down with you and engaging you in conversation. What he says here sums up so much of how I feel about the story of the Terra Nova Expedition, tragedy and triumph alike. At first glance it might appear as madness to man-haul your way across the Ross Ice Shelf and up a glacier and onto the Antarctic plateau to place your flag in an icy wasteland at the bottom of the Earth, but as both Scott and Cherry-Garrard pointed out, it was the appeal of this act that helped the public bankroll the impressive scientific program that was the real object of the expedition.
So too with space exploration: NASA has trouble competing with a large babble of ‘What is the use?’ And today on Radio National I heard Eva Cox talk about the trouble feminism has in getting traction in an economic climate where the concept of ‘nurture’ can’t be counted, measured or traded.
The ‘shopkeeping’ that Cherry-Garrard spoke of ninety years ago is still with us and is most likely much more powerful today. Government shopkeepers, or bean-counters, are busy protecting a surplus at the expense of good services, and educational shopkeepers expect innovation in the classroom (and yes, some of us sledge nearly alone in there) while demanding ever-improving student outcomes - measured by standardised tests - as if our prime goal is to produce a race of efficient and profitable robots.
The story of Scott and his men and their expedition is big, complex and many-layered. There are several writer-researcher-shopkeepers who have attacked Scott as a blundering fool who lead his men to their deaths, but if I were brave enough and had the power to give it physical expression, I would have sledged with him 100 years ago, choosing that over shopkeeping and bean-counting. Now he lies under the ice with his four companions on the Ross Ice Shelf. The ice is slowly moving northward under glacial pressure. What will our world be like when his body is calved off in an iceberg, finally burying him at sea? Who will be our shopkeepers? And who will be our sledgers?