Everyone loves a good story — and grand journeys is something we instinctively relate to.
What connects Frodo with Eragon or Bastian or Odysseus or the protagonist of any other epic story is their determination and remarkable success in the face of impressive challenges. How they, despite everything, carry on and surmount even the worst and terrifying of obstacles. They’re always on the move, relentlessly advancing towards their geographical — and spiritual — goal.
Something indescribable always gripped me with the vastness of insurmountable journeys. Traveling through the vast, endless space of Patagonia was one of the most formative and impactful experiences of my life. Driving through a never-ending Australian outback, or passing mountain after mountain in a truly other-worldly New Zealand nature awoke similar emotions. The expanse of Atacama deserts or the hugeness of Iceland’s glaciers resonate with me, fills me with wonder: I am so small, and the world is so big.
The best part of Charles Mann’s books are the journeys, particularly those described in 1491. And those first-person journeys in Jared Diamond’s writing. I fondly remember the summer nights I spent reading Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday a few years ago. Sitting outside, in the comforts of a chilly Scandinavian garden under a perfectly still and blue sky, I let Diamond’s mesmerising words carry me far away to worlds long lost, to journeys into peoples with very different lives.
This summer, two new writers carried me away on their own epic journeys: Scott Wallace’s The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes and Jon Gertner’s The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future.
Both produced this remarkably captivating effect in me, where I completely forget who or where I am, and vividly become a silent spectator in the authors’ stories.
In Unconquered we get to follow Wallace, a celebrated National Geographic photographer and writer, who abruptly joins an expedition with renowned indigenous activist Sydney Possuelo, deep into the Amazon forest. In search of evidence for an uncontacted tribe — labelled “Fleicheros” — the three-month expedition pushes Wallace, in his late-forties at the time, to his utmost physical and mental limits. He captures the extreme dependence on nature that characterises the expedition once the river boats have turned around, leaving Possuelo’s men trailing miles and miles through thick jungle.
No roads, no routes, no support — and if you get stung or bitten by something poisonous, the nearest hospital might as well have been on a different planet. They’re at the complete mercy of the indigenous members of the expedition and their intimate knowledge of the Amazonian surroundings: what’s edible and what’s not, how to sustain yourself in this desolate nature. Simply put: how to survive in this remotest and most isolated corner of the world.
Under the decades-long leadership of Possuelo, an iconic indigenous rights activists in Brazil, the No-Contact policy with isolated tribes — “Isolados” — was firmly entrenched. Wallace does a great job of painting the narrow line the expedition has to walk: find out as much as you can about the state of Fleichero’s communities, but do not initiate contact and do not impact their life in any way. Impossible, of course, as the expedition journeys straight through the heart of Fleichero territory.
At one point, the peak excitement point of the book, two reckless members of the expedition decide to explore a Fleichero campsite against the express instructions of Possuelo. The thrilling fear and life-or-death intimidation that’s been present in every historic meeting of previously uncontacted tribes radiates through the pages — I felt like reading a captivating thriller and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.
The non-encounter ended peacefully — or at least without violence. The fear described by Wallace, of not knowing what would happen, of not knowing if they’ll survive the night or even the next hour, was probably mirrored only by the Isolados themselves — shivering in terror where they hid from their invaders.
The journey that Wallace so graphically described captured me, body and soul. Incredible.
The frozen desert of Greenland is the ecologic opposite of the lush Amazon forest: nothing grows there; it sustains no life; it is barren in every sense of the word. The only thing it accumulates — until lately — is ice. Snow packed on top of snow, turned into ice under immense pressure.
Gertner’s journey to the inland ice of Greenland’s Ice Sheet (GIS) is different, in tone, content, and format. He mostly traces other people’s journeys instead of his own. The natural perils are the exact opposite of Wallace’s Amazonian adventure (snow, ice, cold, lack of food), but the accounts of explorers and adventurers that Gertner chronicles face the same fascination for the unknown, the appreciation for vastness. From the small-scale and austere 19th century explorations of Fridtjof Nansen and Robert Peary, to the massive and unending Cold War resources for mid-century scientists under the auspices of the American military, to modern scientists of climate change drilling ice cores to unlock its thousand-year-old secrets, the challenge was always to decipher the mysteries of this gigantic pile of ice.
And it’s a lot of ice. Despite news of imminent climate disaster, the GIS has a mind-bogglingly insane amount of it. It covers 1,800,000 square kilometers, an area larger than France, Germany, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy combined. At the tip of its northernmost dome, it reaches over 3,000 meter above sea level, compact ice all the way down.
In debates over climate change, this unfathomable amount of ice produces two ideologically convenient reactions:
- the 500 billions tons or so of mass lost in a given year is a literal drop in the ocean;
- changing atmosphere and warmer temperatures threatens to unleash such a flood.
In the climate debates, sea-level rises are never far away, which makes the Greenland — and Antarctic — Ice Sheets such crucial areas of dispute: for what they testify about our planet’s past and what they imply for our planet’s future. How quickly they melt, how large the icebergs that they release into our oceans (“calve”), how the rapid changes of the Arctic impacts the ecosystems we take for granted: our shorelines, the Gulf stream, the whales, and the storms across the Atlantic.
The workings of the GIS is also not fully understood. There are deep tunnels, rivers of meltwater, underground (well, under-ice) networks of water moving. Gertner recounts the Rubber Duck experiment, where a researcher dropped 90 yellow ducks down these moulins (vertical shafts leading meltwater into deep into the ice sheet). Two were recovered the next year by fishermen in a nearby bay; the others are still missing — whereto, nobody knows.
The picture Gertner paints is dire, especially when he speaks to modern glaciologists like Richard Alley or Eric Rignot. The latter specialises in placing “upper boundaries” of what the complicated planetary feedback loops may produce: what happens if the major Antarctic glaciers, like Thwaites (the “Doomsday Glacier”), collapse into the sea? And how quickly will they?
Over 30 or 40 years, predicts these erudite scientists, it will be commonplace for us to see even the most magnificent, humongous, mind-blowingly large glaciers to shed icebergs on a regular basis.
It’s a scary story, that starts with fearless and reckless explorers in the 19th century and finishes with equally terrified scientists of the 21st.
Epic journeys — on or off the screen, fiction or nonfiction — can captivate us. I love them: and they never cease to amaze me, viscerally impact and captivate me. Their power is remarkable, rivalled only by the mesmerising natural wonder they portray. Splendid!