Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Wisdom and Courage of Sir Ernest Shackleton

I've just finished reading South, the tragic and heroic account of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1916 expedition to Antarctica. I won't spoil it all for you, if you aren't familiar with the story, but I will tell you that more courage and strength of character was demonstrated by the crew of that expedition than I've come across in any other true adventure story. If Hollywood were to make a fictional movie with this same plot, it would likely receive horrible reviews for being so fantastical and beyond the scope of reality.

Here are some passages I highlighted as I read:

The trappings of civilization are soon cast aside in the face of stern realities, and given the barest opportunity of winning food and shelter, man can live and even find his laughter ringing true.

We had flung down the adze from the top of the fall and also the logbook and the cooker wrapped in one of our blouses. That was all, except our wet clothes, that we brought out of the Antarctic, which we had entered a year and half before with well-found ship, full equipment and high hopes. That was all of tangible things; but in memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had "suffered, starved, and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole."1 We had "seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders."1 We had reached the naked soul of man.

When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided
us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that
separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia.

I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over
the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, "Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us." Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels "the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech" in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.

If ever a man had cause to be grateful for assistance in dark days, I am he.

1 from the poem "The Call of the Wild," by Robert W. Service

2 from the poem "Endymion," by John Keats

(And let this be a lesson to all of us, kids, to be so familiar with good poetry that just the right graceful line may spring to mind when we need it most)

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