Archive for August, 2007

frontispiece.jpg Had enough of death, frostbite, and crevasses? Fortunately, halfway through the Worst Journey, Cherry surprises us with a flash-forward to the British Museum of Natural History:

And now the reader will ask what became of the three penguins’ eggs for which three human lives had been risked three hundred times a day, and three human frames strained to the utmost extremity of human endurance.

Let us leave the Antarctic for a moment and conceive ourselves in the year 1913 in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. I had written to say that I would bring the eggs at this time. Present, myself, C.-G., the sole survivor of the three, with First or Doorstep Custodian of the Sacred Eggs. I did not take a verbatim report of his welcome; but the spirit of it may be dramatized as follows:

FIRST CUSTODIAN: Who are you? What do you want? This ain’t an egg-shop. What call have you to come meddling with our eggs? Do you want me to put the police on to you? Is it the crocodile’s egg you’re after? I don’t know nothing about no eggs. You’d best speak to Mr Brown: it’s him that varnishes the eggs.

I resort to Mr Brown, who ushers me into the presence of the Chief Custodian, a man of scientific aspect, with two manners: one, affably courteous, for a Person of Importance (I guess a Naturalist Rothschild at least) with whom he is conversing, and the other, extraordinarily offensive even for an official man of science, for myself.

I announce myself with becoming modesty as the bearer of the penguins’ eggs, and proffer them. The Chief Custodian takes them into custody without a word of thanks, and turns to the Person of Importance to discuss them. I wait. The temperature of my blood rises. The conversation proceeds for what seems to me a considerable period. Suddenly the Chief Custodian notices my presence and seems to resent it.

CHIEF CUSTODIAN: You needn’t wait.

HEROIC EXPLORER: I should like to have a receipt for the eggs, if you please.

CHIEF CUSTODIAN. It is not necessary: it is all right. You needn’t wait.

HEROIC EXPLORER. I should like to have a receipt.

But by this time the Chief Custodian’s attention is again devoted wholly to the Person of Importance. Feeling that to persist in overhearing their conversation would be an indelicacy, the Heroic Explorer politely leaves the room, and establishes himself on a chair in a gloomy passage outside, where he wiles away the time by rehearsing in his imagination how he will tell off the Chief Custodian when the Person of Importance retires. But this the Person of Importance shows no sign of doing, and the Explorer’s thoughts and intentions become darker and darker. As the day wears on, minor officials, passing to and from the Presence, look at him doubtfully and ask his business. The reply is always the same, ‘I am waiting for a receipt for some penguins’ eggs.’ At last it becomes clear from the Explorer’s expression that what he is really waiting for is not to take a receipt but to commit murder. Presumably this is reported to the destined victim: at all events the receipt finally comes; and the Explorer goes his way with it, feeling that he has behaved like a perfect gentleman, but so very dissatisfied with that vapid consolation that for hours he continues his imaginary rehearsals of what he would have liked to have done to that Custodian (mostly with his boots) by way of teaching him manners.

Some time after this I visited the Natural History Museum with Captain Scott’s sister. After a slight preliminary skirmish in which we convinced a minor custodian that the specimens brought by the expedition from the Antarctic did not include the moths we found preying on some of them, Miss Scott expressed a wish to see the penguins’ eggs. Thereupon the minor custodian flatly denied that any such eggs were in existence or in their possession. Now Miss Scott was her brother’s sister; and she showed so little disposition to take this lying down that I was glad to get her away with no worse consequences than a profanely emphasized threat on my part that if we did not receive ample satisfaction in writing within twenty-four hours as to the safety of the eggs England would reverberate with the tale.

All in all, it’s reminiscent of the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the forklift driver takes the Ark into the depths of that endless warehouse.


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ninn1s.jpg Lt. Belgrave Edward Sutton Ninnis was also out sledging in Antarctica in 1912, and having a hell of a time of it, too. But he was a thousand miles from Scott’s hut on Cape Evans.

Ninnis was on Sir Douglas Mawson’s expedition to survey Adelieland, a slice of Antarctica south of Australia. Ninnis helped handle the expedition’s huskies and became one of Mawson’s two most trusted men. Just 25 years old and, as the picture illustrates, cute as a button, Ninnis was adored by Mawson, who called him “Cherub.”

On December 14th, 400 miles from the safety of camp, Ninnis hopped off his sledge to investigate a crevasse. He went straight through a snow bridge that two men and another loaded sledge had already crossed, taking six dogs, the team’s only tent, and nearly all their food to a bottom that lay far out of sight. One dog hit a snow ledge partway down and Mawson watched it die from the impact. There was no sound from Ninnis, and no hope.

Ninnis’s health had been declining in the previous few days. But they had turned for home, they were running on a slight downhill, and there were three of them to help with the pulling. The sun was shining. And then he was falling.

Scott’s team had its share of hardship and misfortune. But they fell through crevasse after crevasse and never lost a man to one. For it to happen out of the blue to young Ninnis seemed to Mawson the act of an angry god.

With no food and only a makeshift tent, Mawson and companion Xavier Mertz said prayers over the crevasse, named the glacier for Ninnis, and bent for home. On the way they ate the rest of their dogs – right down to their thyroid glands – and unknowingly poisoned themselves with dog liver. Only Mawson made it back.

It’s all recorded in Lennard Bickel’s harrowing (if oddly subtitled) “Mawson’s Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written.”

Don’t worry – this isn’t the start of yet another weekly Antarctic-disaster feature. I just thought it was a good week to remember all those good men who have been taken abruptly from their families.

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homer.jpgA brief article in the UK’s Sun newspaper says officials in Minneapolis may blame the recent bridge tragedy on accumulated pigeon poo. Nothing about the article seems to be kidding. And yet.

Their thesis is logically sound: pigeons, like all birds, excrete uric acid that theoretically could eat away at steel given enough time and, er, volume.

And pigeons – properly known as “rock pigeons” to birders, were originally cliff-nesters and like nothing so much for a perch as a narrow place above a precipitous drop. Bridges are lovely for this.

But let’s be honest. For anyone to mention this with a straight face, they’d better be able to point to at least one other known instance of Pigeon Doo Corrosivity Syndrome. Bridges and pigeons have been together for a long time, after all. Not to mention a swiss-cheese effect should have become evident on urban car roofs by now.

***This post is part of an anti-pigeon-defamation initiative on the part of the Scribbler. He has become aware that many people do not enjoy pigeons quite as much as they could if they approached the topic with an open mind. In fact, it might be said that some people resent them. Strongly.

But the pigeon is a noble creature, no less worthy of our appreciation just because of its pudgy body and walnut-sized head. The birds are all muscle. In a level race, they can outfly the speed racer of birds, the peregrine falcon. They are more considerate than your typical housecat, livelier than a goldfish, and cleverer than many a chihuahua or miniature terrier.

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frontispiece.jpgDown by the Beardmore Glacier, after more than 500 miles hauling across the Ross Ice Shelf, the men came up against the Transantarctic Mountains. This was the route Scott (and Shackleton before him) had selected to climb from basically sea level up to the 10,000-foot-high central Antarctic plateau. The mountains around were several thousand feet taller still. Bowers remarked:

The mountains surpassed anything I have ever seen: beside the least of these giants Ben Nevis would be a mere mound.

Ben Nevis is the highest point in Britain: about 4,400 feet. Bowers’s amazement is revealing of the whole Victorian mindset of the men. First, to throw themselves against things entirely out of scale with their prior experience; and second, to compare it all to something in Britain, however incomparable.

Part of that mindset was the assumption that Englishmen had the substance to survive anything, if they could only muster the endurance. You see it in everyone. For instance, Wilson, facing treacherous seas trapping a landing party on a remote Atlantic island:

When we first got down to the shore and things were looking nasty, Wilson sat down on the top of a rock and ate a biscuit in the coolest possible manner. It was an example to avoid all panicking, for he did not want the biscuit.

Bowers was something of a superhero even in this, the Heroic Age of Exploration. He found the tent a day after it blew away in the blizzard on Crozier. On that trip his feet were the only ones that stayed warm, and he never even used the eiderdown insert for his sleeping bag (he donated it to frozen Cherry on the way back). Snow blindness? Pshaw…

I am afraid I am going to pay dearly for not wearing goggles yesterday when piloting the ponies. My right eye has gone bung, and my left one is pretty dicky.

Bowers meticulously planned and packed the food and gear for all the expeditions – he even cooked the books to hide away surprise rations for Christmas Dinner 1911 at the top of the Beardmore, 700 miles from the hut.

Then came 2 1/2 square inches of plum-duff each, and a good mug of cocoa washed down the whole. In addition to this we had four caramels each and four squares of crystallized ginger. I positively could not eat all mine, and turned in feeling as if I had made a beast of myself.

Christmas was Lashly’s 44th birthday, which he took rather well, all things considered:

I had the misfortune to drop clean through [a crevasse], but was stopped with a jerk when at the end of my harness. It was not of course a very nice sensation, especially on Christmas Day and being my birthday as well. While spinning around in space like I was it took me a few seconds to gather my thoughts and see what kind of a place I was in. It certainly was not a fairy’s place.

Lashly was on the last support sledge to turn around before reaching the pole. He, Lieutenant Evans, and Crean started back strongly, but the toll quickly began to show. Lashly wrote:

Crean has become snow-blind today through being leader, so I shall have the job tomorrow, as Mr Evans seems to get blind rather quickly, so if I lead and he directs me from behind we ought to get along pretty well.

Lt. Evans came very close to dying of scurvy: “This morning we were forced to put Mr Evans on his ski and strap him on, as he could not lift his legs.” But 13 days later, with Evans essentially incapacitated, he was still capable of displaying his Englishness: Lashly had a frostbitten foot and Evans, worn out and strapped onto the sledge, warmed it against his stomach.

In the end, Crean left Lashly tending Evans in a tent, and struck out for help carrying three biscuits and two sticks of chocolate for a 30 mile journey. In the end, they saved him. Back at the hut, after a supper of seal meat, Lashly wrote:

We are looking for a mail now. How funny we should always be looking for something else, now we are safe.

On the way back from the pole, Wilson kept getting snow-blind. Cherry thinks it’s because he was unable to resist whipping off his goggles at a spare moment to sketch the landscape. (The icon above is one of Wilson’s.) Then he hurt his leg:

My left leg exceedingly painful all day, so I gave Birdie (Bowers) my ski and hobbled alongside the sledge on foot. The whole of the Tibialis anticus is swollen and tight…. But we made a very fine march with the help of a brisk breeze.

Scott noted the party weakening, but hoped (somewhat blindly) for the best:

Wilson’s leg still troubles him… but the worse case is Evans, who is giving us serious anxiety. This morning he suddenly disclosed a huge blister on his foot…. Sometimes I feel he is going from bad to worse, but I trust he will pick up again when we come to steady work on ski like this afternoon.

This was five weeks before their final camp. Seaman Evans was the first to die.

Oates, who was the expedition’s horse whisperer, believe it or not, was the next to go, his foot and then his hands horribly frostbitten and swollen black. On March 17th, Scott wrote:

Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaining, and to the very last was able and willing to discuss outside subjects. He did not – would not – give up hope till the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning – yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’

Twelve days later Scott still had his chin up:

We are in a desperate state, feet frozen, etc. No fuel and a long way from food, but it would do your heart good to be in our tent, to hear our songs and the cheery conversation as to what we will do when we get to Hut Point.

We are very near the end, but have not and will not lose our good cheer. We have four days of storm in our tent and nowhere’s food or fuel. We did intend to finish ourselves when things proved like this, but we have decided to die naturally in the tracks.

At the time, Britain was the greatest nation in the world (according to Britain, anyway), and you can hear it in the unwavering voices of these men. This is why Scott’s tragedy came as such a shock to the nation. It was simply inconceivable that good English men could not triumph through sheer fortitude and good breeding.

It was the first crack in a sorrowful awakening, of England learning that the world was bigger and stronger than it. In the next few years came the First World War. And the twentieth century was just getting started.

Since then, we’ve realized how foolish it all was. Monty Python ridiculed it over and over again (the Black Knight’s “it’s only a flesh wound” is perhaps the pinnacle). And yet, as soon as they let reality intrude on their plans it took over. And now we live in a world where we obsess over our hydration status, stockpile our ClifBars, bicker over backcountry campsites, shrink from the rainwater that creeps up our jacket cuffs, and call in the helicopters when we notice the sun unexpectedly setting on us. It’s enough to make a guy wistful.

Not that I would let on, of course. That’s just not cricket.

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More evidence that everything in the universe, or at least the Pacific, really is connected. By odds too remote to be calculated, a New Zealand biologist discovered a rice-sized ID chip in the stomach of a sooty shearwater chick.

The chip traced to a chinook salmon tagged two years ago on the Columbia River, more than 7,000 miles away.

The biologists have been making the mental leaps ever since. Shearwater chicks are flightless and don’t even get in the water until after they fledge. The bird’s parent must have eaten the salmon, then regurgitated the chip into the chick along with a meal. But chinook salmon are big – way bigger than a shearwater (if there’s any justice in the world, there should be some chinook salmon swimming around right now with shearwater tags in their bellies).

Anyway, that means the shearwater must have plucked the tagged chinook out of the water back when the fish was beak sized – and carried the chip since then. That’s imaginable, since all birds have a crop – a sort of mechanical stomach where they store hard objects. It’s what they have instead of teeth. The chip could have lodged in there and then just come back out again.

And shearwaters are famous travelers. Just last year, in fact, a team of biologists made headlines when they established that sooty shearwaters take a 40,000 mile, figure-8 loop around the Pacific every year chasing an endless summer of food.

Oh, and the biologists were from the University of California, Santa Cruz. See what I mean about everything being connected?

Thanks to the KSJ Tracker for picking this one up, and nice work by the Seattle Times running this great piece of news. Image: Jeffrey Rich.

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File under win-win: research in Kenya shows that by raising tilapia, locals can reduce the population of a malaria-carrying mosquito (by a whopping 94%), then harvest the fish for the dinner table.

Spurred by the growing incidence of pesticide resistance among mosquitoes, the researchers began looking for nonchemical ways to kill the mosquitoes’ buzz. Mosquitoes spend their larval lives wiggling around in pools of water, gobbling microorganisms and hiding out in the foliage. Tilapia seem to go after them using something of a tiered approach: larger fish nibble on aquatic plants, depriving larvae of hiding places; and the tilapia fry go right after the larvae themselves. Apparently, people postulated a century ago that hungry fish should be useful malaria-fighters, but no one had checked it out numerically.

It’s interesting that many Kenyans already farm tilapia (which are native to the Nile), leading one to wonder why existing tiliapia farms haven’t knocked down the malaria problem yet. (The town the researchers studied records 2,200 malaria cases per year; globally, more than 350 million people get malaria each year, and 1 million die.)

Chalk it up to business misfortunes: when a farming operation goes under, the abandoned fishponds collect water and breed hordes of mosquitoes. The prospect of restocking those ponds and at the same time clearing them of mosquitoes suggests a worthwhile place to invest development funds.

Image: a cool stamp collection

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Pat O’Connell has a new talk show. Check Surfline.com for “Going Off with Pat O’Connell” and catch the ex-pro, who last made a Scribble appearance in connection with shifting baselines. He’ll be posting interviews with new guests every two weeks.

This week he sits down with Rob Machado, owner of the gnarliest hair in all of professional sports. The topic under discussion: Who’s going to win the surfing world tour this year? Will it be Mick Fanning, the blazing Ozzie who everyone thinks is overdue, or Andy Irons, the competitive bulldog with three consecutive titles from earlier this decade?

The result is intensely uncomfortable to watch but also, somehow, gripping. The producers put them before radio-style mikes in a darkened room. O’Connell shifts uneasily in his seat and pulls his knee up under his armpit for half the show. They cut to surf-flick outtakes whenever the tension gets too great.

Machado cuts in to make a point, then apologizes, realizing that snaking someone in conversation is kind of like stealing waves. O’Connell’s sentences start forcefully but end with an abrupt upswing, as if he’s duck diving. Machado’s are often two syllables, one of which is a chuckle.

Machado pronounces Fanning “unfadeable,” and O’Connell is all over him. “You’re kind of dancing on the line dude, it’s a yes or a no.” Machado clarifies that “unfadeable” means a sure thing. Uh, obviously?

But I love this attempt to inject articulate conversation into the least articulate of all sports. Only two more weeks till the next episode. Theme: Will a pro event ever be won again on anything but a thruster? Perhaps they’re working up to the Middle East.

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