So many of the polar explorers looked upon life as an adventure; discovery was an elemental desire which urged them into areas and prodded them into actions which had no rewards beyond themselves. To know, to progress, to wander, to search, were ends in themselves. No doubt they had many detractors, many who considered their sacrifices stupid, their interests meaningless, their work frivolous. Even more so today, the value of our pursuits is largely judged by what benefits they bring to us, what gain we can realize. Little is pursued simply for the challenge of the pursuit, or for the joy of discovery. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of Admiral Scott’s expedition crew, wrote in defense of his leader’s quest, “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.”
I say I value exploration, wondering while I wander; I say I value discovery for its own sake–holding still long enough to allow a shattering of leaves to fall about my feet, waiting the hour it might take for a chipmunk to jut its face out of its burrow and skitter across the wood’s floor, pausing to uncover strange mushrooms half-hidden by leaves–yet I too often choose the warmth and comfort of my comfortable house, a half-finished book, even mindless surfing on the unrippled surface of my iPad rather than the small exertion of donning shoes and a jacket, braving chill on my cheeks or scratches on my shins to tramp the woods, to discover.
The polar explorers would have gladly accepted Thoreau onto their crew. “I have travelled a good deal in Concord,” he wrote teasingly in Walden, a comment that admitted to the smallness of his range while also claiming the depth of his exploration. Like the polar explorers, Thoreau disregarded the baffled head-shakers who thought him foolish, lazy, undisciplined, or shiftless and every day plunged into the Concord woods, paddled the Merrimack River, traipsed through open fields. He recorded yearly the first flowers to open, once captured an owl with his bare hands, toted home a giant fungus in order to study it further, plumbed the depth of Walden Pond, followed bees to their hives, sat for hours engraining bird song in his brain. Eventually, the unknown became well known, but the exploration was not completed, but enhanced through familiarity. Walking back to his cabin from Concord on the darkest of winter nights, with no lantern or even moon to guide him, he moved by the Braille of his senses, knowing the texture of bark on familiar trees, hearing the different sound of trodden and banked snow, smelling the proximity of pine.
More is at stake in the need to explore than physical alertness and mental acquisition, of course. Unless we cultivate the tiny, insistent urge within all of us that prods us to discover what we do not know, our faith will shrivel. Like the polar explorers or Thoreau, our motivation must be intrinsic. Only curiosity and wonder and gratitude and praise can keep us alert to mystery. “If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward,” promises Cherry-Garrard, “so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.” Annie Dillard, snowshoeing alongside him, admits to the cost, the necessary self-effacement of the trek, yet pushes on through the haze of the blizzard, knowing that at the end of the journey is the “Pole of Great Price,” the ultimate discovery.”The light on the far side of the blizzard lures you. You walk, and one day you enter the spread heart of silence, where lands dissolve and seas become vapor and ices sublime under unknown stars. This is the end of the Via Negativa, the lightless edge where the slopes of knowledge dwindle and love for its own sake, lacking an object, begins.”
I need to be willing to fight the blinding snow, to make myself uncomfortable, to enter unknown tracts, or I will never truly find God.