Fridtjof Nansen is a name which should trip off the tongue as easily as that of Scott and Shackleton, though perhaps more so because his polar exploration activity was more successful if less dramatic. Nansen was a scientist, a biologist and an all-round good egg, and just before the turn of the 20th Century he embarked on an expedition to prove that there existed an Arctic current which transited east to west and which would carry a ship in the pack ice across the Arctic Ocean. Nansen’s plan, his theory, met with derision and doubt but in spite of this he commissioned the building of a special ship, called the Fram (meaning onward, or forward), which was designed to be lodged in the pack ice, specially bolstered so it would not be crushed like other ships had but rather would be squeezed up onto the ice like a cork being popped out of a bottle, thus avoiding the crushing action of the ice which had proven so fatal to so many expeditions. The Fram would be used as a scientific station, housing a small crew who would conduct scientific experiments and gather data about the Arctic conditions, the creatures and weather, the performance of the ice and the ocean itself as the vessel drifted with the ice along the current. Nansen hoped that the ice might carry them across the pole, which was yet to be reached by Western man (though arguably may have been achieved by members of one of the native tribes who lived in the Arctic zone, without record or acclaim), but if it didn’t the proof of an Arctic current and the information they could gather during that time remained worth the attempt. Nansen believed that the trip would take between three to five years, and thus he equipped his expedition in a manner so as to be comfortable and well provisioned in foods and activity. Though the trip meant leaving his young family (Nansen was 32 when the expedition began) for an indeterminate period, having dwelled on his theory for some time, and with the support of the Norwegian government, Nansen resolved to see it through. Farthest North is his account of this attempt.
The book follows the expedition chronologically from the planning stage, the gathering of the crew and provisions and the journey out through to the successful conclusion of the expedition. It’s apparent from the beginning that Nansen is planning a quite different type of expedition, one not centred around ‘adventure’ and ‘derring-do’ but one which was meticulously planned, which was about scientific discovery, intended to succeed, in which the key skill would be watching and waiting and waiting some more. This was not (quite) the man pitting himself against nature, testing his mettle and winning against the odds which typified so many expeditions of the time. Consequently whilst Nansen himself was respected, the idea behind the expedition was not and Nansen set out knowing that the community which formed his key circle didn’t believe he would succeed. He felt keenly the pressure upon him, the risk that he was taking seemed less about whether his expedition team would survive than that his reputation might be ruined by the discovery that his theory was flawed and that he had sacrificed several years of his life, and that of his crew, on a fool’s mission. Yet Nansen’s character was such that the error was unlikely, and his responsible attitude ensured that whilst his crew may well have suffered boredom, that they may at times have regretted their involvement out of sheer tedium, their safety was ever-assured. In fact the need for patience, to quell the action-desiring heart, proved a constant challenge during the Arctic night:
“Oh! at times this inactivity crushes one’s very soul; one’s life seems as dark as the winter night outside; there is sunlight upon no part of it except the past and the far, far distant future. I feel as if I must break through this deadness, this inertia, and find some outlet for my energies. Can’t something happen? Could not a hurricane come and tear up this ice, and set it rolling in high waves like the open sea? Welcome danger, if it only brings us the chance of fighting for our lives – only lets us move onwards! The miserable thing is to be inactive onlookers, not to be able to lift a hand to help ourselves forward. It wants ten times more strength of mind to sit still and trust in your theories and let nature work them out without your being able so much as to lay one stick across another to help, than it does to trust in working them out by your own energy – that is nothing when you have a pair of strong arms.
The crew soon settled into life on the ice, structuring their time around lavish dinners, scientific work, the daily toil to keep the ship – ice-bound as she was – seaworthy and intact, and hunting. Their meals were incredible four course affairs, no scrimping and starving for this crew, and if there was a reason (excuse) to celebrate the crew of the Fram took it. Hunting was a significant activity, something approached with massive pleasure and energy perhaps because the rest of their life on the ice was so sedate as their glee at the opportunity to put a ‘ball in the head’ of anything that moved went somewhat beyond their need to supplement ship’s stores. I found this attitude somewhat discomforting, in fact their attitude to animals in general was a source of general discomfort as I read about the polar bears – mothers and cubs – chased and killed, the attempts to harpoon narwhals (which failed), the walruses shot and then lost, reindeer shot and left, and the dogs which were taken for sledge hauling activities which were slayed and fed to each other on Nansen’s third year when he and one of his expedition team, Johansen, left the Fram in an attempt to reach the pole. This latter caused me the most concern, particularly as Nansen points out that many of the dogs refused the meat of their former mates except after considerable time with no alternative. That the dogs were forced to cannibalise their kind when they clearly recognised what they were eating, purely so that a man might stamp his name on a meaningless patch of ice seemed like the worst excesses of vanity. Nansen and his men chose to be there, the dogs didn’t. Yet I don’t think that Nansen was entirely without conscience in his attitude and perhaps one of the causes of my discomfort is an awareness of my own hypocrisy. I’m quite happy to chow down a burger, whilst my cat lives like a queen on the processed flesh of chicken, fish, cow and sheep. Maybe he was simply more honest about it.
Animal rights aside, Nansen comes across as a generous spirited, responsible, decent and considerate kind of man. In the earlier sections of the book, when the ship is first trapped in the ice, Nansen writes beautifully of the experience, the scenery, his concerns for his crew, his uncertainty about their prospects, the joy and disappointments of the crew as they drift north and then south, north and south, edging imperceptibly slowly towards their hoped goal. He reveals a man who loves his wife and family, who feels guilt at pursuing this seemingly foolish goal while his baby daughter, less than one year old when he set off, grows up without him. But his writings about the Arctic are extremely beautiful, revealing a passionate and soulful man as the following passage shows:
“Nothing more wonderfully beautiful can exist than the Arctic night. It is dreamland, painted in the imagination’s most delicate tints; it is colour etherealized. One shade melts into the other, so that you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins, and yet they are all there. No forms – it is all faint, dreamy colour music, a far-away, long-drawn-out melody on muted strings. Is no all life’s beauty high, and delicate, and pure like this night? Give it brighter colours, and it is no longer so beautiful. The sky is like an enormous cupola, blue at the zenith, shading down into green, and then into lilac and violet at the edges. Over the ice-fields there are cold violet-blue shadows, with lighter pink tints where a ridge here and there catches the last reflection of the vanished day. Up in the blue of the cupola shine the stars, speaking peace, as they always do, those unchanged friends. In the sound stands a large red-yellow moon, encircled by a yellow ring and light golden clouds floating on the blue background. Presently the aurora borealis shakes over the vault of heaven its veil of glittering silver – changing now to tallow, now to green, now to red. It spreads, it contracts again, in restless change; next it breaking into waving, many-folded bands of shining silver, over which shoot billows of glittering rays, and then the glory vanishes. Presently it shimmer in tongues of flame over the very zenith, and then again it shoots a bright ray right up from the horizon until the whole melts away in the moonlight, and it is as though one heard the sigh of a departing spirit. And all the time this utter stillness, impressive as the symphony of infinitude. I have never been able to grasp the fact that this earth will some day be spent and desolate and empty. To what end, in that case, all this beauty with not a creature to rejoice in it?”
It is only when the book moves into the section where Nansen and Johansen leave the ship to make an attempt on the pole when the reading becomes a little tedious. Perhaps it is not surprising that a year spent in a land of ice and fog, of drifts and floes and lifelessness doesn’t make for the most riveting reading. Food was scarce (though all crew members, both on and off the Fram, put on considerable weight during their trip) and activity even more so. Nansen mentions the sparsity of his notes and the difficulty in interpreting them after the fact, covered in grime and dirt and with little of interest to report. The tone of this section is highly matter of fact; no more the lyrical descriptiveness that typifies the earlier part of the book, instead it becomes pedestrian, tedious and, I’m sorry to say, a little dull. But perhaps this dullness is telling in its own way.
Nansen and Johansen give up their attempt on the pole and Nansen never does make it there, instead the pole is ‘claimed’ by either Robert Peary or Frederick Cook several years later. But I don’t think it matters. It doesn’t matter to Nansen and it doesn’t matter to the crew of the Fram. They achieved what they set out to do and they learned a lot in doing it. None of the expedition members died (except the dogs, let’s not forget the dogs), instead they grew fat and bored and they learned the value of patience and humility and good work. Nansen may have been profligate (in my opinion) with non-human life, but human life he valued immensely. It is a trait which he carried through in all the activity of his life and later Nansen moved from science and exploration into a different kind of exploration – that of human social systems. It was work which resulted in him being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in humanitarian work, particularly in the support of refugees. You can read more about this here. I can’t help wondering if Nansen’s experiences with patient, slow and difficult work in the Arctic uniquely prepared him for the patient, slow and difficult work in international politics and perhaps, for all the questionable elements of the trip, it was worth it after all. And it made me think about heroes, about the people who are seen as heroes and the activities they undertake to achieve that status. Perhaps we need more heroes like Nansen, those who are willing to commit themselves to the slow and steady path, meticulously researching and planning to minimise risk and, conversely, secure success. Sometimes I wonder what it is about ‘political correctness’ and ‘health and safety’ which is so often considered so deplorable? A healthy respect and consideration for human life? Imagine if everything we did took those two small measures as seriously as Nansen did. His journey was not without risk or adventure, but he did not wilfully risk other men’s lives for his own glory and, to me, this is a key differentiator which makes Nansen a worthy hero and worth reading about.