Sunday, September 16, 2007

To Boldly Go . . .

To Boldly Go . . . - There are two forms of exploration, one mental and the other physical. The mental side of exploration is captured by the physicist Schrödinger's (of Schrödinger's cat fame) comment that "The task is, not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees."

Kids can be extraordinarily innovative and perceptive explorers in Schrödinger's sense. They see everything with a freshness that is often hard for adults to recapture. Their constant questions of "why?" are often not so annoying because of the repetition but because they force us to answer questions we have either never answered for ourselves or answered so long ago that we have either forgotten or we realize the answer we had wasn't a particularly good one. Hence the ubiquity of the utilitarian "because I said so".

In Schrödinger's sense, one of the very first places of exploration for children is language and speech followed shortly afterwards by reading. Ruth Krauss's A Hole is to Dig entertainingly recaptures the innovativeness of thought and speech that children can so easily display.

One of my sons, for whatever reason, has a particular affinity for unconsciously manipulating language to serve his ends. A number of years ago when he was not more than two or three, his older sister was invited to a birthday party. I took them both over and deposited sister in the backyard with the celebrant and the rest of the party. On the way out the family's Jack Russell terrier came bounding over to us, jumping it seemed all the way to my waist, begging for attention. This little india-rubber ball of energy was impossible to ignore. Youngest son squatted down on his three year old haunches and started petting and cooing over the dog who just loved the attention, wiggling, twisting, licking. Not able to contain himself, the terrier jumped up to lick my son on the face just as he was bending down open-mouthed. I saw my son leap back with a squawk, blurting out "He licked me in my tongue-pit." A tongue-pit - well, I can't deny that that isn't a perfectly good description of your mouth but it would never have occurred to me to describe it as such.

But what about the more traditional exploration, the physical movement into the world to discover that which is not commonly known, that which has been forgotten or that which is unknown to the explorer. Though not explicitly called out as "exploration", that sense of discovery and wonderment is an integral part of so much of our canon of great children's books. It takes only a moment to start racking up the instances where exploration sets the stage for the main story but also establishes the engagement with the reader and the emotional momentum. Think of the Lucy, Edward, Susan and Peter exploring the professor's mysterious old house in the Chronicle's of Narnia, similarly of Mary exploring her uncle's estate in The Secret Garden. Many of the shipwreck-type stories are, at their core, as much about exploration and discovery, as they are about survival. Think of Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Mysterious Island, Coral Island, etc. What is it on this island that I can find to help me survive?

This near-environment exploration is intimately familiar to most children, often associated with visits to grandparents and other relatives. I can recall with crystal clarity the sensory and emotional excitement of arriving at either of my grandparent's homes. There was certainly the excitement of seeing them again, the smell of their houses, the unpacking, and all the other routines. But within 24 hours there was a careful skirmishing line of myself and siblings combing the garage, the tool shed in the back corner of the garden, the attic, the toy drawer in the back room and so on. These things that were different in some way to that to which we were accustomed or were likely to have changed since last being explored had a magnetic quality that drew us to them.

And the more traditional stories of exploration of land, sea and space? At one time those were much more prominent in children's literature than they are now. I am afraid we have fallen into a sloppy sentimentality and a self-indulgent censoriousness about the carnage and destruction that can follow from exploration. It is too easy institutionally for us to hold ourselves up as moral paragons by condemning the past, ignoring the great probability that we will, in turn, be condemned as primitives in the future.

Which is not to say that there isn't a delicate line to be trod between naively wanting everything to remain the same and never change (the path that generally ensures there are no short-term discomforts, but which leads to stagnation and ultimate dissolution) and boldly understating the potentially destructive impact of exploration and discovery. The Victorians were guilty of the latter sin in their children's books of exploration - the white man came and everything was better. But what adventurous and gripping tales some of those books were. Today, we are at the far arc (or at least I hope it is at the furthest extent of its arc) of the swinging pendulum; when we discuss courageous exploration, it is so often with a negative connotation and condemnation for the consequences which were either inevitable or unpredictable.

With the whole world of genetic science unleashing new discoveries virtually everyday and, in the process, helping to reveal our own past explorations, older young adults have a plethora of really intriguing books such as The Seven Daughters of Eve, Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn, Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, or even the more traditional historical narratives such as Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's Pathfinders A Global History of Exploration, to read. In Fernandez-Armesto's book, he is explicit about the dynamic of divergence and convergence - we all burst out of Africa a hundred thousand years ago and spilled into the rest of the world over the next fifty thousand years, then spent fifty thousand years filling up those newly occupied continents and evolving to our local circumstances. Then, in the past couple of thousand years we have begun to converge upon one another again. While the convergence is often hugely productive in terms of intellectual progress (think of Hellenism) it is also immensely and unavoidably destructive as we introduce our germs (along with our ideas) to one another when we don't have uniform resistance to those germs.

Below are a list of the above mentioned books as well as some of the more gripping narrative tales of physical exploration around the world. Couch that exploration in whatever moral terms are most appropriate, but I think it is worthwhile for children to not only understand the history itself, but to see the examples courageous (and yes, greedy etc.) exploration, without which we would all be poorer.

Keats in three stanzas captures much of what I am attempting to tackle here: the wonder of what is revealed through exploration (goodly states and kingdoms seen): the exploration through the mind (till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold); and the physical exploration (like stout Cortez).

On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer
John Keats

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Picture Books

A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Lewis and Clark by Steven Kroll and illustrated by Richard Williams

One Morning in Maine written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey

Independent Readers

Coral Island by R.M. Ballyntine

The Incredible Journey of Lewis and Clarke by Rhoda Blumberg

York's Adventures with Lewis and Clark: An African-American's Part in the Great Expedition by Rhoda Blumberg

Uncommon Traveler: Mary Kingsley in Africa by Don Brown

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and illustrated by Tasha Tudor

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

Dive! My Adventures in the Deep Frontier by Sylvia A. Earle

Seaman's Journal On the Trail with Lewis and Clark by Patti Reeder Eubank

Around the World in a Hundred Years From Henry the Navigator to Magellan by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Anthony Bacon Venti

Where Do You Think You Are Going, Christopher Columbus? by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Margot Tomes

Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Ferdinand Magellan by Milton Meltzer

Streams to the River, River to the Sea: A Novel of Sacagawea by Scott O'Dell

Space Exploration by Carole Stott and illustrated by Steve Gorton

Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

Young Adult

The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander

Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen

Lost City of the Inca's by Hiram Bingham

Pathfinders by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

The Explorers by Tim Flannery

Dragon Hunter Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions by Charles Gallenkamp

Endurance Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

1421 The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies

Antarctica by Walter Dean Myers

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven

Travels Into the Interior of Africa by Mungo Park

Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes

Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade

Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss and illustrated by Louis John Rhead

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