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Chauncey Loomis

Chauncey Loomis author of Weird and Tragic Shores, is an explorer and big-game hunter, and a Professor of English at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire.

And They Prayed

Chauncey Loomis, 27 November 1997

In October 1991 various meteorological phenomena combined to generate a ferocious storm off Canada’s Maritime Provinces and the north-east coast of the United States – a once-in-a-hundred-years storm, a ‘perfect storm’ to use the meteorological term that gives Junger his title. The storm itself is his main subject, but he also focuses on the fate of the Andrea Gail, a 72-foot steel swordfisherman out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and her crew of six. Somewhere on the Grand Banks or possibly near desolate Sable Island, the Andrea Gail was destroyed by the storm and her crew drowned. There are no witnesses to this mini-disaster. The men died alone, not only out of sight, but even out of radio or radar contact, and, in re-creating the event, Junger can only speculate – which provides the book with one of its haunting qualities. The subject of man against the elements has rarely been treated so effectively.’‘

Smokejumpers

Chauncey Loomis, 10 March 1994

Norman Maclean was born in western Montana in 1902. There landscapes are elemental: earth, air, water and sometimes fire are distinct and imposing presences. It’s mainly open country, with high mountains but also wide valleys, and the sky seems as immense as it does in deserts, although the valleys of western Montana are not desert but upland plain. Its great sweeps of space are made palpable by winds coming down off the highlands. The forms of earth are clear to see because the flanks of the hills and mountains are not so overgrown that their shapes and textures are concealed; their underlying geology shows in their contours and outcroppings of rock. In less open country, with less broad valleys and less immense skies, such rugged earth would be looming and claustrophobic. Cutting into the slopes of the mountains, pouring down gullies and gulches into the valleys, are creeks that become Montana’s great rivers: the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, the Clark Fork, the Big Hole, the Beaverhead, the Gallatin, the Madison, the Missouri – the very essence of what running water should be. And sometimes, in summer, fire – occasionally started by human carelessness but more commonly by Montana’s ferocious lightning storms – devastates the slopes, and you can see smoke from blazes far back in the wilderness.’

Kusunsuaa unsukkapiq?

Chauncey Loomis, 23 July 1992

In ancient times, the civilised peoples of the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East contemplated with curiosity and usually with horror what lay to the north – or rather, what they assumed on the basis of rumour, myth and theory lay to the north. For a Greek or an Arab, most of Europe north of the Alps seemed uninhabitable by normal human beings. As late as the late Middle Ages, the Arab scholar Quazwini was eloquent about what he had heard of winter in Rum (probably eastern Europe): ‘Winter in Rum is an affliction, a punishment and a plague; during it the air becomes condensed and the ground petrified; it makes faces to fade, eyes to weep, noses to run and change colour; it causes the skin to crack and kills many beasts. Its earth is like flashing bottles, its air like stinging wasps; its night rids the dog of his whimpering, the lion of his roar, the birds of their twittering and the water of its murmur, and the biting cold makes people long for the fires of Hell.’’

Heavy Sledding

Chauncey Loomis, 21 December 1989

In the 19th century, Canada’s Arctic Archipelago proved to be an explorer’s nightmare, a maze of straits, channels, gulfs, inlets, sounds, shoals, peninsulas and islands that confounded even the best navigators. Looking at its jigsaw configurations on a modern map, we can understand why its uncharted straits and channels were often mistaken by the pessimistic for dead-end inlets, its inlets by the optimistic for straits and channels – its islands for peninsulas, its peninsulas for islands. Exacerbating the problem was ice, especially floe and pack ice. Protean and shifting, it also could be fatally solid, and it made the geography of the Arctic unstable: a passage clear one week could be clogged the next, and even accurate charts could be made useless by the ice. The Archipelago was a daunting place to find your way around in.’

Northern Lights

Chauncey Loomis, 2 June 1988

Almost fifty years ago the French ethnologist Gontran de Poncins published his international best-seller Kabloona, an account of his year-long stay with the Netsilikmuit, the Seal Eskimos of Canada’s central Arctic. Early in the book he described a haunting scene. Wrapped warmly in a sleeping-bag, he had fallen asleep in an igloo that three Eskimo hunters were generously sharing with him. He awoke to see the hunters on their knees, weirdly illuminated by an oil lamp and casting grotesque shadows on the icy walls. After a few moments of nightmare between wake and sleep he remembered where he was, then he realised that they were gorging on seal meat: ‘The smell in the igloo was of seal and of savages hot and gulping. From where I lay their faces appeared to me in profile glistening with fat and running with blood; and with their flattened crania, their hair covering their foreheads, their moustaches hanging low over their mouths, their enormous jaws, they inspired in me so ineradicable a notion of the stone age that I think always of this scene when I read or hear of pre-historic man.’ Such a passage obviously could not be written today. We are far too self-conscious and guilty about our ethnocentrism ever to admit to such a reaction even if we had it. The word ‘savage’ alone would be beyond the pale, more embarrassing than any four-letter word. Under the severe tutelage of anthropologists and in the long shadow of Claude Lévi-Strauss, we are losing our cultural arrogance – or, perhaps the same thing, our cultural innocence. A good thing, too: the main point of innocence is to lose it, and this particular innocence deserves to be lost. Ethnocentrism has taken excessively disagreeable and destructive forms.’

Triermain Eliminate

Chauncey Loomis, 9 July 1987

I admire mountain, rock and ice-climbing from a respectful distance. When young and foolish, I tried it. I even went up what some experienced climbers call ‘the milk run’ to the peak of Matterhorn, but that climb was my last: all the way up I visualised Lord Francis Douglas coming down the way that he did in 1865 – straight – and it spoiled the trip for me. Soon after I read a book entitled Alpine Tragedy. Its most telling point was made in a series of photographs of the great Alpine peaks: etched down their crags were dotted lines ending abruptly in horrid little X’s marking places where the various tragedies were simultaneously fulfilled and terminated. That cured me for good.’

Arctic and Orphic

Chauncey Loomis, 19 June 1986

Late Medieval philosophers, knowing from their study of Classical cosmography that the earth is a globe, often speculated about what lay at its poles. Most believed them uninhabitable, ‘the darkling end of a failing world’ in the bleak words of Adam of Bremen. According to Cardinal d’ Ailly, ‘at the Poles there live great ghosts and ferocious beasts, the enemies of man.’ Opinion was divided, however, and if some Medieval philosophers believed the Arctic must be a hell, others believed it must be a heaven. Roger Bacon thought that north beyond a rim of ice at the Arctic Circle was a paradise where flourished the Hyperboreans: ‘a very happy race, which dies only from satiety of life, attaining which it casts itself from a lofty rock into the sea’.

Sydpolarfarer

Chauncey Loomis, 23 May 1985

Most of Tryggve Gran’s Antarctic diary is dull reading, but the fault is not altogether Gran’s. An airline pilot once said that flying is months of sheer boredom, moments of sheer terror, and the same can be said of expeditions. Much time on expeditions is spent waiting: waiting for the weather to change, for the expedition leader to make up his mind, for the other party to arrive, for supplies, for the ship, the airplane or the helicopter; when it isn’t waiting, it’s plodding, climbing, sailing or paddling in great discomfort, often with all sense of purpose gone. At one point in his diary Gran remarks: ‘It is difficult to keep a diary. This life is of little interest; one day is just as monotonous as the next.’ He did have moments of terror, however, and after falling through ice into the waters of McMurdo Sound, he exclaims almost with relief: ‘There is something to write about for once!’ Indeed he does write effectively about crises, but he had neither the verbal craftsmanship nor the quick sensibility necessary to transform the stuff of tedium into something interesting.

Great Scott Debunked

Chauncey Loomis, 6 December 1979

Debunking explorers seems to have become a popular pastime. In recent years, Oliver Ransford has diagnosed David Livingstone as a manic depressive, Dennis Rawlins has discredited Robert Peary’s claim to the North Pole, and William McKinlay has proved that Vihjalmur Stefansson was a selfish cad. Debunking probably was inevitable. These men were all of the heroic age of exploration that began in the mid-19th century and ended at the beginning of the First World War. Explorers of any age are likely to be enveloped in romantic haze, but during that period they seemed almost superhuman.

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