Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

* The art of storytelling – it’s something very different from a chronicle

Any story might be simply summarized as – this happened, then this, then this happened.  And that might be true for the way we tell our friends what we did today.  But that is NOT storytelling if by that we mean telling a “story”.  So what is a story?  What it is not, is this happened-then this happened- then this happened.  That might look like a story but it isn’t.  A story is not merely one event following another.  Telling a “story” means giving direction and meaning to the events that we are talking about.

And, believe it or not, that makes all the difference in the world. One event after another quickly becomes boring. Yet the same events told by a skilled storyteller who injects direction, purpose and meaning to the same events can be a spellbinding storyteller.  One event after another is a chronicle.  One event after another with purpose is a story.

In picking up “Cold Comfort, My Love Affair with the Arctic” by Graham W. Rowley, I was hoping for and expecting a story.  Alas, the book is mostly a chronicle – an amplification of a diary or journal.  Yet the book should have been fascinating.

Rowley was an archaeologist on a small British expedition to the west coast of Baffin Island, in the Canadian Arctic, shortly before the Second World War.  He lived with Inuit for many months, he travelled by dog sleds and sailboat and was one of the last witnesses to the world of the high Arctic before life there changed radically following the end of the war in 1945.

He was one of the last to make maps in the Arctic by surveying on the ground.  After the war, planes were used to quickly chart every inch of the territory.  And the building of military installations across the Arctic – the DEW line (distance early warning) – brought the cash/wage economy to the Inuit in ways that the trading posts had never done before.

One might say that Rowley was one of the last writers to be there before the northern world changed – yet little of this comes through in the book.  He recounts what he did and where he went and conditions and explains a few aspects of Inuit life.  But all this is chronicle – one event after another – rather than story.  He sails from Churchill on the west coast of Hudson Bay in a small sailboat, the Polecat, with the other amateurs on the expxpedition, yet the sailboat is soon forgotten. One member of the expedition drowned yet the entire tragedy takes up just three paragraphs.

Only rarely does Rowley tell “stories”, such as when the sledge dogs invade his igloo:

“This could easily have become a disaster because the rest of the team would be sure to follow, and our food, clothes, boots and sleeping-bags would be ripped or eaten in minutes.  The usual ways of disciplining dogs are impossible in the confined space of an overnight igloo, and where there was nothing to hit them with.  The only thing I could do was to grasp the first dog and bite his ear as hard as I could.  He gave a piercing howl and dashed out of the door, followed by the other intruders.”

For Rowley, the world beyond the Arctic quickly became the “outside” – a familiar sensation to many travellers captivated by their new environment.  Just occasionally the prose comes alive. When his mail fails to reach him he notes, “I was surprised how little I minded.  It was from a different world, I was happy in the world I was in, and one world at a time seemed enough.”  On another occasion, some sledge dogs eat his letter before they can be delivered to him but he still managed to discover more or less who had written to him:

“Reynold then suggested that I should ask him questions about my mail.  I asked him what he meant and he explained that after he had read his own mail he had read mine of course as he had nothing else to read.  He had found it rather more interesting than his own and might be able to remember some of it.”

Though the book has some interest for aficionados of Arctic literature, the going is too heavy to engage general readers. Compare this with the storytelling of Farley Mowat and you’re immediately notice the difference between a “chronicle” and a “story”.

Buy now: Cold Comfort: My Love Affair With the Arctic (Mcgill-Queen's Native and Northern)

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This entry was posted on February 23, 2010 by in Books/Language, Current Affairs and tagged , , .
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