Saturday, January 21, 2012

Geologising in the Face of Death ~ In Defense of Robert F. Scott

Geologise or geologize is the verb form of geology.  (Oxford Dictionary of English, Second Edition, Revised, 2009.)  I assume the meaning is “to do geology.”  In the very few times I’ve encountered this verb, it has been used to describe not only the act of examining geological features in the field, but also, and principally, the hunting for fossils.
Fossil hunters face myriad dangers in the field.  A cliff side gives way, the tide comes in sooner and higher than expected, lightning hits, a venomous creature strikes, a heart begins to fail miles from medical care, . . . .  The dangers are manifest and fossil hunters recognize them, even if they often fail to take any precautions.  We can be rather cavalier about the risks.  In an earlier post, I quoted geologist and paleontologist William Buckland’s response when someone urged him to be careful scaling a wall in a quarry, “Never mind, . . . the stones know me.”

There is another, more moving, intersection of fossil hunting and danger that means a great deal to me.  I am drawn to stories of human beings who, although in dire circumstances where their own deaths are a real possibility, find respite from those dangers by hunting for fossils.  Fossil hunting can be restorative, an experience that offers relief, if only briefly, from other worries and fears.  There is, I believe, a fossil hunting “high” unassociated with actually finding something.  It can be recognized only after the fact when, suddenly, the hunter “comes to,” realizing that hours have passed, hours that are hard to reconstruct but ones which psychologically took the person away.  I guess this may be true of any all-consuming activity.

To my small clutch of such stories, all of which heretofore have been about men at war, I add the poignant one of British naval Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s final Antarctic expedition, 1910 – 1912.

One hundred years ago this very day (January 21, 1912), Scott and the four men of his Polar team were engaged in a desperate effort to return from the South Pole.  For the last, long (150 mile) leg to the Pole and now for the 800 mile trek back to safety, Scott, Captain Lawrence E.G. Oates, Lieutenant Henry R. Bowers, Petty Officer Edgar Evans, and zoologist Edward Adrian Wilson engaged in what they called “man hauling.”  That is, they pulled the sledges themselves, with the haulers often on skis.

These men had been part of a larger party that had set out for the Pole from the Cape Evans Hut, base camp, on November 1, 1911.  Ponies and dogs did much of the hauling at first; motorized sledges started with them but were soon abandoned, a dismal failure.  In time, the ponies were shot and fed to the dogs and the men.  On January 4, 1912, the final support team headed back and Scott and his four chosen men began the long “haul” to the Pole.  The usual description of this part of the expedition is totally inaccurate, it was anything but a “dash” to the Pole.

On January 17th, in a joyless mood, the Scott party reached the Pole and then turned for home, now burdened with the knowledge that Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his men had beaten them there by some five weeks.  In the picture below, the Scott party poses at the South Pole.  From left are Oates, Bowers (seated and holding the string that tripped the camera shutter), Scott, Wilson (seated), and Evans.

Wednesday morning, January 17. – Camp 69.  T. [temperature - in degrees Fahrenheit] -22º at start.  Night -21º.  The Pole.  Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected.  We have had a horrible day – add to our disappointment a head wind 4 to 5, with a temperature -22º, and companions labouring on with cold feet and hands.
We started at 7.30, none of us having slept much after the shock of our discovery. . . . We have been descending again, I think, but there looks to be a rise ahead; otherwise there is very little that is different from the awful monotony of past days.  Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of  priority. . . . Now for the run home and a desperate struggle.  I wonder if we can do it.
                       ~ Scott’s Last Expedition in Two Volumes, Volume 1, Journals, 1913.
As cited by Peter King, editor of Scott’s Last Journey (1999), Roland Huntford in Scott and Amundsen (1979) observes that Scott’s journal entry was massaged before publication and the last lines in the portion quoted above actually read:  “Now for the run home and a desperate struggle to get the news through first.  I wonder if we can do it.”  Whether or not this indicates that Scott failed to recognize how dire his situation really was (as Huntford claims), I can understand how the man would have been focused at that moment on salvaging some measure of glory for the endeavor.

Soon, though, all in Scott’s party clearly knew that they were in serious trouble.  The demands of the trek to and from the Pole were breaking down the men.  The days and nights were much colder than expected and blizzard followed blizzard.  Frostbite ravaged hands, feet, faces.  Food was in short supply as was the fuel needed to heat the food and, more importantly, to melt snow for water.  Reaching the supply caches left on the inward journey became essential to survival.  The deterioration was not just physical but, for some of the men, increasingly psychological.

Scott took a long time to admit in his journal just how bad things were.

Wednesday, January 24. – Lunch  Temp. -8º .  Things beginning to look a little serious.  A strong wind at the start has developed into a full blizzard at lunch, and we have had to get into our sleeping-bags. . . . We are only 7 miles from our depôt, but I made sure we should be there to-night.  This is the second full gale since we left the Pole.  I don’t like the look of it.  Is the weather breaking up?  If so, God help us, with the tremendous summit journey and scant food.  Wilson and Bowers are my standby.  I don’t like the easy way in which Oates and Evans get frostbitten.
. . .
Tuesday, January 30. – R. 13.  9860.  Lunch Temp. -25º, Supper Temp. – 24.5º.  Thank the Lord, another fine march – 19 miles.  We have passed the last cairn before the depôt, the track is clear ahead, the weather fair, the wind helpful, the gradient down – with any luck we should pick up our depôt in the middle of the morning march.  This is the bright side; the reverse of the medal is serious.  Wilson has strained a tendon in his leg; it has given pain all day and is swollen tonight.  Of course, he is full of pluck over it, but I don’t like the idea of such an accident here.  To add to the trouble Evans has dislodged two finger-nails to-night; his hands are really bad, and to my surprise he shows signs of losing heart over it. . . . 
Then, five days later, Scott and Evans were injured falling into crevasses.  For Evans this truly marked the beginning of the end, possibly from having suffered some brain injury in his falls.  Scott’s journal entry for February 4th notes that Evans “is becoming rather dull and incapable.”  Evans’ condition continued to deteriorate.

So it is that readers of the journals are surprised to learn that, on Thursday, February 8th, after a “beastly morning” in the face of a strong, cold wind, Scott steered the party toward the moraine near Mt. Buckley which offered some shelter from the wind.  Here, he recognized, was an opportunity to do some geologising.
Thursday, February 8. – . . . The moraine was obviously so interesting that when we had advanced some miles and got out of the wind, I decided to camp and spend the rest of the day geologising.  It has been extremely interesting.  We found ourselves under perpendicular cliffs of Beacon sandstone, weathering rapidly and carrying veritable coal seams.  From the last Wilson, with his sharp eyes, has picked several plant impressions, the last a piece of coal with beautifully traced leaves in layers, also some excellently preserved impressions of thick stems, showing cellular structure.  In one place we saw the cast of small waves on the sand.  To-night Bill has got a specimen of limestone with archeo-cyathus [a Cambrian sponge] – the trouble is one cannot imagine where the stone comes from; it is evidently rare, as few specimens occur in the moraine.  There is a good deal of pure white quartz.  Altogether we have had a most interesting afternoon, and the relief of being out the wind and in warmer temperature is inexpressible.  I hope and trust we shall all buck up again now that the conditions are more favourable.
Geologising!  A day cut short to scramble over the moraine and collect fossils!

Beyond surprise, writers have expressed a variety of opinions about the wisdom of this “diversion.”  Huntford, according to King, cites this as “grotesque mismanagement” particularly given that the 30 pounds of fossils were added to sledges to be man-hauled by the ragged party.  (Other sources claim they added a even heavier amount to their load.)

In her account of Scott’s final expedition, historian Diana Preston seems to acknowledge some of the positive aspects of geologising at this juncture.  She writes,
No doubt the break from manhauling and the relief of being in a sheltered spot out of the harsh summit winds had their effect on hungry and weary men.  More important to their morale, however, was the fact that they were doing what they had come for – scientific research.  They could regain some pride after the ignominy of their arrival at the Pole, reminding themselves of the differences between their carefully planned programme of scientific work and Amundsen’s opportunistic Viking raid.  (A First Rate Tragedy:  Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole, 1999, p. 191)
She appears to end up hedging on the issue:
Whether Scott’s geologizing was a magnificent example of dedication or a foolish diversion depends upon your point of view.  (p. 191)
In this, she pits science versus survival.  The fossil of an extinct fern, Glossopteris indica, found during the geologising excursion, helped show that Antarctica once had a semi-tropical climate and was part of the super continent Gondwana.  The Natural History Museum, London, which has just opened an exhibition on Scott’s last expedition, includes in its web-based material an interesting video on the scientific importance of the Glossopteris fossil.  Still, despite their scientific value, the addition of the fossils to what the men already had to pull surely had negative some consequences.

It is helpful to be reminded that Scott’s mission was a scientific one.  His complete crew included a “scientific staff” with three geologists, a biologist, a physicist, a couple of zoologists, and a meteorologist.  (True, only one of the scientific staff was part of the team that made it to the Pole.)  The Natural History Museum, London, has some 40,000 scientific specimens collected by the full Scott expedition.  More than 400 of these specimens had previously been unknown.  Writer Eric Niiler in What Scott Learned (The Washington Post, January 3, 2012) describes some of the scientific importance of the Scott expedition.  The title of the online version of this article captures its essence, He Lost the Race to South Pole But Made Discoveries for Science.  Indeed, throughout the expedition Scott and his men did science.  They studied the Antarctic fauna (and the parasites that lived within the animals!), gathered detailed meteorological data, tracked the movement of glaciers.  Scott promoted science.  Several nights a week at the Cape Evans base camp during the dark months of 1911,  men delivered lectures on their areas of expertise.  In his journal entry for May 8 – 9, at the base camp, after describing some of the mechanical and scientific issues the men were grappling with, Scott observed,
Science – the rock foundation of all effort!!
To the question at hand.  Did the delay to geologise and the added weight ultimately make the difference in the outcome?  I don’t know.  There were many decisions that Scott made that have been second guessed, this is just one of them.  Regardless of the purported mistakes, had the weather been only marginally better, the expedition may well have avoided its tragic outcome.  As for the search for fossils, I assume that Scott saw the virtue in turning his team to something other than the struggle homeward.  With no evidence other than my gut, I would offer up as a possibility that he believed it might offer the men something perhaps more vital than a break from the cold and wind, or, for that matter, something more important than a reminder of the scientific aims of the expedition.  Hunting through the debris of the moraine for fossils might well have granted the struggling party an afternoon’s psychological respite from their cruel circumstances.  Scott could have seen the real value in that, particularly given his worries about the men’s mental stamina at this stage.  To me, the geologising was an inspired and worthy gamble.

Nevertheless, the tragedy played out.  Only days later Evans suffered a total mental and physical collapse, dying in the tent on February 18th.  Soon after, Oates’ physical condition deteriorated markedly, his frost bitten feet slowing the team’s retreat from the Pole.  Food ran short, and the caches of supplies that Scott relied on contained much less fuel than needed (the fuel containers had allowed much of it to evaporate).

By the middle of March, Oates was done in and as the team waited out a blizzard, he turned to his companions and said, “I am just going outside and may be some time.”  Scott then noted in his journal, “He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.”

By Monday, March 19th, Scott, Evans, and Bowers had made it to within 11 miles of a critical cache of food and fuel only to be hit by a massive blizzard which forced them into their tent.  On March 29th, the storm still raged and the men, despite their intention for days to make the effort to reach the depot 11 miles away or die trying, could not leave the tent.  There they died.

Scott’s final entry, made on the 29th, ends with
. . . We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.
It seems a pity, but I do not think I write more.
R. Scott
For God’s sake look after our people.


1) A few small editorial changes have been made to this essay following its posting.

2) Scott’s journal as published in Scott’s Last Expedition is a fascinating, often moving account of heroic action, through and through a tragedy.  A great read.  Though, as noted above, we are reading a somewhat edited version of his journal.

There are many full, etext versions of Scott’s published journal of the last expedition available on the web.  They are of varying quality, sometimes marred by images of the hands of the folks doing the scanning or by blurred pages obviously moved during the scanning.  Of those available on Google Books, the one at this link is okay.  I read the PDF version on a Kindle (4th generation) with the screen rotated.  I clipped the pictures in the posting from the PDF version available at this link.  A nice, searchable PDF is available from the Internet Archive at this link.

3) In the addendum to Scott’s last entry, the "our people" he refers to are the families of the men who perished on the expedition.

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