Practised writers know to resist the temptation to write about an exceptional experience until it has had time to be rinsed through the nervous system. A week, a month, or more likely several months or years is required, during which the original experience having passed through a complex web of memory, aesthetics and ethical gateways will eventually produce an essay or article that manages to expose the essence of the original experience.
This certainly was the case with my trip down to Antarctica made in November, 2006. Apart from the occasional metaphor, I did not draw on my Antarctic experience until years later, most particularly in a long personal essay titled ‘Home Triptych’, included in Home Truths, an anthology edited by Carmel Bird and published by 4th Estate in 2010. The trip to Antarctica was unique, it was life-changing. It was a journey into a landscape of the imagination, the landscape of the imagination. It was an experience that challenged language. It needed time.
I have just returned from the Galapagos Islands. I came home to a bulging email inbox. One email, in preparation for an upcoming gig, asked me to complete the statement: my key life learning is…
I wrote about curiosity and an openness to wonder as fuel for everyday life; I wrote, too, about the importance of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I wrote my reply and after I sent it off it occurred to me that, for the first time in my life, in the Galapagos I had witnessed the extraordinary as an ordinary, everyday occurrence. I walked past bevies of marine iguanas draped over sea-splashed lava benches, I swam with sea lions and turtles, I dived with penguins, I passed within an arm’s length of nesting frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies, I did all this and much much more on a daily, even an hourly basis.
So many wonders.
And this morning, reading a biography of the artist and cartoonist Saul Steinberg (most famous for his cartoon of Manhattan and the rest of the world) I came across a play on Descartes’ Cogito (incidentally it was Descartes who named wonder as the first of the passions). Instead of cogito ergo sum was written dubito ergo sum: I doubt therefore I am. The dubito stance is entirely consistent with a ravenous curiosity and an openness to wonder. I love the notion of dubito ergo sum.
The Galapagos Islands filled me with wonder, no less now that I am home than when I was actually walking among some of the most extraordinary creatures on the face of the earth, and across a variety of landscapes unique in my experience. It may be simple enthusiasm, it may be untamed excitement, it may be the force of the adventure itself, but this Galapagos experience won’t wait. Which is not to deny that when I draw on the same experience in two or three or four years time it will yield far deeper, more considered and thoughtful work.
So much of what I saw in the Galapagos Islands was unimaginable, and even when I was there a breath away from a land iguana, the creature right there in front of me, to make sense of it required all my imaginative resources. These animals – the iguanas, the yellow warblers that flitter around my feet, the turtle swimming towards me, the weird and weighty giant tortoise that lumbers past me on the way to the water-hole – these animals are so vastly different to what I’ve been used to, they challenge all my taken-for-granted assumptions.
And the terrain, too, has a similar effect. There are fields of lava everywhere, ageing red and grey crumbling lava, and fresh gorgeously black stuff in organic slabs and swirls. I could be anywhere – but nowhere I’ve ever been before.
These animals and birds, this landscape, these seas, all usher me into new terrain. It’s like entering a film or a novel or a piece of music. A landscape unlike anything I’ve ever seen before demands the same sort of total attention and creative response as does a work of art. Good art astonishes. Good art takes you out of the everyday – and so too this landscape and these creatures.
Don’t forget this, I tell myself as I watch four orcas frolicking in the seas in front of the boat, don’t forget this, I tell myself as I swim out of the path of a floating turtle. Live always with the shock, the wonderful shock of the new.