Resilience is the thing

This week marks the 100th anniversary of Douglas Mawson’s return home, sailing into the port of Adelaide, after two years of exploration in East Antarctica.

(The following is excerpted from the BBC article “An Australian hero’s story of survival” of 26 February 2014 by Andrew Luck-Baker.)

“On 10 November 1912, Mawson, Mertz and Ninnis took 12 dogs and two sledges and headed for the far east of Cape Denison, aiming to explore and map the coastal hinterland.

Mawson’s diary reveals that their initially high spirits began to slump after several weeks of intense exertion and hardship….battling through frequent blizzards and crossing two large and dangerous glaciers (subsequently named Mertz and Ninnis). They reached a point more than 500 km from their base.

Then a series of catastrophes ensued, beginning on 14 December.
As the team crossed an ice field, riven with crevasses concealed by snow, Ninnis and the six strongest dogs fell to their deaths into a chasm hundreds of feet deep. Most of the human food, all of the dog food and the main tent went with them.

The accident left Mawson and Mertz with 10 days’ food supply for a journey back to base that would take at least a month. Mertz died on 8 December.

Mawson had another 160km to slog across to reach the safety of his base on the coast. And he had a deadline – 15 January. That was the date by which all the sledging parties had to return for the imminent departure of the expedition’s ship, the Aurora, for Australia. The ship would not be able to return for at least eight months, after the next Antarctic winter.

The psychological trauma of Mawson’s ordeals after the death of Mertz cannot be underestimated, says Mark Pharoah, curator of the Mawson Collection at the South Australia Museum (here in Adelaide). “He had to erect the tent each evening by himself, which could be very hard in a blizzard. (He had to) navigate and just try to keep a handle on his own anxieties about missing the boat, about the next crevasse. It was a very disturbing time in Mawson’s life.”

His one stroke of luck was to come across a stash of food and a note left by a search party. But slowed by raging blizzards and his ravaged physical state, he reached the final approach to the base only to see his ship far out to sea on 8 February. He wasn’t alone, there were 6 volunteers waiting to help him, but they couldn’t recall the ship because of weather conditions not permitting the telegraph signal to reach it.

Mawson had to remain for another year and endure a second ferocious winter in the land of the blizzard.

Here is how Mawson described going outside the hut in a mid-winter blizzard: “A plunge into the writhing storm-whirl stamps upon the senses an indelible and awful impression seldom equalled in the whole gamut of natural experience. The world a void: grisly, fierce and appalling. We stumble and struggle through the Stygian gloom: the merciless blast – an incubus of vengeance – stabs, buffets and freezes; the stinging drift blinds and chokes.””

It sounds awe-some. As in, to say, it sounds inspiring of awe. Like the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-9). Jesus and three disciples are caught up in a dazzling blizzard of glory; all is white and all encompassing. There is no other reality than the super-intense, stinging glow all around them and the howling voice, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”

Mawson, Mertz and Ninnis on the physical plane; Jesus and the three disciples on the metaphysical plane – all caught up in the awesome swirl.

Mawson described in his book what it was like to arrive back in Adelaide after all of this: “The voices of innumerable strangers – the handgrips of many friends – It chokes one…”

Imagine Peter, James and John when, after they had fallen prostrate before this astounding vision, Jesus touched them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

But these are stories of larger-than-life heroes in extraordinary circumstances, right? This is the stuff of myth and legend. Nothing to do with us.

What if…Just the living is the adventure, the expedition across unknown fields of both beauty and hidden perils.

I have fallen into the odd crevasse in my time. I’ve been caught up in the writhing storm-whirl of grief. I’ve been too, too far off base. You?
I have even been to the mountaintop in my time. Struck dumb by a look of love, felled by beauty, bedazzled by the infinite. And I hope you have too.

People have left me provisions, and in strokes of luck I have found them and been enabled to return to safety, community, warmth, myself. I’ve sat there for a long time, in a tight and stale little cabin, unable to go further towards home. But then my ship has come in. And I made it across, scarred but standing. Felt the grip of friendship.

Resilience. That’s the thing. Feel the touch of compassion, get up, and do not be afraid.

(for a fantastic poem about resilience, go to poetryfoundation.org and find Trevor West Knapp’s poem “Touch”)

cheers, Jana

posted 04 Mar 2014 by Jana