Sunday, January 08, 2012

Things to do at the Top of a Mountain

Some of my favourite books are about exploration. If I were to name three particular favourites they would be (in no particular order)...

  • The Dig Tree by Sarah Murgatroyd - the hapless first attempt to cross the Australian continent 
  • Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming - under utilised British naval officers being sent to discover hitherto unmapped parts of the globe
  • The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes - more colonisation than exploration but a magnificent and definitive book about the early settlement of Australia
One of the duties of early explorers, as they mapped out the territories they discovered was to come up with names for prominent landmarks, mountains, islands, rivers etc. This was an essential part of early exploration. Initially they would start their journey by naming places after famous people or perhaps the sponsors of the expedition.

Boothia Felix (now the Boothia Peninsula), an enormous barren wasteland in the Canadian Arctic was named after Felix Booth, a wealthy industrialist who made his money from distilling gin and was a patron of the expedition that discovered it.

Mount Everest was named after a prominent surveyor of India. It is generally thought that George Everest never actually saw the mountain that was named after him. Nowadays we don't even pronounce it correctly. He was insistent the first syllable of his name was pronounced Eve (as in Adam and Eve).

When explorers ran out of names of famous people they would start naming things after themselves or members of their family. The Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica is named after Sir James Clark Ross who discovered it. Yes, he named it after himself.

On long expeditions and with many new discoveries, explorers often ran out of names of people to use or simply became bored and they just named things after the first thing that came into their mind. This is the reason why in Australia you have a mountain range called The Snowy Mountains and deserts called the Great Sandy Desert and the Little Sandy Desert. In the US you have the Clearwater river and the Snake river. All these names show that whilst early explorers may have been hardy and intrepid, they probably didn't have a good thesaurus to hand.

When things got really desperate they would name places after events that had occured at those places. This explains places like Cape Tribulation where Captain James Cook ran his ship onto a reef and briefly believed his expedition would end. 

Going away from the exploration theme, on a more local level, places that are simply associated with a particular person or feature of the area would be named appropriately. Drill down onto any Google map and you will find any number of places called Ray's Creek, Ned's Point, Pleasant Valley or something similar.

Individual streets in cities would be named after the trade or activity most commonly practiced in that area. Gropec*nt Lane was a frequently used name to describe the part of a town or city where prostitution was common.
Today I was watching one of those TV shows about the emergency services. This particular programme was centred around a hospital in Melbourne. One incident involved a teenager who had been injured whilst out walking in the local mountains. The area was inaccessible to vehicles and the rescue helicopter had to be used. I did a double take the first time they mentioned the place where she had to be rescued from. They mentioned the place several times again as the dramatic helicopter rescue took place.
What was the name of the place where this girl had befallen her unfortunate accident?

Mount Buggery. What on earth do you think happened there to provoke it to be so named?
If you think that's amusing, look at the photo caption on the Wikipedia page and see what the adjacent mountain is called.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Hang On To Your Hope

It seems fashionable to think the world is going to hell and there's not a damn thing we can do about it. I don't share that opinion although I do tend to look at the news now and again and wonder what the hell is going on.

Even if you consider yourself reasonably optimistic, I sometimes wonder whether the idea that it's all a bit pointless gets into you and has a consequent effect on your behaviour. I know within me there's a hardened lump of cynicism/pessimism but I try to fight it off  and, in my mind anyway, I think the optimistic side usually wins.

What I am increasingly guilty of is not getting anything significant done. Sure, I can deal with the day to day stuff or the stuff that simply has to be done but there's nothing long term in my plans. I'll put something off because I won't see the benefit of it for a few weeks/months/years and then, what do you know, that time has passed and I wish I'd done that thing because I know now I'd be reaping whatever reward I was due for my farsightedness.

Am I like this because deep down inside I'm troubled by the thought that it's all a bit pointless or is it just apathy and laziness? I suspect there's a fair amount of the latter and also regrettably, sometimes a little of the former.

I think some of it also has to do with comfort and security (and/or possibly insecurity). When you're young and hungry you go out and grab things - you've got nothing to lose. You have to do this because opportunities don't tend to come offering themselves to you. As you get older and more secure you don't need to go out and fight so much. You've bagged the big stuff - a home, a partner, kids, a steady job, financial security and whatever else floats your boat. You then consolidate. You hunker down.

If you haven't got one of those things (and I have a few gaps in that particular list) you tend to be more philosophical about it and it stops becoming something you hope will one day define you and the reverse happens. You end up being defined by its absence rather than its presence.

Just stumbling across the following letter was what triggered the above thoughts. It's from the writer E. B. White and his response to a correspondent asking for his thoughts on the future of humankind - that's a big subject to ask anyone but it's a simple (always the best), thoughtful and considered response.

What it says to me is if you do think the world is going to hell, then find a modest task that you know has something more than just an immediate objective and remind yourself whenever you do it that by doing this small thing, you're planning for the future. In this case, winding up a clock that will then run for  a week is a "....contribution to order and steadfastness".

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man's curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.


(Signed, 'E. B. White')

The above is courtesy of the always interesting Letters of Note.