The boat’s prow cuts through the salt sea, and beyond
the shimmering spindrift the island comes into view.
Deep forests of tart new bananas; saffron’s soft invitation.
Beguiling gleam of jasmine illuminates the uncharted
coastline like a beacon, like a beckoning, with a wordless
understanding: You arrive here a stranger to the quiet
country of ylang-ylang. You depart its compatriot and caretaker.
— Matthew Kosinski
Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, in honor of Isle of Jasmine’s adventurous spirit, we consider how the human urge to explore can help us discover our place in the world.
The illegitimate daughter of a Prussian aristocrat and a priest-turned-anarchist, the writer and explorer Isabelle Eberhardt was perhaps destined to live an unconventional life — although that might be an understatement. In her brief time on Earth, Eberhardt learned to speak and read seven languages. She regularly wandered the streets of Geneva, Switzerland — her birthplace — sporting men’s clothing and short-cropped hair. In the 1890s, that wasn’t exactly commonplace. And she had an almost overwhelming urge to leave Europe for North Africa, an urge fed by her penpal, a French serviceman who wrote to her about his station in the Sahara.1 At 21, Eberhardt struck out for the Maghreb, where she would convert to Sufism, join multiple expeditions into the Sahara, carouse with the locals, and write stories set in the region until her untimely death at 27 in a flood.2
Sand dunes in the Sahara desert;Source: Wikipedia
Eberhardt was among the first Europeans to advocate for decolonization of North Africa. Perhaps that’s because, unlike many white explorers of the 19th century, Eberhardt wasn’t in it for the glory or the chance to claim more territory on behalf of a country. Rather, her urge to explore was driven by the very human longing to find a place where she could be herself. While she felt ostracized by European society for her bold rejection of norms, she found in the act of exploration — and among the Arab communities, who readily welcomed her on excursions — a way to move beyond the restrictive cultural codes she found so suffocating.3 As she wrote in a diary entry,
“A subject to which intellectuals never give a thought is the right to be a vagrant, the freedom to wander. Yet vagrancy is deliverance, and life on the open road is the essence of freedom. … For me it seems that by advancing in unknown territories, I enter my life.”4
Eberhardt’s life was far from typical, but it does reveal a fundamental truth about the universal impulse to explore the world around us. No matter where we go — whether the deserts of North Africa or aboard the International Space Station — we’re bound to find ourselves. And in the act of self-discovery, we often learn more about our world and the people with whom we share it, too.
‘A Vast Pattern — of Which I Am a Part’
We human beings have what Albert Einstein once called “a passion for comprehension,” a seemingly innate drive that compels our species to trek to the North Pole, spend decades listening for gravity, and smash particles together in a tunnel 574 feet below the surface. We do it all just because we want to know what’s out there in the world.
In fact, that urge may be the very thing that motivated early human beings to spread out across the globe. In the opinion of Eske Willerslev — the geneticist who sequenced the first ancient human genome — humankind didn’t expand into new territory in a simple search for new resources, but to satisfy its innate curiosity about the world.
“Humankind didn’t expand into new territory in a simple search for new resources, but to satisfy its innate curiosity about the world.”
Located deep underground near Geneva, the Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider; Source: Wikipedia
Maybe it’s a side effect of our bigger-than-average brains. Maybe it’s that the universe itself is always learning — an interesting new theory posited by a group of audacious cosmologists — and we’re part of the process. Whatever its cause, this passion has been vital to the development of human civilization. As Einstein writes, “Without this passion, there would be neither mathematics nor natural science.”5
Science and passion may seem like curious bedfellows. Isn’t science supposed to be the realm of the coldly rational? It certainly can be — and often, that calculating, dissociated outlook leads to a hubristic exploitation of the planet’s natural resources, as we explored in our piece about how humans separated ourselves from nature.
But when science is combined with passion, the opposite is possible. Instead of treating the world as something to master, we come to see ourselves, one another, and even the entire universe in a new and benevolent light. Here’s how Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman put it:
“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part.”6
Called “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken,” Earthrise shows our home planet from the surface of the moon. The photograph is renowned for the sense of awe it sparks in viewers. As astronaut William Anders, who took the picture, put it: “We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth." 7; Source: Unsplash
Feynman’s vision of science is one of breathtaking beauty. The quote comes from a footnote to a lecture he delivered in the 1960s, which finds Ferynman marveling at the fact that “the most remarkable discovery in all of astronomy is that the stars are made of atoms of the same kind as those of earth.” In other words: Feynman is in such a rapturous mood because the science of astronomy has drawn a connection between the ground we walk upon and the stars that shine above. It has put us in a holistic context as part and parcel of a vast, shared universe.
Historically, the act of exploration — whether strictly scientific or of the more adventurous kind — has often been one of domination, especially when carried out on behalf of Western nations. History is rife with stories of “research” expeditions with violent repercussions for the natural world and for Indigenous people. But the human urge to explore only leads to destruction when harnessed in service of power and control. In a different context, it can be a grounding, reorienting influence that helps us better understand ourselves and knits us all together in a kind of cosmic kinship with everything in the universe, animate or otherwise.
Seeing the World With Fresh Eyes
In the midst of the so-called Golden Age of Exploration, when the expansion of European imperial power was the aim of many explorers, Alexander von Humboldt was one of the few thinkers and adventurers to counter that tendency. As we explored in last year’s Ignite series, Humboldt’s aim was, in his words, “to recognize unity in diversity, to comprehend all the single aspects as revealed by the discoveries of the last epochs, to judge single phenomena separately without surrendering their bulk, and to grasp Nature's essence under the cover of outer appearances.”
Matthew Henson was the first Black man to reach the North Pole. He was possibly the first man to ever reach the Pole, but competing accounts from various expeditions make it difficult to determine for certain who holds that title; Source: Wikipedia
During a five-year expedition through South America, Humboldt laid the foundations for biogeography, the study of species distribution across the planet. Humboldt recognized that, no matter how far apart they were, species in similar environments seemed to share similar characteristics. In recognizing the persistence of similarity across great distances, Humboldt also saw the trouble with existing social orders that imposed hierarchies on human beings.7
Humboldt was not the only explorer whose journeys into new (to him) lands helped him better understand what it means to live in communion with others. Take Matthew Henson, the first Black man — and possibly the first human, period — to reach the North Pole. Known as a skilled hunter, sled-driver, and speaker of the Inuit language, Henson was an indispensable part of the U.S. Navy Engineer Robert E. Peary’s crew as it attempted to reach the Pole at the turn of the century, eventually culminating in a successful arrival in 1909.8
Iceberg at Scoresby Sund, Greenland; Source: Unsplash
Henson’s diaries from his expeditions don’t express the monomaniacal obsession of a man out for glory and conquest — overriding concerns for many of the other men racing to reach the North Pole around the same time. Rather, Henson devotes much of his writing to observations on the culture of Greenland’s native Inuit, people he admires as “friends.” Perhaps Henson’s background has something to do with it: As a Black man in America at the turn of the century, Henson was likely well aware of his home country’s pervasive structural racism. We can only speculate, but his lived experience may have prompted him to view his expeditions as opportunities for understanding rather than exercises in power.
Like Humboldt, Henson traveled far from home only to discover his own society’s shortcomings. Across his repeated journeys into Greenland and Northern Canada, Henson noticed the decline of the Inuit population — and he noticed this decline was due, at least in part, to “the misguided endeavors of civilized men.”9 Henson writes:
“It is sad to think of the fate of my friends who live in what was once a land of plenty, but which is, through the greed of the commercial hunter, becoming a land of frigid desolation. The seals are practically gone, and the walrus are being quickly exterminated. The reindeer and the musk-oxen are going the same way.”10
Here, at the ends of the earth, Henson comes face to face with an ugly truth about his own so-called “civilized” society, the way its drive to exploit the resources of the planet causes harm to people far away. Henson may not have gained that perspective if he hadn’t joined Peary’s crew. But in a new place — a new context — he could step outside himself and see the world with fresh eyes.
To the Stars
Some explorers have gained a new perspective on the world by leaving it entirely. It’s called the “overview effect”: a revelatory new understanding of the world some astronauts report experiencing when gazing upon the Earth from a vantage point in space.11 Michael Collins, a crewmember during the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first human beings on the Moon, described the essence of the overview effect like so:12
“The thing that really surprised me was that it [Earth] projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.”
For Mae Jemison — the first Black woman in space — space exploration was similarly an act connecting her to humanity as a whole. That fact is reflected in the things Jemison brought with her aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992, including a poster of Black dancer Judith Jamison, certificates that would be distributed to Chicago Public School students, and the flag of the Organization of African Unity.3
Mae Jemison aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992; Source: Wikipedia
This was Jemison’s way of turning exploration into an act of community, her way of ensuring that our journeys into space would honor everyone on the planet. As an explorer, Jemison felt it was her duty to bring more people and perspectives into the important conversations about how science is done and how technology is used. As she put it in an interview with the Washington Post:
“I didn't need to take up another Stanford banner, as much as I love Stanford, or Cornell. They had those up there. … We each bring our own perspectives to our work. And you know, what a shame it would be if I were to go into space and I did not use what I had learned from having worked in West Africa for two and a half years, having been a doctor, having grown up in the South Side of Chicago.”14
The Gulf of Mexico, from space; Source: NASA via Unsplash
Jemison continues thinking about how we can develop technologies that will have a positive impact on the world through her leadership of 100 Year Starship, a broad-based research project that aims to develop the capabilities for human beings to travel outside our solar system within the next century. It’s not the sheer romance of the galaxy that fuels Jemison’s research. Rather, she uses the framework of space exploration to develop new ideas that make life better for everyone in the here and now. We don’t currently have much, if any, of the technology we need for interstellar travel yet. But if we did, Jemison says, “imagine how it would change life here on Earth.”15
Breaking the Double Bind
Exploration doesn’t have to be a way of expanding mankind’s dominion over the planet. As the examples of Feynman, Humboldt, Hanson, and Jemison all show, it can be a way of honoring our universal heritage and making life better for all. In fact, our passion for comprehension may help us escape what designer William McDonough calls the “stewardship vs. dominion debate.”16
What is the role of the human species: To be masters of this world or to serve as its caretakers? As McDonough points out, this is a false dichotomy: “Dominion is implicit in stewardship, because how could you dominate something you had killed? And stewardship's implicit in dominion, because you can't be steward of something if you can't dominate it.”17
“What is the role of the human species: To be masters of this world or to serve as its caretakers?”
Time and again, exploration — undertaken with a truly open mind — has shown us a way out of this false dichotomy. Whether it’s Feynman celebrating the shared atomic nature of the heavens and earth or Jemison marshalling the technology of space exploration for the immediate benefit of our own planet, exploration grants us the context we need to understand our place in the world and the opportunity to expand the realm of what’s possible within it.
That human urge to explore always leads us back to a simple fact: We are of the world and involved in it; we shape the world, but it shapes us in return. In that light, perhaps we are neither masters nor stewards, but something totally different. Maybe the better word is “participant.” And so the question for all of us might become: How do we participate in the world in ways that leave it better off for everyone — and everything — involved?
— The Keap Team
In 1968, three NASA astronauts became the first humans to orbit the Moon. The Apollo 8 mission also captured a photograph of Earth from space that forever changed the way we saw ourselves. Source: National Geographic