Monday, May 6, 2013

Most, if not all, of the books that we have read this semester focus almost exclusively on the human stories generated by moving through or adventuring into the wilderness.  Even Norgay's Touching my Father's Soul, which examined the impact, both positive and negative, of European climbing in the Himalayas on the Sherpa community was primarily anthropocentric.  Although Norgay approached Everest in a more respectful way because, as a man rediscovering his Buddhist roots, he believed that the mountain was a goddess, he rarely, if ever, mentioned the environmental impact that climbing has had on Everest.  There was no mention of trash or the need to remove it.  Rowing to Latitude, however, with its eloquent and lengthy passages describing the wilderness and signs of human habitation that Fredston and Dave pass through stands in sharp contrast to the other books we have read.  Unlike the other authors we have read, Fredston makes it a central purpose of her book to describe the environments that she and Doug have rowed through and the insights that those journeys have given them into the impact of anthropocentrism and human expansion have had not only on the indigenous peoples they meet but on the environment at large.  In doing so, she recognizes and attempts to show her reader that virgin wilderness no longer exists.  Even the preserves, where human contact technically should not have occurred, are littered with the refuse of human activity.

While Fredston and Doug saw hints of human activity even in the most remote parts of Canada and Alaska, they were largely able to avoid it.  The abundance of wildlife helped to create the illusion that they were traveling through a virgin wilderness, even as they encountered stone tools, dilapidated cabins, and rusted barrels.  Norway, however, shatters this illusion completely.  Whereas Fredston and Doug were often able to pretend that they were the first to see the landscape they traveled through in Norway, as Doug writes, "we always have the feeling that everything has been discovered once, twice, hundreds, maybe thousands of times before.  We need a few more secrets" (216).  The frequent presence of sheep and other domesticated animals, apart from driving Fredston bonkers when they camp, further emphasizes that Norway has no unadulterated nature left to offer them.  As such, Dough ironically writes, "Mostly we see sheep (even in nature preserves!) and cows and salmon farms, though on a good day, we might come across a land otter or mink, a seal, and a couple of deer" (216).  This domesticated wilderness could not be more different from their trips along the Canadian and Alaskan coasts, where they were often discovered and examined by bears in the middle of the night.  Although their journey through Norway disheartens them in many ways, it teaches them a valuable lesson: "It made us realize that, like the perpetually grazing sheep, centuries of human habitation have nibbled away not only at the earth but at our perception of what constitutes nature.  When we do not miss what is asent because we have never known it to be there, we will have lost our baseline for recognizing what is truly wild.  In its domestication nature will have become just another human fabrication" (217). Norway illustrates the dangers posed by continual human expansion; however, Fredston goes beyond a simple environmental message.  She powerfully suggests that human expansion will pose not only a danger to the wilderness and wildlife, but to humans as well.  The development of Alaska, she shows, not only diminishes the habitat and quality of life of wild animals, but it also does so for humans by shrinking the amount of wilderness available for human exploration.  This, in turn, irrevocably alters how people interact with one another in the wilderness: "In Alaska, meeting another group of paddlers used to be an occasion to socialize.  But now it is not uncommon for two groups of paddlers camped on opposite ends of a beach to adopt the same avoidance behavior.  As development shrinks the open spaces and technology makes the remaining spaces more accessible, this may become a standard coping mechanism.  We will have replaced the privilege of solitude with isolation" (220).  Thus, Rowing to Latitude becomes a chronicle of the changes wrought by humans on the natural world and the dangers that this poses to nature and to humans as well.  In destroying or minimizing wilderness, people are destroying or minimizing their abilities to escape from everyday life and to explore not only the wilderness but themselves and the people they are with.


  1. I agree that Fredston is unique among the author's we've read in her vivid depictions of the world around her, and her desire to give a voice to the voiceless. One passage that stood out to me in particular was where she expresses her desire to "give voice to the caribou that graze without fear along the Labrador shore, to the wide-shouldered brown bears of the Alaska Peninsula who depend upon the annual migration of salmon, to fjords uncut by roads and power lines" (xvi). While it is slightly problematic that Fredston is anthropocentrically giving human voices to non-human beings, I think her desire to write for other beings and not just herself is pretty respectable.

  2. I really enjoyed Fredston's societal critiques and environmental standpoint. Perhaps I'm swayed because I am an Environmental Studies major, but I can't imagine spending such focused time out in nature as the people we've read about this semester have done and not considering the anthropogenic threats to our earth that threaten the viability of pristine locations of "wilderness." Honestly, I'm surprised more of the narratives we've read haven't focused more on environmental issues and land preservation. (I realize I'm heavily biased, but still!) Not to say other authors didn't lament the commercialization of Everest and degradation of other landscapes, but Fredston's critique is more apparent.
    To me, Fredston is arguably the most admirable adventurer we've read this semester--not only because of her concerns for social and environmental justice, but also for her priorities. I'm glad we're ending the term with a pair who adventure because they love exploring on the water while discovering themselves and strengthening their relationship. The simplicity in these motivations is beautiful and puts our semester into perspective; adventuring is incredibly personal and can bring about huge accomplishments while providing moments for introspection. For example, during one of Fredston's asides into environmental philosophy she says, "but these were thoughts that would surface once I was back on the river" (94). Rowing allows her to think and process her thoughts.