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COVID-19 - Inspiration - Arctic & Antarctic Exploration - Isolation

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Thu 19th Mar 2020
Category: Self Isolating | My Coronavirus Story | All / Filter

Coronavirus & Arctic/Antarctic Explorers have something common when dealing with isolation - or extreme isolation (and we are entering isolation as a family just now due to the Coronavirus 2020 pandemic).

Arctic/Antarctic Explorers started mainly in the 19th century to explore what was then the complete unknown - the extreme limits of the South and North poles, and no one knew what was there, whether it was sea, land or ice, and what passages there were through it.

These explorers - and they really were true explorers - lead small teams in even smaller confined ships with no communication to the outside world to these poles to explore them further. A famous one is Scott and Shackelton but there were other less well known, but perhaps better prepared explorers such as Nansen and Roald Amundsen.

Example - Shackelton

These were long, hazardous, stressfully, strenuous and very isolated journeys with small teams together for long lengths of time, lasting typically years, without any contact with the outside world. Shackelton's infamous 1914–1917 expedition suffered extreme hardships, loss of his ship, living in confined and very life threatening stressfully times. He left at the outbreak of the WW1 in 1914, and when eventually Shackelton made contact with civilization in 1916 asked 'When did the war finish' and was astonished to hear the current carnage.

It is interesting to note that expedition was called the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and involved other boats and crews on the other side of the Antarctic, who had an equally hard time, but they are forgotten largely.

Mental challenges

Shackelton's journey is best remembered for it's severe physical hardships - loss of ship, his astonishing voyage in a small converted boat 'James Caird' from Elephant Island to South Georgia. But we focus less on the severe mental challenge that the whole crew had to deal with. Imagine seeing your only hope - your ship sink in the middle of the ice, very far from anyone else, any land or ships, with no hope of outside rescue, knowing that if you were to live, you'd have to do it yourself, with your team members. Extreme isolation in an extremely stressful situation.

But it wasn't just loss of ships that caused the mental stresses. The winters in the Arctic and Antarctic are long and dark, and you can't go out exploring, and you were stuck with just a few people in a confined space with no where to go. And during the summer, when exploring, going out in small teams, on the ice was just as hard - it was cold, there often wasn't enough food, and you were stuck with just a few people. Extreme isolation in an very stressful situations.

It is interesting to note that, looking at all the trips certainly from the early 20th century (and there were more than just Scott & Shackelton) whilst a few party members suffered mental health problems, most did not appear to. And they weren't tested for mental health on application - sometimes it was just who they could get, or who might pay their passage. I suspect that one reason that most of them survived is because they kept a routine, and kept going.

How did they cope?

Whilst the various crews managed in different ways, I think there are some simple overall ideas to help us now.

Firstly, they continued with routine, even in winter, and when necessary their naval hierarchy. For us now, in the midst of isolating during the Coronavirus pandemic routine is important - getting up at a reasonable time, keeping meal times the same, and eating regularly. Keeping the routine of work during the day (although we'll need to be flexible in this). And going to bed at a reasonable time.

Secondly, they kept busy with tasks, but also had time off. We need to keep busy with tasks - school work, our work, work on the garden etc., but not try and cram so much in to start with that we will run out of steam - and allow ourselves time off too with some TV time etc.

Thirdly, they used their time off profitably. They read books, talked to each other, listen to music, sang songs, dressed up and performed in their own plays. But perhaps most importantly, they sat and talked as a group - sometimes one would 'lecture' on a favourite topic of theirs, another time they would go round and say what meal they'd eat when they go home (they had a limited diet, it was important). They distracted themselves from the sheer boredom that could have occurred and kept them minds active. We can do that too.

Fourthly keep the disciple going, without being draconian. If we have an 'anything goes' attitude with our children it will all go wrong later. We need to talk to our children, set the expectations and rules now, not later.

One difference to these explorers though is that we have outside communication - phone, email, whatsapp, facebook, skype and so many other media. We need to use that so we are isolating, but not isolated.

An Aside: 'The Worst Journey in the World'

On the rare occasions that I do any engraving in the house, I use a copy of Apsley Cherry-Garrard's book 'The Worst Journey in the World' to work on instead of an engravers sandbag. The book refers to his voyage on Scotts last Antarctic journey in 1910-1912, so called due to the privations he suffered on various trips (such as collection penguin specimens in extreme cold etc.). He was also on one of the rescue parties looking for Scott, and lived with a life long regret having got I think 7 miles from his tent when Scott was just still alive, but storms and the like pushed him back (I'm working from memory here, exact details may not be correct).

'The Worst Journey in the World' is probably an apt title. He returned to be George Bernard Shaw's near neighbour (or was it neighbour, I forget), and it was he who I recall encouraged him to write this book.

I feel the weight of history that I am leaning on.

Tags: coronavirus,corvid19,pandemic


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