Esteemed thinker: Matthew A. Henson

penguin They say that white is a color without hues; a pigment that ignores any gradual progression of tints or tones by which allowing us to proclaim that white is perhaps the purist of all the colors. Yet there is a paradox to our declaration; for if this wily pigment lacks the natural property attached to what we know as an essential facet of “color”… the saturation and mixture of pigments together … (a very elementary skill we all learned when we were just finger painting; red and yellow make orange, yellow and blue make green, and so forth)…we must ask ourselves… what then is “white”?

Can we say that white is indeed a color or is it the anti-color, the spoiler of the color wheel, the rainbow, and the kaleidoscope? We know it is present in a prism but it never really reveals itself…rather it magically performs as an invisible light that we need but don’t see. Much like infinity; which brings the mind reeling with the concept that a number line can go on infinitely; the same notion that accosts one’s thoughts that space has no end… so does the brain have to come to terms that white is not a color as we know it, but actually a perceived lack there-of; a notion that introduces a most unsettling prospect.

Yet, it is possible that this ‘unsettling’ feeling corresponds with the vast and sheer emptiness one experiences when confronted with a world that is singularly devoid of color…when everything is pure white…when you lose your sense of location for there is not a single landmark to set perspective… the land of ice and snow.And we must wonder if this sensation happens to a polar bear or a penguin…creatures that spend their lives in and out of the icy waters and then on the frozen land that is unforgiving…a most uninhabitable part of earth for many, yet although it does not seem to unfurl the welcome mat, for even the plants that we are accustomed to made a decision eons ago not to adapt, there are some brave souls who find such exotic places adventurous, exciting, even though they are vacant of all accommodations… Even though night chooses not to fall upon its frigid days…and it is always the color of the albatross…the color of pearls… the color of truth….the color…or shall we say the purist of colors… white.

Matthew_Henson_1910 Today’s blog was inspired by the esteemed thinker: Matthew A. Henson (1866-1955). Born in Baltimore, Maryland, he was the son of two freeborn black sharecroppers. Though both his parents died when he was very young, at the age of 12 he left home and became a cabin boy. Under the tutelage of Captain Childs he learned to read maps and books, the operation of ships, and navigational skills; by twenty- one he was an expert seaman. He later met the Admiral Robert Edwin Peary and was hired as his valet. Yet as time went on he proved himself to be an invaluable asset. Becoming one of the world’s greatest explorers, he accompanied Peary on numerous Arctic expeditions. Though it took years to receive his just place in history, he is best remembered today as having discovered the North Pole with Peary in 1909.

I now give you a parcel of thoughts from our great American explorer and hero, Mr. Henson. From his remarkable auto-biography, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (1912), take a moment… for his words will surely last you a life-time….

“… Naturally there were frequent storms and intense cold, and in regard to the storms of the Arctic regions of North Greenland and Grant Land, the only word I can use to describe them is “terrible,” in the fullest meaning it conveys. The effect of such storms of wind and snow, or rain, is abject physical terror, due to the realization of perfect helplessness. I have seen rocks a hundred and a hundred and fifty pounds in weight picked up by the storm and blown for distances of ninety or a hundred feet to the edge of a precipice, and there of their own momentum go hurtling through space to fall in crashing fragments at the base. Imagine the effect of such a rainfall of death-dealing bowlders on the feelings of a little group of three or four, who have sought the base of the cliff for shelter. I have been there and I have seen one of my Esquimo companions felled by a blow from a rock eighty-four pounds in weight, which struck him fairly between the shoulder-blades, literally knocking the life out of him. I have been there, and believe me, I have been afraid. A hundred-pound box of supplies, taking an aërial joy ride, during the progress of a storm down at Anniversary Lodge in 1894, struck Commander Peary a glancing blow which put him out of commission for over a week. These mighty winds make it possible for the herbivorous animals of this region to exist. They sweep the snow from vast stretches of land, exposing the hay and dried dwarf-willows, that the hare, musk-oxen, and reindeer feed on…”

Esteemed thinker: Charles Waterton

olinguito Oh, the horrors of a ‘mistaken identity’; we have all had an embarrassing moment when you confuse one person for another and depending upon who it is can result in a very awkward moment. Generally a quick apology can be enough to satisfy most, yet if your error is met during a business meeting, one would think you had committed the crime of the century. And then there are those times when an error in identification can become more than a social faux-pas and resulting in an injurious consequence. Let us take the example of misidentifying a suspect erroneously; such as what transpired in the classic film “12 Angry Men”… and then there was the time the poor grey cat was blamed for breaking into the neighbors screened porch, only to discover after the feline was driven away in the back of a van to an undisclosed location… it was actually a band of roving raccoons that had committed the dastardly deed!

Which brings us to a most important discovery that fringes on the tale of a “mistaken identity”… on August 15, 2013 researchers announced the discovery of the first new mammal found in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years. It is a rust colored furry olinguito, which translates from Spanish to “little olingo.’ According to Kristofer Helgen, the Smithsonian’s curator of mammals, he and his team first saw the animal in the Andes back in 2006 and have been constructing its family history ever since. But behold… “It’s been kind of hiding in plain sight for a long time….” The olinguito once lived in the National Zoo in Washington for a year; it had been mistaken for a sister species, the olingo. Alas, another case of mistaken identity! In retrospect the scientists stated that they wondered how the animals could have been confused; the olinguitos are smaller, have shorter tails, a rounder face, tinier ears and darker bushier fur than the captivated olingo.

Charles Waterton And so, we all can see that even under the scrutiny of science… mistaken identity occurrences can happen ( and probably more often than one would like to admit) …which brings us to today’s blog where I shall introduce you to a more obscure name in the 21st century… the esteemed thinker: Charles Waterton, (1782-1865) English born naturalist and explorer. His adventurous expeditions brought back profound contributions; especially concerning fauna and bird life from South America. One of his more notable additions to science was the introduction into Europe of curare, now an invaluable drug in surgical operations. Considered an eccentric during his lifetime, he turned his family estate into an extensive nature reserve, long before such a concept was ever heard of. From his autobiography, Wanderings of South America, I give you some most interesting observations by nature’s champion, Mr. Waterton …

“…Here I had a fine opportunity once more of examining the three-toed sloth. He was in the house with me for a day or two. Had I taken a description of him as he lay sprawling on the floor I should have misled the world and injured natural history. On the ground he appeared really a bungled composition, and faulty at all points; awkwardness and misery were depicted on his countenance; and when I made him advance he sighed as though in pain…
After fully satisfying myself that it only leads the world into error to describe the sloth while he is on the ground or in any place except in a tree, I carried the one I had in my possession to his native haunts. As soon as he came in contact with the branch of a tree all went right with him. I could see as he climbed up into his own country that he was on the right road to happiness; and felt persuaded more than ever that the world has hitherto erred in its conjectures concerning the sloth, on account of naturalists not having given a description of him when he was in the only position in which he ought to have been described, namely, clinging to the branch of a tree…”