How to Explore Like a Real Victorian Adventurer
In Zanzibar, late in 1856, Richard F. Burton and a caravan of porters prepared to venture into the heart of Africa’s interior to search for the source of the Nile River. A ropy knot of scar tissue shined on Burton’s cheek—a souvenir from his most recent expedition, upon which he caught a spear to the face during an ambush by Somali tribesmen.
An English diplomat on the island tried to warn Burton against pressing his luck a second time. The diplomat told Burton that a wandering French naval officer recently had been taken prisoner by tribal warriors. The natives had tied the luckless pilgrim to a tree and lopped off his limbs, one by one. The warriors, after dramatically pausing to sharpen their knives, relieved the Frenchman of his misery by slicing off his head. A true story, the diplomat insisted.
Burton wasn’t fazed. Severed limbs, rolling heads—even the grisliest of portents couldn’t deflate his spirit, not before a journey into uncharted territory. He’d spent his life cultivating a world-worn persona that confronted anything resembling naïveté with open hostility, but a blank space on a map could reduce him to giddiness: “Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands,” he wrote in his journal before that trip inland. “The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood.”
Africa, as it turned out, would wring much of that blood out of him. In the months ahead he would suffer partial blindness, partial paralysis, sizzling fevers. Hallucinations crowded his brain with ghosts. A swollen tongue got in the way of eating. But the bottom line: he would survive to explore again. And years later, flipping through that worn journal from 1856, he would pass retrospective judgment on his pre-expedition enthusiasm: “Somewhat boisterous,” he concluded, “but true.”
This kind of aimless gusto for all things unexplored defined the golden age of inland travel, which roughly coincided with Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) in England. It’s no coincidence that these were the same years when steamships and telegraphs began to shrink the globe. Industrialization transformed urban landscapes and fueled the expansion of colonial empires. Railroads standardized the world’s clocks, and a new strain of hurried angst—what poet Matthew Arnold labeled “this strange disease of modern life”—began to devour souls by the millions.
Enter a new breed of adventurous explorer, which Burton perfectly exemplified. These men filled the membership rolls of the “geographical societies” that started to pop up in London, New York, Paris, Berlin, and most other capitals of the industrialized world. Geographical expeditions became the antidote to an increasingly ordered, regulated, and unmysterious way of life.
But what purpose would be served if the person who finally entered terra incognita couldn’t handle its unpredictable challenges? What was the point of travel if the person who finally laid eyes on the previously unseen didn’t really know how to look at it?
It quickly became clear that far-flung voyagers, even those as hearty as Burton, needed focus when confronting the riddles of undiscovered worlds. They needed guiding hands. They needed how-to manuals.
Victorian adventurers rarely took a step into the wild without hauling a small library of how-to-explore books with them. Among the volumes Burton carried into east Africa was a heavily annotated copy of Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel: or, Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries. Originally conceived as a handbook for explorers, and sponsored by England’s Royal Geographical Society, the book was required reading for any self-respecting Victorian traveler. Before rolling up his sleeves and getting down to the hard business of exploring, he could turn to page 134 to learn the best way to do exactly that:
When you have occasion to tuck up your shirt-sleeves, recollect that the way of doing so is, not to begin by turning the cuffs inside-out, but outside-in—the sleeves must be rolled up inwards, towards the arm, and not the reverse way. In the one case, the sleeves will remain tucked up for hours without being touched; in the other, they become loose every five minutes.
The amiably neurotic Galton left nothing to chance. His index is studded with gems like “bones as fuel” and “savages, management of.” If Burton couldn’t find the advice he was looking for in Galton, he could always consult one of the other books in his trunk that were written with explorers in mind. The stated aim of Randolph Barnes Marcy’s The Prairie Traveler: The 1859 Handbook for Westbound Pioneers, which Burton himself edited in later editions, read like a manifesto for every handbook of this kind: “With such a book in his hand,” Marcy writes, “[the explorer] will feel himself a master spirit in the wilderness he traverses, and not the victim of every new combination of circumstances which nature affords or fate allots, as if to try his skill and prowess.”
All of the books advertised practical intentions: if adventurers are compelled to wander the globe, why not teach them how to take note of details—be they geographical, anthropological, or whatever—that might prove useful to science, industry or empire?
I stumbled upon The Art of Travel while researching a book about African exploration, and continued on to the other titles, all of which are available for free on the internet. After reading them, I can confidently report that the scientific, industrial, and political developments of the intervening century have thoroughly undermined the original intentions of most of their authors. These titles won’t help powerful nations lay claim to new territories and exploitable populations. As literary genres go, this one is about as dead as they get.
But it deserves a resurrection.
It’s true that the authors are generally eccentric, habitually obsessive, and at times comically misguided. A modern reader will find plenty of hopelessly dated assumptions to indulge a sense of cultural superiority. You might chuckle when someone writes about the best place to buy a pith helmet in London. But that stuff has little to do with these books’ contemporary relevance, which goes beyond entertainment value.
While no one was looking, this neglected genre transcended its crudely utilitarian origins to occupy a higher sphere: the books are instruction manuals for the senses, lovingly compiled tip sheets on the acquired art of paying attention.
They’re not quick and easy reads. Arcane language and compulsive punctuation force the reader to decelerate. But that is exactly what many of the explorers of the period identified as the most important first step of any successful expedition.
“While traveling in a strange country [I] should always prefer making my observations at a rate not quicker than five or six miles an hour,” wrote Richard Owen, the superintendent of the British Museum’s Natural History Departments and a scientific patron for many of the period’s most far-reaching expeditions. History has judged him harshly for opposing Darwin’s ideas, but when it came to the subject of travel, his philosophy represented the vanguard of his generation’s views.
The crux of that philosophy—“slow down; it’s the journey, not the destination,” etc.—has ripened into soft travel-guide cliché. Modern writers tend to sound like humorless scolds when they preach about this stuff, but the Victorians avoided the trap of bland sanctimony because they were never content to stop at generalized advice. They always pushed it further. After advising travelers to reduce their speed, they offered hyper-specific instructions about exactly what travelers should observe, and how they should observe it.
The obvious titles illustrating this tendency are Harriet Martineau’s How to Observe: Morals and Manners, published in 1838, and What to Observe: The Traveller’s Remembrancer, written by Colonel Julian R. Jackson three years later. Jackson, a secretary at the Royal Geographical Society, explains in his preface that he has “endeavored to excite a desire for useful knowledge by awakening curiosity. The intending traveller, it is hoped, will, from a perusal of the present work see what an immense field of physical and moral research lies open to his investigation…”
Everything that meets the eye tells a story, but if viewed skillfully, it also can crack open a Russian-doll wonderland of stories within stories. When looking at a mountain peak, for example, Jackson emphasizes that care must be taken to determine if it’s a “saddle-back” or a “hog’s back” or a “sugar-loaf”—because the structure might reveal the landscape’s geological composition, which in turn can explain its vegetative potential, which can in turn… and so on.
Jackson spends thirty pages advising travelers how to look at a river (is the surface of the water flat, or does it actually appear slightly convex? What sort of debris does it carry?). There is no such thing as an insignificant detail. After reading a few dozen pages of this stuff, his book works like a mind-altering drug. You look up from the page and notice that the world around you is popping into new dimensions. Suddenly the tree outside your window is demanding attention. You start to notice the subtle temperature differences between the air circulating around your head and the soil beneath your feet. If you’re not careful, you can get lost on runaway trains of thought.
Jackson recognizes this danger, and he gently reminds his readers to stay on track, to maintain a discipline of focus. When he suggests that travelers should determine if native populations practice beekeeping (among many other things), he cautions against jumping ahead. First, the skillful explorer must fully observe the matter at hand before moving on to related concerns: “The care of bees is seldom an exclusive occupation, and although the honey, and particularly the wax obtained are important objects, we are here to consider merely the care bestowed on the bees themselves.”
Martineau’s How to Observe limits its attention to the proper manner of perceiving humans and their behavior. Like Jackson, she goes to great lengths in listing what travelers should notice—their treatment of criminals, the aspirations of children, beliefs about marriage—and she’s a stickler for concrete details. But she also exhibits a respect for the distorting potential of point of view that’s downright postmodern.
She urges the voyager to dismantle his assumptions and to always remain vigilant against “the affliction of seeing sin wherever he sees difference.” It takes a lot of practice to learn how to see the world clearly, but learning how to gauge the fun-house-mirror refractions of a foreign land is the duty of all who find themselves stumbling into disorienting territory: “A child does not catch a gold fish in water at the first trial, however good his eyes may be, and however clear the water; knowledge and method are necessary to enable him to take what is actually before his eyes and under his hand. So it is with all who fish in a strange element…”
The cameras of this era were cumbersome, delicate, and hellishly tricky to use in the field. Most explorers didn’t even bother. But often they were still expected to provide their sponsoring geographical societies with visual representations of the people and lands they encountered.
Burton, our tour guide into this lost world, turned to writers like Jackson and Martineau to broaden the scope of his attentions, but he delved deeper into his makeshift bookmobile when he needed to zoom in for a tighter focus. An essential handbook was The Elements of Drawing in Three Letters to Beginners, by John Ruskin. Upon publication, in 1857, it immediately found a place in the luggage of explorers in every corner of the world.
Other travel handbooks, including the Royal Geographical Society’s Hints to Travellers (1854), had previously emphasized the importance of drafting and sketching, but Ruskin provided detailed, practical know-how. His book simply cannot be cracked open without intensifying a reader’s visual acuity. Without cameras to record the details for them, explorers needed to develop the eyes of an artist. The Elements aimed to refine their vision:
The victorious beauty of the rose as compared with other flowers, depends wholly on the delicacy and quantity of its colour gradations, all other flowers being either less rich in gradations, not having so many folds of leaf; or less tender, being patched and veined instead of flushed.
Ruskin didn’t envision his audience as frustrated painters indulging ambitions to hang a canvas in the Louvre: “My efforts are directed not to making a carpenter an artist, but to making him happier as a carpenter.” Encouraging such eclecticism seems strange, not to mention vaguely irresponsible, in our age of hyper-specialization. But the Victorians were unembarrassed about dipping from one discipline into another.
Consider Burton. He spoke more than twenty languages, wrote books on subjects ranging from bayonet technique to gold mining, was a spy and a consul, and was generally regarded as the most accomplished ethno-sexologist of his generation. Before disguising himself as a dervish to complete a pilgrimage to Mecca, he apprenticed himself to a blacksmith—just in case he came across some available steeds during the journey and needed to make horseshoes. He was an enthusiastic amateur in an era when the word wasn’t a slur.
Dedicated travelers didn’t limit their aesthetic studies to the visual arts. William Gardiner’s The Music of Nature (1838) was a treasury of creative listening techniques to be applied in the field. Every sound, as heard by Gardiner, can reveal and instruct.
Using standard musical notation, he transcribed everything from the canter of a horse to the cry of a child. He charted the musical differences between the “yelp of a cur, whose foot has been trod upon” and “the whine of a dog tied up.” He encouraged readers to apply a musical ear to every sound they might encounter out in the great wide open, even the speech of the natives. He concluded that the sounds of the Nordic languages are “less pleasing” than those found in milder climates, for example, because “the severity of the regions in which they are spoken keeps the mouth constantly closed, and the act of speaking is principally performed in the throat.”
In the ragged chorus of nature, where insects provide the dominant sound track, we find Gardiner at his most enthusiastic. “The lively note of the cricket… consists of three notes in rhythm, always forming a triplet in the key of B,” he writes.
Remember how Jackson suggested that explorers should notice whether or not a native population keeps bees? With Gardiner, this field of inquiry bursts open with newfound potential. He informs readers that within every hive, certain bees called “fanners” ventilate the premises by the incessant motion of their wings.
“If the ear is placed on the outside of the hive,” Gardiner advises, “you may distinguish the mezzo tones that emanate from the host of fanners, who shed a mellow music from their odorous wings, which, on listening, will be found to be in the key of F.”
“It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar…” That’s Henry David Thoreau, gently mocking the fellows of the geographical societies in the pages of Walden. When he goes off on this subject, Thoreau sometimes sounds as if he’s responding to passages in the handbooks of Galton or Marcy. Other times he sounds as if he’s shouting directly into Burton’s ear:
What does Africa—what does the West stand for? Is it not our own interior white on the chart?… If you would learn to speak all tongues and conform to the customs of all nations, if you would travel farther than all travellers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the Sphinx to dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself.
Screw Zanzibar, in other words.
But here’s something Thoreau neglected to admit in that book: No one was more incurably addicted to expeditionary literature and the how-to-travel books than HDT himself. Not only did he devour the travelogues of Burton and other contemporary explorers, but he energetically consumed the works of almost every author referred to above. Martineau, Owen, Ruskin, Gardiner—references to each of them appear in Thoreau’s journals.
Thoreau’s love of these books can be reconciled with his stay-at-home instinct, because he recognized the durable potential of the how-to-explore genre even better than its authors did. The lessons of the books could be applied to Zanzibar, but they held up equally well in the bustling hamlet of Concord, Mass.—or pretty much anywhere else in a world growing more tired, crowded, and worn with every passing year.
“It is worth the while to see your native village thus… as if you were a traveler passing through it,” Thoreau wrote in his journal.
There’s an idea.
Before I turned sixteen and got a driver’s license, I spent a lot of time in the Cross County Mall in Mattoon, Illinois. Within my compressed conception of the universe, the mall was roughly analogous to the Silk Road: a place that marked the eastern edge of the world, where they sold imported goods. I dared go no farther on my bike. Beyond the mall, there was nothing but an interstate and a lot of corn. This was my ultima Thule.
My world has since expanded. My parents still live in Mattoon, and I visit occasionally, but the mall exerts little pull on me. I spent more hours inside the mall during an average day playing video games as a preteen than I’ve spent there in the past twenty years. It’s no longer a destination for me; it’s a forlorn piece of architecture that I drive past on the way out of town. One of roughly 50,000 shopping malls crowding roadsides in America, according to the Bureau of the Census. I could ignore it for another twenty years, and it would still feel like the most familiar place in the world.
On a recent morning, I pulled into the mall’s parking lot with a Kindle full of downloaded guides: The Art of Travel, What to Observe, How to Observe, Hints to Travellers, Elements of Drawing, The Music of Nature, and The Prairie Traveler.
I started by following Jackson’s advice to place the area in its broadest context by surveying the surrounding geography, which was ironed flat by a mile-thick glacier that rolled through about twenty thousand years ago. Now the landscape imposes rigid Newtonian laws on anything that messes with its uniformity—if you see the mild rise of an interstate overpass (like the one within eyeshot of the parking lot), a small man-made pond of inverse dimension will be found nearby, a couple hundred yards away.
The mall is a three-hundred-thousand-square-foot retail space anchored by a JCPenney at one end and a Sears at the other. Faithfully observing Owen’s speed limit, I walked at a relaxed pace from the entrance of one store to the other. The journey took exactly two minutes, three seconds.
Following Galton’s advice, I was sensitive to my first impressions. Evidence of recent economic troubles screamed for immediate attention. Of thirty-eight leasable spaces, sixteen were vacant. But instead of giving off a hollow, abandoned vibe, the mall felt mildly claustrophobic. A dozen separate vendors had set up cafeteria tables in the main concourse, hawking everything from hunting knives to pewter dragons to collectible dolls. You could still find nice stuff in the remaining stores, but these tables represented a lower rung on the retail ladder, and they were clearly taking over.
In place of the landmarks of my youth, like the video-game arcade and the ice-cream parlor, I saw a
General Nutrition Center and something called “Community Blood Services.” Before I made it to Sears, I began to feel as if I were strolling through a world robbed of joy.
But I checked myself. I returned, took a seat on a grated metal bench in the middle of the concourse, and reached into my backpack for my Kindle full of PDFs. Martineau was waiting to remind me to turn my attentions outward. She urges her readers to assess the “character of the Pride” of a region—figure out what inspires them to make public proclamations, and you’re on the way to cracking their moral code.
A T-shirt table in the middle of the mall attracted my eye. The first shirt I saw featured the letters GPS, with smaller letters around them. With exploration on the brain, I naturally gravitated toward it. It read, if lost, use gps – god’s plan of salvation.
I remembered that Jackson, in his chapter about exploring the religion of an unknown locale, advises explorers to look for hints that might answer this question: “What do they hold necessary to be done in this life to receive happiness in the next?” I found some clues on the T-shirt table. to get to heaven, you need to get the hell knocked out of you.
In my pocket notebook, under a few lines of first impressions, I wrote: “Christianity rules here, and it seems to be a combative, hard-won strain.” The author of Hints to Travellers advises that explorers label all field notations as “good,” “very good,” “doubtful,” etc. I confidently scribbled “v. good” in the margin.
I now think of the first page of that notebook as a necessary warm-up, full of disposable insights. Few who visit could fail to note that whenever this Midwestern town doesn’t wear its faith on its sleeve, it often wears it emblazoned across its chest. But it was around this time, as I wandered away from the T-shirts, that the tireless focus these books help to instill started to reveal less-obvious patterns.
Jackson insists that the ways a society engraves letters, for example, are “cognate and characteristic of the national mind, and are therefore, as such alone, highly worthy of the traveller’s attention.” I ducked into the Kirlins Hallmark store and found that cursive fonts, particularly those designed to suggest the lightest of pen strokes, could be found on almost all of the sympathy cards. Bold, blocky letters—many inscribed with a caveman sort of imprecision—almost always meant the cards were either meant to be funny, or else were for children.
These bare facts led me to really read the signs throughout the mall, and I traced undisguised symbolism everywhere. Thin-bodied letters were used to sell beauty products (you won’t find many fat, inky fonts in Bath & Body Works). RadioShack seemed to observe a zero-tolerance policy regarding serifs, which are reserved for products that appeal to classicism and tradition (see the Lands’ End clothing section at Sears). Every letter in the mall seemed to exude purpose, as if hand-chiseled by market-testers.
Suddenly the mall didn’t seem quite as simple as it had just a couple minutes before. Instead of being a vacuous purgatory that deserved pity, the mall grew in complexity with each stride. The point that the how-to-explore books collectively hammered home is this: If you sincerely investigate it, every detail hides reason, and any environment is far more sophisticated than our senses can appreciate. You have no justification for feeling world-weary; even if the modern world bombards you with a million images per second, you have not seen it all. Ruskin writes:
There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. And they will at last, and soon, too, find out that their grand inventions for conquering (as they think) space and time, do, in reality, conquer nothing; for space and time are, in their own essence, unconquerable, and besides did not want any sort of conquering; they wanted using.
For a while, I tried to inventory all of the smells I could detect and trace them to their sources: the dyed fabrics in Maurices clothing store; the brushed suede in Payless Shoes; the jasmine-and-sandalwood of the cosmetics counter in the Elder-Beerman department store. While concentrating hard to identify the characteristic smell of an electronics aisle in Sears (did I really detect the subtle tang of burning circuits?), a three-year-old boy accompanied his mother to inspect the DVD players. The kid wouldn’t shut up. “I want this one! I want this one!” Every ten seconds or so, for reasons only he can grasp, he’d shriek like a beluga whale—three high, raspy squawks. My concentration shattered into a hundred pieces. I lost the scent.
But I remembered that I was carrying an electronic voice recorder—a device that I believe the author of The Music of Nature, had he lived into our century, would carry on his person at all times. I fished it out of my pocket and covertly began recording the boy’s voice.
For the next half hour or so, I digitally captured the discrete units of sound that collectively composed the mall’s soundscape. The hum of the refrigerator at Mom’s Legendary Foods. The splash of the decorative water fountain in the geographic center of the concourse. The squeaky wheel of one of the race-car-shaped strollers available near the main entrance. The rapid-fire percussion of a cash register.
Some things, surely, deserve to be ignored, for sanity’s sake. At times, I worried I might have been too loose with my attentions at the mall. Emerson had warned against this sort of thing, believing that indiscriminate observation could turn a person into a mere child—“the fool of his senses, commanded by every sight and sound, without any power to compare and rank his sensations, abandoned to a whistle or a painted chip, to a lead dragoon or a gingerbread-dog, individualizing
everything, generalizing nothing, delighted with every new thing…”
It’s true that the techniques outlined in these books can be abused, and they should be applied sparingly, medicinally. But I was discovering unexplored territories within the commonplace, and it felt as if I was beginning to correct an imbalance that had taken hold years before, when I’d pedal out to the mall to pump tokens into Galaga and Tempest, losing hours staring into a digital display. Video games train players how to react quickly to abrupt changes in the visual field, something that researchers now call “target vision.” Young gamers—the ones who don’t have to go to arcades, but
can play at home, token-free, for hours—are really good at it. But that skill, if overdeveloped, can erode a person’s “field vision,” which is the ability to register what’s going on before and after those abrupt changes happen. Field vision requires proactive awareness, not reactive. Without it, the bigger picture is lost.
The Victorians valued that way of looking at the world, considering it a critical skill when wandering into strange and bewildering territories. It still is. Behind a trash can near Sears, a single-serving carton of milk lay partially spilled. After reading Galton, the image was infused with intrigue: he tells us that milk, when applied to paper and subjected to a low flame, works as invisible ink, useful to explorers in hostile territories. The carefully designed GNC storefront display, with its labels advertising protein supplements and antioxidants, read like a sociological essay. The ragged chorus of the mall’s concourse, captured on my digital recorder, then analyzed using music-studio software, revealed itself as music in the key of B-flat major, and the screech of a toddler, instead of being something that annoys and distracts, rang out in a perfectly pitched D.