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Exploration sagas: from the Greenland Norse to a lunar outpost

During the so-called Little Ice Age, winters in temperate zones of the northern hemisphere became more prolonged and so severe that we can use literary references and paintings to attest the difference with winter nowadays.

In sixteenth-century Central and Northern Europe, people were so concerned about harsh winters engulfing most of the year that all activities, from agriculture to building and transportation, adapted to fields blanketed in snow and rivers or lakes frozen for months at a time.

The year 1565 was the coldest anyone could remember. Master portraits by Flemish and Dutch painters of the era depict the consequences of the weather of the time; people had grown accustomed to more storms, and ice skating became not only an amusement but a means of transportation in areas such as the flat Low Countries.

Best preserved remainings of Greenland’s medieval settlements; the last written records of Norse Greenlanders date from 1408: a marriage at Roman Catholic Hvalsey Church (in the picture)

Master paintings such as Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (from the same 1565) or Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters by Hendrick Avercamp (1608) are the only testimonies of an era marked by the imprint of the Age of Exploration and the early globalization that the Columbian exchange represented to the lives of Europeans and the peoples they encountered.

The ice-cold landscape was considerably more desolate and devoid of life several degrees to the North, in the sub-Arctic territories the Norse set up to explore at the turn of the 1st millennium, as their literary sagas would attest generations after. To depict the inhospitable islands and archipelagos across the north Atlantic, we can think of ambient music with ethereal, elongated harmonies. Think of an early medieval version of Sigur Rós.

What it takes to sustain a remote, inhospitable outpost

The early period of the Little Ice Age marked the collapse of the most inhospitable permanent European settlements of the time, the three separate locations of Norse Greenland on the south-western coast of the island. The Norse arrived in the area around the turn of the 1st millennium due to the opposite phenomenon speeding their demise, a relatively warm period in the North Atlantic.

It wasn’t just extreme weather that caused the settlements to become more isolated from the rest of the permanent Viking routes but a combination of cultural stubbornness and the inability to adapt to a harsher and more depleted environment. While paleo-Inuit cultures successfully settled and thrived around the northwestern coast of the island due to their adaptation to the harsh environment, their southern neighbors relied on the European cultural stack until the end: farmsteads with crops to maintain, livestock to feed, and conventional homes to heat.

Their Arctic living range made narwhals an unknown creature to most humans until modern times; Norse outposts began capturing them in the far North, selling their spiral tusks in Medieval Europe as “unicorn horns”

The story of the Norse struggle in Greenland makes a good read, as Jared Diamond skilfully proved in his essay about examples of civilizational survival and collapse when a given civilization approaches a cultural, material, or climatic tipping point.

Settlements like Greenland and connected outposts such as “Vinland” (as the Viking remains from L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland show) tried to expand the Scandinavian routes from the plentiful fishing shore of Greenland to the rich soil of North America.

Hunting sea unicorns in the boundaries of the North

The commerce of narwhal tusks soon fed the legend of the existence of unicorns, their engraved horns becoming priced decorative objects among royalty and selected individuals capable of paying many times the tusk’s weight in gold; but not even the increasing merchant incentives to keep the settlements inhabited and the routes open could avoid the demise of such desolate routes.

Superstition gave such “unicorn” horns magic powers such as the cure of melancholia, pre-modern term designating a wide range of emotional states and mental disorders. The Arctic range of the small size toothed whale made its encounter a rare event, which amplified the legend of the creature capable of developing such a “tusk” (in fact, a canine tooth) forming a left-handed helical spiral.

Iceland’s early religious settlers could have arrived in the remote island as early as the eighth century, though the population consolidation and growth coincided with the Medieval Warm Period.

Replica of a Norse fishing outpost in the North Atlantic (Bolungarvik, Iceland)

During the early period, most of the volcanic island was covered by a forest that experienced a fast depletion, exacerbated for the import of a lifestyle unsuited for a fragile territory unable to regenerate in the poor soil the early settlements had found. Even so, neither the Little Ace Age nor several volcanic eruptions, documented famines, and Black Death epidemics compromised the viability of Iceland’s farming and fishing outposts, keeping their old route with Norway open.

Soon, the era of Discovery would shorten and interconnect the world at a scale it had never been before. The Columbian Exchange became a meridional version of the narwhal tusks hunt that had kept the illusion of transplanting a farming civilization from Norwegian outposts such as Iceland to Greenland or even North America centuries before the arrival of other European expeditions.

Significance of the first artificial Earth satellite

After the turn of the 2nd millennium, our literary sagas don’t push our imagination towards the inviting “chopping vines” and a nature so exuberant “that cattle would not require house feeding in winter,” as depicted in the Saga of the Greenlanders. Instead, we marvel at the possibility of finding enough water in the moon and Mars to sustain colonies and, possibly, develop the interdisciplinary field of astrobiology to expand the concept of life from planet Earth to any suitable stellar body.

In the prologue for her work The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt opens with the launch in 1957 of Sputnik 1, “an earth-born object made by man” propelled into the universe and circling the Earth according to the laws of physics, officially launching a Space Race among the two Cold War contendents (both reusing and adapting the Nazi rocket program to the new task).

War had sped breakthrough scientific events in the century in which general relativity and the puzzling quantum world had rewritten what science knew about theoretical and applied physics. Newton’s immutable laws had become a parochial, partial physics law only exact when applied on an earthly scale. In contrast, cosmic dimensions demanded to refute his idea of immutability of time and space for a binding space-time subject to the relative situation of an event in relation to other events.

Depiction of Leif Erikson reaching Vinland (North America)

A polished metal sphere of 58 cm in diameter with four radio antennas to broadcast radio signals, its shape became an early graphic product of pop culture in an era where, as Walter Benjamin had projected, art became mere mechanically reproduced merchandising devoid of aspirations of enchantment and authenticity.

From science fiction to reality

The scope of the new human threats and inventions opened a new era; the risk of technologically advanced totalitarianism and the shadow of nuclear war contrasted with the naive leap represented by the space race, which opened the possibility of becoming a species capable of venturing beyond Earth and hence redefining philosophical questions about the individual, society, and environment.

Indeed, the aim at reaching beyond our planetary home was an event “second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom.” The new era of technicity was a race to escape from the limits that defined humans themselves, from their biological boundaries to the need of living within the world, surrounded by equals.

A paradox made the new times especially prone to disaster: the conviction that everything is possible due to the new developments in applied sciences; and the self-recognition as a species unable to transcend the laws of nature or history.

Suddenly, surviving in remote outposts far beyond usual commercial and cultural routes was not a parochial phenomenon forever tied to our planet. Human endeavors —and objects— reached beyond Earth’s atmosphere, reaffirming the quest of our species in trying to detach itself from the rest of life (and from biological needs and limitations):

“For some time now, a great many scientific endeavors have been directed toward making life also ‘artificial,’ toward cutting the last tie through which even man belongs among the children of nature.”

But amid the technical quest to liberate himself from the imprisonment of Earth and biology represented, man was embracing only technological know-how and ditching his thought. The human condition, asserted Arendt, was a combination of practical knowledge put into action (the labor, work, and action of what she calls “vita activa”) but also of intellectual and spiritual aspirations (“vita contemplativa”).

Finding meaning in hyper-technical societies

To Arendt, the ancients would distinguish between private life, marked by biological necessities, and the public realm where action took place and one could aim well beyond basic needs, accomplishing a role within the commons.

Depiction of summer travel between Norse Greenland and other Viking outposts in the North Atlantic such as Iceland

Action made sense if there existed a projection towards others, while isolation implied the inability to perform a “vita activa”. Extrapolated to the lives of early Norse outposts in Iceland and Greenland, while the former maintained open ties with the bigger world of Scandinavia, the latter stagnated on its own when ships didn’t come anymore, perishing in a depleted world that had stopped making much sense, a reality with no public nor private realms where action and contemplation were solipsistic, end-of-world tasks.

In the realm of the “vita activa,” there is no possible fulfillment if we don’t disclose ourselves to others. Unlike labor (a survival activity associated with alienation) and work (a utilitarian task with a beginning and an end, leaving behind an object or service), action requires the existence and nurturing of human relationships.

Like in the remotest Norse outposts of the Little Ice Age, in the space era, highly technical language and automation had transformed human action as well:

“It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.”

Like the last individuals of a remote outpost depleted of its resources and deprived of its contact with the exterior (Greenland, Vinland, or a future lunar base), we live surrounded by others but are incapable of projecting ourselves meaningfully in the public sphere.

From the Earth into de universe, from the world into the self

Hence the risk of living in a technical society that transforms the ancient enriching dichotomy of private/public realms in the individual/social spheres of conformism, trying to distinguish ourselves from others not by meaningful work (“creation”) and action in the public realm (our participation in an open society), but by being consumers of superficial goods and entertainment.

Instead of offering a definitive redefinition to the human condition in the Space era, Hannah Arendt asks the reader to think about “what we are doing.”

Sputnik 1, first artificial satellite launched into Earth’s orbit (October 4, 1957)

And so, asks Arendt from the Sputnik 1-influenced year of 1958, what are we doing? How are we capable of distinguishing labor, work, and action? Is there an actual public sphere in which we proactively participate and enrich?

“The purpose of the historical analysis, on the other hand, is to trace back modern world alienation, its twofold flight from the earth into the universe and from the world into the self, to its origins, in order to arrive at an understanding of the nature of society as it had developed and presented itself at the very moment when it was overcome by the advent of a new and yet unknown age.”

Over sixty years after Arendt’s The Human Condition, and almost half a century after astronauts last walked on the moon, our species could soon be back on the surface of our natural satellite like Norse revenants Little Ice Age Greenland if only to set up the first human base in another natural celestial body.

The cybernetics era has accelerated our dependence upon automation and specialized technical disciplines that ceased to be understandable and meaningful to the general public a long time ago:

“The reason why it may be wise to distrust the political judgment of scientists acting as scientists is not primarily their lack of ‘character’ —that they did not refuse to develop atomic weapons— or their naïveté —that they did not understand that once these weapons were developed, they would be the last to be consulted about their use— but precisely the fact that they move in a world where the speech has lost its power.”

Looking at the Earth from a window (in the moon)

The issue is, continues Arendt, that whatever our species do or know or experience only makes sense “to the extent that it can be spoken about.” There are many truths beyond speech “of great relevance” to humans, but those stay in the realm of intellectual work and contemplation, barely as an “action” explained to others.

“The Hunters in the Snow” (1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

The new chapter that is opening with the return of humans to the moon and the creation of a lunar outpost is already propelling the odds of firm proposals of human missions to Mars in the coming years, and speeding the interest in disciplines such as astrobiology, or life out of our planet. It could also transform the way we see ourselves.

“The discovery of America and the ensuing exploration of the whole earth; the Reformation, which by expropriating ecclesiastical and monastic possessions started the two-fold process of individual expropriation and the accumulation of social wealth; the invention of the telescope and the development of a new science that considers the nature of the earth from the viewpoint of the universe.”

If the modern age was shaped by exploration, a religious viewpoint of rational appropriation of resources, and scientific discovery, our fragmentary times would deal with the conceptual and material collapse of the (artificial) continuity and predictability of the world.

Backwater outposts in Apocalyptic times

Some alienated citizens in modern societies perceive the world from a millenarist standpoint that approaches more to the end-of-world experienced by the last Norse surviving in Greenland during the Little Ice Age than to the mindset, goals, and action of some of their fellow citizens personally investing in the opening of new human outposts beyond our planet.

Most times, neither of them seem to share their respective viewpoints in the public realm as members of an open society.

Arendt did not mention a word about medieval backwaters of European culture, such as the most desolate Norse settlements beyond Scandinavia, but challenged our idea of linear progress by making constant references to the Greeks and their experiment of a democracy respectful of pluralities.

Dreams of the development of participative democracy in the public sphere did not develop in what Arendt called a “new and yet unknown age” in which the interaction between humans and their habitat is radically different.

Hannah Arendt

Cybernetics, bioengineering promises, an atomized entertainment industry, and pervasive hypercompetition (in education, consumerism, fitness, etc.) seem to align in a process that further develops her fear of a technical society in “a rebellion against human existence as it has been given.”

The saga of the moon and Mars

By returning to the moon and, in some years, attempting to reach Mars, we could be following a long story of human exploration where parochial outposts inhabited by superstitious medieval settlers that write a saga of their adventures is not that far away from private space missions who want to go beyond old metaphysical boundaries:

“What is new is only that one of this country’s most respectable newspapers finally brought to its front page what up to then had been buried in the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction (to which, unfortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires).”

“The banality of the statement should not make us overlook how extraordinary in fact it was; for although Christians have spoken of the Earth as a vale of tears and philosophers have looked upon their body as a prison of mind or soul, nobody in the history of mankind has ever conceived of the Earth as a prison for men’s bodies or shown such eagerness to go literally from here to the moon.”

“Should the emancipation and secularization of the modern age, which began with a turning-away, not necessarily from God, but from a god who was the Father of men in heaven, end with an even more fateful repudiation of an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky?”

Our explorers will carry with them the very earthly interest of finding an interplanetary equivalent of the rare narwhal tusks rogue Norse from the remote North Atlantic were able to sell as unicorn horns.

“Winter Landscape with Skaters” (1608, Hendrick Avercamp)

In this “rebellion” against the boundaries of human existence, from mortality to dependability on Earth (“for all we know, may be unique in the universe in providing human beings with a habitat in which they can move and breathe without effort and without artifice”), the new private space missions carry the risk to become what the seasonal camps of Vinland (Newfoundland) became for Greenland settlers, a window to go further ahead, full of risks and opportunities, where they will not be able to settle permanently.

“The nature of the country was, as they thought, so good that cattle would not require house feeding in winter, for there came no frost in winter, and little did the grass wither there. Day and night were more equal than in Greenland or Iceland.” Leif Eriksson visiting Vinland, Saga of the Greenlanders (written in the 13th century from events that could have taken place between 970 and 1030).