A friend of mine said to me recently that “there is nowhere left to explore”. It made me sad that he felt that way, but kind of motivated at the same time because I knew with absolute certainty that he was utterly wrong, and that humanity’s journey of discovery is just warming up.
There is a wide age gap between me and my friend, and I realised that our disagreement was probably one of definition, and that we would all benefit from a redefining of the term, and of the idea, of exploration.
The modern explorers are not privileged chaps in pith helmets helping ruthless monarchs to claim and carve up the world and its resources. The grizzled, manly, bearded men with steely eyes and frostbitten cheeks who race to the poles and cross deserts and oceans and jungles are now a minority in this field.
Modern explorers are normally not concerned with drawing boundaries or conquering nature and asserting man’s authority over the wilderness: they are scientists, artists, journalists, and activists. Of course the most authentic explorers I’ve met are from the indigenous communities I visit, but to call them modern explorers is exceptionally odd. Their feats of exploration are so natural to their cultures that they often wouldn’t be recognized as something unusual, excessive, or eccentric. Exploration in a culture that is vitally connected to a vast wilderness is a part of daily life, whether it takes an afternoon, a weekend, or a whole season.
In this way, the old image of the explorer is dead. And in that sense I agree with my friend, and then I rejoice because from the long shadow of this old explorer myth, the natural explorer can be honoured, and the millions of today’s modern explorers can emerge and flourish.
Because exploration is a state of mind, a state of restless curiosity, and explorers are the restless curious: those men and women and children who develop and act on their curiosity until it is sated, except it never is, so they keep on exploring. Curiosity is one of humanity’s most endearing features, and children, the most endearing of humans, are the greatest explorers of all.
Exploration is a determination to be forever childlike, to be open to the magic of wonder, to have an insatiable appetite for experiences at the edge, and a burning need to find ways beyond it.
Exploration is about pushing some limit, however great or small, and expanding the human universe of the possible, of the known, of the imaginable. We can all expand that universe by exploring and pushing against our own limits, but the greatest explorers are those whose discoveries and ideas and experiences are able to expand human consciousness globally, and into history.
Scientists, artists, philosophers, athletes, musicians, astronauts, engineers; anyone who is searching for the edges of our current scope of knowledge and understanding, or scratching around at the periphery of their own imagination, or pushing against the limits of what we think to be true or possible; anyone who is fumbling deliberately or blindly against those invisible boundaries and then pushing beyond into somewhere unknown and uncertain and exciting, is an explorer.
Calling myself an explorer is extremely pretentious (I have never done this in person!), but I want to be an explorer, I always wanted to be an explorer, and I want to always want to be an explorer, because developing this restless state of curiosity and living at or regularly visiting the edge is the best path to an exciting, challenging, fulfilling, and worthwhile life that I can imagine.
And as if all that wasn’t a big enough metaphysical rebuttal of the idea that “there is nowhere left to explore”, I can point to huge and very real areas in the vast rainforest-clad mountainous interior of Borneo that has occupied my mind for the past 5 years, to places where undiscovered species roam, hidden rivers flow, and a romantic human spirit could be lifted to new heights.
It takes the mindset of exploration to believe in and to seek out these places, and that, along with everything else written, is why I want to be an explorer.