Posted by: johnbarell | April 25, 2014

Survival of the Fittest

When we hear these words, “Survival of the Fittest,” we often think of Darwin’s reflections on human evolution propelled by natural selection of distinctive traits that ensure endurance and development of the species.

“Survival of the fittest”  also refers to our abilities to prevail during challenging times.TerraNova

One of the best examples of how we can cope with severe adversity comes the polar adventures of Captain Robert Scott on the Terra Nova Expedition (1910-13) We all know of his valiant march, pulling sleds toward the South Pole, arriving only to find that Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his huskies had beaten him by about a month in December, 1911. All five of Scott’s polar party perished upon return to Cape Evans.

Another harrowing tale of survival from this ill-fated expedition is told in Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. He, Birdie Bowers and Dr. Edmund Wilson set off from Cape Evans in the dead of the polar night (July, 1911) on “the weirdest bird nesting expedition” to Cape Crozier to find and capture Emperor Penguin eggs. It was Wilson’s theory that these flightless birds were related to dinosaurs and he wanted to see them in embryonic state, to do what scientists do, gather evidence.


The horrors these men experienced were almost unimaginable, temperatures down to -60 F., yawning and almost invisible crevasses, howling winds and terrain sometimes  illuminated only by the Aurora Australis.

Cherry-Garrard, writing in The Worst Journey, noted:

“Our troubles were greatly increased by the state of our clothes. If we had been dressed in lead we should have been able to move our arms and necks and heads more easily than we could now. . .”

Death was welcomed:

“Such extremity of suffering cannot be measured; madness or death may give relief. But this I know: we on this journey were already beginning to think of death as a friend.”

How did they survive?

A positive attitude

“Things must improve,” Uncle Bill Wilson, the leader, doctor and scientist, kept saying over and over again. “Things will get better.”


“Birdie” Bowers sang his way home after capturing three Emperor eggs and having their tent blown away by a ferocious blizzard:

“I was resolved [he wrote afterwards] to keep warm and beneath my debris covering I paddled my feet and sang all the songs and hymns I knew to pass the time. I could occasionally thump Bill, and as he still moved I knew he was alive all right—”

“Stick it in the neck”

This was Cherry-Garrard’s often repeated encouragement-builder:

“I did want to howl many times every hour of these days and nights, but I invented a formula instead, which I repeated to myself continually. Especially, I remember, it came in useful when at the end of the march with my feet frost-bitten, my heart beating slowly, my vitality at its lowest ebb, my body solid with cold, I used to seize the shovel and go on digging snow on to the tent skirting while the cook inside was trying to light the primus [stove]” for a much-needed meal.

His formula, his mantra, his power-restorer sounded like this:

`You’ve got it in the neck—stick it—stick it—you’ve got it in the neck,’ was the refrain, and I wanted every little bit of encouragement it would give me; then I would find myself repeating `Stick it—stick it—stick—stick it—‘ and then `You’ve got it in the neck.’

In the end, all three men survived this weird bird nesting expedition. Why did they go? “For science,” wrote Cherry-Garrard, “in order that the world may have a little more knowledge, that it may build on what it knows instead of on what it thinks.” Don’t rest on faulty assumptions, get the facts.


And what did he think of his companions who also used all their strengths to survive this expedition:

“These two men [Wilson and Bowers] went through the Winter Journey and lived; later they went through the Polar Journey and died. They were gold, pure, shining, unalloyed. Words cannot express how good their companionship was.” (emphasis added)” 1922/37.

Survival depends upon those strengths we learn as children and young adventurers, those we can readily muster when the challenges become seemingly overwhelming.

High expectations, singing to keep up one’s spirits and keeping up a constant refrain that says, “I/we can do this. We will succeed.”

This is what contemporary psychologists call a positive or growth mind set.

Failure is not an option, in other words.

Posted by: johnbarell | August 12, 2011

Imagination is all!

Imagination is all!



Growing up with radio as a link to the outside world was an amazing blessing.

Yes, there were newspapers during World War II when I was just a boy, but before I could read I understood the spoken English language.  My evenings were consumed with listening to news broadcasts from the major theaters of combat, Europe and the Pacific.  Even though I cannot remember a single broadcast during the War, I do recall the end of that world-shattering conflict and thinking, “What will there be on the radio now that the war is over?”

Radio was the “frigate,” as Emily Dickinson said about books, that took me “lands away.”  The voices of men reporting on the great human dramas of our time helped us create the scenes in our minds of what it was like to live through the attacks on London (“This. . .  is London,” said Murrow), to storm the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima, and to struggle to survive during the Battle of the Bulge.

Before I

could read, I could imagine and this was, in retrospect, a blessing because I developed the capacity to wing myself away from that four foot high Philco radio I sat in front of, away, far, far away to anywhere on the planet and beyond.

Radio was a blessing because it developed your imagination. All you had were sounds and you needed to create pictures that explained and made clear what was going on.  I can still recall the one program where they dramatized how one Texas Ranger became the Lone Ranger.  Over six decades later I can picture men—certainly, “bad guys”–high up on a yellow bluff overlooking a canyon where I think the solitary rider was traveling.  They shot at him and he was befriended by his soon to-be “faithful companion, Tonto.”

It is the primacy of imagination that envisions worlds far away from the present, distant from the dailiness of our own lives.  Imagination is what fuels our curiosity, our sense of wonder at what we are experiencing.

Perhaps World War II prepared me for being able to “live” with Admiral Byrd in is frontier town of Little America.  I had spent so much time as a boy conjuring pictures in my mind, peopling strange places with invented characters, listening to the sounds of battle, of camaraderie and of attempts to make peace, that I was well prepared for the tunnels of that outpost carved into the Ross Ice Shelf in 1928.

A few years later, when I wrote to Admiral Byrd I wondered if there was a possibility of discovering oil in Antarctica.

He wrote back, :  “You are entirely right about the possibility of discovering oil in Antarctica. We found enough coal in the mountains near the South Pole to supply this nation for a long time.  I am almost sure there is also oil at the bottom of the world.”

Imagine being fourteen years old and being told that “You’re right!” by the leader of four expeditions to the bottom of the world!  So much more meaningful than getting problem 15 correct in algebra!

That’s part of what imagination does for us, it not only takes us “lands away” where we can “visit” and “see” strange, intriguing landscapes, but it also enhances our power to wonder  “What if. . ?”  To consider alternative possibilities, so important in good problem solving and critical investigations.

That’s the thing about imagination—it’s the power to control who we might be, when, where and how.  It’s the power of make a block into a truck, a tree or a fire station. The power to wing yourself down to Little America, out to Mars  and into whatever future we can dream up.

And it’s all fun.

Radio and, surely, reading stories and more stories of adventures in Antarctica, or any place on earth, is what fuels our imaginations, leads to our becoming inquisitive about the world and our potential lives.

George Bernard Shaw once noted, “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”  (




Posted by: johnbarell | April 22, 2011

Reading is Fundamental

My grandmother, Florence Wright Ferguson, had no idea how far-reaching was her recommendation to read a book by Admiral Richard E. Byrd when I was in 7th grade.  She suggested Alone (1938), the story of Byrd’s sequestering himself in a 9 x 12 hut 123 miles south of Little America in 1934 to study weather patterns in Antarctica.  Byrd almost died there of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Reading this book led to other Byrd books, Little America (1930) and Discovery (1935), the stories of the First and Second Byrd Antarctic Expeditions.  After Byrd it was on to Scott and his fateful Last Expedition.

I became enthralled with pictures of Little America, Byrd’s frontier town, with its 3 radio towers beaming news dispatches to KDKA in Pittsburgh, and its tunnels dug into the Ross Ice Shelf linking all of the administration and work buildings snugly safe from the howling blizzards of winter.

Reading led to writing letters all over the world to obtain answers to many questions about the men on these expeditions: What did they discover? What were their leaders like? (to Frank Debenham, geologist with Scott in 1910-12 at Cape Evans); Plans for future explorations and why didn’t some of them return (to Byrd’s Second-in-Command, geologist Lawrence M. Gould).

And, at my mother’s urging, I wrote Admiral Byrd; waited for weeks and weeks for a response and then one day at 23 Webster Park in Needham, there on our dining room table, my mother had laid out a response from Byrd Polar Expeditions to “Master John F. Barell.”

Written on bond paper in blue ink with an original signature, Admiral Byrd answered each and every one of my questions: “You are entirely right about the possibility of discovering oil in Antarctica. We found enough coal [in the Transantarctic Mountains] to supply this country for many years.”

Imagine the thrill of being a seventh grader used to the endless school lessons, searching for the elusive-who-cares?-unknowns in a pre-algebra problem or writing tedious essays about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Here was a correspondence from America’s foremost polar explorer, leader of four expeditions with as many ticker-tape parades up Broadway.  He sent a personal letter to “Master JFB” and said, “You are entirely right”!

The letter led to a meeting at 9 Brimmer Street in Boston with my mother and two little sisters. He treated all of us as if we were members of his own family.

We watched a full color film of his 1946 Navy onslaught on Antarctica called “Operation High Jump” and Byrd shared his amazement at discovering ice-free lakes on the frozen continent. Imagine!

Byrd invited me to explore the continent at some future date. And after many, many hours of figuring out how best to do this, I joined the Navy, through a Harvard NROTC scholarship and, eventually, sailed south on Byrd’s flagship, USS Glacier (AGB-4) as Operations Officer.

What are the lessons we  derive from this story I never tire of repeating?

Reading is so fundamental as to be without a qualifier in terms of leading us beyond the limits of our homes, our neighborhoods and communities.  Had my grandmother not suggested a book by Byrd, this adventure would never have happened.  And had my mother also not gently requested that Byrd respond to her son, this story would have never been written.

While I was about to depart Christchurch, New Zealand for the Ross Sea in 1963 as a member of Operation Deepfreeze , I wrote my grandparents a letter thanking them for their encouragement.  My grandfather, Llewellyn Ray Ferguson, subsequently wrote friends at Christmas time:

“Our chief news is that Lieut. j. g. John Ferguson Barell leaves New Zealand this week on the good ice-breaker S.S. Glacier for Antarctica.  This is the culmination of a dream.  He wrote us that Florence’s advice when he was a young boy to read Admiral Byrd’s book ALONE set him off on this polar hobby.  He visited Byrd several times in Boston along with Betty [my mother]. Needless to say when Florence read this she burst into tears, read it to Anne [my aunt] over the phone. . .and they both had a real good  cry.  Little do we older folks realize how we sometimes influence the younger ones.”

My aunt, Anne Ferguson Cooper, recently found this letter amongst her family papers, shared it with me and now I share it with you.  A testament to the influence “we older folks” have with the “younger ones.”

A book. . . a letter. . . a visit. . . a dream. . .a Destination. . .

Just imagine!

(The full story is available in Quest for Antarctica–A Journey of Wonder and Discovery, 2007)

Posted by: johnbarell | April 17, 2011

Vista from Vostok

How does standing atop two miles of polar ice affect your life thereafter?  How does reaching your long-cherished dream of exploring Antarctica condition how you see the world?

This is a question I’ve been wondering about for the past few years and am now endeavoring to find some answers.
The polar plateau lay in East Antarctica, that portion of the southern continent that seems to be maintaining its frigid temperatures annually and not warming as is West Antarctica, where the Palmer Peninsula lies.
My vantage point was Vostok (meaning “East” in Russian), then a Soviet base at a height of some tw

o miles above terra firma, about 3600 meters above the surface below.
My mission was to seek the high ground after spending seemingly endless hours hammering out a ship channel in McMurdo Sound toward our base near Hut Point, Scott’s base in 1901-1904.  My home base at the time was USS Glacier (AGB-4), “the free world’s most powerful icebreaker.”  (The Soviets had Lenin, larger and atomic-powered if I recall correctly).  I served on Glacier as Operations Officer with many splendid shipmates, all of whom worked to create this channel to re-supply McMurdo Station.

At Vostok I had the pleasure of speaking in Russian (mine very broken but serviceable) to a glaciologist who told me about their drilling through the ice to retrieve ice cores.
”Why do this?”  I asked.
Because they wanted to get an idea of atmospheric conditions many, many years ago. Tiny, tiny bubbles would reveal the air quality and today, in 2011, they date earth’s atmosphere back some 800,000 years.
Imagine how different was the air back then without all of the CO2 and other heat trapping, green house gases.  These cores as well as those from Greenland can pinpoint eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD and the dramatic increase in CO2 since our industrial revolution.

You can imagine the thrill of learning about these endeavors and of standing so high atop the earth below gazing out at the polar plateau edged deeply as it was with very hard, crusted ridges called, again in Russian, “sastrugi,” sharp-edged waves created by wind.
Ever since that date many years ago, I have realized that this was a high point of my life, literally and figuratively.
It was the culmination of my boyhood dream of sailing to Antarctica. After meeting my hero, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, in his home in Boston at age fourteen, I had wanted to visit the continent where he led four expeditions and pioneered its exploration from the air starting in 1928.  Glacier, his last flag ship before he died in 1957, was the lead icebreaker in Operation Deepfreeze, our Navy’s mission to Antarctica.
And  now  I realize that being at the center of this seemingly limitless plateau was also a commencement. The vista from Vostak was one of unlimited possibilities.
And it is these possibilities that I wish to explore in this new journey. In the coming weeks and months I will share many themes that grew out of this amazing adventure: setting life-destinations, not merely objectives; the primacy of imagination to wonder, inquire and speculate; making plans and working them out as my father always urged; being careful to avoid the crevasses in life, becoming a skeptical citizen and being aware of our aesthetic and spiritual goals.

There have been many, amazing discoveries along the way. For example:It wasn’t until years later, in the mid-1990s, that Russian and British scientists discovered a lake the size of Ontario two miles beneath where I stood at Vostok, a lake never before seen nor touched by human beings, perhaps full of life, extremophiles like the creatures we find at the mid-Atlantic ridge  (the site of most of earth’s volcanism) down so deep in the Atlantic ocean where the sun does not shine.  (Life does not require sun light.)

In Antarctica and in life we are forever in awe

of these mysteries and constantly search for answers and more questions.

So, here we go, onto another plateau of limitless possibilities.

Posted by: johnbarell | April 16, 2011

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