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Being an explorer may seem like a childhood fantasy, but it’s a real thing people do. We talk to two experts about some notable explorers of the past and ways you can see the world through fresh eyes yourself.

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  • Dr. Huw Lewis-Jones, historian, explorer, and author of Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery & Adventure
  • Dr. Nick Middleton, professor at Oxford University and author of An Atlas of Countries That Don’t Exist

Links for more information:


Explorers past and present, explored

Marty Peterson: Most of us grow up hearing tales of old explorers, whether it’s the true-life accounts of Lewis and Clark pushing into the western lands or the fictional adventures of Indiana Jones. Often, these stories are awe-inspiring, but seem totally out of reach. But that was not the case for Dr. Huw (hugh) Lewis-Jones, a British historian, explorer, and author of Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Adventure. Lewis-Jones says for him, exploring the world never seemed impossible because he grew up hearing first-hand accounts of voyaging into the unknown.

Lewis-Jones: An easy starting point for me is listening to the stories of my grandfather. He flew helicopters in the 1950s down in Antarctica. He was in the Navy and I looked up to him as a little boy. He came back brimful of stories about icebergs and penguins and things like that. So I naturally wanted to hear more as I grew up, went to college, ended up writing books and studying a lot about his stories and I ended up going to college writing books and studying and reading a lot about exploration and explorers and you know there are so many unanswered questions with these kind of stories. So there’s lots more to find out. I was totally hooked.

Peterson: With a lifetime of learning about explorers, it only made sense for Lewis-Jones to become one himself.

Lewis-Jones: I also spend probably half of my year, lucky to say, not at my desk or deep in the archives being a proper historian, but I’m actually out in the field on expedition, taking people on voyages and being able to travel to some pretty remote places and in time get a sense for their stories and the explorers I’m writing about.

Peterson: When he hasn’t been out adventuring himself, Lewis-Jones has been working on Explorers’ Sketchbooks, a book he put together featuring the records, notes, and sketches of 70 explorers from history.

Lewis-Jones: Any historian would tell you there’s nothing better than getting the primary source material or getting your hands on letters and diaries and journals. So explorers a hundred years ago, two-hundred years ago, we’ve got no real way of getting into their heads unless we dive into their private archives. You can hold an original journal in your hands and read day by day what was happening as these explorers were seeing things for the very first time. It gives you a chance to travel alongside them. So as a historian making a book about exploration there’s no better place to begin than with these wonderful little journals and leather bound notebooks that explorers carried in their breast pockets and their jackets or in their bags; carried these little paper notebooks to the edges of the known world.

Peterson: Lewis-Jones says that one of the most remarkable things for him as a historian is knowing what the pages he has collected represent… and what they went through to end up in his book.

Lewis-Jones: The heart of it… of these journals, these amazing sketchbooks filled with descriptions…are artworks. The first sight of things captured on paper for the very first time. So, new species and new landscapes, the first depictions of indigenous peoples, kings in Africa, tribal chiefdoms, beautiful curious species. And all of these things are contained within collections of journals, tiny little documents that often are so remarkable that they survived the passage of years and survived shipwreck and fire and flood and desert heat and storm to return to England or America or Europe and survive the passage of time. And the chance to open these little books and then tell something of the story of these men and women as explorers — that’s the real challenge for me and the thing that encouraged me to make a book like this.

Peterson: And Lewis-Jones says he hopes his book can find the right hands and motivate others to discover the world for themselves.

Lewis-Jones: One of the things we really hope with an art book like this, all these journals and notebooks are really just to inspire people to continue what they are doing — to keep traveling, keep adventuring, keep getting outside; maybe to inspire people to leave all of the technology and their mobile phones and all of that stuff at home and actually just go out with open eyes and a little notebook. The question I get asked all the time is “Are the days of exploration over?” Well of course they are not. Days of traveling around the world like an explorer in a khaki jacket and a pith helmet and hacking your way through jungles, maybe that’s over to a point, but there are scientists and travelers, adventurers and writers and artists all exploring new things for themselves everyday of the week whether beneath the surface of the ocean to the edges of the heavens, new discoveries are being made.

Peterson: One of those writers traveling and exploring is Dr. Nick Middleton, a professor at Oxford University and author of the book “An Atlas of Countries that Don’t Exist.”

Middleton: There’s many places to explore, there are varieties of types of exploration. One can have a personal exploration. You can do it without leaving your front room, and you don’t have to do it on the Internet. You can close your eyes and think. But you can also physically explore other parts of the world. In this atlas of countries that don’t exist I’ve included Antarctica and much of that is unexplored and undiscovered.

Peterson: As Lewis-Jones said, exploring in the way of charting new lands on the map is mostly finished. But Middleton stresses that there are other ways to explore. Instead of travelling to unknown territories, you can learn about cultures outside of your own. For example, Middleton has been exploring — by way of countries that aren’t countries — areas of the globe that have a population considering themselves a country even though they are not formally recognized by the United Nations.

Middleton:  It might surprise most people to realize that there’s no universally acknowledged definition of what makes a country a country. So that’s one point, and the next point is that there’s a whole long line, a surprisingly lengthy line of would-be countries, countries that are not recognized by U.N. members say, like the U.S. and the U.K., but nonetheless have a claim to country hood.

Peterson: Middleton says he’s come to understand that each of these unrecognized countries has a unique history and an individual relation to their idea of being formally recognized by an organization like the U.N. For example, one of Middleton’s “countries that doesn’t exist” will be familiar to regular listeners of the program; it’s the region of Somaliland. Somaliland is a breakaway region of Somalia where we documented the efforts of former American hedge-fund manager and current school-runner, Jonathan Starr. Middleton says Somaliland is desperate for recognition.

Middleton:  Somaliland broke away from the rest of Somalia in 1991, and has been a relatively peaceful government and territory ever since then. In stark contrast, sadly to the rest of Somalia, which has had an ongoing ciil war, a lack of central government, and general chaos. But Somaliland, which by all comparison has been very successful, has never been recognized as a nation state by any other country. They also have a historical argument in their favor in that when both Somali and Somaliland got independence in 1960, Somaliland was a former colony of Britain and the rest of Somalia used to be Italian. And for five days Somaliland was an independent nation state in 1960, and then chose to join in with the rest of the Somalis in Somalia that had been Italian Somaliland. So their borders have a history. And yet despite the fact that as I say they have operated very successfully since 1991, with their own currency, their own democratically elected president, their own police force, schools, etcetera, etcetera, no one in the world community will recognize them.

Peterson: But Middleton says other areas are much happier with their status as an unrecognized country.

Middleton: The Isle of Man is a small island between Britain and Ireland, which is not part of the United Kingdom neither is it part of the European Union. It has the longest continuously operating parliament in the world. It goes back to the 8th century. So they run their own affairs quite happily for the most part. And yet the British government looks after their foreign affairs and their defense interests. They use the pound, the same currency as we do in the rest of the U.K. Their passports look very similar to mine and yet they have a huge degree of autonomy.

Peterson: Ultimately, both Middleton and Lewis-Jones say they hope their books can open the door for a new generation of curious, global-minded explorers.

Middleton: I hope they will be fascinating in opening the eyes of the reader to places that, many of which they will never have heard of, because everyone is familiar with the political map of the world, that we are familiar with, which shows the world’s land surface carved up in different pretty colors between the fully-fledged nation states. But what my atlas does is show you a sort of alternative view of the world — many pockets of territories, of countries actually yearn for independence. And you see the whole world in a rather different light.

Lewis-Jones: For me as a historian the more I read the less I know, which sounds crazy but I realize that there are so many more things that I need to discover. I think the wisdom of an explorer is this: just to be open to new things, to have the courage to do something when people say it can’t be done, and to head out into the world in whatever you’re doing with an open frame of mind, with your eyes wide open to the wonders and the possibilities of things that are right there in front of us.

Peterson: Dr. Huw Lewis-Jones’s Explorers’ Sketchbooks and Dr. Nick Middleton’s Atlas Of Countries That Don’t Exist are both available online and in bookstores. For more information about all of our guests, visit viewpoints online.net. Our show is written and produced by Evan Rook. Our executive producer is Reed Pence. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Marty Peterson.