Popular Science Monthly/Volume 59/October 1901/Discussion and Correspondence
A VIKING PHILOSOPHER.
In the minds of most men the name of Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld is connected with the voyage of the Vega, and with that only. That is a good title to fame, for his circumnavigation of the Old World, the forcing of the northeast passage, attempted in vain for over three centuries, was an exploit worthy to rank with those of Vasco di Gama and Maghelhaëns. But Nordenskiöld was a good deal more than a great explorer, and whatever he might have accomplished he would always have remained a singularly interesting character.
The doer of some striking deed soars for a space to the zenith of popular favor, and his fall is often the greater when ousted by the next darling of the public. But Nordenskiöld, from the day he entered Sweden, banished from his native Finland by the Russian government for an over-pointed after-dinner speech which he declined to withdraw, to the day when he died full of honors from all nations, was ever a hero of the Swedes, the one man whose features and fame were known in every village of the land. Fifteen years after the return of the Vega I crossed Sweden in his company. The lake steamer on which we set foot was speedily dressed with flags from stem to stern; as we paced the railway platform, folk turned to point him out to their children; an apothecary into whose shop we stepped drew us into his parlor to point with pride to a medallion of the hero hung in the place of honor; even a drive with him through the streets of Stockholm, where his presence was familiar, was not without embarrassment. Those who knew Nordenskiöld can understand this easily. He impressed the popular imagination like some grand mysterious figure of the Middle Ages. Rarely did man so combine the profound research of the student with the decisive energy of the geographical explorer, the remote and even fantastic speculations of the philosopher with the business-like ability of a prudent organizer, the absent-minded reverie and complete absorption of the recluse with the wide sympathies and practical readiness of a liberal politician. These broad outlines of his character were obvious to all, and manifest too in his outer person. The deep-set far-away eyes and the furrowed forehead above the shaggy eyebrows proclaimed him a seer of visions and a diver into nature's secrets, while the hard lines of the mouth and prominent underlip told of an obstinate patience joined to a fiery Viking temper; the bowed shoulders of the bookworm, voracious of fusty manuscripts in the dark recesses of a library, were belied by the firm elastic tread of the sailor and mountaineer.
The things he did and the things he said were striking in themselves, but they were the outcome of his yet more striking personality. People talked of Nordenskiöld's luck. He had the luck of all who lay the foundations of their plans deep, who make every preparation suggested by learning and experience, who know how to wait for the fitting moment, and who have the boldness to go ahead unswervingly when the opening appears. It was the exhaustive detail of his plans for the northeast passage that awoke the admiration, and gained the support, of King and people; it was by forethought, and not only by daring, that he brought the Vega and her consorts from ocean to ocean, unscathed and without the loss of a single man. It was by readiness and prompt decision that he steered the Sofia to what, but for the Englishman, Parry, had then been the farthest north, and that on another voyage he burst the icy barrier of southeastern Greenland, which had defied assault for three hundred years.
These expeditions to Greenland were inspired largely by his desire to see the remains of the ancient Österby, the settlement of the Norsemen, an inspiration as much sentimental as scientific. On the other hand, his early voyages to Siberian waters, though not unfruitful of scientific results, were as grossly commercial as those of his fellow-pioneers, Captains Carlsen and Wiggins. But mere trade would not have taken Nordenskiöld to the mouth of the Yennissei, and we believe that in the night-watches there ever loomed before him the shadow of Tchelyuskin, the cape that he would be the first to double.
As keeper of the minerals in the State Museum at Stockholm, Nordenskiöld had to deal with objects that may be thought petty in comparison with his famous exploits. But the professor was a poet, always seeing the greater in the less, and thus it was that the dust falling on Arctic snows through the long night was for him a message from other worlds than ours, a suggestion of some primeval harbinger that brought to a cooling planet the germ of all life. So, too, a prolonged study of cracks in granite, to which his attention was first directed on Spitzbergen, led him, by a process of reasoning too complicated for repetition here, to the belief that they must penetrate to a depth of thirty to forty meters below sea-level and no further, since there they would meet with a system of horizontal cracks. Water would sink through the first set of cracks to that depth, and there would form a constant source of supply. The theory was proved correct by the diamond drill, and from it wider consequences of geological import inevitably result. But the practical benefits, especially in the large granitic areas of Sweden and Finland, are no less, and at Nordenskiöld's instigation large numbers of bore-holes have now been sunk, lighthouses on seagirt rocks furnished with a never-failing spring, and factories supplied with pure water previously obtainable only at great expense. 'Nordenskiöld's wells' will soon be household words, and they who understand neither mathematics nor geology know at least that like the prophet of old he has brought forth water from the stony rock.
But it is not my purpose to discuss the scientific labors of Nordenskiöld, so much as to illustrate his personality. Stern and reserved in appearance, he was often so in reality, but this arose rather from his abstraction in deep problems than from any aloofness of nature. He was not high-minded, however proud his looks, and could unbend without a trace of condescension. He was not a good speaker, but he was an inveterate one, and, as we have seen, his freedom of youthful speech cost him his post and his native land. On the triumphal homeward voyage of the Vega, there were banquets at every port of call, and Nordenskiöld, who of course spoke, employed always the language of the country. It was his custom. Even in Japan, after a few weeks' stay, he replied to the toast of his health in Japanese. The speech was not reported.
Wherever he went he collected objects of interest, and the collection he made in Japan was characteristic. He bought up all the books and manuscripts he could lay hands on, and so it is that there now exists in the Royal Library at Stockholm perhaps the finest collection of Japanese literature in Europe. The catalogue by Professor Rosny, of Paris, is well known to Orientalists.
Nordenskiöld was also a voluminous writer. He was perhaps too fertile in ideas to have the lucidity that makes the good writer. Many of his sentences struggle through ponderous verbiage only to die in the folds of an ambiguous anacoluthon. But a picturesque phrase sparkles out here and there, as when in reference to some modern geological theories, he says, 'still the student of science is groping here, like a child after the silvery disc of the moon.' A sentence that an unkind critic might apply to some of the philosopher's own speculations.
Further illustrations of Nordenskiöld's many-sided character might be drawn from aspects of his life here scarcely referred to. Enough has been said to render intelligible the hero-worship of the Swedish people. Is the world too old for a Nordenskiöld myth to be possible? I doubt one is even now in the making among the remote homesteads in Scandinavian forests.
F. A. B.
AN ITALIAN IN AMERICA.