Looking Deeply, Proceeding On
These three words pervade the justly famous journals of Lewis & Clark. They hold a metaphorical significance that I find endlessly inspiring, and capture the essential spiritual achievement of the expedition of 1804-1806.
Legendary trailblazers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark have long been a subject of fascination to American history buffs while being remembered primarily as a subject of … well, homework, by most of the rest of us.
I suppose it was a long-lasting residual effect of my own school-day boredom, but I’d always thought that the Lewis & Clark story was overrated. In my college years, this assumption took the form of arrogant “enlightenment.” Okay, these guys journeyed into the unknown and all that—but weren’t they merely functionaries of Manifest Destiny?—you know, that dubious enterprise by which an imperialist American government laid claim to territories already inhabited for millennia by indigenous peoples?
Well, being a newcomer to the Pacific Northwest, and given that I’m working on a new book partly set in the region, I concluded recently that this Lewis & Clark business deserved some looking-into. What was all this about the Native American woman Sacagawea? About Clark adopting her half-Shoshone, half-French children? About Clark’s slave, York, coming along and being the first person of African descent ever seen by the Native Americans along the way? What was this about Lewis believing the expedition had proved a failure? Lewis being a manic depressive? Lewis killing himself!?
Perhaps there was a compelling human drama there after all, a story as rich and complicated and epic in scope as many another iconic moment in our national history.
I decided Lewis & Clark should finally get the attention I’d refused them for my entire public-school education. So I started by touring a Smithsonian exhibition marking the expedition’s bicentennial. Then I plunged into Brian Hall’s magnificent fictional recreation of the Lewis & Clark story, the unfortunately titled novel, I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company. Some time later, I read a second novel on the theme. And finally, just this month, I turned to that blessedly dependable interpreter of great past events, filmmaker Ken Burns.
Burns’s four-hour documentary, Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, illuminates the two-and-a-half-year Jefferson-commissioned expedition in its suspenseful essence. Yes, suspenseful! Granted, we all know what happened: With immense confidence and acumen a Dynamic Duo spearheaded a party of thirty-odd able-bodied men (and one woman), pushing through that uncharted expanse between the Mississippi to the Pacific coast, braving roaring rivers, Indian warriors, grizzly bears, and winter starvation, even while mapping the country, documenting new species of plants and animals, and recording scenic impressions along the way.
But somehow, in defiance of our staid assumptions regarding Lewis & Clark, Ken Burns returns us to the real-time experience of the journey itself. In his hands, the spirit of the historic undertaking (read: “We proceeded on”) begins to mesmerize. Watching Burns’s beautiful film, I couldn’t help pondering all the implications of what it really means to commit oneself wholeheartedly to an adventure—be it physical or spiritual—to “proceed on” and push through to the accomplishment of a goal.
It’s not incidental that Burns’s film should affect me so personally. The lauded documentarian articulates his main philosophy as a filmmaker in one pungent phrase that speaks perfectly to the power of his style:
Meaning accrues in duration.
The longer we let ourselves consider a history-changing moment, a great life, a work of art, a face, a landscape, then the more deeply and directly the viewed object will speak to us–and the more we’ll learn about ourselves and our world.
Of course, in this hyperlinked, high-speed culture of ours, we are confronted daily by super-ephemeral stimuli. PhotoShopped images, flashing pop-ups, and pixilated text assault the eye and speed the rate of our looking till our most customary state is one of quick glances, passive reception, a kind of waking REM. The long-term effect of this is a cultural, personal, I daresay spiritual numbing and dumbing, what literary critic Sven Birkerts has forbiddingly dubbed,
… the leaching away of mass and consequence from our personal and historical experience.
But Ken Burns is right. Meaning accrues in duration. So he pins his camera to an image and leaves it there till the image starts to work on you at some powerful and mysterious level.
Likewise, after fifteen years of letting my eyes glaze over at the names “Lewis” and “Clark,” I’ve finally taken a good solid look and—what do you know?—have discovered that this tiresome old tale in fact speaks to me deeply.
Now, leafing through my condensed edition of the Lewis & Clark journals, I spot the singular weighty phrase in Clark’s entry of July 30, 1804, early in the journey:
Set out this morning early, proceeded on to a clear open prairie.
Turning through the pages, I find him using the same words on September 26th, 29th, 30th–and yet again on October 5th, 18th and 26th. I begin skimming at random, and there he is, still employing the phrase on July 19th of the following year, 1805, as the expedition nears the Great Falls on the Missouri River. And there again, on the 23rd and 25th of that month.
I skip ahead and catch up with the expedition in late 1805. They’ve reached the rapids of the Columbia River, less than a hundred miles from the Pacific coast. On November 10, 1805 Clark writes,
We loaded our canoes and proceeded on.
The more closely I read it, the more it means to me. I, too, am on a journey. I too proceed onward. And the longer I gaze at the visions along my way, the more meaning each moment of my journey shall accrue. I feel awake, alive, alert at every step—and every step teaches me something new.
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