Annie Dillard’s essay “Expedition to the Pole” takes two threads— observations from a real or imagined Mass at her local church and details she culled from historical records of failed expeditions to the North and South Poles—and begins winding them together in alternating blocks of prose. Her deft juxtaposition creates a third thread, at first invisible, to make a remarkable weaving which turns its nose up at the flattening simplification of allegory and rises above the common mystery of metaphor and seems to strain for the hallowed ground of the parabolic.
God knows one of the last things we need in the world is another reductive division of humanity, one more faulty ‘us vs. them’ delineation to add to the heaping bag we are carrying around. Just for a minute, though, and just for fun, let’s say there are two kinds of writers: those that adhere to the ‘write what you know’ creed and those that are in the ‘write what you want to know about’ camp. There are fine and enjoyable writers on either side of that fence, but my favorites are those skilled (and brave) enough to take both imperatives in hand and set off blazing a different track in the wilderness.
Early in the essay Dillard references the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility. Wikipedia tells us it is “a location that is the most challenging to reach owing to its remoteness from geographical features that could provide access. Often it refers to the most distant point from the coastline. The term describes a geographic construct, not an actual physical phenomenon. Subject to varying definitions, it is of interest mostly to explorers.” Her essay becomes, right in front of us, a writer’s travel diary of her expedition toward that Pole. With what she has known and lived in one hand, and what she believes is out there and wants to know in the other, she goes, and asks us to join her, not just as readers, but as fellow explorers.
At one point she makes the aside: “There is no such thing as a solitary polar explorer, fine as the conception is.” So, shall we let her lead us, or would you like to cut drifts in the snow for the rest of us awhile?