Explorer without a compass: an interview with Franco Michieli
by Silvia Bottani
Where does your desire to become and explorer come from?
I think this desire originates from the sensitivity we usually develop when we are kids. It is vital that children and adolescents live in close touch with nature, at least at certain times, and that they can form their world view keeping in touch with that part of reality that was not built or man-made. Just discovering that our mental universe is not the centre of the world but only a tiny fraction of what exists represents a strong incentive to discover the Other. The exploration of human interiority is very interesting too, but this is a dimension without any appropriate yardstick. Exploration only begins when you get in touch with something that is not only unknown but also different. Being aware of our limitations and imperfections as humans compared to nature and its events made me dream of becoming an explorer since I was a child. But also some cultural values and family issues came into play: my grandfather wrote many biographies of famous explorers from the past and as a kid I devoured all the books of the Extraordinary Voyages of Jules Verne.
You are a skilled mountaineer but what struck me the most is your choice, for some years now, to cross wilderness areas without any guidance tools. How does such desire come about?
It took me some time to figure out that a man of the 21st century could travel without any maps and technological tools. For almost twenty years I crossed mountains and wilderness areas using topographic maps, compass, altimeter and watch. In the late 1990s I began to realize that my approach was becoming a commonplace: a map revealed too much about the place leaving too little room for discovery. At the same time I realized that explorers were suddenly losing their spatial orientation ability just to rely on satellites and GPS, in other words, they were led by the Ministries of Defence of the major powers. I used to wonder: Where is the sense in walking on the wild side like this? I decided I had to react and together with my friend Andrea Matteotti I did a first test: the crossing of the highlands of Norwegian Lapland, from the Barents Sea to the fjords of the Atlantic, about 500 km long as the crow flies. For 23 days we followed an east-west route with no maps, no compass and watch, no transceiver. That was a real revolution to me: we never got lost, on the contrary, after a few days we did not even notice the lack of our usual equipment. Our route was perfect, as if the Earth itself was guiding us and there was no need for anything else. Since then there have been many other crossings like this, on different terrain.
Lights and shadows in Lapland; in the repetitive landscape and the infinite vastness of the surrounding uninhabited flatlands you might get lost, but the sun’s journey, the course of rivers and the mountains turn out to be clear references if you learn how to observe them carefully and with adequate geographical knowledge.
A stop at a tent in the desert heart of Iceland. Holding one’s course is possible thanks to the position of streams and some volcanic cones or ice caps visible in the distance.
What is the most challenging expedition you have ever mounted so far?
Actually I think that the point when undertaking expeditions is not how complex they are but rather how simple. Nature is a complex system which has an extremely large, almost endless, number of forms and living creatures but our approach to this sort of canvas with its interwoven events is quite simple. We must start again to observe, to listen, to relate everything to the other things, without being in a hurry. We must learn to have faith in the time, even though long, between a question and its answer: nature does not have the same computer response time but its answers are deeper. And it takes you years to realize all this. Apart from that, the most arduous journey without orienteering tools was perhaps a winter wandering I spent skiing in some uninhabited areas in the heart of Iceland. For weeks, snow and fog posed challenges for us to orient ourselves in a uniform landscape. So, when reasoning is overcome by a mysterious instinct, you can have the most intense experiences.
Can you tell us what do you use to succeed in your crossings? Sense of direction, observation of land and sky…
Basically all what is available on the earth, in the sky and in our memory is helpful in order to understand an area and choose a path. In concrete terms, we need to identify something that can be used as if it were a map, and something else as a compass. The map is the territory itself: by observing it we can get an idea about its structure, we can get “a mind map”. This mind map can also be made up of simple pieces of information on a region, or of memories of a map, an Atlas you previously read. Even Christopher Columbus set sail just using a mental map, that is, how he thought the ocean to the west of the Known Lands was. That map, although partially wrong, did work! The same happens to me, as I usually set forth with a vague idea of the land I want to cross. The second reference point I need must work as a compass, it must help me to adjust my idea of the territory in space. The sun is the most precious and accurate compass: every hour during the day it is above the horizon, and each position can be easily recognized and used, with good approximation, as a cardinal point (so, roughly speaking, in the morning the sun is due east, south at noon and west in the evening, plus all the intermediate directions at other times). In just few days you learn how to keep the route this way. But there are many other “compasses”: at night, the Polar Star and the constellations close to it, or streams, which usually flow from the watershed of the mountain chains towards the plains or the sea, offering very reliable reference points, or distinguishing heights that stand out on the horizon, or certain constant winds that help you find the way, or even the sounds of streams or human activities that disclose some invisible places.
Advancing on skis in Iceland during winter. Because of the blizzard the landscape vanishes from sight, covered by a thick white blanket of snow and ice, but the brightness of the sun becomes a guiding beacon in the middle of nowhere.
Understanding the apparent movement of the sun from sunrise to sunset allows you to walk in thick forests without ever getting lost: to find the right direction you just need to use shadows of trees according to specific angles which vary with the time of day.
What are the natural environments that have mostly thrilled you?
Untouched nature is always exciting, in the most diverse climates and landscapes: There is a permanent beauty unveiling everywhere. However, there are places where I feel strongly involved, and others less. For example, I do find it hard to stay in the rain forests with its hot and humid climate. On the contrary I really enjoy cool or cold environments, and this is why I think that no other place thrills me more than the northern mountain scenery, where wild mountains and plateaus reach the fjords, for example in Norway and Greenland. From the first moment I saw a Norwegian coast from the sea – I was twenty – I felt at home. I have always felt at ease there, as if the Earth is aware of my presence. Diving along the coral reef was an exciting moment too. But I can experience similar emotions, on a smaller scale, even in the local mountains, that is the Alps and Pre-Alps of Valcamonica (a beautiful valley north of Lake Iseo in Italy).
Exploration is directly linked to the concept of â€‹â€‹limit. How do you overcome your fears, the sense of limit or the problems you may have during a journey?
Unfortunately we men have difficulty in recognizing our limits. For this reason civilization seems to have chosen a particular type of exploration: we exploit everything that exists on Earth without ever looking back, and so we see how long we can last. The modern civilization is the only real “extreme sport” we are practicing, en masse, as we are always daring and taking too much risk: and the risk is extinction. Groups of explorers in all ages have been doing the same: they plunder all resources from a new land, or advance blindly on an imaginary Eldorado, as the film “Aguirre the wrath of God” by Werner Herzog wonderfully depicted. I choose to let go of the tools that fool us into believing we are stronger than nature. A rather more humble attitude may in actual fact be necessary if we want to understand our limits, we shall simply rely on our own strengths without too many technological or economical prostheses. Getting into nature with few resources and without mounting an expensive expedition helps to get things into right perspective and to behave more wisely. Exploring means not to know our next destination a priori, or the path we will follow (if we know these things in advance, our journey can be difficult but not exploratory). Therefore it means to live “from hand to mouth”, to adapt to the things and situations you meet along the way step by step, after a careful and constant observation, and without rushing to walk a path immediately and at all costs. This approach teaches us to recognize our physical limits and to avoid going further. And for this very reason, it sometimes allows us to go beyond our spiritual boundaries.
Exploring also means to adapt your path to the shapes of the Earth: you shall not cross certain dangerous areas and walk past obstacles at any cost, you simply have to move around! That’s what this picture shows: it was taken while crossing the Alps of Lyngen, Norway. It often happens to discover breathtaking and completely unexpected landscapes after a route change to bypass an obstacle.
Looking for a way on the glaciers of the Cordillera Raura, Peruvian Andes. Finding no traces, receiving no information: What an incredible opportunity to relish your freedom!
In an interview, you mentioned “An Intimate Geography” by Barry Lopez. In recent years there has been a rediscovery of geography as a subject of study in schools. It has been underestimated for too long but now it has been given a new dimension thanks to cultural studies, anthropological disciplines and reflections on neurology and cognitive science. Mental and real geography, maps, they all seem to redesign the world and the relationship between environment and individuals. How do you view this?
The new approach of geography is extremely interesting also because it places emphasis on the archaic human dimensions again, which we thought we could neglect, not realizing that they have always been playing an important role in the relationship between man and land. The biggest mistake of geography as studied in the past was to only focus on the physicality of the earth, without understanding that what really matters is a relation. The relationship between each individual or group of living beings and its territory is the most profound aspect of geography, to such an extent that when living beings, not only human, are uprooted from the place where their vision of the world originated their meaning of life is spoiled. Today, many shortcomings of our civilization derive from not having taken into account the bad influence noise and ugliness exert on individual identities, whose cultural tradition had developed in a completely different social and cultural context. Â Barry Lopez quoted the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan using these words: “The most beloved places of a culture are not necessarily visible to the eye … locations in the territory that you may point at. They are made visible in drama … in fiction, in songs, in a performance. Yet what is invisible on earth is exactly what allows us to perceive as a place something which other people consider an empty space”. It is precisely the inability to see the invisible places that allowed civilization to destroy them. During a long journey into nature without pre-packaged information this invisible reality becomes the most tangible and amazing dimension. We are far from recovering this truth collectively, but it’s a good thing that we are talking about it.
In its etymology the word “explore” connotes “going to discover”: what do you take back in your daily life after your explorations without maps?
I bring home a lot, and certainly not everything is immediately recognizable. The most immediate teaching is that you learn to observe and relate every fact or detail. Explorers get out of the habit of seeing each person or single fact as a separate reality: everything is always the result of group paths, whether good or bad. Another skill I bring back and use in my daily life is the ability to get orientated in the city through the sun and to correlate the sky with road courses: and this also means that we do not feel alone. I have also learnt to be less influenced by the unquestionable judgements handed down by media. But the most precious lesson I have learnt is a critical look at human arrogance. Being explorers also means to realize that we humans are incredibly presumptuous. Nature tells us about this repeatedly, if we just listen to it. Being able to see this point clearly doesn’t make our life easier: as a matter of fact, the decision-making processes in our society seem to be largely ill-advised. However, the deriving sense of unease urges us to behave differently. The memory of the strong and dense relationship with something unknown I experienced in nature after some moments of great, apparent disorientation is a light still glowing in other very different moments of my life.
Such an extreme “sport activity” you practise, if we can call it so, cannot be done by anyone. But if you should write a handbook, what kind of advice would you give to a young aspiring explorer.
Before leaving on a long trip to some uninhabited areas without maps and compass you need to have long and adequate experience, which can only be gained after many years of practice. But everyone can approach that dimension, gradually. The participants to my frequent orientation courses surrounded by the wild uncontaminated nature tell me that it is not difficult to learn. You become an explorer by simply becoming curious again about the surrounding world so that you can rediscover it with your own eyes and not through ready-made pieces of information. This is enough to find an unknown world. And it is even easier learning how to recognize the positions of the sun and the moon at different times of the day, how to locate the North Star at night, to pay attention to the wind direction, to understand how a river flows and which side are the mountains. There is no need to go to Amazonia to learn that you can keep a straight route in a forest thanks to the sun or the shadows that it casts, this procedure also works in a park in the suburbs. And even in natural areas close to home, where there is no risk of getting lost, we can get use to silence again, to the lack of our mobile phone, so that we can finally learn how to bravely get out of the path in order to discover something new.
Returning from the mountaintop at sunset, in the Peruvian Andes. By exploring nature we get energy and incentive from the beauty of the earth and this is a tremendous asset as, when facing difficulties in the civilized world, we usually have to draw on our own inner resources or ambitions.
When we are immersed in nature we realize that our movements are driven by the same shapes of the Earth; the better we understand how every feature in the territory develops, the easier it becomes.