In a continuing series of fascinating interviews with individuals whose work intersects with the life of explorer Louise Arner Boyd, I’m delighted to feature a conversation with British artist/researcher/voyager Anne Lydiat.
JK – How did you learn about Miss Boyd and what most intrigues you about her?
AL – I discovered the voyages of Louise Arner Boyd whilst researching Arctic explorers. Until then I was totally unaware that any woman had been able to accomplish such amazing endeavours in what was perceived to be the entirely male domains of the ship and exploration.
JK – Tell me about your research project “In the Wake of Louise Arner Boyd.”
AL – My PhD focuses on women who have voyaged and how historically these women’s achievements have been forgotten or disappeared – like the wake of a ship.
JK – What are the objectives and research process you are following?
AL – Utilising the ship as a research method, this project has entailed my visiting the Arctic five times using Boyd’s charts to follow in the wake of the places she has sailed including Norway – Alesund and Tromso (2014); Spitzbergen – Svalbard (2015 and 2017) and Greenland – Scoresby Sound (2016).
JK – How does this project relate to your own lived experience?
AL – In 2002, I went to live on an old British Coaster moored on the River Thames. This fluvial existence inspired my research, my art making process and my desire to voyage in the wake of women before me.
JK – How does this project extend the research on Louise Arner Boyd?
AL -Uniquely, I want to concentrate on the actual photography of LAB and to achieve this in August of this year (2018), I have hired a ship to sail up the fiords of East Greenland to Louise Boyd Land (Weisboydlund). During this voyage, I will re-photograph some of Boyd’s original b/w photographs of the region.
‘Following in the Wake’ power point presentations at the WOW Festival (Women of the World) Southbank, London, 2017/2018 and booked for 2019.
JK – For me, as a reader, each of the poems in the collection- each small intense jewel – stirs up something deep inside. What did writing these poems mean for you personally?
EB – Each poem was an exploration. I wanted to try to imagine myself into its world. I wanted to emotionally investigate my own love of ice and of places remote from the worlds in which I grew up and later came to settle — namely, suburban and small-town temperate coastal American communities. It’s important that each poem I write risks something and in some way feels vulnerable, so I tried to be as open as I could in balancing gut, thought, dream, song, and fact
JK – As a poet, how do your feelings about the Arctic differ from your feelings about Antarctica?
EB – As a naturalist and as a poet, they differ wildly. As a naturalist, the ecosystems are so different — most notably, the Arctic having a greater diversity of land-based plants and creatures. I have such a love of musk ox and moss campion, such a thrill at the cacophony of fulmars nesting. What’s more, my connection to the Arctic is made palpable during winters on Cape Cod when I see some of those very birds winging over my home waters. The Arctic feels rich, storied, close in an intimate way. The Arctic is also much more complicated socially and historically – there are different cultures, peoples, and nations occupying the far north and have been for millennia. Colonialism and extraction are part of the Arctic’s story both historically and presently, and I am intimidated by the complexities held in those truths. I’m also drawn to them. Now that I’ve spent some time in the Arctic, I’m trying to write into that experience in a way that feels honest and ethical.
Antarctica has such a different resonance — the idealistic legal framework of the Antarctic treaty, the iconic nature of the continent in environmental imagination, the primacy of tourism, the lack of an indigenous human history, the ocean-centric rather than land-centric biological richness. As a poet, I felt freer to imagine myself into Antarctica because in many ways it’s always been a site for human dreams, whether it’s the dreams of whalers or scientists. The written record of people in Antarctica telling their own stories can be found in any library, that frees me to explore more widely on the page. People can set my interpretation alongside others and come to their own conclusions. I also wonder if we belong there at all, particularly as tourists. What is the cost of human presence in Antarctica? Is what is gained by our presence there worth it? That, to me, is an important question to ask of Antarctica.
JK – Like Louise Arner Boyd (and myself!), you naturally gravitate towards these extreme regions. Why?
EB – Oh, that is the million dollar question. I have asked myself that very thing so often, and I don’t know. It’s not a genetic connection. As far as I know, I have no Arctic ancestry in my family. It’s not because as a kid I spent time in the mountains — we were water people and spent our time on the Salish Sea. But ice and tundra thrill me. Maybe it’s because of the same reason I love being at sea — treeless horizon and arching sky. Expansiveness. It’s heart-opening. I don’t know that there is any logical answer I can provide, but my body sings when I’m there, particularly in the north.
JK – Tell us about your upcoming collection “Toward Antarctica” being published in the spring of 2019.
EB – When I wrote Approaching Ice, it was an armchair-traveller’s book, wholly imagined. I’d lived and worked in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska, but never in the Arctic. I’d never been south of the equator, much less as far as Antarctica. In 2011, I was first offered work as a naturalist on a ship in Antarctica, and I jumped at the chance to at last experience a place I’d so deeply imagined. While aboard, I found myself compelled to write, and started using haibun, a form invented by the Japanese poet Basho to chronicle his long forays into remote Japan in the 17th century.
Toward Antarctica uses lyric writing and photographs to explore what it’s like to work as a naturalist-guide on a ship in Antarctic. Antarctica is no longer remote, in many ways. Satellite connectivity is the norm. In the 2015-2016 season, 30,922 people visited Antarctica as tourists. It is time to try and get beyond the romance of Antarctica and see it clearly. Toward Antarctica challenges iconic images of Antarctica and tropes of travel writing. It offers a complex, layered, politically aware view. It examines our relationship to journeying, remoteness, discovery, temporary societies, service economy, and “pure” landscapes. Because of this critical lens, it is my hope that the moments when the beauty and jaw-dropping wonder of the place are rendered become all the more moving. I hope I have done it justice.
Marvellous! Thanks so much, Elizabeth for visiting with us. Can’t wait to read “Toward Antarctica.”
By serendipity, I was introduced to the fine work of poet, naturalist and publisher Elizabeth Bradfield. She is the author of “Approaching Ice” (Persea, 2010) which was a finalist for the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets (and which is featured in “The Polar Adventures of a Rich American Dame A Life of Louise Arner Boyd”) as well as “Interpretive Work” (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press, 2008) which won the Audre Lord Award in 2008 and “Once Removed” (Persea, 2015).
Like Louise Arner Boyd and yours truly, Elizabeth is beguiled by the cold and the ice. I’m delighted that she dropped by to answer some questions about her fascinating work.
JK – Your poetry collection “Approaching Ice” (Persea Books, 2010) resonated deeply with me and other readers who love polar regions. In particular, the poem ‘Polar Explorer Louise Arner Boyd (1924)’ was really inspirational for my biography. Can you tell me a little about what this poem means to you?
EB – I was so thrilled to “discover” Louise Arner Boyd. Looking back at my notes, my first draft of the poem was written in 2004, which is fairly far along in the making of the collection. At that point, I’d spent nearly a decade reading “the boys” of polar exploration, and to at last come upon a woman was, in all honestly, a relief. But reckoning with what her story meant to me was difficult. I think that, like many people who write into a narrative in which they themselves are a marginalized figure, I was hyper-critical of Boyd because of our similarities: not just women, but non-traditional women scrabbling into a life that does/doesn’t have a space for us. Poor Boyd — she had the burden of having to represent all of my hopes and dreams.
JK – Your research for the collection is commendable. Did your understanding of the role of women in polar history change over the course of writing these poems?
EB – First, thank you! The book began after about eight years of obsession with early polar explorers, beginning with Shackleton. I was reading and reading and reading… just because it fascinated me. I wasn’t “researching,” per se. There was no direction to it then, and I didn’t have an idea of writing anything myself. In 2001, that changed. In a moment of kind of dumbfounded “duh,” I asked myself why I wasn’t writing poems. So I began writing with the idea of a book in mind, and at that point I reached out deliberately beyond the easy names (Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen) to find other stories — Nobu Shirase, Matthew Henson, John Cleves Symmes. One of my fascinations with polar narratives was always the lurking “could I have done it?” and, tied to that, the realization that, as a woman, I’d not have been welcomed on those expeditions. The ways in which ideas of purity, challenge, manliness, and femininity overlapped and shifted were absolutely core to what I wanted to investigate. Once we get into modern Antarctica — women at research bases as scientists and forklift drivers and cooks — the dynamic becomes more familiar and, in many ways, less interesting to me. I know there is plenty to engage with there, it’s just not where my fascination yearns.
EB – The role of women in the north is much more complicated, of course, because it was and is a peopled land. For as long as there have been people in the Arctic, women have lived there. Right now, I’m quite interested in mapping and unpacking the way indigenous women were perceived by Arctic “explorers” of a certain era and what that said, too, about the men’s relationship to their wives back home.
Stay tuned for the second part of this fascinating dialogue!
I recently accepted a summer position as Guest Lecturer for Poseidon Expeditions – one of the world’s most respected polar cruise companies. I’ll be taking part in three Arctic cruises to Greenland, Iceland, Jan Mayen Land and Svalbard from late May until late June. Such a wonderful opportunity to share the accomplishments of the amazing Louise Arner Boyd with the world!
I had a fabulous time recently during my Washington DC book tour giving a talk about Louise Arner Boyd at the Society of Woman Geographers Headquarters. I’ve been a member of this esteemed organization for several years and fully support their goal of promoting geographical research and study by women throughout the world. The fact that my biographical subject, polar explorer Louise Arner Boyd was an early member, is an added bonus for me. She gave presentations at SWG meetings throughout the United States and represented them at various scientific meetings abroad.
At the time Miss Boyd was engaged in her Arctic expeditions between 1926-1955, women were still not welcomed as members of The Explorers Club as were her male counterparts. But the Society of Woman Geographers was started in 1925 by pioneering explorers Marguerite Harrison, Blair Niles, Gertrude Shelby and Gertrude Emerson Sen and soon attracted the crème de la crème of fascinating women engaged in important and purposeful work. Early members included Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Margaret Mead and Mary Leakey and our own Louise Arner Boyd! Current members include oceanographer Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, biophysical chemist and mountaineer Dr. Arlene Blum and research scientist and founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund Dr. Laurie Marker. An illustrious group indeed. Why not consider joining?
If you want to visit some of the places most closely associated with Louise Arner Boyd in California, here are some of the best:
St Paul’s Episcopal Church
1123 Court Street, San Rafael
Located around the corner from Miss Boyd’s home, this is the church she attended as a young girl and all throughout her adult life. Her own memorial service was held here as were the services for her family members. The stunning memorial window honouring her two brothers is still in place.
Boyd Memorial Park and Boyd Gate House
B Street and Mission Ave., San Rafael
Originally part of Louise Arner Boyd’s backyard until her parents donated it to the town of San Rafael in memory of her brothers, this park is now a peaceful greenspace enjoyed by the local residents. Located right next door is the Boyd Gate House which housed the Marin History Museum until recently. The Gate House was built by Miss Boyd’s maternal grandfather as part of the larger Boyd estate.
Maple Lawn/ Elks Lodge #1108
1312 Mission Ave., San Rafael
This was the much-loved luxurious mansion built by Louise Arner Boyd’s uncle and grandfather and later renovated by her. She lived there until the early 1960s when she sold it to the Elks and while many things have changed here, the bones of the building and many key elements remain the same. It is privately owned but it is well worth trying to find an Elks member who would consent to showing you around the place.
Diablo Country Club
1700 Club House Road, Diablo
This is another site where it helps to have a member take you around. The entire property of the Club was once part of the vast Oakwood Park Stock Farm owned by the great uncles of Louise Arner Boyd and later inherited by her mother. The summer home of the Boyd family is a private residence nearby but the Club property was once enjoyed by the young Louise and her family as they roamed the hills for hours.
Mt Tamalpais Cemetery and Mortuary
2500 Fifth Avenue, San Rafael
Many local luminaries are buried here including the illustrious Boyd family. The Boyd family crypt is easily found and it houses the remains of her parents Louise and John Franklin Boyd as well as her two older brothers. But Louise Arner Boyd herself was so passionate about the North that she requested her ashes be spread over the Arctic Ocean. However, it is known that she tended the Boyd crypt regularly over the years.
Louise Arner Boyd found delight in the natural world whether it was far above the Arctic Circle or in her own backyard. Her backyard was a little different than most as her San Rafael mansion “Maple Lawn” was comprised of several acres lovingly tended by the longtime Boyd gardener Ah Sing. On many of her expeditions she collected botanical specimens under the guidance of her mentor Alice Eastwood of the California Academy of Sciences.
At home, she worked closely with Ah Sing on the care and maintenance of the garden that had been planted under the watchful eyes of her maternal grandfather Ira Cook and her father John Franklin Boyd. She imported and planted both Indigenous and exotic tree species throughout the property and visitors to her home would often remark on the magnificent vistas as they drove up the impressive driveway lined with maple trees. Remnants of these trees are still apparent today although sadly, her prized lush camellia bushes no longer exist.
Despite her willing participation in seven Arctic expeditions, Louise Arner Boyd lived a glamorous life- no doubt about it. Her father, John Franklin Boyd was a self-made millionaire who had struck it rich in the gold mines of California. Her childhood home, in which she lived until nearly the end of her life, was a sumptuous mansion called Maple Lawn located at 1312 Mission Avenue in San Rafael, Marin County just outside of San Francisco.
Miss Boyd loved to shop and maintained meticulous lists of her favourite stores and ateliers in cities around the world and the home she inherited was considered one of the finest in town. She conducted major renovations on at least two occasions to better facilitate the storage of her expanding library and collection of films, photographs and maps generated as a result of her expeditionary work. But she also made changes to Maple Lawn to accommodate the needs of her many friends who stayed with her on a continually rotating basis. She was an explorer first and foremost but she was always a bright star in elevated social circles in California.
The next few blog posts will highlight Maple Lawn- that home that was dear to her heart. This first early photograph, likely taken prior to 1926, shows the sweeping staircase and treasured antiques which were commonplace to Miss Boyd as she was growing up.
In writing this biography of explorer Louise Arner Boyd, I’ve committed a cardinal sin. I am completely over the moon with her- no ifs, ands or buts about it. It’s understandable since I’ve been living with her in my head for well over ten years now and my admiration grows the more I learn about her. Luckily, this has not affected how I write and now that I can read my book in its published form, I am pleased with how unbiased it is.
She wasn’t perfect by any means- she could certainly be strong-minded and self-centred and perhaps I don’t mind this because I can see shades of it in myself! One challenging aspect I had to deal with was her fondness for hunting. This was an activity she indulged in regularly during her 1926 Expedition and made one of the chapters more challenging for me to write as a result. I understand that she was no different from many wealthy individuals of that time but I admit that I was pleased that her participation in this ceased over time.
I can’t imagine being able to write about a despicable historical figure. Being with Miss Boyd delighted me as I continually marvelled at what she accomplished despite her limited education and the constraints imposed on women of her class and age. Each day I wrote brought me closer to the time when her biography would be published and everyone would be astonished that her name and achievements had been forgotten for so long.
Becoming a published author means that you enter the public arena knowingly and with intent. When I worked in publishing, the author was fêted at a book launch party, chatted with a few radio hosts and participated in book signings across the country. While this still happens to a lucky few, the vast majority of working writers jockey for valuable real estate in cyberspace: trying to ensure that one’s book gains a healthy number of Amazon pre-orders and generates a buzz on Facebook far in advance of its publication date.
Like me, most writers are solitary souls who’d rather spend hours in dusty archives or labour away on a difficult paragraph in one’s study rather than nurture one’s Instagram followers or try and boost the number of Facebook friends. I only joined social media two months ago and it’s been a bit like going from being a librarian to a stripper. Nothing is considered off-limits. It’s easy to be beguiled by this new anonymous world of friends for the taking and harder to focus on what matters- the words and the writing of books. And yet, natural introvert that I am, I’ve made new friends and fascinating connections with enthusiastic fans throughout the world who now know about Louise Arner Boyd- and that was my goal all along.