This month, Paul Salopek’s reporting graces the front cover of the iconic, yellow-framed, glossy National Geographic Magazine – a publication that has appeared without interruption for the past 125 years. It has a circulation today of over 8 million copies worldwide and is published in 36 different languages. In a first for the organization, Paul’s story is available in its entirety free of charge online: you can access it here.
If you have not yet experienced Paul’s writing, prepare to be moved on numerous levels. His article, To Walk the World, weaves together many stories and timeframes: the overarching and unfolding story of our human species; the stories of individual humans whom Paul encounters along his way; and the story of Paul’s own physical, intellectual, and spiritual Out of Eden Walk journey – shot through with moments of anxiety, resolution, comedy, poignancy, and even horror. (Those of you who have been following Paul’s online dispatches will recognize some of those dispatches in this piece; however, the overall effect of the article is far greater than the sum of these previously published parts.)
“Epic” currently rivals “awesome”, at least in North America, as a descriptor for everything that is cool. Paul’s reporting is certainly epic in this sense of the term. But it is also epic in the sense that the sheer scale and ambition of what he is doing extends well beyond the usual or ordinary – and not just in terms of how far he is walking, impressive though that may be. Paul’s walk is in some ways expanding our conceptual grasp of what it means to be alive at this particular juncture of human history – and, more fundamentally, of what it means to be human. Let me try to unpack what I mean.
Living our past
The ongoing story of human restlessness and migration lies at the center of this magazine article. Paul is not just writing about this theme: he is living it. By returning to a pace of 3 miles an hour he is returning to our “primeval” way of experiencing the world. Furthermore, by crossing the same inhospitable terrain that our ancestors did some 60,000 years ago – and pushing himself to the brink of physical endurance – Paul is able to offer us some unique insights into our species. He describes, for example, a shift in his perception brought on by thirst and hunger. He writes: “It is learning to read landscape with your whole body, your skin, not merely your eyes – sensing camel fodder in a thorn scratch, the coming dust in the smell of the wind, and of course, precious water in the fold of the land: a limbic memory of great power.” Paul cannot of course replicate what our forebears experienced – especially as he is walking with a satellite phone and laptop. Nevertheless, his writing will remind many National Geographic readers, including our participating students, of how very different our own comfortable, sedentary lifestyles are in comparison to those of generations and generations of our human ancestors.
Knitting together our deep past and the present
Throughout his walk-related writing, Paul uses our deep past as a sounding board for interpreting the present. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way he juxtaposes our ancient ancestors’ momentous exodus out of the bottleneck of Africa with the grim plight of migrants attempting to escape the same continent today. By tapping into a common ancestral human story, Paul makes sure that these migrants’ stories become our stories too – reframing how we view the young Ethiopian men who dream of making it to “Oslo, Melbourne, Minnesota”. Indeed, Paul’s weaving together of pre-history and the present day positions contemporary affairs as being at the cutting edge of an unfolding human story – one in which we are all implicated. Paul is massively expanding the range of reference we normally bring to bear to interpret modern day issues, such as unprecedented levels of human migration.
Lengthening our attention span
One of Paul’s goals is to counteract the trend toward bite size Tweets and ephemeral 24 hour news stories. The sheer length of his seven-year journey, as well as the natural human interest in his endeavor, affords a coherence to his writing that draws us in and sustains our interest – in ways perhaps analogous to the epic tales once told around hearths. It is within the overarching story of our ancient human migration – and Paul’s attempt to retrace those early footsteps – that myriads of other stories hang. Paul is first and foremost a storyteller. He tells the kinds of stories that would normally remain hidden from our view: the story of Dahara, aged 15, whose family’s way of life is threatened by a brand new sugar plantation; the story of the rampant spread of cell phones among traditional Afar pastoralists; the story of the migrants who perished in the relentless heat of the desert, so tragically close to the Gulf of Aden. Such stories both expand our repertoire of what human experience looks like and broaden our understanding of the times in which we live. Indeed, some of Paul’s stories come down to us through the ages. In a beautiful companion video he remarks: “Stories told verbally through the years will be like river stones, smoothed by the tongue, grounded by repetition, improved upon by memory so that only a core truth remains. And I’ll string them together in one long narrative: a journey that really belongs to all of us.”