On the 13 February 1938, during a break in his search for the Russian flyer Sigizmund Levanevsky, the most extensive and highly publicised air-search undertaken at the time, Wilkins spoke from the pulpit of the Knox United Church in Edmonton, Alberta. His talk attempted to answer the question of why he spent so much time in Polar Regions; and how he saw his work as being linked to a spiritual vision for mankind—the development of ‘higher culture’ as he often called it. He connected his thinking about anxiety and the weather, with spiritual development and religion. Quoting a couple of paragraphs of his talk seems to be a useful way of getting into Wilkins’ thinking to glimpse something of his unique view of spirituality. He began that address in the following way:
I am sure you all realise that those of us who spend a great deal of time at the outermost ends of the earth often miss the privilege that you people have of getting together, raising your voices in song, and listening to the words of wisdom spoken by your pastors. Tonight I am reminded of the time when I could regularly join with others at church, for in my own home town in Australia, I was at one time a soloist in a Presbyterian choir.
Wilkins lays out his thesis related to the link between his dual raison d’être: exploring and understanding the weather through the sciences of the world; and investigating the mysteries of the art of living: ‘higher culture’ as he called it.
It may need a good deal of explanation to show why, as a result of our work, there may be greater spiritual development. But let me try to explain. Our minds, I believe, are more often turned to higher thoughts when relieved of all anxiety. Those of you who have business to attend each day, who must spend a great deal of your time, you physical and mental energy providing for the welfare of the family, friends and neighbours, haven’t the leisure you really need for spiritual development. No matter how earnest we may be as God-conscious creatures, we haven’t today, in the rush and scurry of business, the amount of leisure we would like to have for higher culture.
As a result of the work that might be done in the North and South Polar Regions, I first saw the possibility of making it easier for people to provide the physical needs of humanity, the things to eat and the things to wear. If we could but know in advance what the seasons will be like, we might provide enough during the fat years to tide us over the lean years and so bring about physical and social security for each individual. That was my first objective.
Another theme Wilkins explored in this talk is that of the profound spiritual awareness he often felt while exploring. Note also the theological comment in brackets in what follows. I see Wilkins’ kind of faith in God as anything but fearful or needy—like some kind of crutch; for Wilkins, God was more akin to a pogo stick. Wilkins seemed to bounce through trouble, rather than crawl.
I think everyone will admit that those of us who go to the far corners of the earth cannot help but be God-conscious. We may not be God-fearing as such is preached in the churches (personally I don’t feel that it is necessary to be God –fearing in order to be God-conscious.) It is not possible to travel over this earth and see its magnificence and magnitude and not realise the existence of God; and when we travel in the lonely desolate places of the Polar Regions we have time for contemplation. There we feel conscious of the greatness of God and more perhaps than we would if we spent our lives in the cities and in the rush of business…
In the more religious era of the early to mid 20th Century, Wilkins acknowledged the prayers made for people like himself on his ‘lonely sojourns’ in the Farthest North; suggesting that the consciousness of such prayers from congregations like the one he was addressing was a ‘conspicuous thing’.
The address ends with thanks for the opportunity of sharing, ‘something of the motive behind my research in the Polar Regions’. The talk underscores Wilkins’ lack of interest in ‘firsts’, the ‘hero business’ or ‘air races’ of any kind. His long-term thinking is extraordinary; for even if his upcoming months of dangerous flying were devoted to finding the Russian aviators, he was still able to say, ‘There is before me as I work the vision of social security and spiritual uplift’. I suspect (as have all his biographers) that there was something very special about Wilkins—something that goes beyond his extraordinary exploration and his many accomplishments; and something beyond his personal interest in spiritualism, mental telepathy and his study of The Urantia Book.*
Simon Nasht, author of The Last Explorer, says it very well when assessing Wilkins’ legacy against that of other explorers:
It was Wilkins’ restless inquisitiveness about the weather that set him apart. It was a goal far more ambitious than the mere attainment of some meaningless geographic spot and it made him very different from the better-known explorers. While they searched breathlessly for location, he sought revelation. He kept to the plan he wrote as a penniless schoolboy and never faltered.
In his book Under the North Pole (1931) Wilkins refers to this schoolboy plan and to the conditions that led him to it:
Instead of spending my days at high school or college as I had hoped, I was doomed to herd the starving animals and to rescue them from the mud of the waterholes. But they died despite all we could do. I can still shudder at the thought of these conditions. Although necessity compelled me to do many things, the one thought I have held since I was at the age of thirteen was to solve the weather problem … while it might not be possible for man, with his limitations, to control the weather, it might be possible to learn something of its movements. With foreknowledge and forethought, one might then be able to save the dumb animals from suffering and the pioneering families from destruction.
This reference to his experience during the Federation Drought (1895-1902) is telling. As the quotes from his 1938 talk reveals, it is Wilkins’ compassion for the anxiety-ridden farmers and business people like his parents; and animals, like the sheep he couldn’t save, as a sensitive young teenager, which motivated him to become a person of science-for-a-cause; and a person who had rejected the theological belief about a fear of God—and God as a crutch; for a deep and unusual personal faith in God—and God as a pogo stick.
* The Urantia Notebook of Sir Hubert Wilkins is a valuable resource for those interested in what Wilkins believed about life, as well as what he did in life. It features a transcription of the notes he made; most of them direct quotes from The Urantia Book which he studied for the last 15 or so years of his life. The publishers, Saskia Praamsma and Mathew Block, have written two most useful biographical essays: ‘Wilkins the Fact Finder‘ & ‘Wilkins the Truth Seeker‘.