"Silence can be anywhere, any time – it's just in front of your nose. I create it for myself as I walk up the stairs, prepare food or merely focus on my breathing," writes Erling Kagge in his book Silence: In the Age of Noise (2017).
Kagge is an intrepid Norwegian polar explorer who has sailed across seas, skied to the world’s extremities and scaled its highest peaks. From his base in Oslo, the explorer has visited more than 100 countries; he has studied law and philosophy; and he wears many hats – he is a mountaineer, art collector, author and publisher.
He was the first person to walk solo to the South Pole in 1993, and the first to complete the Three Poles challenge on foot – he walked to the North Pole in 1990, the South Pole in 1993 and then the summit of Mount Everest, the “third pole”, in 1994. Kagge spent 50 days walking alone across Antarctica, with no contact with any other living creature – famously, he even removed the batteries from the radio that his insurance companies required him to carry.
“After having put my shoes on and let my thoughts wander, I am sure of one thing – to put one foot in front of the other is one of the most important things we do,” he says in his latest book, Walking: One Step at a Time (2019), which has been translated into 39 languages.
He talks about a sailing trip off the coast of Chile, when he spotted a whale while doing the night watch. “There was no need to say anything, no need to Instagram or document my encounter. There was just silence and a sense of wonder. How beautiful can the world be if we just learnt to stop and listen.”
He has strong ideas about technology and its incessant demands on our time. “We were not born to be always available,” he said in an online interview at the Jaipur Literary Festival in January this year. He also differentiates between external silence and internal silence – even if there is silence outside, you can still have a head full of cluttered thoughts.
He recalls how, as a child in the Norwegian outdoors, he first found silence disturbing and negative, and associated it with being left out. But slowly he embraced it and found that it could be a worthy companion.
In Silence: In the Age of Noise, where photographs and paintings are inserted between his meditative essays, he recounts his own experiences and the observations of poets and artists, while exploring why silence is essential to our happiness and growth. He speaks to The National to elaborate on this view.
What drives you to constantly seek new experiences?
I think we are all born explorers. You, me and everybody else. For an explorer, a lot of things boil down to wonder. It is one of the purest forms of joy that I can imagine. I enjoy the feeling. I often wonder. In fact I do it almost everywhere – when travelling, reading, meeting people, when I sit down to write, or whenever I feel my heart beat or when I see the sunrise.
You have scaled Mount Everest, travelled to the ends of the Earth, sailed across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope – was there a specific adventure that inspired you to write your book about silence?
To walk alone in silence for 50 days and nights, under the midnight sun to the South Pole, taught me a great lesson on silence. Because silence is not about turning your back on your surroundings, but rather the opposite: it is seeing the world a bit more clearly; maintaining a direction and attempting to love your life.
What is the scariest moment that you’ve experienced on your travels?
I really don’t count scary moments. I try to prepare well to avoid as much danger as possible, but if an expedition is without any danger, it is almost meaningless.
What’s your opinion of digital devices and social media?
In civilisation, there is always a telephone ringing, pinging or buzzing, someone talking, whispering or yelling. All in all, there are so many noises that we barely hear them all. I don’t think it is all wrong, but it is simply too much noise.
In the forests, mountains and oceans, it is different. Nature speaks to you in the guise of silence. The quieter you become, the more you hear. Noise is about running away from yourself, silence is about turning around and exploring who you are.
How has travel transformed you as a person?
I could not have written Silence, Walking and Philosophy for Polar Explorers [his fifth book, published in 2007] if I had chosen to explore the world sitting in a chair, looking at a screen. Exploration has always been about doing something physical, to travel, to move. Being moved. Motion and emotion.
You are involved in so many different things, from publishing and writing to travelling and collecting art. How do you stay on top of everything?
After having visited more 100 countries and meeting thousands of people, my experience is that most people are underestimating themselves. In Philosophy for Polar Explorers I refer to the following comment from an elephant trainer who had these big elephants tethered to a small pole in the jungle outside Bangalore.
I asked: ‘How can you keep such a large elephant tied to such a small stake?’
He said: ‘When the elephants are small, they try to pull out the stake and they fail. When they grow large, they never try to pull out the stake again.’”
For someone who has travelled so extensively, what does home mean to you?
I feel at home most places, but most so in Oslo with my three daughters.