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The Possibility of the Unknown

Sometime in the 900s, a man named Thorvald was banished from Norway for killing, and he settled in Iceland. His son, Erik the Red, was banished from Iceland for killing, and he settled in Greenland. His son, Leif Erikson, was not in need of banishment for killing, but the need to settle in new places was now family tradition. Leif heard of, or saw with his own eyes, a land further west from Greenland, and mounted an expedition to explore and settle it. He bought a ship, hired a crew, and sailed for North America, the first European to purposely do so. He was probably between 25 and 30 years old.

Leif Erikson sailed to a place he called Vinland and established a settlement. Unless he didn’t. Much of this information comes from two sagas written hundreds of years after the events took place. One saga, that of the Greenlanders, describes several expeditions; the first is Leif’s. The other saga, Erik the Red’s, mentions only one expedition conducted by a man named Thorfinn Karlsefni. Leif’s case is apparently the stronger one, and he has become the de facto representative of Norse exploration in North America prior to Columbus. Unless he wasn’t.

What we know for sure is that the Norse made it to the “New World,” and they explored the Eastern Canadian coast, perhaps reaching as far south as modern America. They built at least one settlement, the remains of which were found on Newfoundland in 1960. Whether it was Leif and his band or another group of Norse, they led tough lives scraping out a living from the land, enduring brutal winters, and skirmishing with the indigenous people. When they had enough of that, the survivors could take a perilous boat trip back to Greenland, which offered more of the same.

The Norse eventually gave up on Vinland and Greenland, retreating back to Iceland. There is no evidence of any other people reaching North or South America from Europe, Africa, or Asia prior to Columbus, nor of indigenous peoples in the Americas going the other way. There is trace evidence that such things may have occurred, or that there may have been contact between widespread civilizations, but nothing concrete.

Still, our ancestors managed to get around, more than we usually give them credit. Consider the spread of people throughout the Pacific island chains, the Austronesians who made sea journeys of thousands of miles in small boats guided by the stars. They likely had explorers who made cautious treks further and further outward, finding new locations for their people to settle, who followed for reasons of their own. I imagine that at some point a group must have shoved off from a beach with no firm destination in mind, trusting only that they would find a new place, any place, and maybe that would become home.

I briefly lived in Japan, where a good friend would ask fellow ex-pats, “What was your push-pull ratio?” As in, how much of your decision to move was due to being pushed out of where you were, and how much was due to you being pulled to Japan? I think of this when I read about anybody migrating. I imagine our ancestors’ journeys required some very strong pushing or pulling. Natural disasters, declining resources, war, famine, poverty, and ambition can be very strong pushers. What pulled them? The urge to see something new? To discover? The possibility of the unknown, or nearly unknown?

Assuming we don’t extinct ourselves, in the centuries ahead our probes will venture into deep space and tell us where we can find a new start, and then off we will go. How much will we be pushed from the Earth, and how much will we be pulled from it? Will we be Thorvalds and Erik the Reds, banished for killing, or will we be Leif Eriksons, propelled by whatever causes us to wander?

JUSTIN MUSCHONG is a writer based in Astoria, Queens. His work has appeared in Resource Magazine, Newtown Literary, Crate Literary Magazine, The Vignette Review, Atticus Review, and Maudlin House. He is currently at work on his first novel, a very silly comedy, and he tweets inanity at @JustinMuschong.

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