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“Your planet is very beautiful,” he said. “Does it have any oceans?
“I couldn’t say,” said the geographer.
“Oh!” The little prince was disappointed. “And mountains?”
“I couldn’t say,” said the geographer.
“And cities and rivers and deserts?”
“I couldn’t tell you that, either,” the geographer said.
“But you’re a geographer!”
“That’s right,” said the geographer, “but I’m not an explorer.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,
The Little Prince (1943)
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was an explorer in the best sense of the word. As a pilot during the early days of flight, he was able to see the physical world in a way that was available to very few people. But the terrain that Saint-Exupéry explored most passionately — and most ?successfully — was the human heart, and as he wrote in his most famous book, “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”Saint-Exupéry’s life and career were so full and so interesting that I cannot hope to do justice to them here. The best I can do is give you a few highlights, to hopefully pique your interest in one of my favorite authors. I can also direct you to a wonderful biography, Saint-Exupéry, written by Stacy Schiff.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born in 1900, in Lyons, France. His adventures in aviation were set in motion at age 12, when he flew in an airplane for the first time. Nine years later, he became a pilot while serving in the military. After leaving the military in 1923, he tried his hand at several jobs but returned to flying in 1926 as a pilot for Aéropostale, which was pioneering airmail between France and Africa. Flying over mountains and deserts in the unsophisticated airplanes of the time was a dangerous undertaking, and Saint-Exupéry thrived at it. A year later, he became an airfield chief in Morocco. In that remote outpost, he wrote ?Southern Mail, his first book. After a stint in Argentina, during which he helped establish that country’s mail service, Saint-Exupéry returned to France in 1931 and published his very successful second book, Night Flight.
The next few years were a mix of daring (although not always successful) aviation exploits and writing. In 1935, he crashed his plane into the Libyan desert while trying to break the speed record between Paris and Saigon. He and his mechanic barely survived a three-day walk through the desert. Three years later, he was badly hurt while attempting to fly from New York City to Argentina. The silver lining to the accident was that during his recovery, Saint-Exupéry wrote Wind, Sand and Stars, which received a National Book Award and was later named a National Geographic Top Ten Adventure Book of All Time.
During the early days of World War II, Saint-Exupéry flew reconnaissance missions for France. When Germany occupied his beloved homeland, he went to New York and lobbied the United States for help. While in New York, he continued to write, producing three books, including the classic The Little Prince, often described as a children’s book for adults. In 1943, Saint-Exupéry was able to rejoin his air squadron in northern Africa. He insisted on flying, despite his growing literary fame and the objections of authorities concerned about the lingering effects of his many injuries. On July 31, 1944, the aviator/author took off from Corsica on a mission over occupied France, and he never returned.
The life and career of Saint-Exupéry fascinate, in part, because to many, the realms of aviation and literature seem so different. But I think both vocations are about exploration and revealing truths that might otherwise have remained ?hidden — in the world, in ourselves and in our fellow man. You don’t need to fly an open-cockpit airplane through a sandstorm, as Saint-Exupéry did, to be an adventurer. And you don’t need to be the first person to set foot some place to be an explorer. All you need is an open mind and an open heart. I believe — and I think Saint-Exupéry would agree — that anyone can be an explorer. And, of course, that includes geographers, along with you and me!
Thank you for making us part of your adventure today. Have a great trip.
Gerard J. Arpey