Slouching Toward Bethlehem

Everywhere I turn there seems evidence of passionate dysfunction and rapacious greed. Drug manufacturers profiting from death and addiction, politicians selling their vote for privilege and re-election, oil companies trading humanity’s future for quarterly earnings, and desperate people drowning in despair as our days darken. It seems the dire warnings of Revelations have come true, the perfect apocalypse—wars and rumors of war, fire and flood, drought and famine and the leadership of fools. The earth trembles beneath the weight of humanity and we can’t seem to help ourselves or each other.

There is too much noise, too much urgency, much of it artificial, much of it marketing. I’ve begun to distance myself from it. I’m no longer following Trump’s twitter feed. I’m no longer starting my day with coffee and CNN. I’ve unsubscribed from the newsletters of all those good folk urging immediate action for one worthy cause after another, one dire emergency after another.

Maybe I’m guilty of isolating myself. Maybe I should be more committed to fighting in the streets but the fight seems never ending and never successful. The new boss is always the same as the old boss. Maybe those old Roman stoics were right.

Then what is the answer?—Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know the great civilizations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history…for contemplation or in fact…
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.

The Answer, Robinson Jeffers

Gravity

You might reasonably expect a satellite to orbit the earth in a trajectory smooth as a ball bearing in its race. Reasonable but wrong. It’s more like an Old Ford on a country road, bouncing and rattling over gravitational potholes.

The gravitational topography of the planet is less like a cue ball, more like a golf ball with all its bumps and dimples. You’ll remember your high school physics lessons on gravitation. Large objects exert gravitational force at a distance. The more dense the object, the greater the force. Massive mountain chains like the Rockies, Himalaya, and Andes create positive gravitational anomalies—areas of increased gravitational force. Negative anomalies are associated with declivities like the Mariana Trench, a rift in the sea floor of the Pacific Ocean 6.8 miles deep.

As a satellite approaches the Andes it’s pulled subtly closer to the earth. When it approaches the Mariana Islands and the adjacent sea floor trench, it bobs slightly higher. The effect is local and canceled when the satellite reenters the normal gravitational field. It’s rather like bouncing down the washboard surface of a dirt road.

The gravitational force exerted by the Andes isn’t limited to circling satellites. The roots of the Andes Mountains are washed by the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific itself is pulled toward the mountains like a massive standing wave.

It’s not only massive piles of rock that creates gravitational anomalies. The Greenland ice sheet is almost 1,500 miles long and 680 miles wide. It covers roughly 80% of the surface of Greenland—660,235 square miles. It’s typically over a mile thick and almost 2 miles at its deepest—683,751 cubic miles of ice.  And it’s the second largest body of ice on the planet.

That much ice warps the surrounding ocean, pulling it like taffy. The impact of melting Greenland ice on sea level has been recognized for some time but the effect of its reduced gravitational field has only recently been acknowledged. It further complicates a complex picture.

If all the Greenland ice sheet were to melt it’s estimated the global sea level might rise as much 23 feet but it would have little impact on sea level in the Arctic ocean. That’s counter-intuitive. The reason? Rise in sea level expected from melting ice would be countered by the fall in seal level resulting from reduced gravity. Northern Europe might be spared. New York would not.

The gravitational influence of the Greenland ice is limited to the Arctic Ocean. Melting of the northern ice would contribute to the volume of the oceans globally, increasing sea level worldwide, but that rise in the Arctic would be offset by the declining sea level resulting from reduced gravity. Areas beyond the northern ice’s gravitational influence such as the Eastern Seaboard of the US would suffer the unmitigated rise in sea level.

Western Europe isn’t without risk. If the Antarctic ice sheet melts, the sea level will likely fall in the Southern Ocean but rise dramatically in the North Atlantic.

And, of course, the change in the gravitational field would affect the Earth’s rotational momentum, but that’s a nightmare for another day.

earth orbit photo

Dire Thoughts

We may be witnessing the collapse of the United States like the collapse of a massive star into a black hole. Nothing lives forever and the headlong acceleration of a nation’s lifespan might be as much effected by technology as industry and society. How could we expect otherwise? We invent our tools with no regard except efficiency;  afterwards, our tools invent us.

We have reshaped the world in our own image not by intent but by happenstance. Because we could. We are spectacular opportunists focused on our feet without restraint or responsibility for the future. We have created a world so densely populated and interconnected one part can’t stand without the whole but then we act as if separate and alone.

We will not go gently into that good night, or alone. The extinction event we’ve triggered will ensure that. It’s not the first time or the last that death has descended on the planet like a starless night. Life will continue in some form or other. Maybe not our form.

We are not wholly responsible for our failure. It wasn’t a moral choice we could make unencumbered by our evolutionary history. We have succeeded beyond comparison because of our brilliant flaws. Those flaws may eventually prove fatal but is our failing also our fault? Could we have done otherwise?

Perhaps we’re just one possibility in a continuum where every possibility must eventually be explored and every road travelled to the end. We play our part in a script written by our genes. In the fullness of time, every drama is a tragedy and every life “lopped at the ends by death and conception.”

Perhaps the inevitability absolves us of personal guilt or fear of punishment by some petulant god with the moral compass of a six-year-old child but still we carry the awful burden of watching so much beauty vanish from the earth, knowing we were the agent of indifferent chance. Still we keenly feel the loss of possibilities, the loss of beauty, that our collapse portends. In the past and maybe again in the future an asteroid or a massive volcano might shroud the sun and plunge the earth into ruin but this night was our doing. This was our hand turned against ourselves and every other thing living on this planet.

Another form of intelligence will emerge with time and chance. Perhaps the crows. They’re an old species. They’ve watched humanity’s bloody rise and fall. They’ve fed in the fields where we raged. Perhaps they’ve learned restraint. Perhaps living in the air provides a broader perspective than living in the dirt.

Perhaps. But then the play begins again. The fault is in our stars.

Totality

We drove, hours before sunrise, south on the interstate to a vineyard near Sweetwater, a small town in Tennessee. Only 6,500 people live in Sweetwater. The town braced for more than 50,000 expected to arrive with the sun.

We arrived in the dark, cars parked on the edge of a narrow lane leading to the vineyard. Strangers chatted quietly in the dark. There was a hushed reverence like the foyer of a funeral. When the gates opened we drove into a field of freshly mowed grass, aligned in rows like an audience at a drive-in movie waiting for the show to begin, camp chairs arranged beneath a canopy, sheltered from the rising sun. A truck from New York was parked on one side, a truck from Virginia on the other. The sound of the Grateful Dead drifted across the field. Ramble on Rose.

The grass ain’t greener
The wine ain’t sweeter
Either side of the hill.

On the other side of the tarmacked road were fields of Muscadine vines. Muscadine grapes are native to the southeastern states. They can be made into a wine that has “…a hill-billy-red-neck-cheap-wine-get-drunk persona.” The primary flavors are ripe banana, bruised apple, lime peel, cranberry, and rubber cement. It’s not what most people expect from a wine.

There was subdued feeling to the crowd, a reticence unexpected from so many people gathered in an open field with coolers of beer and wine. Conversations were mostly muted. It seemed like a crowd at a camp meeting waiting for the revival tent to open. Even the people waiting an hour in line for the single outhouse waited patiently, introducing themselves to nearby strangers, sharing their names and their history—where they had begun their journey to arrive in an empty field near a small Tennessee town waiting an hour to pee. The sense of anticipation was as vibrant at the chorus of summer cicadas in the surrounding woods.

Cicadas are the loudest insects in the world. Some species can produce a song (of sorts) in excess of 120 decibels. They huddle together to amplify their sounds. At close range it can be painful for humans and distracting for birds. Even cicadas protect themselves by voluntarily becoming deaf to their own music.

These were the dog-day cicadas, the ones that sing in the heat of each summer, not those that rise in biblical numbers from the cool spring soil every 13 or 17 years. Those emerge in such a glut that predators are satiated before the brood is threatened. It’s survival of the most extravagant. They live only for a few weeks and only for a single purpose—to mate. Mating occurs in ‘chorus’ trees. A chorus of trees is an intriguing image. I might think differently after living through an awakening of a great brood of cicadas.

Each species of cicada has a unique song. Some species sound like Edison electrocuting an elephant to demonstrate the evils of alternating current, others like first contact recorded by the SETI network.

The last emergence of the Great Eastern Brood in Tennessee was 2004. The 17-year reawakening is expected in 2024. It’s likely to coincide with the next total solar eclipse crossing the United States, Texas to Maine, in April, 2024. The experience of a great brood of periodic cicadas strumming the trees like a bull fiddle while the sun turns black as death might be too apocalyptic for my taste.

Jerry Garcia’s voice drifted from the New Yorker’s truck.

Cold iron shackles, ball and chain
Listen to the whistle of the evenin’ train
You know you bound to wind up dead
If you don’t get back to Tennessee Jed

There were no competing radios playing country music or even rock and roll. It seemed there was a silent consensus. The Grateful Dead was the proper soundtrack for a solar eclipse.

Drink all day and rock all night
The law come to get you if you don’t walk right
Got a letter this morning, baby all it read
You better head back to Tennessee Jed

The Virginians came back from the vineyard and shared a bottle of Hiwassee, a white wine made from a red grape. The tasting notes for Muscadine wines suggest they’re best drunk young. You could hardly find a younger bottle than the one we drank.

It’s an acquired taste, I’m told, a taste I haven’t yet acquired.

I run into Charlie Fog
Blacked my eye and he kicked my dog
My doggie turned to me and he said
Let’s head back to Tennessee Jed

The high notes of Garcia’s guitar climbed toward a dimming sun, entwined like a Muscadine vine with the rhythmic strumming of the cicadas.

Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be
Baby won’t you carry me back to Tennessee

We drank the last of the Hiwassee and opened another. The Virginians seemed keen on reducing the number of bottles they carried home.

The heat of the sun pressed down on the field like a weight. It beat down the grass and bent the shoulders of anyone without shade. Deciduous trees cast crescents of light among the shadows on the tarmac, leaves focusing the eclipsed sunlight like pinhole cameras.

As the moon’s shadow progressed across the sun, the day cooled slightly but the light didn’t dim. You couldn’t tell the difference in the daylight unless you looked at the sun through dark glasses. But when the last of the sun fell beneath the moon’s shadow, the world was transformed.

Anne Dillard wrote in her essay Total Eclipse, “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.” You can remain largely insensitive to a partial eclipse but you can’t ignore the full monty.

The life of the sun’s light is deeply embedded in our language and ourselves. Its corollary—darkness as death—is an equally unexamined truth. We were gathered in the open field with the Grateful Dead to celebrate an old ritual, standing witness to the death and rebirth of the sun, same as the druids among their standing stones or the Aztec on their bloody temples. It’s a ritual older than civilization, older than husbandry or cultivated wheat or religion, perhaps older than language. It wasn’t always anticipated. For millennia it was an unexpected ritual that overtook us on the savannah or hunting in the forest but always it was the direct experience of god when god was still recognized as sun, moon and earth. Always it was a metaphor for death and rebirth and the vague promise that we also might be reborn.

Science has disabused us of religious metaphors and celestial mechanics offers us no hope of immortality. Even the sun and the earth will die in the cold grip of entropy. But science has failed to steal from us, like a cat steals an infant’s breath, the sense of wonder we feel when the sun goes dark mid-day and the earth falls silent and birds return to their roosts and predators wake from hungry sleep. It’s a moment of such exception, a special dispensation from the normal, that the experience breaches our hardened defenses, our practiced disdain, and reaches some place inside ourselves where the numinous still lurks like some hibernating beast in a darkened cave. It doesn’t matter what you believe or what you don’t; the black sun is a visceral experience.

Wind

Like wind – In it, with it, of it. Of it just like a sail, so light and strong that, even when it is bent flat, it gathers all the power of the wind without hampering its course.
Like light – In light, lit through by light, transformed into light. Like the lens which disappears in the light it focuses.
Like wind. Like light.
Just this – on these expanses, on these heights.
―Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, 1963

Efficiency

The first people who lived on Puget Sound lived lightly on the edge of the land, mostly on the coast. They didn’t travel far from the shore where mountains were piled like shards of flint and old growth forests layered the ground with the bones of trees once 200 feet tall, where narrow valleys carved by the sharp edge of ice through winters that lasted a thousand years were a succession of bogs and swamps and wet grass meadows, where streams were a clutter of sloughs and islands and beaver ponds and driftwood snags and rivers were blocked with driftwood dams so massively built they persisted for hundreds of years.

The first people lived lightly and within their means. Those who followed, the ones who ‘settled’ the land as if it were unruly and needed restraint, didn’t see the land as it was but as it might be. They saw the opportunity of shaping the land in their own image, optimizing it for their own use. It was their manifest destiny, their biblical imperative.

First were the loggers who felled the old growth forests moving inland from the water’s edge. They cleared the beaver ponds from streams and built splash dams to raise the water level, floating downed trees to the saw mills. Then came the men who sweated and sawed and dynamited the logjams to allow steamboats and rafts to navigate the rivers. South on the Willamette above Corvallis, Oregon more than 5,500 driftwood logs were pulled from a 50-mile length of river. The driftwood measured 5 to 9 feet in diameter, 90 to 120 feet in length, and maybe 500 to 700 pounds per foot dry weight.

The streams and rivers of Puget Sound were eventually straightened, diked, and disciplined.

On the Skagit River in Washington driftwood was piled like windfall 3/4 mile long and 1/4 mile wide. The Stillaguamish River was blocked by six logjams from the head of tidewater for 17 miles upriver. Dead trees were so large, so numerous, and so deeply embedded in the river bottom that a steam snag boat hammered and hauled and labored for 6 months to open a channel only 100 feet wide.

The streams and rivers of Puget Sound were eventually straightened, diked, and disciplined. The wetlands were drained by the farmers that followed. Less than 10% of the historic wetlands and floodplains of Puget Sound remain. By most contemporary opinions it was a good thing. Fallow land was made productive. Forests were harvested like crops. Isolated communities were connected by river traffic. But all the wood removed from the water that seemed such a nuisance at the time had served a purpose that wasn’t recognized for another hundred years.

When water approaches an obstruction in the current like a driftwood dam it begins to well from hydraulic back pressure. The raised water tops the river banks and onto the floodplain, creating side channels and backwaters, habitat for fish. It spills over the obstruction forming a plunge pool. The deeper pool allows fish to remain cool in the heat of summer and protects them from predators. Numerous species of salmon and trout live in the same pool, each occupying different layers defined by water temperature and granularity of sediment, accommodating different species of fish or even the same species in different sages of its life-cycle. Where the current rushes around the edge of the driftwood a stream of vortexes form at the boundary of still water like pinwheels on parade, providing nutrients for the inhabitants of the pool. The driftwood dam raises the water level in the river, especially during times of low water when fish are stressed and struggle to survive.

…the salmon were once so common that, after spawning, their bodies were pitched into carts and plowed into fields as fertilizer.

None of this was known a hundred years ago. Even the wildlife managers responsible for the health of salmon and trout populations cleared deadwood from rivers and streams, genuinely convinced they were helping with upstream migrations and breeding, unaware that they were tampering with the deposition of sediment and the spawning grounds of the very species they were trying to promote.

On the Ozette River west of the Olympic Mountains the salmon were once so common that, after spawning, their bodies were pitched into carts and plowed into fields as fertilizer. After 26 large log jams were removed from the river the salmon populations crashed. Some will likely never recover.

Simplicity isn’t always a solution. Mirroring Einstein, a thing should be as complex as necessary, and no more.

Life is messy. Trying to clean it up, remove the clutter, straighten what’s crooked, smooth what’s rugged and irregular isn’t likely to make it better, even for ourselves. Optimizing the land for our own use above all others has reduced the land’s resilience and replaced it with a system that’s robust but fragile. We squeeze from the land every bit of efficiency possible, much like we do our companies and ourselves. The danger of such extreme efficiency is its proximity to disaster. It only takes a slight push from a highly optimized system to push it over the edge into chaos.

Birdsong

There is a bird that sings at the edge of night when the sky is first faintly colored by light. It sings among the tall trees—cedar and fir—beside the driveway. It sings alone, before the rest of the world wakes and begins making noise, while I’m sitting in meditation beside the Christmas three that should have been boxed and stored in the garage months ago.

I don’t know the name of the bird or it’s life history, whether it’s programmed to sing in solitude, whether its behavior is soldered in place like a circuit board. I suspect something different or there would be more birds singing in chorus. Certainly it’s not the only one of its kind in these woods.

It matters less to me why it’s singing—attracting a mate or marking its territory—than its choice to forgo silence. Perhaps there’s a competitive advantage in announcing itself first  but there’s also a distinct risk. These woods are hunted by owls, foxes, coyotes and bobcats. Occasionally cougar follow the wooded ravines into our neighborhood and wander the backyards and unlit streets. Broadcasting its position to every predator pressed by hunger to still hunt at the end of night is a bold move for a small bird. I wonder how often boldness profits birds of its kind? That may speak to why it sings alone.

Silence would be safer. Silence would be the norm. There’s safety in normality. It’s the reason hunted creatures flock and school and herd together. Statistically, anonymity safeguards. It takes something approaching courage to stand alone when you’re potentially a predator’s meal—or whatever passes for courage among birds.

I’m at risk myself of anthropomorphism, projecting human concepts on the non-human, but the greater risk might be the opposite, assuming ourselves separate and apart from the rest of life, removed from the reality of a small bird singing alone at the edge of night. I don’t know if there’s a word for that, something more pompous and scientific-sounding than simple arrogance.

We carry the genetic memory of troupes of apes who descended from trees to the savannah, becoming more predator than prey but still comforted by anonymity. The ancient resentment of the hunted may bare relevance on why we’ve become such ruthless and undiscerning predators. But to stand alone and sing, surrounded by silence and risk, is admirable among both birds and people.

Postscript: The Christmas tree remains three months after the winter solstice as a symbol, I suppose; evergreen branches and bright lights to ward off the darkness of my wife’s cancer. It’s a promise of renewal after loss. It will remain lit every day until her chemotherapy and radiation treatments end in another four months. It may be an ancient pagan symbol but this one is made of metal and powered by electricity.

Vultures

Late in September the sun rises over the Glacier Peak Wilderness and strikes the Strait of Juan de Fuca like a temple bell. The morning resonates with light. The evening mist lifts from the water and the vultures crowding Beachey Head and Rocky Point meet the rising sun with wings outstretched, waiting for their blood to regain the warmth surrendered to the night.

They roost singly on fence posts or shoulder one another on split rails. They roost in dead trees, on the roofs of ruined barns, on water towers or barren rock at the southernmost end of Vancouver Island. They are waiting for the day to warm enough to cross the open water of the Strait and continue south.

In late September turkey vultures begin to mass at the southern edge of island like a river current against a log jam. If delayed by the weather they may cross 400, 500, or 600 a day when the log jam breaks. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is only 12 miles wide between Beachey Head and Salt Creek, between Canada and the United States, but those are 12 miles of cold water and sinking air. Vultures have evolved to soar and glide rather than beat their wings against gravity. They are not strong swimmers.

A turkey vulture may glide at 45 miles per hour,  requiring only 20 minutes to cross 12 miles, but they lose 2 feet of altitude for every second of glide. That’s an elegant glide path but it doesn’t annul gravity. Their flight must begin with at least 2,400 feet of altitude in order to make the far shore or regain altitude in flight. The cost of failure is death.

As the sun rises the air heats unevenly over the land, over freshly tilled fields, roads and towns. Warm air rises, cold air sinks. Convection cells form as localized heating increases. The vultures begin rising from their roosts, rising with the heated air, banking steeply to remain in the core of the thermals, grazing the cell walls where cooler air descends. From a distance they appear like debris carried aloft in a tornado. The behavior is called kettling, perhaps because it resembles roiling steam rising from an iron pot. Their flight is a thing of exceptional grace.

Turkey vultures are much maligned. Some of their behaviors are wonderfully practical but hardly endearing to humans. Obviously they eat carrion, sufficient reason for most people to disdain them, but the fact that they kill nothing is usually overlooked. Farmers sometimes shoot them for fear of infecting their pigs without realizing that no bacteria can survive the caustic hell of a vulture’s gut. As well most people don’t know that vultures coat their legs with their own guano or vomit in self-defense.

They gather at fish kills, on the spawning ground of salmon, on fields of harvested hay where small animals have been mangled by machinery. They forage in the cleared path of high tension power lines, on farmland, rangeland, in pastures and estuaries and tide flats, along roadsides and sewage lagoons, marshes and landfills and slaughter houses. They eat beaver and black bear, ground squirrels, muskrats, coyotes, deer, domestic cats, cows, goats, rabbits and sheep, harbor seal placenta and harbor seals themselves, voles, sea lions, opossum, porcupine, skunks and marmots, garter snakes, gopher snakes, even rattle snakes, wigeons and geese, chickens and chicken droppings, double-breasted cormorants, glaucous-winged gulls, great blue herons, swans and scooters and turkeys. There’s almost nothing dead they won’t eat but they are most drawn by the smell of the freshly dead.

Ethyl mercaptan is a chemical compound with a distinctive smell that humans can recognize in concentrations as low as one in 2.8 billion parts of air. The Guinness Book of World Records listed it as the “smelliest substance” on earth. It’s added to odorless butane and propane to alert people to a hazardous gas leak. It’s also generated in the first stages of organic decay.

Few birds have a sense of smell. Turkey vultures are an exception, adept at smelling ethyl mercaptan from miles away. They can locate carrion concealed beneath the forest canopy or a shallow grave by smell alone, providing competitive advantage over eagles, ravens and crows. Union Oil engineers supposedly abused their keen sense of smell by adding mercaptan to their pipelines, using the circling vultures like short-haired pointers to locate leaks.

Unlike raptors who kill their prey, turkey vultures are more willing to share. For a vulture, all food is a windfall. They hunt alone but are attentive to the flight patterns of others. When a vulture abandons its pattern of listless circling and becomes more purposeful in its flight, others take notice. The behavior of the others is in turn noticed. Within a short time newly discovered carrion can attract vultures from beyond the horizon. A venue of vultures (the proper name for a group of vultures on the ground) are surprisingly well behaved. They don’t haggle over scraps like gulls.

A turkey vulture’s beak is adapted for tearing flesh; it’s not strong enough to rend the tough hide of a large animal like a deer, a cow, or a bear. In the northwest they can sometimes be seen on fence posts, white legs and red heads in line abreast, patiently waiting their turn while ravens or eagles breech the hide.

Their red heads are featherless. Baldness is an advantage when thrusting your head inside the bloating belly of a goat three days dead. Feathers would trap bacteria and require constant preening. Long intestines, an industrial immune system, stomach acid that would peel the chrome off a trailer hitch, and a low pH also defend them against infection. Their naked legs are stained with guano for a similar reason and another benefit: cooling.

It’s called urohidrosis, an almost unpronounceable name for a behavior shared by storks and new world vultures. They use their feces and urine for evaporative cooling, lifting one leg at a time to precisely apply a coating of guano that dries like whitewash. The feces of a turkey vulture is sufficiently caustic to kill most bacteria acquired while walking on corpses.

Vultures aren’t aggressive but neither are they well suited for defense. Weak and clumsy on the ground and slow to take flight, they are easy prey. Their only defense is projectile vomiting. Within a six foot range they are supposedly quite accurate. It’s hard to imagine the emotional impact of a vulture’s stomach contents smack in the face. If the viability of the species is any indication, it’s an effective deterrent.

There are more reasons to admire than disdain vultures if we can disassociate them from mythology and our own mortality. They are an elegant solution to the problem of recycling resources and limiting contagion. The Cherokee called them the peace eagle because they killed nothing themselves. Perhaps they would make a better national symbol that than the thieving bald eagle. Long live the eaters of the dead!

Abyss

A ground swell rolled from the horizon, an old swell that had sorted itself across hundreds of miles into rows as regular as corduroy. It rolled across an ocean patterned by sunlight and cloud shadow, an ocean empty except for a single boat surrounded  by a thousand miles of solitude.

We were steering north by east, two weeks underway, circumventing the doldrums of the Pacific High on a passage from Oahu to San Francisco. I was alone on deck, the crew asleep below. Professional delivery crews are necessarily small to remain profitable. There were only three of us to sail 3,000 miles, each standing our watch alone, watch on watch, daylight and dark, week after week.

My skin was the color of Honduran mahogany from weeks of exposure to the sun. Salt streaked my cheeks like tears, my lips were cracked and bleeding, and the skin peeled from my fingertips. Salt crusted the winches, the hand rails, the running rigging. Salt crystals glinted in the sun. Fresh water was too scarce to waste on washing. Thirst is an especially hard way to die.

It was a quartering sea that passed beneath the boat obliquely, stern to bow, in a complex dance of forces, a sailor’s jig of pitch, yaw and scend—fore and aft, side to side, up and down. Despite the regularity of the swell it was not an entirely predictable motion. A subtle cross-swell from the northwest created an irregularity that would tumble you ass over teakettle if you were unwise enough to trust the rhythm without a secure handhold or bracing against a bulkhead.

Even in a calm the sea is an infinitely complex interference pattern of wave trains that may have traveled halfway around the world without obstruction and without losing much energy. The patterns are complex but consistent enough that Polynesian navigators could feel their way across vast distances. They were taught young to lay in the bilge with their eyes closed and recognize the patterns from pitch, yaw and scend. They learned to map the patterns to their body—kinetic navigation. A capable navigator could stand with legs braced, eyes closed, and plumb his location by the swinging of his testicles.

It’s a skill now mostly in disuse. Global positioning requires less mindfulness. Even those first men who crossed unimaginable distances in open boats were not native to the sea. There were no tribes, no people who lived far from shore. At best they traveled quickly and with trepidation between landfalls, praying for safe passage.

The sea is an alien and inhospitable place for human beings despite the fact that our blood tastes of seawater. It is utterly regardless of humanity. There are no rutted roads or even footpaths to mark our passage, no cairns piled high upon hillsides to mark our dead, no smoke rising from chimneys to mark our living. Even the wake of a boat is soon lost among the wavefield, unremembered. It is a world without root or branch, without hearth or home, the native place of nomadic species who build no tools and have no possessions. It is a place old beyond knowing and violent beyond comprehension.

Joseph Conrad, a man who spent much of his life at sea, wrote that if you would know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm. It is the first face of the world, the oldest face.

The violence of a storm at sea is greater than anything imaginable ashore. The wind is unobstructed by mountains or forests or the obstinate earth. It can rage without restraint. Goaded by the wind, waves achieve their own mountainous topography with peaks and transverse ridges and ravines where white water roars like a rock slide. A breaking wave can exert as much as one ton of pressure per square foot, enough force to shatter a boat. There are storms no boat can survive, no matter how well-found or competently crewed.

Storms are most dramatic but solitude is most unnerving. There is perhaps no place on Earth more alone than the deck of a small boat making a long ocean passage. The sea offers no place for a thought to stick, nothing for the mind to take hold of, nothing but the endless repetition of waves. The horizon is a perfect circle that encompasses three square miles. The trade wind clouds form at a uniform distance above sea level, sailing downwind like a fleet of Velella. In the silence and the distance thoughts become deafening. Many people, maybe most, have never heard themselves think. They’ve lived lives of distraction in a sea of noise. The real sea strips away the distractions and the noise. It enforces a monk’s solitude. It’s an unraveling of the everyday in the presence of vastness. For some it’s deeply disquieting. In Nietzche’s phrase, if you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

The tropic sun polishes the sea to the brilliance of a mirror. In that mirror I saw myself reflected for the first time, the self concealed slyly beneath the noise and distraction and misdirection of my conscious life. In the silence and solitude I heard the constant criticisms echoing from my childhood still bouncing off the walls of my skull, the brutal and belittling comments of an abusive father, the physical violence thinly disguised as discipline, the inherited rage. I heard my father’s abuse endlessly repeated in my own voice. His words had become my own.

I felt the successive betrayals of parents who were still angry children themselves and a religion more intent on power and politics than a candid exploration of spirituality and a government that sent a generation to war against a rural country halfway around the world for no good reason they could admit without revealing their callous abuse of public trust.

I heard the continual monologue that occurs inside my head, the bilious, accusing, belittling vomit of words that had first belonged to others but had become my own, endlessly whispered in the darkness, a poisoned stream of words at the root of consciousness.

It was a staggering experience, the realization of how I had internalized the harm done to me as a child helpless to defend myself against the very people who should have been my defense.

Perhaps that is the gift of wilderness, the solitude necessary to see ourselves clearly, the silence necessary to hear the voices inside our heads. It’s arguable that the unexamined life is not worth living but it’s certain that the unexamined life has brought us where we are today, willfully participating in our own destruction. It’s a hard truth confronting your shadow self, the reason we readily flee into distractions and entertainments that waste our time but occupy our attention. Until we know ourselves we remain adult children—the terrifying power to ignite the sun on earth in the hands of petulant children. Ironically, the place that is least human may be the path back to our own humanity.

This is a second draft of an exercise that began with Mirrors for the MIT open course Writing and the Environment. The purpose was to write a detailed account of a particular natural (outdoor) setting that would enable the reader to envision a place they have never seen and to understand my reaction to that place.

Mirrors*

I rubbed my eyes to force them to focus. They were burned from weeks of sunlight reflected from the polished surface of the sea. Salt streaked my cheeks, my lips were cracked and bleeding, and the skin was peeling from my fingertips. The lights of a ship were visible, rising above the Eastern horizon. It seemed on a collision course. In all the vast Pacific, seven million square miles of ocean, what was the likelihood of two vessels occupying the same coordinates at the same time a thousand miles from shore?

In the darkness of the moonless night the stars were common as dust in the sky, shoals of stars so thick it seemed we might run aground. The only other light was from the binnacle illuminating the compass card. We were steering north by west to circumvent the doldrums in the heart of the Pacific High, the route followed by ships in centuries past before the wind no longer mattered, only the machinery.

I was exhausted. We had been standing watch-on-watch since the Hawaiian Islands. With a small crew we stood watches alone, three hours on, six hours off. The watch below was called on deck whenever the wind became boisterous and the sail needed to be reefed or the reef needed to be shaken out. Sleep deprivation was cumulative. Sometimes I found myself sitting at the helm having been asleep for minutes with my eyes open wide, snapped awake when the boat rounded into the wind and the sails began luffing, shaking the rigging like a dog with a bone.

Hardest were the night watches when even the sameness of the sea wasn’t visible, only the stars if not obscured by cloud and the binnacle casting a puddle of light in the cockpit. There was nothing to see but the compass card, nothing to distract the mind’s attention from itself, nothing beyond the boat that had any substance…until the lights rising on the Eastern horizon.

Same bearing, decreasing range—the definition for risk of collision used by centuries of Admiralty Law. The red and green running lights carried by every vessel underway help determine its heading and ultimately its bearing in relation to other vessels. All I could see were bright white lights everywhere. Nothing at sea is so extravagantly lit as a cruise ship. They carry generators the size of locomotive engines and squander tons of fuel to enable passengers’ illusions that they are still in the known world.

We were half way through a 3,000 mile passage, a professional crew paid to deliver a 40-foot sloop from Hawaii to San Francisco, half way through three weeks of singular isolation—no communications, no radio, no electronic navigation, eventually not even batteries for our music. We sailed in the center of a circle less than 3 square miles, the visible horizon from the deck of a small boat, immensity viewed through a vanishingly small lens. We sailed across fields of waves regular as rows of corn, each wave separate but common as dirt, beneath clouds all formed at the same height above sea level, evenly spaced like tufts of cotton drifting on the Trade Winds.

Joseph Conrad aptly named his biography The Mirror of the Sea. He served on sailing ships most of his career, square-rigged ships manned by full crews. Even more so alone on the deck of a small boat, the sea offers no place for a thought to stick, nothing for the mind to take hold of, nothing but the endless repetition of patterns. It is a burnished mirror that faithfully reflects. Most are unprepared for that reflection.

In fact, most people living in modern society have never experienced solitude or silence. They’ve lived lives of distraction in a sea of noise. A long ocean passage strips away the distractions and the noise, enforcing solitude. It’s an unraveling. For the first time they hear the background chatter that occupies their thoughts. For some it’s a disconcerting experience. In Nietzche’s phrase, if you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

We were making four or five knots on an easy breeze. It’s a speed typical of a sailboat or a brisk walk. Five knots wasn’t enough to make much difference trying to avoid another vessel driving ahead at 20 unless I could accurately determine her course and turn early to steer clear. All I could see were white lights getting brighter—decreasing range—but still no colored lights to determine her bearing.

They might not see us on radar, lost among the sea clutter, if the officer on watch bothered to look. It was an empty ocean far from shipping lanes and expectations of traffic. They might not even feel the impact. A brief tremor, a momentary change in the deck’s vibration, not enough to cause a misstep of the passengers dancing in the ballroom or register on the bank of engine instruments, and we’d be splintered wreckage left in their wake. Every year small boats go missing, presumed lost. It happens even to ships, 29 on average each year, tankers to passenger ships. The ocean is an unforgiving place.

The Collision Regulations required I turn to starboard. Always right, never left, unless turning right would cause collision. It was an elegant Catch 22.

I began to panic as the ship’s lights filled the Eastern sky. It seemed enormous. It was on top of us. I thought of calling the mate on deck but I was the captain. If I couldn’t make a decision about the proper course, how could the crew trust me? I felt like a goat tethered as bait in tiger country. Where the hell were they heading?

And then in a moment, like one of those figure-ground diagrams popular with Gestalt geeks, the background reversed and I recognized what threatened us. I recognized the ship for what it was. We were on a collision course with the moon.

*Written as the first assignment for MIT open course: Taft, Cynthia. 21W.730-3 Writing and the Environment, Spring 2005. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), http://ocw.mit.edu

"To see! To see! -that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity."