The List

The Trump administration is collecting a list they will likely publish to ignite public opinion against Muslim immigrants to further their divisive strategy. Authorization of the list was included in Trump’s executive order on immigration, currently blocked by court order but likely to re-emerge like some toxic fungus after a rain.

The list includes…

Section 10 (iii) information regarding the number and types of acts of gender-based violence against women, including honor killings, in the United States by foreign nationals;

(iv) information on the immigration status of foreign nationals charged with major offenses.

This is likely to be a tactic similar to the Nazi outing Jews accused of crimes against the German people. The annotated executive order is available from NPR.

America the Fearful

It’s estimated that there are over 300 million weapons in America, enough to arm every citizen—man, woman, and child. Not only do we buy an inordinate amount of weapons, we export more than any other country in the world. In 2015, American weapons manufacturers made over $209 billion dollars in sales—56% of the world’s lethal production. France sold $15 billion, Russia only $11 billion. We are the most weaponized nation on the planet.

We have over 800 military bases around the world. Last year American special forces were deployed in 138 countries, two thirds of the 190 countries on the planet. At home, we have imprisoned over two million people, the largest prison population in the world and the highest per-capita incarceration rate, second only to the Seychelles (a total prison population of 735 out of a population of around 92,000).

We have become the most feared and most frightening nation on earth, and yet we are still afraid. Afraid of Muslim terrorists. Afraid of Mexican immigrants. Afraid of ourselves. Afraid of the future.

Trump wasn’t an isolated phenomenon. He found fertile ground in the heavily armed, fear laden heartland of America. What have we become?

The Third Estate, Besieged

Journalists are leery in the new world of alternate truths after the arrest of four covering Washington protests. Initially they were charged with felony rioting; charges were later dropped.

They have good reason. The Trump administration can use the military to arrest them, extradite them to some black site anywhere in the world, without trial, without habeas corpus, and without end—all legally.

Some background is required to explain such dictatorial power. Surprising to many, it was written into law at the insistence of Barrack Obama, defender of civil rights.

U.S. Battlefield

In 2011, Congress voted to redefine the U.S. as a battlefield and subject to the rule of warfare. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was quoted in 2011 that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2011 will “basically say for the first time that the homeland is part of the battlefield.”

The bill was drafted in secrecy by Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), then passed in closed-door committee meeting without public hearing.

Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said of the bill “One section of these provisions, section 1031 [later renamed 1021], would be interpreted as allowing the military to capture and indefinitely detain American citizens on U.S. soil. Section 1031 essentially repeals the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 by authorizing the U.S. military to perform law enforcement functions on American soil.”

President Obama insisted that his “”Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens” because “doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a Nation,” promising that his “Administration will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law.” The problem: Indefinite detention is not against the law and Obama is no longer president.

The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibited the federal government from using the military to enforce domestic policies within the United States. It was the law of the land until 2011. Now the land is ruled by the law of war.

Section 1021 allows the government to detain anyone, including U.S. citizens, who “substantially support”—a phrase the legislation doesn’t define—al Qaida, the Taliban, or “associated forces”—another undefined phrase. Those detained under Section 1021 can be imprisoned by the military without due process until “the end of hostilities.” Given the endless War on Terror, the end of hostilities may be a life sentence. Anyone detained under the NDAA can be imprisoned in “any foreign country or entity.” In effect, extraordinary rendition.

Section 1021 was declared invalid by the Southern District Court of New York when challenged by Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, but appealed by the Obama administration. The appeal was approved and Section 1021 remains as law.

Robert M. Loeb, lead attorney for the administration’s appeal, argued that “independent journalists” we were exempt from the law and had no cause for concern.

Hedges still had concerns. “I have interviewed members of al-Qaida as well as 16 other individuals or members of groups on the State Department’s terrorism list. When I convey these viewpoints, deeply hostile to the United States, am I considered by the government to be ‘independent’?”

“I traveled frequently with armed members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador and the Sandinista army in Nicaragua during the five years I spent in Central America. Senior officials in the Reagan administration regularly denounced many of us in the press as fifth columnists and collaborators with terrorists. These officials did not view us as ‘independent.’ They viewed us as propagandists for the enemy. Section 1021(b)(2) turns this linguistic condemnation into legal condemnation.”

Loeb stated that if journalists used journalism as a cover to aid the enemy, they would be seized and treated as enemy combatants. The paradox is that journalists, once seized for suspicion of aiding the enemy, lose their right to a trial by their peers and the opportunity to exonerate themselves.

Sami Al-Hajj, a journalist for the Al-Jazeera news network, was arrested by the U.S. military and imprisoned for 7 years in Guantanamo.

“Just calling yourself a journalist doesn’t make you a journalist, like Al-Hajj,” Loeb said during the appeal. “He used journalism as a cover. He was a member of al-Qaida and provided Stinger missiles to al-Qaida.”

Al-Hajj was never charged with a crime. As a result, he could never defend himself.

“The power to detain — or, for that matter, kill — without charge or trial effectively inverts the presumption of innocence,” Shahid Buttar wrote in the Huffington Post.

Given the vagueness of Section 1031, the Trump administration could link journalists with terrorist organizations simply because they were doing their jobs, as Chris Hedges feared. Trump’s vengeful nature and cavalier disregard for the law should be disconcerting for journalists. Their job, more important now more than ever, just got a lot more dangerous.

 

Rebutting the Big Lie

The Big Lie (große Lüge) coined by Hitler in Mein Kampf is a lie so blatant people can’t believe someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” It’s a strategy Donald Trump has adopted with a vengeance.

Trump has demonstrably lied about the attendance at his inauguration, his massive landslide in the Electoral College, voter fraud that cost him the popular vote, his tremendous support from women, 14% of non-citizens registered to vote, his landslide victory in the debates with Hillary Clinton, 30 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., record levels of inner city crime, Barack Obama founding ISIS, his relationship with Vladimir Putin…and these are only the ‘pants on fire’ lies.

Lying about something in the past that can be obviously disproved befuddles most critics who question Trump’s rationality as a result. No one knows quite what to do with it.

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

The quote is from Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda. Rarely has a propaganda minister been so candid.

The technique is also known as gaslighting after the movie Gaslight (1944) where a woman begins to question her own memories, perceptions and sanity because of her husband’s lies and manipulation.

Remember the “memory hole” in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four? It was the mechanism for disappearing documents, photographs, or records distasteful to the regime, systematically replaced by the Ministry of Truth with a history more to their liking. It calls to mind the sudden disappearance of the White House web pages on climate change and LGBT issues when the Trump administration first took office.

Whoever controls the past controls the future. As Umair Haque, author of The New Capitalist Manifesto, wrote recently: “If you could say that you were going to do anything — and then rewrite it to be successful, noble, glorious, wonderful, no matter how much of an abject failure it really was, so that people believed you were smashing, awesome, amazing, the best — then you would have maximum power.” That’s the power of the Big Lie.

The Big Lie works by repetition. Repeat it often enough and people eventually believe it. Repeat it with enough authority and people will eventually believe it. The only defense is to refute it as often as it’s repeated.

The American press isn’t in a strong position to resist the authoritarian tactics of the Trump administration. They’ve long since abandoned the moral high ground for the swamp of popularity and vested interests. But this is the time when the Republic most needs an independent press focused on facts rather than hearsay and gossip.

I’ve heard it suggested that Trump’s future press conferences be broadcast on time delay, interrupting the feed to contradict demonstrable lies. It would be an extraordinary tactic for the press but these are extraordinary times. The U.S. has never been closer to slipping into despair and despotism.

As individuals, somehow we have to constantly confront the gaslighting of this administration. I’m not sure how, frankly. I’m feeling my way in this new world of alternate truths. One way, I think, is to better understand the mechanisms of propaganda—how to recognize it, how to translate subtext, how to separate fact from innuendo, and how to resist.

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.

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…

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.

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