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

Hopeless

In her new book So Far From Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World Margaret Wheatley savages hope, guts it like a street fighter.

Beyond hope of success lies the freedom to act without constraint, without need for practicality. Once you’ve abandoned expectations, intent is no longer harried by hope or despair or the need to endlessly compromise in order to achieve diminishing results. You act because it’s the right thing, the needful thing, without expectation, without hope or need of success. You act because you can, because you must.

Hope is the expectation of a particular result among a continuum of results. It’s hope that binds us to the fear of failure and the paralysis of despair. Hope makes us vulnerable to exhaustion. Hope deceives us with the belief that the outcome is the reason for action. In reality, action is the reason itself.

Wheatley has a long history of trying to save the world. It can’t be saved, no matter how much we sacrifice. There’s no controlling the future nor even the avarice and greed rampant in the present. The future emerges unpredictably. Once present, it can’t be undone.

There are hard times ahead for humanity, for the planet. We may not survive the challenges we’ve created. We may not have the intelligence or the heart to transcend our petty, squabbling politics in a time of great need. There is no guarantee of our evolutionary success. We could be a dead end, a net loss to the planet. Or we might make the transition to something unexpected and wonderful, a shared intelligence capable of governing itself wisely.

Ultimately, personally, it doesn’t matter which. The outcome isn’t mine to own, only the action, the intent. The metaphor that comes most to mind is Zen archery, a meditation in motion where the archer becomes both the bow and the target, collapsing the distance between. The arrow is released of its own accord. It doesn’t matter so much where it lands. What matters is the meditation, the mindfulness of the archer.

Wheatley mentions Carols Castaneda only once and obliquely, referring to Don Juan [Matus]. Castaneda has been discredited as an anthropologist but he was a significant influence upon me as a young man, a conscript in the US Army during the Vietnam War and wandering in the wilderness in the years afterward.

Juan Matus’ concept of the existential warrior is somewhat like what Wheatley describes—actions with intent but without expectation of success. Where they differ substantially is the need for community, for relationship. The Yaqui sorcerer’s world was solitary and guarded. Wheatley’s world depends upon relationships. Ultimately, they’re the only thing that matters.