“I readily believe that in the totality of all things there are more invisible than visible natures.” –translation from T. Burnet, Archaeol. Phil., the epigraph which begins Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
“Take words with you, and return to the Lord.” –from Hosea 14:2, NIV
In a dockside hole-in-the-wall where an open sign blinks intervals like a lighthouse in the window, the mariners meet. Lamps call them in like moths off the harbor. They sip from chipped and faded mugs, and laugh, and make no attempt to discern each other’s faces in the dusk.
They are people who are defined by both their need to know and their patience with not knowing. Earth’s sea is still eighty percent unmapped. As for the rest of the universe, the angels can fit what we know in a teaspoon.
My earliest memory (or what I believe it to be; memory, like starlight, can be an illusion, filling in or running interference for what is no longer there) is of looking past my father’s arm to a photo in the newspaper: a jewelry box of tiny galaxies, courtesy of NASA, whose scientists, in 1996, retrieved a detailed view of the horizon of space—an image now known as the Hubble Deep Field. The hundreds of sequin-like discs present themselves in a section of sky the size of a dime.
In those days I would squint at bare light bulbs, encircled at a distance by my four-year-old fingers so that the form of the bulb didn’t show. Without the edge for reference, it looked like I was fencing in the sun. The philosopher Charles Forte, a man given to erasing edges, once said that one traces a circle, beginning anywhere.
This is where we begin.
The oldest sailors in the shop say:
The stars are all you have. They’ll point you.
The world through which they row is quiet as a womb. Only the waves and the songs that the navigators carry in the backs of their throats break the glassy surface of silence. Slipping through the keyhole of the sleeping sea—one breath taken for many minutes beneath—they can still hold and feel nothingness around them, blank water lying undisturbed over the stories in their arms: the weight of the tabula rasa globe.
Into the blank, the navigators toss legend. Configurations on the celestial sphere form pictures, characters, maps. Connect the dots and suddenly the whole world is draped over with storybook pages.
I love the color of water on old maps—that heavy blue-green, glass on glass, filling out the negative space between the coffee-yellow continents. The matte, two-dimensional seas seem so calm and approachable. If I stepped out onto them, like St. Peter from the boat, I imagine they would ripple in pleats; lines so crisp and geometric they must be supernatural in origin.
There is something slightly mystic in the taming of all seas. We once imagined sailing off the edge of the map—and then, the story goes, certain circumnavigations proved us wrong. Without an edge for reference, we drew these coastlines one by one, and so began a tentative, constantly renewing cycle of breaking. Someone had to open the door to the cellar where that grand beast lies, knowing they could never fully domesticate that which doesn’t need them to feed it.
The first immigrants say:
Aegir’s nets are everywhere, and his will is hard to predict. That’s why the Saxons sacrifice every tenth prisoner, you know. The billow-maidens can be bought, though there are no guarantees on the purchase. Travelers’ insurance paid in blood, on fires that bead the coast, will take you halfway to the end and not a vika further. The rest you can hear in the clap of the strokes, in the stretch of your back, in the groan of your heart. The gods must hold on to the end of the oar that you reach out into their ken. Come transplant shock, Ragnarok, edge of the flat of the world—we will all fall together, having pushed off bound in song.
The first time I was in a boat on the open ocean, I was amazed at how I could still feel a kind of direction, even with nothing visual to mark my progress against. The blue distance stretched to all corners, vanishing into the sky, and never seemed to change no matter how far we traveled; yet the persistent glass V of the bow slicing up the water, the wind pulling my hair, constantly reminded me that I was moving forward in space, progressing in this featureless color beyond human naming.
Maybe part of the thrill of going into the unknown is simply going without the pressure to get anywhere.
The white whalers say:
Have you felt the living thing beneath you? Have you looked into its eyeball—big enough to fit your whole reflection like a tailor’s mirror—and seen all the meetings and widow’s walks of your good life on that whale-shaped island come up between the clouds in its dome? Like the Sunday-school teacher who once rapped your fingers with a wooden ruler the sea stops your fidgeting and pounds in a lesson that “Thar she blows!” is a temple curtain and the great black shape is an urim and thummim but THIS IS THE HOLY OF HOLIES.
And when the wind dies in the doldrums, they say, sailor men forget how to pray, but much more mystic and terrible—so much so that it is rarely described in full—is when the hosts of the seas teach them how again.
From the opened window I saw the sea respire, gravity its oxygen and its exhalations the tides. Here I can hear its breath from the edge of the beaches where the faraway lights of fishing boats and oil rigs blink muted-tangerine mundane. They are the last gates of civilization. Out there, past the lights, past the wave-break dotted line, there is dark as far as you can reach in all directions, including up.
It’s not that the stars are so very far apart. It’s just that—the rumors are true—you are extremely small.
The firefly shrimp—the quiet, drifting lights—form a connect-the-dot puzzle, for which your simple hands hold the responsible divining crayon. In our futile words, our half-formed stories, the primitive songs with which we lullaby ourselves to sleep, we will cut out for ourselves a blurry picture of the cosmos.
A section of sky the size of a dime.
The merchant sailors say:
When an old sea dog chases their tale, you listen. Whether it’s big fish and mighty squalls—observable phenomena—or the spirits that walk the waters like God in the beginning, the monsters that swim around the anchor chain below, the sirens and the serpents and the selkies—you listen.
They want to stagger, to stagger one another—give me some time to blow the man down—but in the end, by “the end,” it is not further oceans they search for. They see enough of that from the crow’s nest. Some tales light the unknown, some make it wilder still, but the best ones bring it near—wrap you up in it until it feels like it belongs. Until you remember that it’s home.
As do most childhoods, mine had its limitations of scope. There was more steering towards than forbidding away, but the result is that I remember now a narrative world built with Bible stories and public television; removed from the specific pop-culture nostalgia of my peers, yet tuned in to a strange alternate collective of home-schooled hand-me-down meat-and-potatoes shelter.
I am lucky to have had faith and reason positioned around that shelter as separate but complimentary poles. From my four walls—my section of sky the size of a dime—I could still hear for free on the local airwaves what remains, for so many, the voice of space itself: “The surface of Earth is the shore of the vast cosmic ocean…”
The men whose footsteps marred moon say:
You put all your faith in the tin can that takes you there, and in the end, it doesn’t even matter—you see its brilliant workings revealed a means to an end. You put all your faith in an eighteen-inch-screen’s-eye-view of a Technicolor future. Six years after that familiar friendly voiceover began vowing each week to boldly go where no man has gone before, you are beginning the breathless overture for orchestra and Theremin with one small step for man.
And it’s one giant leap for an earthbound empire, stockpiling weapons for some all-or-nothing triumph that will never come. College newspapers print spreads on the “The Last Rising of the Virgin Moon,” as if you are heading up there to undertake a seduction. As if the power is in your hands.
You go up, and she marries you. Leaves footprints on your soul, plants her flag in your dust. Looking out at her magnificent desolation as it changes sunlight to silver, you lie back and think of Earth.
When voyagers turn back and look at this place—their planet—they say that all the details, the minutiae of human problems, fall away into the void that surrounds it. Their mission becomes urgent and clear.
I have heard of this, the Overview Effect, so many times. I have yearned to experience it. I dread it. I think it will feel like dying.
I suppose that I stand like a sailor without a map, like a mariner from the cradle frozen with the fear of sailing off the edge of the earth. When I was six I started having dreams of aimless motion—in cars, in boats, in the dark of space with nothing below. When I was twelve I was caught in a current in the gulf and nearly outswam my love of the sea, trying to get out of her indifferent, killing grip. In the twenty years since Mr. Sagan’s rerun viewer-funded voice said “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” I learned to fear the very unknown that I am made of. It may be that it is only the fear that a mariner feels, coming home after a decade at sea.
The starship pilots who cross the antimatter blackness say:
The stars are all you have. They’ll point you.
Everything, even the wild burning heart of the galaxy, is subject to tradewinds we don’t understand. They take lifetimes to make progress that we can see, and yet they are always re-hanging the lights, re-charting our course for us. Immeasurable heaven yawns immeasurable; space swallows all sound. There is no real pilot’s wheel. There is only the universe—our farsighted, fascinated mother.
When we drop planetside, they ask us how we stand it. Well, we tell stories.
The navigators’ stories: the stars themselves live lives and speak legends—will show us the way—will take us home.
The Vikings’ stories: wilder and greater powers control our destinies, but the things we do transact with them: we have our work, our will, our reverence.
The whalers’ stories: the mighty beasts are God’s own hand; the waves swell with spirits.
The merchants’ and the pirates’: the mysteries are too many to count, and the edge, to the extent there is one, is where we draw it.
The moonwalkers’ stories: someday, there may be something better, waiting for us out there in the dark.
When we go into the void, into nothingness, what are we looking for? Something too subtle to be detected anywhere else? The sharp relief of the true false things we tell ourselves, projected onto the night like a drive-in movie—the way the ancients imagined the sky?
Slowly, slowly, perhaps, as we illuminate more and more of the map, our blarney is building the truth. Beam by beam. Star by star.
They gather together in the name, looking for gods in the boasts and yarns of their fellows. They all know that God is out there in the blank where the foghorns moan–somewhere beyond the edge of the world, where starlight touches starlight on the obliterating horizon. But they will take words with them, and return.