Tuesday, January 25, 2011


January 25, 2011

I was sitting in the car in the King Kullen parking lot waiting for Lorraine, who was inside buying bananas and milk, and large flakes of snow were falling onto the window beside me. I have an interest in snow, dating from my work on my book The Man Who Ate His Boots, in which snow and ice figure prominently, and I remembered that the great British whaler and Arctic scientist William Scoresby had been the first to make detailed drawings of snow crystals and had revealed the great diversity in their structure. So I put on my reading glasses and looked closely at these particular snowflakes, which were very large and composed of any number of smaller snow crystals, not formed in the usual variations on star shapes but as spikes of ice, and as they started to melt they collapsed in on themselves in sudden implosions, as if melting were an instantaneous process. Where there had been ice there was now only a drop of water, running down the glass.

Spikes of ice. In the Arctic, when it's very cold, thirty or forty below, and clear outside, tiny spicules of ice will fall out of the air as if it were snowing. The cold freezes the moisture in the air and it falls as these spicules, and can gather on the snow underneath to a depth of an inch or more.

To amuse and amaze his sailors, Scoresby would take a piece of clear ice--only fresh water makes clear ice--and cut it into the shape of a lens, then use the lens to focus sunlight on something, a sailor's pipe, say, which he would proceed to light using only this lens, or he would start a wood fire, or make some other demonstration. He found that he could melt lead by this means. Then he would ask the men to touch the lens while he was using it to light up the world in this way, and, most amazing of all, the lens remained ice cold.

For a long time no one thought that ocean water, salt water, in other words, could freeze; what was found in the Arctic as sea ice was, it was believed, fresh water flowing off the land that had frozen and lay on top of the sea water underneath. Where there was no land to provide the fresh water, there could be no ice. These theories prevailed in the science of the day well beyond Scoresby's time; they were still being propounded as late as the 1880s. Scoresby, of course, knew otherwise; he had watched sea ice form to a depth of a foot even while the seas themselves were rough and stormy; he had dodged ice floes that were ten feet thick; he had melted sea ice and come up with salt water. But he was a whaler, a commerical fisherman, in other words, and not learned as the learned were learned, so his knowledge was discounted. In 1820 he published a book in two volumes on the Arctic that became the founding document of Arctic science, and one of the great scientific books of its time. It is now exceedingly scarce. But he was, as I say, a whaler. Who could give credence to a whaler?

Reading the NYTimes this morning I came across a map of the Arctic showing the extent of sea ice in September 1979, and its extent in September 2010. Thirty percent less in the latter year. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the period covered by my book, the average thickness of sea ice in the high Arctic measured about ten feet. It now averages about four feet, and the Northwest Passage is opening up every summer. Still, large numbers of people do not believe the scientists about global warming. They are watching the Arctic melt, but they're only scientists. What do they know?

Human intelligence has not evolved to keep pace with human technology. The plain fact of the matter? We are too stupid to deserve the earth.

Monday, January 24, 2011


January 24, 2011:

Last night I tried to watch Shangri-La on TCM and the picture froze a third of the way through. The dialogue continued with a hysterical young woman ordering the leader of the Himalayan monastery in the film out of her room. She has a disease that's going to kill her in a few months, he offers to help her heal, but she wants none of it. It's all a fraud, she says, by which I think she means that the offer of healing powers, plus the religious background that presumably goes with it, is nothing but false promises designed to make you feel better. She, clearly, has done with religion and its powers. As I remember, the movie went on to picture a perfect little utopian community filled with spiritual grace and calm, and the question for Ronald Colman, playing the lead, is, should I leave and go back to the world, or stay here and live for a couple of hundred years amidst these enlightened people? And I think he decides to go back, to fulfill his responsibilities as a British foreign minister. Anyway, I had to bail out. I wanted to watch things moving on the screen, so I found a nature show. Nature, red in tooth and claw. More like real life, no?

But the movie reminded me of a debate I had in high school with another student in our senior English class about the nature of heaven. He--he died young, by the way--believed that heaven, when you reached it, would be more of the same, things to do, activities to keep you busy, sort of like a good retirement home, I suppose, where they take you on trips to museums and historic houses and neat little historic villages like Sag Harbor, where Lorraine and I live, or maybe even to bowling alleys. My own view was more complicated. I had read enough in religion by that time to doubt that eternity could be at all like life lived in time, which is essentially what he was arguing for, a life lived in time, only an extremely long time. Eternity, I said, could not in fact resemble the life we were familiar with at all. I did not believe that human consciousness could endure an eternity of familiar activities, or an eternity of singing in choirs in praise of God, or any sort of eternity you could describe. Eternity, I said, was beyond the ability of human consciousness to comprehend or to experience. We literally cannot imagine it, and if we cannot imagine it we cannot live it. If something of us survives death, I said, what it would experience in heaven most probably was a moment of bliss, an explosion into bliss, in fact, that would dissolve us into some larger whole, a drop of rain in the ocean.

This is not an argument, of course, you can win or lose. Nobody knows the answers except the dead, and they're not talking. He was arguing for a heaven very much like Shangri-La, which, in the last scene I was able to watch, had really good fruit on the table all the time; and I was arguing that a heaven resembling a physical paradise, a palace of pleasure, represented a failure of imagination, and, ultimately, an unwillingness to face the fact of death and get beyond the limitations of being human: being embodied. And in the years since I've never seen an image or description of heaven I could believe in. Even the Sistine Chapel, for all of Michelangelo's muscular spirituality, failed to persuade me of anything except the glory of art and the mass mindedness of tourism. The truth is, embodiment is the source of all meaning. It is our fate to have evolved into a consciousness of our own deaths, and therefore to live and die with that fundamental question: what then? Is that the end? The best thing we can do, the noblest thing, is to face up to it and to develop what John Keats called "negative capability"--the ability not to have to know. To live, calmly, without any kind of certainty. Because certainty is the real killer. This is especially true of certainty in religion, but it's also true of certainty in anti-religion, i.e. in atheism. They both lead to dogmatism, and dogmatism leads again and again to cold murderous rage.

I take my father as a model. We went home, we being my first wife and I and our two children, for Christmas in 1974 and my father called me into the basement to show me something, some chairs he was working on--he recaned old chairs in his retirement--but really to tell me that this would be his last Christmas. He was very calm about it, matter-of-fact, and he didn't elaborate. I remember looking at him non-plussed, not knowing what to say. He then went on to tell me that his wife, my mother, was developing Alzheimer's, but she would be very sweet, he said. It all came to pass. He died a month later, my mother did develop Alzheimer's and eventually spent seven and a half years in a nursing home, slowly and painfully becoming less and less herself until she disappeared entirely from the frail body that just went on living, no ghost, any more, in that machine. So here were two models of how to die, and then my brother, dying of brain tumors, and all the friends who have died, my old buddy Carter Jones worst of all, in a way, dying in a plane crash just as he was achieving real success as a photographer; or maybe it was the three children who died in a fire. Friends of my kids. I will never forget telling my daughter, who was eight, that one of her best friends had died when their house burnt to the ground. You never forget any of these things. But it was my father, so calm, so matter-of-fact, facing his death, that stays with me best. He was not a religious man, never went to church, never took an interest in it. Clearly he had decided a long time before that it was not for him. So he had no supports in any kind of belief at his end; he was left with only himself, staring uncertainty in the face, and he didn't flinch. That's courage. If there actually is some sort of life after death, he's the one I would most like to say something to. To honor. But who knows if we get such a chance?

Speaking of Keats, he died in Rome, at 25, of tuberculosis, thinking he had failed as a poet, and he asked his friend Severn to have this epitaph engraved on his tomb, with nothing else, not even the words John Keats: "Here lies one whose name was writt in Water." The headstone with its epitaph, and Keats's name, stands in the Protestant cemetary in Rome, just outside the city walls, and it is impossible to keep flowers on it to this day because the devotees come and pick them, wanting a piece of him. When the Italian doctors did an autopsy after his death they discovered that something like 80 percent of his lungs had been eaten up by tuberculosis, which he contracted by nursing first his mother and then his brother, both of whom died of the disease. Knowing how to live is also knowing how to die, and the best of us do it without having a clue, either way, what is to come; and thereby they display what is the best in us as human beings, courage, always courage. And that may be the whole point of living. If you have enough courage, and have it at the right time, it no longer matters what heaven is, or what it might be for.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Marco Polo

January 6, 2010:

We are in the Pamirs, which lie at the western end of the Himalayas, north of the Karakoram range, and among their residents are the Keiaz tribe, who "live in caves on the highest peaks, subsist by hunting, keep no flocks, said to be anthropophagous (i.e., cannibalistic), but have handsome women; eat their flesh raw." So, at least, says a Mr. Gardiner, writing in the Journal of the Asian Society of Bengal for 1853. Among the other residents of the Pamirs are great sheep, the Ovis poli, whose curved horns run up to five feet long or longer, measured along the curve, and are so large in circumference at the base that it's said foxes use them as dens to raise their kits in. "Wood says that these horns supply shoes for the Khirgiz horses, and also a good substitute for stirrup-irons" as well. Who knew horns could be so useful? The French, it turns out. According to a Paris newspaper report dated November 24, 1894, French horse owners in Lyons regularly shod their horses with sheep horns (though not the horns of the large sheep of the Pamirs) because they didn't slip on the cobblestones. "Horses thus shod can be driven, it is said, at the most rapid pace over the worst pavement without slipping."

I am reading Marco Polo, there are two ways to do this, and I'm using both. The first is to take a modern edition and just plow through the book; in my case it's Marco Polo in the Everyman's Library edition, translated by Marsden, revised by Wright, and newly revised and edited by Peter Harris, with a short introduction by the great English travel writer Colin Thubron. It's a handsome edition, easy to hold, beautifully printed. But the notes are minimal, and nothing demands notes more than Marco Polo. Just the names alone are daunting. Cities have their old names and their new; towns the same; peoples likewise. The maps are inadequate and nobody demands maps more than Marco, with his complicated itinerary, his many years on the road. It's not a long book, you could read it in a couple of days; but you'd come away from it thinking, well, that was interesting, but how much of it is true? And what is one to make of the amazing tales?

So I'm also reading the Yule-Cordier edition, in two volumes, published by that indispensable company Dover Books, which took upon themselves the noble task of republishing in its entirety the extravagantly annotated Yule-Cordier edition of the nineteenth century, and it is from the above, in all its Victorian splendor, that the news above about the horned sheep of the Pamirs, and the Keiaz people, comes; and I have to tell you, I haven't had this much fun since I ran down Mt. Rainier. (Actually, I boot-skied down Mt. Rainier.) The books themselves are more or less the same: same text, in other words, with some slight variations; because the texts of Marco Polo exist in any number of manuscript versions from the 14th century, and there are definitely variations. But the notes: was anybody ever more indefatigable than Sir Henry Yule and Henri Cordier? One of the things that has fascinated me for a long time is the enormous Iron Gate that Alexander the Great is supposed to have constructed somewhere in the Caucasus Mountains to keep the giant Biblical wild men Gog and Magog, who may or may not have been associated with the ten lost tribes of Israel, locked up in their mountain fastnesses, so that they could not erupt into the civilized world. Marco Polo mentions this gate in his book and it is all the prompting Yule needs to take us to Derbend, where the remains of this fabled gate and its attendant wall run along ridge lines in the mountains for a distance of eighteen or twenty miles, and there are pictures even of the remains, and the town of Derbend, washed by the Caspian Sea, and reports from people who have been there. And there it is, the legends of Alexander's life mixed with Biblical legends about Gog and Magog, and travelers' tales, and it just takes your breath away. We live in an endlessly fascinating world; we emerge from an endlessly fascinating past. The Spanish conquistadors who conquered Mexico and Peru saw themselves as following in Alexander's footsteps, and what is the legend of El Dorado but an echo of the ants as big as foxes who dug gold out of the ground in India (which Polo mentions later in his book) and piled it beside their burrows? Because the Americas were the new Asia.

I read through the modern edition of Marco and then turn to the Yule-Cordier when I run into something I want to know more about. This is what it means to have a large library, and to dig into it. I acquired the Yule-Cordier years ago, and it has sat on my shelves unread for maybe twenty years. The Everyman's Library edition I've had for maybe eight years. Now I'm reading them both, and I don't want it to end. This is my gold, gold of the mind, and it is why I've wound up with 7,000 books.