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Posts tagged ‘The Penguin Book of the Ocean’

Immense Heaven

1024px-Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_NevadaOur sun is one of the approximately 300 billion stars that make up the Milky Way. The Milky Way is part of what is known as the Local Group, a formation of at least 54 galaxies galaxies spanning 10 million light years. The Local Group lies on the fringe of a much larger supercluster of galactic groups and clusters which contains more than 100,000 galaxies and spans some 520 million light years.

I’m not sure how many of us can really make sense of these sorts of numbers, or the idea that the universe is composed of a web of galactic clusters that shift and flow like water. Yet there’s something deeply fitting in the news earlier this week that the team responsible for identifying this vast supercluster have named it Laniakea, a Hawaiian word that means “immense” or “immeasurable heaven”, and was chosen to honour the Polynesian sailors who once navigated the great space of the Pacific by reading the stars.

It’s a name whose poetry extends beyond the obvious resonances with the ocean. It often seems there is something irresistible about our tendency to see the ocean infinite, immeasurable, trackless. There’s little doubt it’s an association that runs very deep, but it’s also at least partly a cultural construction, a legacy of Romanticism and the ways technology has progressively alienated us from the environment.

In fact the ocean is anything but trackless. As the achievements of the Pacific Islanders (and other pre-modern sailors) demonstrate, it is quite possible to read the sea, to learn to make sense not just of the stars but of patterns of wind and wave, the movement of birds and fish and driftwood (as several of the pieces in The Penguin Book of the Ocean attest).

The systems of knowledge, of fine-grained observation and remembered experience that underpinned this process were developed over hundreds and in some cases thousands of years. Yet because the cultures that encoded them were largely oral, they were also vulnerable, and as the Pacific was colonised, and its cultures disrupted and suppressed, they largely disappeared. Indeed the fact that persist at all is largely due to the efforts of people such as the late Will Kyselka and David Lewis, who worked to preserve and recover as much of them as possible.

That systems of knowledge acquired over thousands of years should have been lost like this is strangely ironic: after all, the colonial project was spearheaded by the scientific voyages undertaken by explorers such as Banks and Cook during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, voyages that were themselves part of the extraordinary project of discovery and description that underpins modern science, and which has led, more than 200 years later, to us being able to map the flow of galaxies through billions of light years of space with such sophistication that it is possible for structures such as Laniakea to be identified and understood.

Lanikea isn’t the first astronomical object to be given a Polynesian name: astronomers have already chosen to name two of the dwarf planets discovered in recent years in the outer solar system MakeMake (for the creator of humanity and god of fertility worshipped by the Easter Islanders) and Haumea (the matron goddess of the island of Hawaii), yet it’s certainly the most significant. Nor should we be so naive as to think giving Polynesian names to heavenly bodies will bring back what has been lost: as Victoria Nelson has observed, “the death of a culture, like the death of a star, lasts longer than anyone can possibly imagine. The sadness, the echoes and ambiguities, persist for hundreds of years”. But reading about the naming of Laniakea I found myself wondering whether it’s possible that by incorporating the language and poetry of the Polynesians into the scientific endeavour we begin to acknowledge the repositories of knowledge embedded in their cultures (and by extension other non-Western and indigenous cultures), and just perhaps, go some small way toward recognising the injustices that have been inflicted upon them.

Laniakea. Immense Heaven.

 

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The Marine Quarterly reviews The Penguin Book of the Ocean

In amongst accounts of sailing the Falklands and advice on how to swim the English Channel, the Summer issue of the (rather fabulous) Marine Quarterly has a short review of The Penguin Book of the Ocean:

“It may be hard to get hold of the Penguin Book of the Ocean, edited by James Bradley, because it is published by Penguin Australia, and there are no plans to publish it in Britain. Goodness knows why. Many seagoing miscellanies are litanies of shipwreck and disaster. While I appreciate that a seagoing miscellany without shipwreck is like bread without salt, there are other aspects that should be considered. Bradley has done just that. He has reintroduced Rachel Carson’s marvellous The Sea Around Us, and unearthed passages of Thoreau, Hakluyt, Darwin, Steinbeck and Jonathan Raban, to name but a few, mingling them with plenty of very good poetry and a spot of surfing. As well as being a good read in its own right, this is a sampler for anyone looking for the foundations of a library of sea reading.”

Obviously you all own multiple copies of the book already, but with Father’s Day coming up on Sunday week, surely now’s the moment to buy another

A Murmuration of Fish: Wayne Levin’s Akule

Wayne Levin, ‘Circling Akule’, © Wayne Levin (click to embiggen)

Of the many editorial decisions I made while putting together The Penguin Book of the Ocean, the one I’m proudest of was to include a series of Wayne Levin’s photographs. Anybody who’s seen the book will know how much they add to it, not just because they offer a stunning visual counterpoint to the written selections, but because they so eloquently distill the sense of the ocean’s mystery and beauty I wanted the book to evoke as a whole. I think – I hope – that the book is put together in such a way that every piece adds something essential, but I think there’s little doubt that if there was one selection the removal of which would drastically impoverish the whole, it’s Wayne’s photographs.

I assume some readers will already be familiar with Wayne’s work. Although he’s less well-known in Australia than he is in the United States, his iconic images of swimmers and bodysurfers are both justly celebrated and immediately recognisable (and, I suspect, were at least partly responsible for inspiring Narelle Autio and Trent Parke’s equally iconic celebration of the Australian beach, The Seventh Wave).

For my part, I first encountered Wayne’s work in 2005. I was working on a book about the Pacific (a project which, sadly, I later shelved) and as part of my background research had been reading Thomas Farber’s brilliant essays about water and the ocean, On Water (one of which also appears in The Penguin Book of the Ocean). Keen to read more of Tom’s work I went searching online, and in so doing stumbled on Wayne’s breathtaking 1997 book, Through a Liquid Mirror, which features an introduction by Tom.

Wayne Levin, ‘Body Surfers’

When my copy arrived I sat staring at it for hours. I quickly realised I’d seen some of the images of surfers before, but as I read on I found the real marvels were not those strange, perspectiveless images of humans in flight underwater, but the images of marine creatures: sharks, dolphins, fish, turtles, gliding weightlessly through the deep.

In the weeks after that I bought and read Wayne’s similarly beautiful and deeply haunting collection of photographs of aquariums, Other Oceans, and found my way to his website, which collects many of the images from the books, both of which only added to my admiration for his work.

One of the things I found most striking about Wayne’s images was his decision to work not in colour but in black and white. There’s no doubt one of the great revelations of the last decade or so has been the rapid advances in the documentation of marine environments, in particular the work of the BBC’s Natural History unit, whose efforts have led to the creation of documentaries such as The Blue Planet and Planet Earth. While these works have done much to change the way we see the oceans and their inhabitants, perhaps one of the most profound is the way they’ve taught us to see the marine environment as a place filled with colour, not just the reds and oranges of coral and tropical fish, but the deep, saturated blues and greens of the water, and the dazzling silvers and metallic glints of fish and light.

By contrast, by working in black and white, Wayne’s photos cleave to a more denuded palette, one comprised only of silvery greys and blacks, a decision that serves not just to sever their connection to more documentary forms of photography, but to demand the viewer see the subjects again, not as fish or swimmers or sea spume, but as things in themselves, wrapped in their own mystery and moving outside the bounds of language. Breaking waves become thunder clouds, suggesting how close swimming is to flight, sharks become sculptural objects, whales and dolphins loom out of the dark towards the light.

Wayne Levin, ‘Blue Trevally surrounded by Akule’

At its most effective, in images such as  ‘Blue Trevally surrounded by Akule’, this transformation grants the subjects – and by extension the photographs themselves – a sacral quality, imbuing the scenes they depict with a mute power that conveys something essential about both the immensity and indifference of the ocean.

Yet in many ways the best of Wayne’s images are those focussing on schooling Bigeye Scad, or Akule, as they are known in Hawaii. In these images the schools of fish become not just schools but living things in their own right, drifting and swirling like patterns of smoke or the Aurora, many minds in one body.

Most of Wayne’s Akule photographs were taken across a three year period last decade, during which schools of Akule gathered in Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii’s Big Island (and the site of the fatal attack on Captain Cook), and Wayne took to swimming out in pursuit of them, oxygenating his lungs as he went in order to freedive ten, twelve, even eighteen metres down, to the edge of the light to capture the fish moving below.

The best of these images, together with a selection of other images such as ‘Body Surfers, Makapu’u O’ahu 1983’ are collected together in Wayne’s new book, Akule, which was published late last year.

Perhaps interestingly, it’s a smaller book than either Through a Liquid Mirror or Other Oceans, not just slimmer but more closely cropped. Yet somehow this reduction in size gives it an intimacy and simplicity many larger books lack.

But its size also belies the wonder of many of the images it contains. Here, again and again, schools of fish take on the wonder they possess in reality, becoming shifting things of light and silver, darting and turning, many minds in one body.

Wayne Levin, ‘Akule Tornado’

As Frank Stewart points out in his introduction to the book (the book also features a Foreword by Tom Farber), the seemingly purposeful of fish schools are relatively simple, and can, like many complex phenomena, be reproduced by the application of several simple rules, the same rules that create the unity of purpose exhibited by bird flocks (they also, suggestively, bear more than a passing resemblance to the Aboriginal artist, Gloria Petyarre’s Medicine Leaves paintings, which evoke the movement of grass and leaves in the wind).

Stewart is wary of reading too much into the capacity of simple rules to generate complex behaviour, cautioning against the desire of some to see in it something essential we have previously only associated with living things.

I share some of that wariness, though I’m perhaps less inclined than Stewart to dismiss the discoveries of those working in this area as simply the application of “our currently fashionable metaphor to explain the mystery of life”. Yet he’s right to point to the way many of the photographs in Akule ask us to reconsider our ideas about the boundaries of agency. It is impossible to look at photographs like ‘Column of Akule, Kealakekua Bay, Hawai’i 2000’ or ‘Flock of Akule, Keauhou Bay, Hawai’i 2006’ and not be aware of the way these twisting columns of bodies seem to have purpose and meaning of their own, or the manner in which their sense of order and movement seems to imply the presence of some kind of collective organism.

Wayne Levin, ‘Pattern of Akule’

This desire to expand the definition of life to include biological systems is central to much contemporary biological and environmental thinking. Yet it also demands we rethink our own relationship to the environment we inhabit, and the interconnected web of life that sustains it. Given the urgency of the environmental challenges we face, there is something both salutary and humbling in being confronted by work which, like Wayne’s photographs, demands we do precisely this. Because in the end that is what the photographs in Akule do. They ask us to look at the twisting, shifting, leaping columns of fish and see them as what they are: things pulsing with life, mysterious and Other, but living all the same. And, perhaps just as importantly, they demand we re-examine many of our assumptions about the creatures that surround us, by reminding us of how irrelevant we are to them, caught as they are in the business of their lives, and of how our knowledge of them will always be partial, fragmentary, constrained by the limitations of our imaginations and senses.

Akule, Through a Liquid Mirror and Other Oceans are all available from Amazon. If you’d like to see more of Wayne’s work you can visit his website or download a preview of Akule. The Penguin Book of the Ocean is available in Australian bookstores or you can check prices at Booko. At some point I may talk more about my unfinished book about the Pacific but that’s very definitely a story for another day.

The unlucky life of Captain George Pollard Jnr

Captain Valentine Barnard, Drawing of a Bowhead or Right Whale and a Sperm Whale, c 1810

This weekend’s New York Times has a fascinating article about the discovery of the wreck of the Whaleship Two Brothers on the French Frigate Shoals, an atoll about 1000km northwest of Honolulu.

The discovery is fascinating for two reasons. The first, and more prosaic, is that there our understanding of life on board Whaleships is largely second-hand. As Ben Simons, of the Nantucket Historical Association points out in the article, “Very little material has been recovered from whale ships that foundered because they generally went down far from shore and in the deepest oceans … we have a lot of logbooks and journals that record disasters at sea, but to be taken to the actual scene of the sunken vessel — that’s really what is so amazing about this.”

But it’s also fascinating because the Two Brothers’ Captain, George Pollard Jnr, was also the captain of the Whaleship Essex, the ship whose sinking by a whale in 1820, and recorded in Owen Chase’s remarkable Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex, was one of the inspirations for Moby Dick.

For those of you who haven’t read Chase’s narrative I urge you to do so: its 60-odd pages are remarkable reading. As Jeremy Harding points out in a piece on Melville in the London Review of Books, contemporary interest in the Essex is, like Melville’s, largely confined to the story of the wreck itself, but as Chase’s narrative reminds us, the wreck is really only the prelude to a far more chilling story, involving the survivors’ journey several thousand kilometres westward, to the Pitcairn Islands, and gradual descent into starvation, cannibalism and madness.

Chase published his account of the wreck and its aftermath in 1821, and some years later it came to the attention of a young Herman Melville (interestingly it was not Melville’s first encounter with the story, which he first heard from Chase’s son, who was also a whaleman, while a crewman on a whaler himself). Later other versions of the disaster would appear, including a detailed account by Charles Wilkes of his conversation with Captain Pollard, and (interestingly) a manuscript held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney which details the experiences of the survivors who chose to remain on Henderson Island in the Pitcairns. These and many more are reproduced in Nathaniel and Thomas Philbrick’s excellent The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale.

Prior to the wreck, Pollard was described as gentler and more contemplative than the average Nantucket whaleman, and was only 28 when given the command of the Essex. Yet the circumstances of the wreck, and more particularly the descent into cannibalism in the weeks before he and his companions were rescued, changed him.

As the piece in The New York Times points out, in a way the most surprising thing about Pollard’s presence on the Two Brothers is that he actually chose to take on another command. There’s something gut-wrenching about the description of him freezing and having to be physically dragged to a longboat when this second ship foundered, and deeply sad about his subsequent retirement to a position as a night watchman in Nantucket (he actually made one more voyage, upon a merchant vessel).

These days Pollard is mostly remembered as the prototype for Ahab and for his part in the murder and consumption of his cousin Owen Coffin while he and his companions drifted hopelessly in a whaleboat, but in details like the image of him moving through the darkened streets of Nantucket, it’s possible to glimpse a rather different man. Certainly Melville, who visited him after the publication of Moby Dick, was impressed by him, declaring “[t]o the islanders he was a nobody – to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming even humble – that I ever encountered”.

As I say above, the documents relating to the wreck of the Essex are well worth reading, in particular Chase’s Narrative, the opening section of which appears in The Penguin Book of the Ocean. And while I used the Spirit Spout chapter in the collection, if you’re unfamiliar with it I recommend reading the hellish description of the Pequod’s try works, which make the reality of life aboard a Whaleship viscerally real. And finally, if you can track down a copy of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, do: it’s a splendid and harrowing account of a quite remarkable episode in maritime history, and of the fates of Pollard and the other men at its centre.

2011 and all that

Wayne Levin, 'Circling Akule', © Wayne Levin (click to embiggen)

Despite having given myself an open-ended holiday from the site I think there’s no denying that even in the Antipodes the summer is over once Australia Day has passed. To which end I’m getting back on the blogging horse. I suspect things will stay a little bit slow around here for the next week or so (my daughter doesn’t go back to school for another week and a half) but I’m still aiming to get a few things up in the not too distant future.

That said, 2011 is looking like a big year for me in general. Unfortunately it looks like my new novel, Black Friday, may now not be on shelves until early 2012, but I’m about to launch into editing it, and once that’s done I’ve got two more books I’m hoping to knock over reasonably rapidly, which will make for a busy year.

Elsewhere, The Penguin Book of the Ocean has been going gangbusters, with one reprint already under its belt, and a brace of very, very positive reviews. I’ll pull together some links for those soon, and if I can find it links to the interviews I’ve been doing about it over the break, but in the meantime if you’d like to buy a copy you can check prices on Booko.

Some other bits and pieces that might be of interest. First of all, I’m planning to post something about it soon, but in the meantime you might want to check out Wayne Levin’s stunning new book, Akule. Anyone who’s seen a copy of The Penguin Book of the Ocean, or read some of my previous posts about Wayne and his work will have a sense of how extraordinary his work is, but if not check out the sample pages and if you get a chance, order a copy: it’s wonderful, and like all of Wayne’s books comes with a terrific essay by another of the writers featured in The Penguin Book of the Ocean, Tom Farber.

To continue with The Penguin Book of the Ocean theme, Kevin Hart, whose pulsing, luminous poem, ‘Facing the Pacific at Night’ also appears in the collection has a new book, Morning Knowledge on the way as well. It’s not out for another week or so but it’s already possible to pre-order copies.

And finally, since I’m about to go and tidy up a long piece I’ve written about ghosts and ghost stories, you might want to check out my review of Peter Ackroyd’s The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time, which appeared in The Australian a couple of weeks ago.

I hope you’re all well, and have survived the summer, particularly if, like many Australians, you or your family have been caught up in the flooding and fires of recent weeks. And however it began, I hope 2011 is a great year for all of you.

Waves, the ocean and the sublime

Today’s Australian contains the last Australian Literary Review for 2010. A chunk of the issue is given over to a long piece by Michael Costa suggesting some solutions to the problems facing the ALP and a forum of prominent academics such as Glyn Davis, Peter Doherty and Stephen Lincoln exploring the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and the world as we look forward to 2020.

But the issue also features a long piece by me about Susan Casey’s new book, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Ocean’s Greatest Furies. Some of you may know Casey as the author of The Devil’s Teeth, which explored the world of Great White Sharks and the researchers who study them, and while it’s largely shark-free, The Wave often reads like a sequel or counterpart to its predecessor, using the career of big wave surfer Laird Hamilton as the springboard for a much larger study of the science of waves and the gathering storm of climate change.

I won’t rehearse the arguments of the book here, except to say that it’s an intelligent, if sometimes slightly slick piece of work. I’ve subsequently learned there’s been something of a scandal about the fact Casey shared the proceeds from the book with Hamilton, a fact that lends her already over-eroticised and hagiographical descriptions of him a distinctly queasy edge. But as I say in the review, Casey writes brilliantly about the breaks themselves, and the larger picture the book paints of the effects of climate change on ocean turbulence and wave height is likely to be deeply disturbing to anybody who’s not familiar with the facts surrounding the changes taking place beneath the ocean’s surface (if this material is new to you you might want to take a moment to read this story from the ABC, and perhaps this piece by Elizabeth Kolbert as a primer).

Much of what I want to say is in the review itself, but there is one story in Casey’s book I desperately wanted to include but just couldn’t shoehorn in, and that concerns the wave that hit Alaska’s Lituya Bay in 1958. Situated midway between Vancouver and Anchorage, Lituya Bay is one of those rare places where the various factors that generate tsunamis converge, combining a narrow fjord and near vertical cliffs on three sides with a steeply rising bottom, large glaciers and seismic instability. First charted by La Perouse in 1786, it has a long history of sudden and violent wave activity.

But the wave that struck on 9 July 1958 dwarfs all other recorded waves. Triggered by an earthquake, the ocean sent a tsunami which reached 524m in height rolling through the bay and out to sea.

The notion of a wave more than half a kilometre high beggars belief. Yet it is not the most remarkable part of this story. That honour belongs to the fact that at the time of the tsunami several fishing boats were moored in the bay, and one of the captains, Howard Ulrich, survived by steering his boat up the face of the approaching wave.

You can read the review in full here.

Update: I thought these two videos, one of Laird Hamilton in action, the other of an unidentified surfer riding a very big wave might be of interest (thanks to Tim Dunlop for the reminder).

 

 

Slipping down into dark water

Last week’s Opinionator in The New York Times featured a fascinating piece by Robert Sapolsky suggesting that at least some of our metaphorical toolbox is biological in origin. I’ll let you read the article in full, but Sapolsky uses several recent studies, including the 2006 Zhong/Liljenquist study demonstrating moral disgust is assuaged by washing, to argue that in these cases the brain is engaged in a sort of neural confusion, and very primitive responses, such as that of physical disgust, are being triggered by social stimuli.

I’m always a little wary of this sort of argument, but in this case Sapolsky (who’s the author of one of the classics of animal writing, the wonderful A Primate’s Memoir) is on pretty solid ground, since there are imaging studies which demonstrate unpleasant moral and unpleasant non-moral stimuli activate the same regions of the brain. But the piece got me wondering about something I’ve been thinking about for a while, which is the question of why our thinking about sleep, dreams and the unconscious is so suffused with images of liquidity.

It’s a question I came up against while editing The Penguin Book of the Ocean, and (if you’ll pardon me quoting myself) it’s one I raise in the introduction:

“It is not accidental that when the historian Fernand Braudel sought to describe those cycles of history that exceed the human and stretch downwards, into the environmental, the geological, he reached for the marine metaphor of ‘deep time’, nor that Romain Rolland chose the term ‘oceanic’ feeling to describe the sensations of boundlessness and oneness with nature he believed were the birthplace of religious sentiment. Indeed, so pronounced is our tendency to reach for images of fluidity and submersion to describe our inner lives and the mysterious processes of creativity and creation that it is difficult not to wonder whether the association is somehow natural, less a habit of mind than something innate. But even if it is not, the association between water and dreams, time and the oceanic runs so deep it has become almost impossible to think of one without invoking the other.”

I’m aware, of course that there’s a sizeable body of psychoanalytic thinking touching on this subject, perhaps most notably that of Bachelard (I’d also note in passing the deeply evocative expression “body of water”). I’m also painfully aware of how difficult it is to distinguish the cultural from the “natural” in this context. But after reading Sapolsky I did find myself wondering whether these associations might be at least partly founded in a similar retooling of very primitive parts of the brain.

All of which is an extended way of asking whether anybody knows of any studies suggesting such associations. Or, perhaps just as pertinently, whether anybody has any sense of whether the association exists in other cultures. Do the Chinese, for instance, or Native American cultures make similar associations? Obviously the notion of the unconscious mind is a relatively recent and essentially Western notion but I’d be very interested to know whether other cultures imagine sleep and dreams in terms of drift and immersion, or think of imagination in terms of flow. And, assuming the association is at least partly neurological in nature, are there any studies or theories as to what it’s about?