The Architect & the Wolf

This morning there is a stranger in the Dodge Avenger.

He wears a red turtleneck and a brown trench coat. Thin, dark grey hair and glasses. He speaks only French, and I will later learn his name is Grataloup.

Fog fills the Romanian countryside as we push north out of Sibiu, bound for Sighisoara by way of an old fortified church that Dorin (the Avenger owner) wants to show us. We pass many villages, many fields of drying September corn, many sheep, many swarthy men on horse-drawn carts, many well-dressed young men thumbing rides to who knows where. Dorin and Grataloup discuss, in French, coal shipped to China, lamb shipped to Arab countries. I see rusty blue tractor parts, like bits of sky strewn beside the road. I fail to capture the image of a white horse pulling a black cart. 

I speak a bit about America, about the landscapes of my home, as best I can in French that doesn’t get much exercise. Grataloup listens carefully, responds in crisp, carefully-chosen sentences. He is from Lyon. His ancestors were, I gather, these sort of proto sheriffs who patrolled their villages in rural France — the only fellas at the time allowed to ride their horses into church to look for assassins. They stayed always on the lookout for wolves; hence, somehow, his name.

Now Grataloup is an architect, based in Switzerland. He does not use any right angles. He makes aerodynamic buildings. He is building a complex of 118 houses in Algeria. Not a single right angle. He has battled judges and magistrates over the right to build the way he wants. He has designed a modular apartment concept for towers of cities in China. You get a divorce? Just swap in a smaller apartment, you can keep your address. I don’t know what to picture, so I picture corn plants, with apartments like cobs sticking out.

We stop, and I hand Grataloup his trenchcoat; he had grown hot in the Avenger. We walk the perimeter of the old Protestant church very slowly. Grataloup occasionally wanders into the village a ways to look back and get a good view of the steeple rising blockily out of the hill. I estimate that he takes 1 picture every 2 hours. He and Dorin fall into a rhythm where they clasp their hands behind their backs and walk in sync, like this:

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I see hops growing, spilling over fences. The Church contains careful woodwork and a strange locking door that was evidently used to create a safe room of last resort. The fortifications are, how do you say, intense. Grataloup gets a shot of a long staircase covered with thick oak planks. Old women come and go. Grataloup and I see an enormous snail, with its shell, riding a tiny ribbon of plaster that ornaments a house on the edge of town.

On the parapet, Grataloup pulls me aside and says that the towns, the villages, they are so strangely quiet, they seem dead, mort. I nod and have no explanation. I can tell that what he means is: we walk and walk and I see no joy. He tells me about a snail that he found crawling on the sidewalk outside a restaurant in Paris. The restaurant advertised “Escargots de Bourgogne!” And Grataloup started to laugh and laugh. I laugh too. “Il s’est échappé!” I exclaim, “he’d escaped!” He nods, explains that he rescued the snail and brought it to the Jardin des Tuilleries, where the snail looked up at him and waved his tentacles as thanks.

Later, on a sidewalk, he shows me the apartment concept for China:

We drive on, passing a trio of hawks circling above a field of American corn — Pioneer brand, I recognize the lettering from my days in Iowa. 

Grataloup explains that he has not been back to America in 40 years. His wife was from America. She grew sick there on one of their visits, and – “la pauvre” – the pain grew to be too much and she committed suicide.

Dorin and I stay quiet.

Grataloup continues, after a while, “there is a funicular in Switzerland that is powered by sewage.” We’re speaking only in French now, and I ask him to repeat this so I make sure I get it right. I get it right, it’s powered by sewage, and Grataloup moves on, now discussing Europe’s laws for regulating goat cheese. There are 15 pages regulating how you make goat cheese, and one page detailing the rights of man. “C’est comique!” he says.

We make an unexpected stop to see a rather baroque (he says) Armenian Church on the outskirts of Sighisoara. Grataloup remarks that he’s done some work with Le Corbusier’s niece. There are nice churches in Peru, Mexico. Very beautiful.

The building is crumbling from the inside, peeling and cracking. Grataloup wonders aloud whether congregants wear casques – helmets – to Church. On a pillar near the door, I see a poster advertising a national humor festival.

Outside the Church, Dorin is kicking rocks and looking a little bored. I approach, and find him gazing at some crab apple trees, the ground around them littered red with fallen fruit. “When I was young,” he says, “we ate all these little apples, there was so little food in Romania. And now we’ve made a country where we let them fall to the ground.”

Interesting Times

“This is a destroyed city,” Mihai told me on the drive into town.

Not really, I thought to myself. Not razed, not utterly crumbling, not polluted beyond repair. I peered at Bucharest with jet lag eyes, and liked it. We threaded through a forest park, along lively boulevards, around several gigantic chaotic roundabouts. Paint peeled from strange villas, stray dogs peeked out from alleys, plastic bags hung from street trees.

I liked the little hotel, which was in an old house recently renovated. Mihai said it seemed fake and cheap, but he paid for my room anyway and departed. My luggage had decided to explore the tarmac at Charles de Gaulle, so I went alone upstairs, sat on my bed for a moment, opened the curtains, thrummed my hands on the windowsill. There was a big bathtub made of translucent plastic in the middle of the room. My view looked out over the hotel’s driveway, where a few older men were standing around smoking cigarettes, paused while tiling a small patio.

When Michael Jackson came to Bucharest in 1992, he allegedly strode onto stage and screamed, “Hello Budapest!”

I eventually decoded this strange equation found near my hotel. 

I eventually decoded this strange equation found near my hotel. 

As I had a free day on my hands before an evening screening, I’d followed a friend’s advice and booked a tour with a little company named “Interesting Times Tours.” Checking my email, I saw that my guide, Robert, had sent a picture of himself and instructions to meet him in front of the KFC near the Piata Romana.  

The day promised thick heat, but the morning was cool as I wandered the mile or so from my little hotel. I passed the old US embassy, a striking old mansion now overgrown with weeds; apparently the new embassy was more of a fortress on the outskirts of town. Romanian merchants were setting up tables for a craft market near a school. Bored security guards smoked cigarettes here and there.

Robert, 25, wore dark sunglasses and a small backpack. Two other tour members – ah, a member of a tour is a tourist! – stood at the ready, one a Romanian woman who said little, the other a Chilean industrial designer getting her PhD in Sweden.

The theme of the day’s tour was street art, but we spent the first hour generally wandering around looking at old buildings that Robert suggeted had been improperly restored. Apart from a few ancient churches, the oldest buildings in Bucharest seemed to be grand 19th century houses built by wealthy families who fled when the communists took over in the 1950s. Under communism, the houses had fallen into disrepair, and only a smattering had been fixed up—mostly by lawyers, foreign embassies and the like. Others allegedly host squatters, Roma families, or cats.

Painters – I mean, spray painters – had taken it upon themselves to spruce up the many crumbling walls of Bucharest. Robert knew most of these artists by name, or pen name, and we spent a few hours standing around on sidewalks, heads cocked like museum-goers, sweating in the rising heat.

I felt ill-equipped, as a novice street art assessor, to assess the quality of what we saw; there were some beauties, to be sure, and not too much stuff that could fairly be called crap. Which, I learned later, is the Romanian word for carp.  

At some point, near an art supply store where Robert said he and his friends used to shoplift in his art school days, we hooked a left into a shadowy concrete structure. Someone had curated a parking garage, yielding a kind of museum of street art where you spiral up a ramp – Guggenheim-style, but square – and soak up the offerings. It’s not open to the public because it’s still used as a parking garage; we paid for 1-hour of parking and stood on the slopes taking pictures of crumbling walls near gleaming Mercedes.

At the end of the tour, which all in all was excellent, Robert dropped us off in a green park where at night hundreds of crows gathered. I wandered home by way of Piata Universitatii, where I stopped into an art gallery showcasing the work of a bearded man who sat near the door holding a plastic bag.

Mihai picked me up a few hours later to take me to the “projection” as he called it, but I first insisted we stop at the Romanian Geological Museum.

“Lots of rocks,” he said.

I nodded. “Lots of rocks.”

It had been closed to the public during the communist era, though the geologists rehauled the museum in the late 1970s, probably to keep things up to date after the plate tectonics revolution. Still they hadn’t opened it, because any museum opening would have necessitated a big ribbon cutting with Romania’s dictator, and this evidently seemed unappealing. Eventually they’d shot the dictator – the revolutionaries, not the geologists, although there’s always an amateur rock collector in a group of revolutionaries – and the museum reopened.

We had the place to ourselves. I liked seeing scientific names in a foreign language. I liked the dioramas of volcanic activity, the cutaways showing the Earth’s core, the rows and rows of sparkling and strange and humble stones together under glass. Upstairs were drawings of dinosaurs made by schoolchildren.

When we’d had our fill of rocks, I bought some stamps with deer on them at the museum store, where two ladies were chainsmoking and watching the news on a tiny television.

Mihai and I jaywalked over to the enormous National Museum of the Romanian Peasant. There were big stone steps, cavernous halls filled with costumes, tools, grist mills, even an entire cabin. I prepared to take pictures of some bowls that had been tacked to a wall, and a museum guard appeared from the gloom and shook her finger at me. Mihai came to my defense, saying – I think – that we were guests of the museum director, here to show a film. She would not be cowed, and I picked up the familiar intonation of “I don’t make the rules, I’m just doing my job.”

I loathe being told not to take pictures of bowls in peasant museums, so here is a picture I took of bowls in a peasant museum:

During the communist era, the museum had been used to showcase the great heroes of communism. Most of the busts and paintings had presumably been destroyed after the 1989 revolution, but in the basement Mihai and I found a few rooms packed with icons of Lenin and Stalin. Along one wall were dozens of small painted sickles-and-hammers.

Mihai stood for a while at one end of the room, reading a newspaper from the 1950s that heralded the era of collectivization — when peasants were rounded up, entire villages shuttered, and massive new farms forcibly created. I approached to have a look, and Mihai turned suddenly towards me, saying with a chopping motion, “I cut your penis off, then I give it to you and say, this is yours, use it. That’s collectivization.”

Seven people showed up for the film screening, which was in a big beautiful lecture hall near a flea market where old ladies sold Slavic clothing and raspberry soda. While the movie played I drank a raspberry soda, rang Amanda, watched three cats lounge around some graves. Mihai told me later that the communists bulldozed graveyards fairly indiscriminately, so someone from the peasant museum had rescued a few headstones from the 19th century and stuck them in the shrubbery outside the back door.

The following morning was the tour I’d intended to sign up for: Beautiful Decay. A chance to wander some abandoned or forgotten buildings around Bucharest. I joined Robert again in front of the KFC, and this time there were four of us tagging along: me, a professor from Texas who studies the history of time, a super-friendly furniture maker from El Salvador, and an itinerant Swiss woman on her way back from Georgia (i.e., Georgia on the Black Sea) on her Vespa. She owns six motorcycles, is a former pastry chef, and avoids all high school reunions. Last year she trained to be a Skoda mechanic.

Our first stop was an old house that was occupied by archaeologists, though none were in sight, and the building seemed to be slowly descending into the Earth, as if the archaeologists were ensuring that future apprentices would have something to dig up. A security guard smoked cigarettes in a small room with a TV. In the back were piles and piles of stones with Greek lettering, apparently dating back to 100 BC, and a small shack where lived the security guard. I admired his cucumbers and tomatoes. Someone snapped a photo of his Citroen.

A circuitous wander through town and two brief bus rides took us to the contemporary art museum, in a small wing of the enormous palace the dictator had built for himself. We got a good view of the city, and I saw two stray dogs near a clay tennis court. In the stairwell, a street artist had sprayed his tag, subtitled “I finally got into a contemporary art museum.”

The subway ride to the outskirts of town took 15 minutes or so. The subway was spotless, easily the cleanest I’ve seen. Emerging into late afternoon sunlight, I smelled effluent and rot, but saw only a broad boulevard and rows of scrubby trees. We walked a few hundred yards and headed off the road towards a dozen or so crumbling structures. The Swiss motorcyclist found a plum tree and cut up a green one for us with her Swiss Army Knife, which she’d had to check at the door of the art museum.

I don’t know why I’d wanted to see ruins. They weren’t particularly old.  Former munitions factories had been turned into fertilizer factories – swords to ploughshares! Same thing in the states — and then abandoned a few decades back. We ran into some guys shooting a music video, glumly hauling around stacks of drums – floor toms, tom toms, snare drums – and a few amps that weren’t going to get plugged into anything. Robert told us a lot of models come out here for photo shoots.

I took the pictures I’d imagined I would take: small plants sprouting from cracks in cement; holes in the ceiling for shafts of sun to slant through; rubble and glass and sand and sky.

Did this fulfill some expectation I had of a former communist country? Grey buildings? Check. Crumbling infrastructure? Check. Graffiti? Check. What the hell was I after, anyway. These buildings could have been anywhere, like my old neighborhood in Brooklyn near the Gowanus canal. What did my brother call it? Ruin porn? How fitting that some of the street artists had followed a geometric, vaguely sci-fi theme, as this would have been a great spot to play laser tag.

Well, whether you wander Rome or the outskirts of Bucharest, ruins do get you thinking about time passing, which is never a bad thing. I mean, it’s usually depressing, but a good dose of perspective helps stave off the mindless hustle of the iAge. As usual, I began wondering what future archaeologists or geologists might unearth from these old buildings. How long does spray paint last? Here’s a spot where rebar has left a strange spiral, that telltale fossil of the Anthropocene:

Robert needed to get back to Bucharest to record some sound for a documentary he was making about rural Satanists in Transylvania (“they do yoga, meditate, that sort of Satanism,” he had explained at lunch), so the four of us tourists decide to find a café. For dinner we had eggplant, pork in various incarnations, and a loaf of very dry bread. Four adolescent girls sat at an adjacent table drinking Mountain Dew and eating deep fried balls of cheese.  Then we dispersed; the Swiss motorcyclist headed off to Bulgaria to find some maps she’d stashed there, and I headed back to my hotel with all my pictures of a city that time will never quite completely destroy. 

Nodak

Leaving Bismarck, you see the land begin to change, finally, after sweating through hundreds of miles of humid cornlands. Odd droplets of land, small grassy peaks, more rocks. Thick sod and fields of sunflowers. You say to yourself, “the west.” Derricks pop up. There, behind fences, are stacks of pipe bound for the Bakken. You squint and try to see mountains, but it’s still Interstate 94 needling the distant white sky. It’ll come. 

Curt is moving west, so I flew out to Minneapolis yesterday to join him for the last few thousand miles. We haven’t spent much time together in the last year or two, and he’s picked up some good new expressions:

Make like a shepherd and get the flock out of here // Make like a hat and go on ahead // Make like a stripper and take off. 

Last time we drove across country together was in 2003, just after I’d left graduate school, when we were researching for the film that became “King Corn.” Before that, we’d crossed in the summer of 2000, delivering a chest of drawers for a guy named Kohnstamm; we'd kept a ledger of our expenses and our food consumption, which we later folded into the corn movie, rather untruthfully stating that it had happened later. Films are full of little lies. 

Anyway, this is Curt’s 10th crossing, and probably my 5th or 6th, since I’d tromped across with my family a few times in the 80s and 90s. We’re driving a 14’ Penske truck, drinking shocking amounts of coffee and eating mostly cookies. We don’t have a map. I can't keep track of my tenses.

Not long after the turnoff for Williston, where the film “The Overnighters” takes place, we enter the Little Missouri National Grassland. Evidently a National Grassland is still a place where you can make haybales, run fence, store grain. Now, as I type, we’re beginning to see the badlands off to the southwest, smooth stacked layers of sediment and ash, bentonite clay and mudstone, sandstone, worn into knobs and mounds, intercut by dry gullies, peppered with sage-green trees. The fence runs through too, hilariously dipping into steep cuts and out again, reminding me of yesterday’s fences that ran clear into the lakes and marshes of eastern North Dakota. I’d wished we were in a balloon above the landscape, which on our Google Maps seemed more blue than brown. 

We pass by the signs for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Though I’m a National Park addict, we’ve got about 700 miles today, and there’s been some construction, so we push on. We see a truck called the SiDump’r, which can evidently side dump. A hawk wheels above the colorful soils. Curt has been on the phone with T-Mobile for 25 minutes or so, trying to add 50mb of data roaming. I used to get annoyed with him when he wrote emails while driving, but what’s the big deal, this road just rambles on, and soon we’ll be in the mountains. There’s a town out here called “Beach.”

Today we’re making for lunch in Billings, then coffee in Butte, and sleep in Missoula. We’ve seen two sets of bee hives so far, and have eaten far better food than we did in ’03. As Curt says, “the food system is changing.” 

Pluots on Pluto

Not forty minutes after wrapping up class in Pollenzo, in one of the old castles of the semi-French kings who once ruled much of Italy, Amanda and I were on the road north to their former hunting grounds, now a national park named Gran Paradiso. Who knows how the Savoys got up there. Horse and buggy? Hot air balloon? We drove a rented Fiat Panda, automatico. (I haven’t worked a manual since the summer of ’00, when my pal Curt and I wreaked havoc on the clutch of a 1990 Chevy pickup during a cross-country drive in which we delivered someone’s armoire from Greenwich, CT to Portland, OR, by way of Provo, UT for reasons I can’t quite recall.)

For the drive, Amanda had procured several delicate slabs of focaccia, both with ample doses of olive oil, one with artichoke, the other with tomato. We split the former as we hurtled through Torino at 130km/h, the going rate even at rush hour on a Friday, and the latter as we left the A5 toward Aosta, up in the mountains now with the temperature dropping, and enough olive oil on the Panda’s steering wheel to power a vinaigrette. We paid 21 Euros for the pleasures of the Autostrada. Gas hovered at 7 dollars a gallon.

I’d downloaded a trail book - British by the looks of it - onto my aging iPad, so Copilot Murray assessed the hikes (which the book called “walks”) while I followed our GPS and several puffy RVs up a narrow road. There were plenty of reasons to not look at the road: firs and larches, shadows and sun, a haltingly beautiful river. Signs for the mountain towns: Vieyes, Epinel, Cogne, Lillaz. Somehow I’d ended up in Italy with Taylor Gentry’s copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind, so the CD player blared an incongruous soundtrack. 

The Savoy were a rather French-speaking lot, murkying the bloodlines and borderlands, so the signs in these parts are bilingual, a welcome sight for my tiny mind, which can still grok some sophomoric French but spews out Castillian, or static, or a meek “Ciao” when I ask it for Italian. Deftly decoding bienvenue à Cogne, we found a parking spot near the river. Up in these parts, you call a river a torrente. They drain the snow and ice rimming the mountaintops. In the summer, they rush. From the river in Cogne you could get a great view of our Fiat Panda, now unburdened of tote bags, backpacks, two hiking poles and a battered Klean Kanteen. From the parking lot, we ascended into town via an elevator. Next to a church, we bunked. The hotel provided free brown flip flops and apples. The church provided bells every 15 minutes. Nevertheless, sleep came quickly; it had been a long week.

Favô di ozein, in Cogne.

Favô di ozein, in Cogne.

At breakfast we boiled eggs in a machine that looked like a toaster filled with water. There was a French flag on it. Amanda and I usually boil eggs for 8 minutes, but a wee note counseled 10. Water boils at lower temperatures up here, so you gotta cook things longer. (For every 500 feet or so, the boiling point drops about a degree.) We were 1534m up, about a mile above the sea, and the air up here was light and fresh. After a week of 95° weather down in grape country, this was like climbing into a waterfall of crisp glacial wind, which makes little sense as a metaphor, but it also made no sense why there were not more people here. Apparently Italians all vacation in August; avoid every part of Italy in August. 

South of town, our morning hike/walk led us through a lovely wood. Or rather up through a lovely wood. Let’s begin again: our trail led us thrup a lovely wood. A few Italians plodded thrup too. Waterfalls roared. Cool wind swirled. In many places we saw our tiny village below, framed in a valley of green, bisected by a torrent of blue-grey water. Whoever made this park did a bangup job of curating the flowers, as we easily bagged every color of the rainbow by the time we dragged ourselves, two hours later, into a clearing up at 2216m elevation. We did not spurn the spur trail, and were glad for its lookout.

Climbing past a field of rocks, we reached Lago di Loie by noon. Pond-sized, blue-green, very clear, rimmed by long grass and picnicking Italians. No one was swimming, and I’d forgotten my trunks, but I decided my underpants looked vaguely like what an Italian man might wear to the beach, so in I went. Some 2 seconds after entering the water, a message appeared in my mind: please remove yourself from this water. I obeyed; it was less of a swim, more of a baptism by ice. The trees and Italians watched passively from their perches. 

It’s been said that the woods are best when one goes in with a goal. I’ve gone that route—gone hunting, filming, orienteering, mushrooming, silviculturing. You see things you mightn’t otherwise when you’re searching for something, or operating within constraints. Trekking a 6.5 mile loop in the Italian Alps is a kind of goal, but we lacked a search, and frankly I found it entirely pleasant. How rare, to let the body and mind ramble under sunshine, only constrained by how long the sun would shine. I wondered whether the Kings of Savoy were under the gun to quickly slay some ibex and get back to town for their royal suppers. In the heart of the ibex, Amanda told me, there’s a small cross-shaped bone. 

I found these markings intriguing.

I found these markings intriguing.

For lunch, we’d procured some favorable rations: several slabs of cheese pilfered at breakfast, a cucumber, a saucisson, and some miraculous honey we’d hauled up from the Piedmont. The food options in Cogne are, typically, Italian. Italian restaurants serving Italian food. Granted, there’s more of an Aostan influence here, a dash of the mountains, and the French, but you wouldn’t call it diverse. You won’t find congee in Cogne, any more than New Horizons will find pluots on Pluto. 

Two gents strolled up during our pranzo asking if the trail eventually looped back to town. I nodded, pointing west, and he explained that he wanted to drink a bottle of wine, so the assurance of a return to civilization was most welcome. Off they went. The sky was full blue. If for a moment you felt the sun’s heat, a sudden swish of glacial breeze would bring you back to IHT, or Ideal Human Temperature. Gran Paradiso’s ability to grant IHT at every turn made me shake my head in wonder: that King was a fool to give up his hunting grounds. Did he know Americans were going to prance about on his game trails in their underpants? 

Xanthoria elegans.

Xanthoria elegans.

Leaving the lake behind, Amanda and I descended over scrabbly scree into a green valley. There’s no way around saying that it was lush. Not a bad place to be a cow. (None were in sight, but their patties were partout.) From there the trail hooked left, suddenly tracing the edge of another fabulous torrente, somehow clearer and bluer than the last. It was at this point that I wished I could place this entire day in a little jar, maybe an old honey jar, rinsed good and clean. I’d keep the jar nearby, and whenever darkness fouled my spirits, I’d open it for a whiff of happiness, a gentle wander through the wild with the one I love. 

The Smog of the Sargasso Sea

In the harbor, some forty minutes from the tiny airport where our bags were unloaded into wide puddles on the empty tarmac, which alternately baked and soaked under the Bahamian summer haze that permeated all the dilapidated towns we drove through in a rickety green van stuffed to the gills with swim fins, Patagonia backpacks, camera gear, two famous surfers, a journalist with a recent article in Playboy and a twinkle in both eyes, one legendary body surfer, an environmental science student from California, several plastics activists, a representative from a water bottle company, a few local teachers, Simon my musician friend who would be running sound, and me — in the harbor we saw three nurse sharks. 

They lounged in clear water near the marina restaurant, closed that day because the owner had been thrown from her car and killed. Nurse sharks are docile enough that you can swim with them, but I peered at them from afar, feeling somehow alien, pale—duly stunned after a long New England winter to find myself on a slender island in the Caribbean, boarding a three-masted schooner bound for the Bermuda Triangle. 

The boat, or ship, let’s call it a vessel, was over a hundred feet long, with some thousands of feet of rope looped everywhere you turned, fresh wood decking, a spacious salon with a strapped-in piano, air conditioned state rooms, an ice-maker, an old ship’s clock, piping covered in boisterous beach party bumper stickers, a quiet captain, no cats. From the water, where the nurse sharks noodled around eating God knows what, you could see its name: Mystic. 

We had a few days to acclimate to the humid land before thrusting ourselves out to sea, so we wandered over to the nearby Island School for a summit of Bahamian youths interested in environmental activism. I’d missed the beach cleanup, but we landed in time to attend a conch festival, where you drink rum, eat deep fried conch fritters and watch a fashion show featuring clothing fashioned from trash. A few shy teenagers wandered around with baggies of greens that they’d grown in the school’s hydroponics system. I caught up briefly with Jack, a musician friend who had invited me to come along on the expedition. He had brought along his guitar, as well as an underwater super-8mm camera, a throwback to his filmmaking days when he shot surf films. We chatted about our ideas for this short film - a journey through the plasticene ocean - before he wandered off to dance with his kids. Simon and I caught a lift back to the Mystic. Jupiter and Venus crept closer together in the sky. 

Somewhere in the Bahamas, before we embarked.

Somewhere in the Bahamas, before we embarked.

The next day Simon and I filmed some initial interviews, drank multiple cups of coffee, discussed the grim possibility that there mightn’t be peanut butter available aboard the Mystic, and listened to a local band - the Rum Runners - while an afternoon storm rolled in. In the Bahamas, great stretches of turquoise sea tint the underside of clouds. It’s a planetary phenomenon I had not seen before, and one I  failed to capture adequately on camera. It made me think of the buttercup flowers we’d hover beneath our chins as kids. “Do you like butter?” I do, and the light of turquoise seas. 

Jack, the Malloy brothers, and Mark the bodysurfer decided that we should go find some waves before heading out to shoreless seas, so I suddenly found myself making a surfing film: here’s the shot of the boards getting loaded atop the old car; there’s the car rounding the bend as it approaches the beach; here we are on the beach saying things like “looks totally surfable.” Marcus Eriksen - the MacGyver-like scientist and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute who would be leading our plastics expedition aboard the Mystic - brought along a mammoth board made entirely from old surfboard scraps and hundreds of plastic lighters collected from albatross corpses at Midway Island. Mark the bodysurfer - a living legend in Hawai’i and a retired lifeguard - found an odd foam mat to surf with. Off they went. Keith and Dan Malloy swam effortlessly; they’d already swum 4 miles that morning. Mark looked so comfortable in the water that you’d imagine him ill at ease on land, except that on land too, he’s a joy to be around, easily one of the most thoughtful people I’ve encountered in my travels. I stood on the shore with Simon and my wide-angle lenses until the surfers disappeared from view (the shore break was a quarter-mile out), and then we snorkeled and urinated in the shallow waters. Plastic littered the beach. 

That evening, at the reopened marina restaurant, we sipped beers and dangled our feet above the green water, watching the nurse sharks. Jack ordered a strange green drink, which was made by mixing something yellow with blue curaçao. Simon brought up the mysterious matter of sharks’ reproductive systems, and we all looked at our plastic phones, which looked back at us blankly, far from any cell service. 

In the morning Simon and I charged batteries and secured the gear in Pelican cases, anticipating rocky seas: at high tide the Mystic would launch. The crew gathered in their brown polo shirts - the Mystic is usually a boat chartered by rich people to sail the seas - and I was told that if the order was given to abandon ship, I would get into lifeboat #4. Simon and I took dramamine and drank more coffee. Hundreds of hermit crabs piddled around on the dock. Mark and the Malloys swam in the harbor. 

To this day I don’t know whether we raised the sails because it was useful, or because it made people feel like we were sailing. But either way, with Eleuthera retreating into the rear of our polarized sunglasses, the sails went up. Our crew - a mix of plastics activists, company reps, students, and “high-profile water people” brought aboard to see firsthand the polluted ocean gyres - pitched in with some rope tugging and selfie-taking, and by the time Chef 1 and Chef 2 - the former from Boston, the latter from Birmingham - had trotted out an evening meal of lasagna, cornbread, and fresh salad, we were out of sight of land. The engines rumbled on. 

Our path would take us through the deep waters of the Sargasso Sea, named for the myriad species of Sargassum that collect there, caught by the spiraling surface currents that made up the North Atlantic Gyre. Presumably, we would be sampling what else got caught in the gyre. I figured we’d see it right off the bat: massive piles of floating debris. The much ballyhooed plastic garbage patches. 

But this was clear blue water. So blue that I thought no one would believe the pictures I was taking. The color of the sky’s zenith on the crispest spring day. Fake blue. Neptune blue. And clear, clean, pure. No land no boats no garbage no nothing. 

Then in went the trawl. Marcus had invented a variety of trawls— small nets attached to steel “mouths” that rode aside the ship and skimmed the surface of the sea. Watching it, we saw nothing but clear blue water sliding into the net, so there wasn’t much anticipation when we hauled the first trawl in after an hour. Marcus explained that we’d sampled an area equal to about two football fields, which I calculated to be 1/33,880,011,519th of the Earth’s ocean surface. In other words, a drop in the damn bucket.

And here’s what we found:

So you multiply that by 34 billion and you get a lot of plastic in the sea. Not big floating barges of trash but, in Marcus’ words, a smog in the sea. And these plastic bits, which are hydrophobic brethren to petrochemicals like DDT, accumulate toxins in the sea, and then get accumulated up the food chain, landing in the fish we eat, and in countless creatures that we do not. Marcus passed around a binder of recent scholarship on the effects of this plastic smog, and we listened to evening lectures by plastics activists until all of us found the phrase “single-use plastics” to be synonymous with, well, badness. But admittedly I found myself most disturbed not by the health effects of this plastic sea, but by what it did to my sense of the wilderness. 

I’m not a sea guy. Not a water man like Jack or the Malloys. But, like Ishmael, every now and again I find myself drawn to the water. I don’t even have to go there, physically. What suffices is a landlocked landlubber’s daydream: in my mind's eye the vast blue sea, still wild and unknown, restores my sense of the mystery and boundlessness of this otherwise humdrum urban world. The ocean, like an outer space here on our own planet. 

Put another way: it behooves the city dweller to imagine an untrammeled elsewhere. But as Marcus reminded us, there is no longer an “away.” 

My camera eye liked the confetti of plastics splayed out in our filter trays - the same baskets used to steam buns in Chinese restaurants - but my inner eye reeled at the realization that we’d thoroughly stained the sea. For God’s sake, I thought, we’re in the middle of nowhere. This would be like landing on the moon and finding bits of Evian bottles and scraps of plastic bags. How did this get here? 

You can’t trace a microplastic back to its source, not precisely anyway. But you can study the waste streams on Earth’s continents, and from there glean what you already knew anyway: we all put the plastic in the sea. Americans have comparatively strong waste management infrastructure, but each of us uses so much plastic that inevitably it leaks out; Marcus compares the sewer systems of major cities like New York to horizontal smoke stacks, belching our toilet and storm drain detritus straight out to sea. As his research vessels have neared the Statue of Liberty, he’s sieved unimaginable nonsense from the harbor waters — from tampon applicators to cigar tip wrappers. Add to that anything that blows from a landfill, or spills from a shipping crate, day after day, year after year. Abroad, many developing countries use less plastic per capita, but what they do use has a much higher chance of escaping lax waste management facilities — first to rivers, then downriver and out. Everything gets everywhere. 

When it gets to the sea, plastic starts to break down. On beaches, the sun slashes at the plastic’s bonds. On the open sea, windy surf slices it into shards. A lot of it floats, bobbling around the surface until some creature gobbles it up, or until some microorganism colonizes it. This is called “fouling,” and if a bit of plastic lands enough algae, the erstwhile raft can sink. Marcus’ studies have indicated that a vast quantity of microplastics in the ocean are unseen; they have settled to the sea floor or soured the bellies of fish. 

Tossing the rig into the sea to begin a trawl.

Tossing the rig into the sea to begin a trawl.

On our fourth day at sea, Marcus announced we’d be drinking wine that had been donated to the expedition. Metal cups were handed out, and as the sun set we sat amongst the trawling equipment and the stray strands of Sargassum, sipping some pretty darn decent vino, probably from California. Simon contributed a few tunes to the mix, Dan too, and Jack turned his Klean Kanteen into a slide. Andy Keller, the guy who started Chico Bags, dressed up as a plastic bag monster and generally trounced around on deck. As the stars popped out a few of us lay atop the salon, somehow avoiding the mizzen mast’s jaunty swings to and fro, and did our darndest to remember the constellations. The low-latitude skies are always a little disorienting for me, but once I can place my barn in Maine relative to Polaris (in this case, halfway into the sea off the port side of the bow), things start clicking into place. 

Mercifully, there’s not a lot of plastic in the sky. But light pollution - the fog in the skies above urban areas - is a decent analogue for sea smog, the plastic fog of our five oceans. Like light pollution, plastic marine pollution is preventable, it’s lamentable, it’s a tragedy of the commons, but most of all it’s a design problem. With lights, you cap them, point them only where you need them. With plastics, you make things that biodegrade. Right?

You do other things too. You ban plastic bags, you eschew bottled water. But the general sense aboard the Mystic was that there’s only so much we can ask of consumers. Fair enough; there’s certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that we can’t bothered to reduce/reuse/recycle. So redesigning stuff from the start seems like the best way forward for the long term. 

The crew announced that we were all eating too much and taking too many showers. To avoid running out of food and water, the ship would accelerate and reach port a day earlier. But first, some keen-eyed Mysticker had spotted a windrow of Sargassum. A large floating blanket of seaweed that host its own little ecosystem on the open sea. Sargassum is the genus. There are over 250 species. I have no idea which species we were encountering, but Marcus wanted to quietly approach in the Zodiac and see if we might find some wildlife in there. Or some plastic. 

A few of us joined, including spearfisherwoman and free diver Kimi Werner from Hawai’i. We found a few creatures floating amidst the golden Sargassum, but for every critter we also found a bit of plastic — remnants of a bag, or some unidentifiable chunk that had been chewed on by fish or turtles. Kimi took one of my cameras down for a look from below:

Deep blue sea. Beautiful and terrifying. Swimming there, I felt the terror of the sublime, the irrational fear of being consumed from below, the irresistible urge to dive deep into that blue and break through to the other side. Okay, the resistible urge. I threw some Sargassum at Simon and climbed back into the Zodiac. 

In a few days I’d be home, walking the terrestrial plastic world, and I needed to sit there for a minute in the boat and just pretend I was floating through the Earth’s last great wilderness, the ocean untouched and unknowable, like a great reservoir for all the metaphors we’ll ever need. 

The green streets of Ukraine

Kyiv’s greenness startled me. Growing up in 1980’s USA, I had assigned a gray palette to the Soviet world, a moody designation that lingered long after the fall of the USSR. Indeed, the events of the past two years had only reinforced the grayness: though the ousting of President Yanukovych seemed to promise a new beginning for Ukraine, the news told tales of thrown bricks, grinding tanks, and crumbling buildings. The Ukraine of my mind was a colorless world, now racked with conflict. 

Strange, then, to walk the leafy streets of Kyiv, to squint at the sunlight flashing on the golden domes of its churches, to hear the clatter of cappuccino cups and the thumps of a brass band playing for coins. War continued in the East, despite a ceasefire agreement, but the capital seemed downright peaceful, and undeniably verdant. How should one live when one’s country is at war? What’s the role of a filmmaker in a country grappling with its very future? 

Church tops are golden; I did not identify many of the trees.

Church tops are golden; I did not identify many of the trees.

On my first full day in Kyiv, I joined Michael Donaldson at IndieLab, a workshop for up-and-coming Ukrainian documentary filmmakers. In a small room decked out with state of the art editing stations and smelling distantly of cigarettes and instant coffee, we watched ten short works-in-progress and heard pitches from small teams of directors and editors. Tellingly, nine out of the ten films revolved around the political upheaval of the past year. The way Americans speak of life “post-9/11,” these filmmakers spoke of life “post-Maidan,” referring to Kyiv’s central square where the key protests occurred. For these young filmmakers, many of whom were born after the fall of the Berlin wall, Maidan was the biggest upheaval their lives had known. 

What immediately struck both me and Michael was that these films seemed made for a very local audience —for Ukrainians who were deeply intimate with the dramatis personae of the Maidan, and the complex geography of the ongoing conflicts. Fair enough; most of my own films are targeted towards an American audience. And though both Michael and I encouraged the filmmakers to explore making the films more accessible to a wider audience, I was moved by the sense of community and purpose behind the films. You got the impression that these filmmakers were trying to help their country figure itself out. 

These stars are poplar pollen.

These stars are poplar pollen.

After workshop one day, we got a tour of the city from Lucy, the daughter of our wonderful Ukrainian attaché Anna Sumar. Breezing past the tourist spots, Lucy led us to some of the abandoned lots and overgrown yards where wisps of poplar pollen settled down like snow on makeshift park benches, DIY urban garden plots and art sculptures. Looking proudly out over these unusual landscapes, she remarked that  something very new and very strange was happening in Kyiv: young people were asserting themselves in the public spaces of the city, building parks, staging performances, innovating and experimenting. “It’s funny,” she said. “I used to think I’d leave Kyiv as soon as I got older. Now I don’t want to leave even for a week, for fear of missing out on something new that’s happening.”

Nowhere was this energy more palpable for me than at Kyiv’s old film studios, where Michael and I gave a talk on independent filmmaking to a small group of filmmakers, artists, and entertainment lawyers. The physical space was enchanting: fading sound stages from the 1960s, a rambling arboretum planted by director Alexander Dovzhenko, scores of Soviet-era trucks used in heaven-knows-what-films. Young filmmakers had reclaimed some of the spaces to collaborate on a range of projects, including making sizzle reels and trailers to help them get the word out about their projects. It provided perfect context for a discussion about the challenges and opportunities involved in distributing independent films. Piracy and funding came up again and again: how do we get people to pay for our work? Who should support these documentary films, given the important role they can play in helping the country heal? 

Gaze upon my works! Etc

Gaze upon my works! Etc

Towards the end of the first week, I shared a few of my own films at the film festival in the center of town. At first, it seemed a little odd to show a film about the loss of the night sky in a country grappling with the loss of its very borderlands, but I was buoyed by the audience’s response. We talked about the ways in which reconnection to the natural world - whether through wilderness, wildlife, or the intangible beauty of the starry sky - restores a sense of perspective that can be elusive in wartime. I was reminded of a visit to Sarajevo some years back, when I watched the transit of Venus through cheap portable telescopes with local astronomers who had seen their own observatory reduced to rubble in the opening salvos of the conflict there. For me, the stars are a reminder of why we fight to keep civilization afloat: for the sake of art and science, those two boundary-pushing expressions of humanity at its best. 

If you visit the old Soviet planetarium in Kharkiv, you see this above the ticket kiosk.

If you visit the old Soviet planetarium in Kharkiv, you see this above the ticket kiosk.

To cap off the trip, we spent a few days in the eastern city of Kharkiv, which had see-sawed during the past year between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine forces. As Ukraine finally asserted its grip, local metalworkers scaled the heights of the town’s central statue and severed Lenin’s ankles, toppling the 12 meter symbol of Soviet pride to cheers from thousands. By the time we arrived, all that remained were his shoes, into which someone had plunked a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag. We met more students, showed more films, lunched on sushi at a restaurant called “Favorite,” and appeared on a handful of television and radio talk shows. The city is closer to Russia, and was once envisioned as the capital of a new pro-Russian country split off from Ukraine. But walking the streets, there was no way to sense this. Young waitresses served espresso to men in trim grey suits; dreadlocked percussionists pounded djembes near public fountains; teenagers necked on park benches. 

One of the filmmakers we’d met in Kyiv, now serving as our interpreter in Kharkiv, his hometown, shared with us a new edit of his film, The War and the City. He’d intercut images of Kharkiv’s protests with footage of a hospital teeming with wounded soldiers. As one soldier put it, staring dazedly at the ceiling, “it’s hard to tell who’s fighting whom.” Flying out of the country the next morning, I looked down at the agrarian Ukrainian countryside and saw no borders, no smoldering ruins, just green as far as the eye could see. 

Winter & Spring at MIT

You wake on the first of the year in a lighthouse on the Hudson River, after a good nine hours of sleep. Frost blurs the windows. Wind skips along the water. Your wife is sleeping, your friends and their just-turned-one-year-old, your godson, are sleeping. You stand, shivering slightly, and stare at the ice coating the glass. You try to think of something profound to think about, but instead you’re thinking: my feet are freezing; where are my pants; will there be bacon. 

There is bacon, and coffee, and a coal-fired stove, and all the other things you expect from a lighthouse in the middle of the Hudson River, where last night you watched Jupiter reflected on the rippling waters. More and more these days, you seem to be glancing back and forth between this world and others.

Back in Cambridge, snow falls. Your mother has given you a rock hammer for a Christmas gift. It was made by her late father, Fayette Rumsey Plumb II, the last in a long line of hammer and hatchet makers. Your grandparents’ cats, when you were growing up, were named Hammer and Hatchet. Whenever you see the crimson handle gleaming in a hardware store, you feel a sense of pride, even though Plumb hammers are now made across the Pacific.

You are reminded at Harvard that all of these things, cats and rock hammers and grandparents, are made out of atoms, which in turn are made out of even smaller particles. Dimitar Sasselov says, in a room half-filled with freshman athletes looking at Facebook,“If you gain weight, you’re gaining quarks.” For lunch, many winter days, you order tofu bahn mi from a truck. Someone has shaped quarks into hot sauce, thank god. It’s shaping up to be a long winter.

You fly to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to see some old friends. You attend their daughter’s first luau, record the clattering, moaning sounds of whales underwater, drink non-decaf coffee against your better judgment. Sun warms the red soils of Waimea. A drone buzzes by on its way out to a flock of surfers. Here’s the largest wave you have ever seen; there’s the sun crawling down again into the Pacific; that must be Comet Lovejoy above the trembling palms. 

You premiere a new film in New York City, and the theater forgets to put the film on the marquee. Well, it’s been a busy week. We’re so sorry. Happy new year. You get good reviews, friendly audiences, and the amusing sight of chicken nuggets on a large screen. Your brother, briefly home from Thailand, joins for the premiere, and on the drive back north you listen to all the old songs, passing all the New England towns. 

During the lull between semesters at MIT, you spend January editing a new film. It’s coalescing, each scene a rocky planetesimal jostling into position with others, falling steadily into orbit. Eventually, after a few more asteroid collisions and tectonic shifts, you will have planet Bluespace. But not just yet. 

There’s snow to shovel, so you shovel snow, which falls and falls, breaking records, wounding souls. You scrape the hell out of the Subaru with your snow shovel. Amanda photographs lost mittens, feeds the wild rabbits of MIT’s pedestrian paths, reminds you she’s from Birmingham. 

A geophysicist from UC-Berkeley explains his theory that the famous Chicxulub asteroid triggered an increase in the eruption of the Deccan Traps in India. Double dogging the dinosaurs. Perhaps the two sparring camps - asteroid impact vs massive vulcanism - can be friends, or rather blood-relatives, but more study is needed before all are satisfied with the verdict. Jury’s been out for 65 million years. Dimitar Sasselov, strapping on a motorcycle helmet to demonstrate Newtonian motion, gives it a sniff and says, “someone must have perished in this. Lots of bone fragments.”

You spend a weekend in Maine with two friends who have bought a house in the woods. Much of the night is spent shoveling snow off the roof, and falling off the roof into the snowbanks piled four feet high. On the other side of the country, Phil Levine passes away. You read his poems aloud, try to call your brother. You cross country ski across a lake, and watch the dry snow whirling above the frozen ice, ice which hovers so solidly above the depths of the lake, broken only now and again by the augurs of ice fishermen who camp out in tiny huts, each hut a spaceship of warmth plunked down on this frozen world. Later that afternoon you collect rock maple and oak to stoke a fire in a neighbor’s sauna, plunging you and your friends briefly onto the surface of Venus. 

Back in Cambridge, a professor from Cornell describes his idea for ELF, the Enceladus Life Finder, an instrument he wants to use to sample the volatiles spewing out of one of Saturn’s smaller moons. 

You wish him the best of luck, and fly with Amanda to Las Vegas. You rent a car and drive two fast hours to Death Valley, where you rent a motel room a few hundred feet below sea level. The stars blaze in the warm night. A local retiree demonstrates the flutes he has made from PVC piping. Europeans stand around looking for wifi. In the morning, you make peanut butter sandwiches before dawn, and drive to the top of the area’s highest peak, where the temperature drops to freezing, and the wind pulls at your tripod, making it whistle like a flute. You haven’t dressed well. You have put far too much peanut butter on Amanda’s sandwich, and it has exploded in the rental car like a full diaper. 

You take pictures of rocks, salt, and tiny plastic astronauts. You remember filming here at night with your father for The City Dark, under the brightest stars with the hottest midnight wind. The deepest place in America is a valley for collecting memories. 

Back in Cambridge, the snow tapers off. An Italian named Jacopo speaks to you and the Knight fellows about a floating nuclear power plant. It stirs a commotion in the seminar room. You drink green tea and remember a book from your high school days called The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps. 

The days are getting longer, because your part of the Earth is tilting more towards the sun, and the days and nights together are getting longer, because the Earth’s rotation is slowing down, tugged on by the Moon. The Moon recedes. Water lubricates the tectonic plates of the globe, and North America moves away from Africa. Rifts in the ocean refresh the surface of the Earth, cooled by the circulating sea. Plumes of lava make islands. 

You fly to an island in the Atlantic with Amanda. Your taxi winds through calcium carbonate canyons, depositing you finally on a small hill overlooking a beach with pink sands. For six days, you squint at the blue sea, trying to see whales. Near the shore, large parrot fish snack on the coral reef, jostling in the waves like kaleidoscopic windsocks, close enough that you watch them from the beach, not two leagues from your sun-screened feet. You and Amanda play mini-golf by the sea, until the evening grows dark (and, well, stormy), and you catch a minivan taxi back home with an older couple from Ontario who raise hundreds of thousands of confinement layer hens. Their children are tending them while they’re gone. 

Tap water here is rainwater, collected from the gleaming whitewashed roofs. The houses are made of limestone, carved from the island itself, thousands of feet of calcium carbonate sitting atop the unseen volcanic rock. Where the sea chews at the island, the limestone is jagged, sharp, pockmarked, somewhat extraterrestrial. There are chitons, which the locals call suckrocks, and crabs, and a professorial couple from Pennsylvania who drink loudly in the early afternoon. You sit on the pink sands and read The Nitrogen Fix, a science fiction novel written by one of your high school astronomy mentors, the late Hal Clement. In it, Earth has been transformed into another world, all oxygen gone from the atmosphere. 

Back in Cambridge, you buy frozen fruit at the grocery store, and avoid moving your car for fear of losing your parking space. Finally, you move your car, and end up at a wind turbine testing facility along the Mystic River. The wood in the turbines is balsa. Engineers bend the turbine blades until they snap or shatter. These are the wind bones of the Mystic. Later, on a tour of the watershed, you ride a water taxi along the river with Olga, George and Wade, and Olga remarks on the remarkable number of American flags in America. You eat two enormous cookies given to you by a waterfront developer. 

You learn the methods for finding planets beyond our solar system. You learn of an old time wine glass chiller called a monteith. How many monteiths are there in the universe? A planetary scientist tells you there may be more planets than stars in the universe. Amanda spends hours in the pottery studio, and comes home covered in clay.

You attend a panel on climate change, and behind the speakers are projected real-time tweets and the results of surveys being sent out to the audience. It’s so distracting and obscene that you want to throw a rock hammer at someone. Instead you make a list of the films you intend to make after leaving MIT, and meet your mother for lunch at Legal Seafood, where she orders an Arnold Palmer. You talk of many things. Easter comes, and your parents have filled the yard with chocolates. Billie the cat, among the tulips, lets nothing go unnoticed. 

At night, you eat Cuban food with Amanda, your sister, and your future brother-in-law, before seeing the New England Revolution do battle in Foxboro. Your sister remarks that this is where the Neponset River begins. Everyone decides against chicken fingers. Musketeers fire their muskets. It’s not a long drive home. 

In Maine, you and the fellows visit a laboratory filled with millions of mutant mice. Your friend Bob, tasting the local cheddar soup, declares that he wants a hot tub filled with cheddar soup. Wade says to some post-docs, “you don’t necessarily want to get into a war with trolls.” You see brown mice, black mice, white mice, hairless mice. At night, the wind howls harshly. You play Scattergories for the first time in 15 years, and in the morning you go running down a long trail to the sea. Frogs peep. Maine calls. 

Back in Massachusetts, your father has curated a gallery show and invited you to show a few films. You see your 2nd-grade teacher, now retired, and you talk about oceans and China, as you did when you were eight. A high school classmate, briefly home from Kurdistan, tells you that no one wants to hear what it’s like being bombed. 

In Cambridge, you meet the charming director of a major observatory. He says the Orion Nebula is in Orion’s belt, and you think better of correcting him, because he’s smarter than you are, and perhaps one man’s sword is another’s belt. So you drive to Ithaca with Olga, Roberto & Giovana to eat tapas, admire waterfalls, and witness the launch of the Carl Sagan Institute. The man is quoted, time and again. Planet hunters swarm the stage, and you love science once again for its mysteries — the way it raises more questions than it answers. The talks range from 51 Peg to Kepler, and you realize you are at least conversant in a new language, one you’d always loved but had only admired from afar — the language of planets. Under the bright sun, above a dammed river, you squint at your planet with a kind of affection. 

On the last Wednesday evening of your fellowship, Wade and Patrick help you and Amanda cart your camera equipment down to the curb and into the Subaru. Driving home from campus, the trees seem unusually bright green, the sky crisp, the clouds white with wisps of pink. In your rearview mirror, the Charles is the deep Atlantic blue you love. You pass the coffee shops and bars and biotech labs. You pass the paths where the rabbits lived out the winter, and the pile of blackened snow that is still melting now just a few days after your 35th birthday. Layer upon layer of filth, the stratigraphy of winter compressed down to a single layer, a little taste of the Anthropocene at the corner of Binney and Fulkerson streets. 

When you get home, you check in on your march through time (see below!), and realize that on Thursday, May 14th, when you’re reading this aloud to your fellow fellows, you will be 65 million years before the present. An asteroid will crush a gaping hole in the Yucatan, triggering earthquakes and vulcanism, killing dinosaurs and stuffing the sky with soot. Mammals will inherit what’s left of the Earth, build coliseums, pull oil from whales, trap and breed mutant mice, accept Knight fellowships. 

You look backward, forward, upward, downward. You’re grateful for the time you’ve been given to think about space, and the space you’ve been given to think about time. Spring thaws the last snow and pulls the lilacs into blossom. Amanda spots a planet high in the evening sky, and neither of you mistake it for a plane.

542

Being drawn to explosions in science, I announce with delight today’s big event: the Cambrian explosion. 

Of course, it wasn’t really an explosion. For one thing, there were animals appearing before the Cambrian, during the Ediacaran, not long after one of Earth’s alleged “snowball” phases; for another, the radiation of diversity happened gradually, not like a Big Bang at all, and started primarily with the benthic organisms. 

But pshaw, it’s the end of April, and we’ve finally reached the Phanerozoic, so it’s time to celebrate. I wish I could say I were celebrating by finding my way to the Burgess Shale, the amazing formation of rocks that hold a host of diverse Cambrian animal fossils, but instead I’m in Cambridge eating hummus, watching the maples bud, and debating the ethical and financial implications of a $4 decaf Americano. 

The next two weeks will fly by. In a few days we’ll hit the Ordovician, then the Silurian, Devonian, and Carboniferous, each just a couple of days representing less than 100 million years. I’m planning on setting some alarms on my smart phone (which is more or less made out of rocks, and therefore a Geology Phone) to alert me to key events. For now, the only parallel I can see between my life here in Kendall Square and the sudden radiation of diverse animal life 542 million years ago is that if you take the first bit of Cambridge and add it to my name, you can Cambrian. 

Lost in the Proterozoic

While trekking through time, I got a little absorbed in the 21st century. There was a lot of snow to shovel, and spring has flung a number of challenges my way, not the least of which has been developing ideas for projects to tackle once this MIT fellowship winds down in mid-May. In the process, I let this project fall a bit. But so it goes! It’s difficult to live in two times at once. (Just ask a Mars scientist.)

The idea was to feel each 33.7 million years tick by every day. To grasp the immensity of it. On the one hand, it doesn’t work. The scales are so vast that the human mind, embedded in a body that will be lucky to live 100 years, fails to grok the millions. 

On the other hand, I do feel more conversant with the words we assign to geologic time: Hadean, Archean, Proterozoic. The names come more easily to mind. Numbers too, and adjectives, and even some sparse visual cues. It’s akin to learning a language. 

But learning a language isn’t the same as learning the instincts of a culture. Can I close my eyes and feel the passage of 33.7 million years? Until I start to dream in deep time, I fear I will always consider it a foreign and unknowable land. 

Still, I’m here, late in the Proterozoic, on the cusp of an explosion of animal life. For the past several months, I’ve been comfortably sailing through the Proterozoic, an era of fairly stable continents when the Earth was rather quiet in contrast to its earliest days.  The next tearing-off of the calendar comes in a few days, when we hit the Phanerozoic and it’s off to the races. I’m going to prepare a good supply of decaf for the race to the finish line. 

The Great Oxygenation Event

During this “trek through time,” I’ve been keeping a copy of the International Chronostratigraphic Chart close at hand. 

Three columns = 542 million years. Smaller pink column = 4 billion years. 

Three columns = 542 million years. Smaller pink column = 4 billion years. 

I do like all the colors, and I’m slowly getting a grip on the cacophony of names, but it’s also striking to think about the way time gets divided up on the chart. It’s not linear. Just one-ninth of Earth’s history gets three big columns, while Earth’s first 4 billion years - the Precambrian - gets just a few inches in the fourth column. It was hazier territory back then, without any big critters crawling around, and fewer preserved rocks. The Precambrian record pales beside the Phanerozoic. On my end, I have thousands of detailed email records of my life since my college years, but before then I have spotty physical records — a letter or postcard here and there, deplorable high school poetry, a few faded drawings from Kindergarten, maybe a few locks of blond baby hair. Same for my memory: before age three or four things are decidedly Archean. Hard to devise a mental picture. 

As such, when wandering through the vast expanses of Earth’s history, especially during the relatively quiet Precambrian, I find myself looking for signposts like the Great Oxygenation Event. But of course sometimes these “events” are not events in the traditional sense — unless you can imagine a birthday party that lasts a hundred million years. Here’s what Andrew Knoll at Harvard has to say on the matter:

Still, as Knoll himself points out, the shift from an Earth without much available oxygen at all to an Earth with ANY available oxygen was a big one. In a sense, you could divide the history of Earth into three big eras: No oxygen, a little oxygen, lots of oxygen. (Somehow those names don’t sound adequately scientific. Gotta work on that.)

Anyway, back to the GOE, and the Earth 2.4 billion years before the present. Although an increase in oxygen was undoubtedly toxic for many anaerobic bacteria and archaea, I like the way Knoll characterized it in his book, Life on a Young Planet: “rather than considering the early Proterozoic as a time of environmental transition, it may be more profitable to think of it as an interval of environmental expansion — one that enabled the Earth to support an unprecedented diversity of life.”

Here in the mid-Siderian, after all, oxygen-free waters still persist, so not all the anaerobic microbes die out. The paleo-Proterozoic Earth has a little free oxygen in its atmosphere and surface oceans, but anoxic waters down in the deep seas. You could think of these as different habitats. With more habitats and diverse environmental constraints, life will continue to diversify.

That's the cornerstone of the world of Geobiology, which has become a catch-phrase in the Earth Sciences of late. Planet shapes life, life shapes planet. Round and round we go. The more diverse habitats, the more diverse life. At least generally speaking.  

If you twist your mind around a little, you could think of modern-day Superfund sites in a similar way. Sure, toxins kill most life as we know it, but who knows what new microbes will evolve and emerge from the muck. 

In Cambridge, I don't think we can count our slushy, blackening snowbanks as sites of profound evolutionary innovation, but I wonder what microbes might be eeking out a living in there. Time to read about snow and extremophiles...

And just like that, we enter the Proterozoic.

In Cambridge, someone has cut down all the trees outside of the Knight office on Main Street, and chipped them into slaw. Sawdust, light brown and faintly sticky, now joins the slurry of black cardust coating the thawing banks. If you’re having a bad day, it helps to not look. One can’t help but long for the purity of clean landscapes: the square jaw of a cliff edge against blue sky, or the elegant twist of a sand dune along an ocean shore. 

Fortunately, some of these things exist in the Siderian, the dawn of the Proterozoic, the longest and leanest eon of Earth’s history beginning 2.5 billion years ago. Hooray for the imagination, time machine extraordinaire. 

Today I spoke with Andrew Knoll, a paleontologist and geobiologist at Harvard who has a wondrous mental time machine and is something of a specialist on the Proterozoic. Among other things. He will be walking me through a few key parts of the Proterozoic. Here’s an audio taste from today, just roughly edited together this afternoon:

So when the Earth is 2 billion years old (2.5 billion years ago), it has the makings of continental shelves. Sediments sliding off continents into the sea. Plate tectonics. Oxygen is still not widely prevalent in the atmosphere or the ancient seas, which are full of iron dissolved throughout. But much of that is about to change; it ain't called the Siderian for nothing!

Pearls that were his eyes, or perhaps not.

The Neoarchean, some 2,700 million years before the present day, has hosted some controversy of late in the geobiology community. At stake is something big: when did eukaryotes - the multicellular organisms that we humans are descended from, as opposed to bacteria and archaea - first appear? And when did oxygen-producing photosynthesis begin? 

In 1999, a fella named Jochen Brocks, an Australian, now living in Australia, found some old rocks - in Australia - which contained some rather curious fossils. Lipid fossils  hydrocarbons. One set of fossils was indicative of eukaryotes. (This pushed the earliest eukaryote fossil find back about 1 billion years!) An additional set was indicative of cyanobacteria: the oxygen makers! 

These were big finds, but one of the tricky things about old molecular fossils is that it can be hard to tell where they came from. In other words, are they as old as their host rock, or did they wander in later? The rocks of this planet have been twisting and turning for years, and much of the early record of life is erased or contaminated during the metamorphoses. On top of that, these are hydrocarbons we’re talking about — so if you’ve got some oil on your drill when you’re digging these things out, it can be hard to tell what’s what. 

So nine years later (in 2008), Brocks and a few others questioned their 1999 findings, and today it’s a bit up in the air. Drilling continues - careful drilling, with efforts to manage contaminants - in an attempt to tease out whether or not the lipids are from the same era as the 2.7 billion year-old-rock, or not. 

Meanwhile, in Cambridge, our 100 inches of snowfall has slumped into a filthy grey mess. Roadside snow banks are coated in thick films of black hydrocarbons, and Bostonians are flocking to Miami. 

Vaalbara

I’m three billion years before the present day, in the Mesoarchean. I’ve been having trouble, admittedly, staying in the mindset of the Mesoarchean. Maybe it’s the massive snowdrifts climbing up my windows and canyoning the streets. 

This was before another 2 or 3 feet tumbled down from the sky.

This was before another 2 or 3 feet tumbled down from the sky.

But the other thing that’s tricky about this time in Earth’s history is that it is - you guessed it - a little unclear what’s happening. Most scientists agree that there are bacteria active by now, but there’s disagreement over what they’re doing. Are they respiring oxygen? When did oxygenic photosynthesis arise? Geobiologists look for clues in roundabout ways, studying banded iron formations, or the sorption of molybdenum onto manganese oxides. It’s still years (okay, half a billion years) before the “Great Oxidization Event” (see you in March!), but there’s a decent chance bacteria are making oxygen available to the marine world here in the Mesoarchean. But it hasn’t bloomed into the atmosphere yet. 

The first supercontinent has formed, called Vaalbara. Part South Africa, part Western Australia, it’s greenstone and granite, pockmarked by craters, scattered with spherules. You take the last four letters of Kaapvaal, in South Africa, and the last four of Pilbara, in Australia. A pleasing way to make a continent. 

Life, in a snowstorm

Cambridge is getting another foot of snow today. It’s swooping down in white waves. 

In Earth Time, we’re still 3.5 billion years before the present day, but we can be pretty sure that there is life on the planet Earth. 

Where is it? Most attention has been lavished upon the Pilbara Craton of Western Australia, which over the course of 3.5 billion years will ride around on the planet but not metamorphose as much as other places. The rocks will change, but perhaps not utterly. In other words, the Pilbara will give future geobiologists a fair crack at finding fossils. They’ll find spheres, and elongate structures, and wonder: is this Earth’s earliest life? 

They can’t say for sure. Andrew Knoll, at Harvard, suggested to me that many hydrologic processes can give you shapes that look like fossils. So geologists end up with a game of animal, vegetable or mineral. Biogenicity is the word scientists use: did life make this fossil? With the Pilbara, it’s hard to say. 

Still, Knoll reassures, there are other ways we can be fairly sure there was early life: stromatolites, and the carbon-12 record. 

Stromatolites aren’t microbe fossils per se. They are sedimentary structures left behind - we think - by stacks of microbial mats. We haven’t found convincing microbial fossils within them yet. But their existence strongly suggests that microbes, changing the chemistry of the water, caused accretion that led to the buildup of these structures over time. I think of the snow piling up in layers along my window, and in gentle mounds in the baseball field on Fulkerson Street. I remember my first day downhill skiing when I was 17, and I fell into and broke open a smooth mogul on a Vermont slope. Stromatolites, the moguls of the Archean. 

Layer after layer, the record is made.

Layer after layer, the record is made.

There are also traces in the rocks not of fossils but of chemistry left behind by living things. Living things prefer lighter carbon isotopes, so patches of rock with less of the heavy carbon, and more of the light, might indicate an Archean cemetery. 

So the Earth is about a billion years old, and if we have microbes, surely they’ve been around a while? Or at least, long enough to have evolved from simpler cells? And given the difficulty of surviving during the molten Hadean or the ridiculous Late Heavy Bombardment, are we suggesting that life essentially emerged as soon as it was possible to do so? In other words, life on Earth happened very quickly. 

I’d like to dig into this a bit more in the next few days, as it has obvious implications for astrobiology, and our sense of how special life is in the universe. 

For now, I’ll wander home through the maelstrom and try not to get too much snow in my socks, which don’t match. What a difficult planet this is. 

Prepping for the blizzard during the Eoarchean

Spoke at a school outside of Washington DC this morning, and barely hooked the last train back to Boston, which left the Capitol at noon; all other trains have been cancelled due to the impending storm. Now rattling along northwards, the train cuts through the whitening world like a plane through clouds. Humans are talking about storm surges, dry Januaries, all-wheel-drive, and conspiracy theories. All along the tracks, trees have been preemptively cut down. I’m considering a cup of tea once we reach New Haven. 

It is the world in the gathering snow. 

It is the world in the gathering snow. 

In Earth time, we’re 3.7 billion years before the present, and the first signs of life are appearing — possibly. The evidence is shaky. Here’s the deal, as best I understand it. Photosynthesizing organisms prefer lighter isotopes of carbon as they pluck it from the atmosphere. So in the rock record, low levels of the heavier carbon isotopes (correspondingly enriched in Carbon-12) might indicate that something was alive in there. Trouble is, by the time scientists start poking around in these rocks, on an island off of southwestern Greenland, the rocks will have had lots of time to warp and metamorphose over the years, so heaven knows. 

All in all these are hazy days in the Archaean. Oh, did I mention we made it into a new Eon? The Late Heavy Bombardment ushered us in. It’s the Eoarchean Era, at least for a few days, by which I mean a few hundred million years. There’s no oxygen to speak of in the atmosphere, but the earth has a solid crust. Probably still some lava flowing here and there. 

Cell phone picture of the Eoarchean Earth. 

Cell phone picture of the Eoarchean Earth. 

The other night, as I flew home from the west, I watched orange cities float on the black landscape, and if I squinted my eyes a bit, letting everything go blurry, I could imagine that the cities were glowing lava bubbling through the dark crust of the land. 

Tonight, a big blizzard hits the northeast. Amanda has stocked up on flashlights and candles, but if the world goes dark I think we might just let it go dark, peer through the wind at the frozen city, and wonder if the sun will rise.