After seeing his, I promised Luke I’d pull together a list of my Submergence highlights:
He recounted how they had walked hand in hand in the snow and how Danny had turned to him and explained that there were vast numbers of salp and jellies in the oceans whose vertical migrations were equivalent in scale to the birds lifting up from the dunes into space. “On a planetary scale, birds crawl,” she said.
She walked all the way to the Hotel Ostende and back and bumped into him when she came into the lobby. It was awkward. But then life is never neat, it is made up of doors and trapdoors. You move down baroque corridors, and even when you think you know which door to open, you still need to have the courage to choose.
They took lunch in the hall of mirrors. French windows ran the length of the room. In summer they opened out onto the lawns to make a veranda. Large gilt mirrors hung from an opposing cream-colored wall, in the center of which was a marble fireplace. The fire roared. Candlesticks flickered on the mantle. Also on the mantle was a portrait of César Ritz and the hotel staff in the year 1900. All of Ritz’s workers were milling about without show on the beach, the cooks still in their hats, the gardeners in shirts and braces; the sea caught in motion behind them, capturing the position of such a hotel in a patron’s life and the lives of its staff and guests. It was best described by the tired expression “a home away from home.” For a few days it gave its guests a quality of life that was higher than they could expect at home, because it was pared down the way some novels were pared down.
It was beautiful to go forward as if through walls. They went by shattered buildings and others not completed. He looked at one structure and knew from its exterior that it was where he had been held.
They walked by the shore. Fruit bats fell from the palm trees and flew out and touched the sea and other fruit bats circled a minaret, as big and indecent as dogs. It was the same minaret Kismayo’s last Catholic stole up with his trumpet, to protest against the intolerance of the Islamist regime. He was an old man, cogent, certain of himself, who had played in the town band during the Italian period. The band wore a green uniform with gold epaulettes and had a repertoire of military marching songs of the Italian Alpini regiment, anthems, polkas from the Tyrol, and dance numbers of the day. But when the Catholic took his trumpet up the minaret he had a mind to play a piece of jazz. Alas, there was no time. They were already after him, charging up the narrow staircase, so, instead, impulsively, he seized the loudspeaker and spoke “Hail Marys” for all that part of the town to hear, the words clanged on the ears of the believers, until there was a grunt, which was the old man being knocked over the head with a brick. They dragged him down the steps. He was almost beaten to death. To save his life, his family declared him mad and dispatched him to Kenya.
There was defeatism in their conversation that allowed a greater part to Malthus, he decided, and did not take into account the advances of mankind. Among the busts around the room the only Englishmen were Isaac Newton and John Milton. He looked at Milton— impassive, unseeing—and verse crowded in. The greatest privilege of education, he thought , was to renew and clarify your mind through the perception of others. Milton had more than played his part. Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Republic; a freethinker who stood to the right of Oliver Cromwell, where the Levellers and Ranters stood to the left: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all other liberties.”
He thought of how in Paradise Lost the Archangel Raphael sat down in Paradise with Adam and Eve, not in the form of mist, but as a hungry creature who needed to eat. He spoke aloud the last lines of Book XII.
“Say it again,” she said. She liked the sound of his voice.
“‘ Some natural tears they dropp’d,’” he began, “‘ but wip’d them soon; The World was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way.’”
She had suffered from the divide in the English education system, which holds that scientists do not study Milton, and those who love Milton have no comprehension of Newton’s gravity, which brought Lucifer tumbling from heaven. But she had recovered to become a voracious reader.
They arrived at a place no satellite image can do justice to. There was a plain of volcanic clinker, like on the slopes of the terrorist’s island, then the lorry drove down below sea level onto a Greelandic whiteness. Even close up it had the look of pack ice, with those same veins of green. All the shades of white were visible and there were roseate floes far out to sea. It crunched under their feet when they jumped down onto it. But it was illusory. It was not the life-giving ice of the north that melts and freezes, under which the beluga whale swims. It was a salt flat. The mists were chlorine vapors. There were no birds in the sky. It was littered with the bones of animals that had strayed there and died and been covered in salt. He picked up what he took to be the skull of a gazelle . It looked frozen, the sockets hoary, but the salt broke apart at the slightest touch, leaving only the bone.
Saif ordered the group to smash up slabs of salt and load them onto the lorry that they might trade later in their journey for charcoal and whey. He helped wrap them in sisal. He brushed salt from his hair and face. It formed on all of them. They began to look frosted to each other: it was impossible to live under the rim of the world.
The ground was flat as a billiard table. It had been underwater in the last pluvial period. When he looked more carefully he saw the scattered teeth of prehistoric fish and crocodiles.
They brought him rice and marlin . He drank copious amounts of rainwater. His was burned by the sun. He told himself he would remain upstanding, but he was doubled over. He was an Englishman without shade. He was held by enemies whose lives he could not grasp, the kind of characters who appear in cartoons with no backstory; heavily armed and claiming a significance of history he could not decipher.
Two skiffs had appeared on the bay in the morning. He was thrown into one of them. Maize meal and spaghetti were loaded along with dried mangoes and papayas, tinned fish, turtle meat, medicines, mosquito netting, candles, kerosene, fuel, knives, guns, ammunition, and explosives: even the smallest jihad needed its provisions. The scene was Somali— the fighters jostling, the scarves, the teeth, fringed by seas and swamps and backed by furnace scrub— yet in the breaking light the skiffs stood in contrast to the darker sky, and it rained, silver , everywhere. It was high tide, and when they sped off the bay and Chiamboni looked like the gunmetal Thames, and London at Michaelmas. Captivity was a humiliation, it was also a loneliness that made you want to see something else in front of you. They steered into a lagoon and the tropical heat buffeted him. They opened the throttle on the Yamaha outboards (bought or stolen from Captain Andy’s Marine Supplies in Mombasa) and chattered over the water like skis on ice; thence into tidal channels, a creek, another, toward the camp hidden in the swamp. It became steadily more tenebrous and overhanging. The outboards were lifted up and the men poled the boats forward. At some points the fighters jumped off and pushed the skiffs over a sandbar into a cut of water. The mangrove roots were underwater at high tide and exposed at low tide. They were tubular, lifelike. They looked like hands of puppets held in horror. Just like in the wadi, there was concern about the Americans. They sought to keep themselves out of sight under the branches. Uncle Sam knew nothing, Uncle Sam saw everything.
She stood at the railings. The air was raw. The Pourquoi Pas? was approaching Jan Mayen Island. She wanted to see it. There was salt on her lips and spray on her Icelandic sweater and tangerine-colored jeans. She wrapped herself in a sleeping bag and sat on a deckchair and opened the New Scientist. She furled the magazine tight against the wind and read the latest news on nanotechnology. When she was done, she watched a matinee: fog and sea. Gulls wheeled above cold rich swells. There were pieces of ice and icebergs. There were pilot whales riding the bow wave. It was beautiful to watch them. A killer whale cut loops under migrating geese. It went in and out of the water. It sparkled. She could see from its dorsal fin that it was a male, old and tired. It appeared troubled by the thrumming of the ship. It made her think of the changes that had occurred in the Greenland Sea in its lifetime. When it was birthed there were hardly any ships. There were no submarines. There were no engines, klaxons; no man-made noises. There were many seals and fish then, whereas now there was such a competition the killer whale was forced to trail geese in the hope that one might fall from sky.
The ocean was being fished out, poisoned and suffering acidification. Quite apart from the vessels there were sonar arrays and other electronics that ruptured the orientation of sea mammals. And if sea mammals could become so disorientated as to beach themselves, so could man exterminate himself. Man had hardly taken breath from the Stone Age and yet was altering the flow of rivers, cutting up hills and discarding the materials that would be easily identifiable to future geologists. The anthro-pocene: a geological age marked by plastic.
There was not enough funding for ocean research. If the financial crisis continued, there would be even less money available: the Greenland Sea expedition was her best chance to gather data for years to come. There was a faulty sense of perspective, she thought. The looking up, the looking out. Through difficulty to the stars, never to the deep. The worry for the skin, not the lungs. The ocean was too immediate , too familiar. You did not need a launch pad, you could just drop into it: it could wait.
Yet there could be no serious work on climate change without understanding marine living systems. The change was real, she was certain of that. The water under the ship, carried through the Fram Strait on the East Greenland Current, had warmed by 1.9 degrees Celsius since 1910. That was 1.4 degrees Celsius more than the increase during the tenth- to thirteenth-century Medieval Warm Period.
She was doing her part. She had been a proponent and a player in the Census for Marine Life and the Deep Water Chemosynthetic Ecosystems. She was an advisor in Southampton, at IFREMER, and at the Deep Submergence Facility in Woods Hole. She believed manned submersibles were vital. They provided the necessary leap of imagination , the human connection to the deep. Machines could complement them . Hundreds of drones could fly far under the sea, quietly, at all hours, providing a constant flow of information to the surface.
Then there was the biological revolution. It was possible to see creatures that had never been noticed before, the living matter of the minestrone, of which only one recently discovered species of picophytoplankton in the upper layers of the ocean was reckoned to have a biomass equivalent to the insect life in the Congo River basin. The diversity was overwhelming . She was interested in numbers, in percolation, but almost by accident she had discovered new species. She had overseen the mapping of their DNA, given them a genetic barcode and put them in the book of life (others said the hard drive of life). One of the papers she coauthored with Thumbs had incidentally reinforced the view of some biologists that there were microbes in the sea that were deliberately rare. These microbes were waiting for conditions to change so they could become abundant. She found this a very powerful thought. It changed her idea of what a lifespan meant. A microbe waiting a million years, holding to a different rhythm through those many sunrises and sunsets. What was that rhythm?
One characteristic of sea creatures is their constant movement. Not grief, not anything can stop them. A tuna tagged off Martinique recently was caught fifty days later in Breisundet in Norway, near the fishing town of Ålesund. The Cuvier’s beaked whale dives, touches the ligament of the sea’s throat, and rises again. It breaks for breath in the light, then returns to the deep. Whereas Christ, after his Crucifixion, continued up from hell through all the visible and invisible heavens to the highest dwelling place of God.
The Latin term for the feast of ascension is ascencio, which describes how Christ was supposed to have lifted off from the earth under his own power, leaving the mark of his foot in the rock.
It is understandable you would want to come back as yourself into a wonderland with the sharpness of color of the Queen of Hearts in a newly opened pack of cards. But coming back as yourself is resurrection. It is uncommon. It may even be greater than the scope of mathematics.
We cannot talk with definition about our souls, but it is certain that we will decompose. Some dust of our bodies may end up in a horse, wasp, cockerel, frog, flower , or leaf, but for every one of these sensational assemblies there are a quintillion microorganisms. It is far likelier that the greater part of us will become protists than a skyscraping dormouse. What is likely is that, sooner or later, carried in the wind and in rivers, or your graveyard engulfed in the sea, a portion of each of us will be given new life in the cracks, vents, or pools of molten sulphur on which the tonguefish skate.
You will be in Hades, the staying place of the spirits of the dead. You will be drowned in oblivion, the River Lethe, swallowing water to erase all memory. It will not be the nourishing womb you began your life in. It will be a submergence.
You will take your place in the boiling-hot fissures, among the teeming hordes of nameless microorganisms that mimic no forms, because they are the foundation of all forms. In your reanimation you will be aware only that you are a fragment of what once was, and are no longer dead. Sometimes this will be an electric feeling, sometimes a sensation of the acid you eat, or the furnace under you. You will burgle and rape other cells in the dark for a seeming eternity, but nothing will come of it. Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. It is stable. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.