Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks

[Image: Peder Balke, “Seascape” (1848), courtesy of the Athenaeum].

As cities like New York prepare for “permanent flooding,” and as we remember submerged historical landscapes such as Doggerland, lost beneath the waves of a rising North Sea, it’s interesting to read that humanity’s ancient past—not just its looming future—might be fundamentally maritime, rather than landlocked. Or oceanic rather than terrestrial, we might say.

In his recent book The Human Shore, historian John R. Gillis suggests that, due to a variety of factors, including often extreme transportation difficulties presented by inland terrain, traveling by sea was the obvious choice for early human migrants.

People, after all, have been seafaring for at least 130,000 years.

This focus on seas and waterways came with political implications, Gillis writes. Even when European merchant-explorers reached North America, “It would be a very long time, almost three hundred years, before Europeans realized the full extent of the Americas’ continental character and grasped the fact that they might have to abandon the ways of seaborne empires for those of territorial states.” In fact, he adds, “for the first century or more, northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.”

At the risk of anachronism, you might say that their power was defined by logistical concerns, rather than by territorial ones: by dynamic, just-in-time access to ports and routes, rather than by the stationary establishment of landed borders and policed frontiers.

[Image: “Ship in a Storm” (ca. 1826), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

Gillis goes much further than this, however, suggesting that—as 130,000 years of seafaring history seems to indicate—humans simply are not a landlocked species.

“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for.

Perhaps speaking only for myself, this is where things get particularly interesting. Gillis points out that humanity’s deep maritime history has been almost entirely written out of our myths and religions.

In his words, “the book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked, but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” That is, the myth of Genesis was written from the point of view of a culture already turning away from the sea, mastering animal domestication, mining, and wheeled transport, and settling down away from the coastline. It was learning to cultivate gardens: “The story of Eden served admirably as the foundational myth for agricultural society,” Gillis writes, but it performs very poorly when seen in the context of humanity’s seagoing past.

Briefly, I have to wonder what might have happened had works of literature—or, more realistically, highly developed oral traditions—from this earlier era been better preserved. Seen this way, The Odyssey would merely be one, comparatively recent example of seafaring mythology, and from only one maritime culture. But what strange, aquatic world of gods and monsters might we still be in thrall of today had these pre-Edenic myths been preserved—as if, before the Bible, there had been some sprawling Lovecraftian world of coral reefs, lost ships, and distant archipelagoes, from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia?

[Image: “Storm at Sea” (ca. 1824), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

This is where this post’s title comes from. “In short,” Gillis concludes, “we require a new narrative, one with, as Steve Mentz suggests, ‘fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks.’”

Fewer gardens, more shipwrecks. We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.

Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.

Sunken Cities

[Image: Raising a house to help survive future floods; photo by Eliot Dudik, courtesy The New York Times].

The climate change-induced flooding of coastal cities along the U.S. eastern seaboard has already begun, the New York Times suggests.

“For decades, as the global warming created by human emissions caused land ice to melt and ocean water to expand, scientists warned that the accelerating rise of the sea would eventually imperil the United States’ coastline,” we read. “Now, those warnings are no longer theoretical: The inundation of the coast has begun.” In many places, “the sea is now so near the brim in many places that [scientists] believe the problem is likely to worsen quickly.”

The article is full of specific details that would not be out of place in a well-constructed novel, including dead lawns killed by exposure to seawater, vacuum trucks sent out “to suck saltwater off the streets,” and “huge vertical rulers” installed along roads to help drivers judge if the floodwaters “are too deep to drive through.”

These are the new, everyday practices of life on a future seabed: preparatory behaviors as the waters rise and whole communities face permanent inundation.

What’s so interesting about this, in fact, is the apparent lack of panic and catastrophe. While this seeming calmness is no doubt based purely in denial—not just denial that excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere retains more heat, leading to warming, but denial of the fact that this is the new normal, that these floods are not flukes but early glimpses of a fundamentally transformed landscape to come—people are nonetheless simply getting on with their lives, even as radical change occurs around them at every scale.

I’m still haunted by a small detail from a similar story published a few years ago, following Hurricane Sandy, about a place called Broad Channel, an outer neighborhood of New York City. There, rising coastal waters have been causing more and more flooding, to the extent that it has become a regular occurrence—not something terrifying, just mildly irritating.

This is true to the extent that residents have now developed otherwise calm and perfectly rational ways of warning one another that the waters are back, that the streets are flooding, and—more to the point—that they should perhaps consider moving their cars.

Broad Channel is now “a place where residents cling to tide clocks and, some joke, every child gets wading boots for Christmas. Neighbors will honk a car horn in the middle of the night to warn others of an approaching tide, and some have made pencil markings on their homes to show water levels from storms past.”

If we ask ourselves what life will be like in the Anthropocene, after the ever-mounting effects of climate change become real, it’s worth remembering these people “honk[ing] a car horn in the middle of the night to warn others of an approaching tide.”

In other words, the Anthropocene will look perfectly normal: people will simply vacuum-pump seawater out of their carports and garages, scrub encrusted salt from the walls of the homes, give each other waterproof boots for Christmas, and otherwise go on as if the world hasn’t changed.

The secret of the Anthropocene is that it’s just another kind of everyday life.

Operation Deep Sleep: or, dormant robots at the bottom of the sea

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of lift bags being used in underwater archaeology; via NOAA].

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is hoping to implement a global infrastructure for storing mission-critical objects and payloads at the “bottom of the sea”—a kind of stationary, underwater FedEx that will release mission-critical packages for rendezvous with passing U.S. warships and UAVs.

It’s called the Upward Falling Payloads program.

The “concept,” according to DARPA, “centers on developing deployable, unmanned, distributed systems that lie on the deep-ocean floor in special containers for years at a time. These deep-sea nodes would then be woken up remotely when needed and recalled to the surface. In other words, they ‘fall upward.'” This requires innovative new technologies for “extended survival of nodes under extreme ocean pressure, communications to wake-up the nodes after years of sleep, and efficient launch of payloads to the surface.”

As Popular Science describes it, it’s a sleeping archive of “‘upward falling’ robots that can hide on the seafloor for years [and] launch on demand.”

And you can even get involved: DARPA is currently seeking proposals for how to realize its vision for Upward Falling Payloads.

DARPA seeks proposals in three key areas for developing the program: Communications, deep ocean ‘risers’ to contain the payloads, and the actual payloads. DARPA hopes to reach technical communities that conduct deep-ocean engineering from the telecom and oil-exploration industry to the scientific community with insights into signal propagation in the water and on the seafloor.

An informative “proposer’s day” will be held on January 25, 2013, where you can learn more about the program. It seems that, just a few years from now, storing objects for at-sea retrieval will be as ordinary as receiving an email.

Briefly, it seems worth mentioning that this vision of waking things up from slumber at the bottom of the sea reads like a subplot from Pacific Rim, or like some militarized remake of the works of H.P. Lovecraft—wherein Lovecraft’s fictional Cthulhu, a monstrous and alien god, is described (by Wikipedia) as “a huge aquatic creature sleeping for eternity at the bottom of the ocean and destined to emerge from his slumber in an apocalyptic age.”

Only, here, it is a gigantic system of military jewelry laced across the seafloor, locked in robotic sleep until the day of its electromagnetic reawakening.

(Thanks to Brian Romans for the link!)