Sylvia Earle and the lives of women

I saw Sylvia Early speak a few years back at a day long science and exploration gathering of Wings Worldquest and their gala awardees. The gala was the next day, so it was a room full of people talking about what these women had done.

These women were astonishing, all of them, and almost none I had heard of, even though I hang out in explorer-y circles and read all manners of relevant publications. I’ll come back to that.

The gathering took place in The Explorer’s Club in NYC and even though it was open to the public, in a room of a hundred or so people, there were perhaps six men, most partners or children of the women there.

The current president of the club introduced the day by saying, “Women have always been part of exploring our planet! You stayed home and kept our houses and raised our children while we trekked off to the ends of the earth. We could never have done it without you.”  The room was silent. He was serious. Soon enough we got past that, as we do, because what else is there to do? And later, Sylvia Earle stood up and asked a series of questions:

“What,” she asked, “can women not do today? What can we not do that we once could do? What have we never been able to do? What don’t we even consider?”

She left us with that, but I wrote these questions down, (as well as the opening speech, almost word for word, which got even worse than my quote above). They are interesting questions. Lately, it feels like we can do less and less. We are portrayed as less and less — Look at Katharine Hepburn movies such as Deskset. She had SPINE. Women don’t do that in movies anymore.  Look at Mae West. It’s not the same.

I’ve been thinking about Sylvia Earle’s questions, without remember she asked them, in a different context lately, about writing, and what we write, especially when it comes to travel or nature or psychogeography. How we may be limited, if, and what I want to say about it, do about it.  Sylvia’s questions were good, in a room with some of the most impressive women I’ve ever met, we didn’t have a lot of answers that made us feel better.

Elegant and incisive

I am working backwards through my year plus worth of notebooks on The Adelphi Project, and I came to this series of questions which I had written, in the very early days:

Who are the world’s eloquent and living intellectuals of today? What are they writing about? In what languages? Who writes the fiction? Do we have any? Are they revolutionary? Counter revolutionary? What are the architects writing?

One of the complicating factors is that those who fit historically into such spaces, we know their histories, their times, their trajectories, their deaths, and this makes it easier, I think, to evaluate them as intellectuals. But that cannot be the best of ways, we must recognize the intellectuals of our time, what I can see in the past, is those whose thoughts stuck, at least for now.

This project involves some interesting early 20th century novelists, novelists I think we don’t currently have, in the English speaking world. Notably, these are not English speakers, that I am thinking of, but rather notably, those from within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I am not looking only for novelists, but I was struck by the weight of this short novels, of their ideas, and this doesn’t feel of the present era, so I had started with that question. I am just seeking those who are notable and on par with the past, not the best of the present.


Travelers and truth

“There was another problem: the explorers who had come before and discovered facts had at the same time laid down distinctions between what was significant and what was not, distinctions which had, over time, harded into almost immutable truths.”

This seems to be from Alain de Botton’s miserable book, The Art of Travel. In which he appears to be not only really depressed, but rather misanthropic. He seems to not care much for the places or the people he travels toward, in fact, he’d be happier, I think, as de Maistre, traveling only in his room.

de Botton is riddled with guilt, whether he chooses to do something or to not do something. He doesn’t seem to enjoy any of his travels, and yet, there he goes, sulking miserable from place to place, writing about other people who do, in fact, seem to like travel. So while he may be writing of other’s arts of travel, perhaps he needs to embrace the art of staying home?

But my point is not, in fact, de Botton’s misery but that interesting quote, especially as I am currently read Travels into Print, about the House of John Murray and the travel books he printed in the 18th and 19th centuries. I haven’t finished it yet, but I had been struck by the above quote, which I had come across in one of my seafaring journals (notes of people I meet and books/articles I read while at sea), and it particularly struck me as I read Keighren et al’s book.

I read, and own, so many books and articles by explorers that one day soon I shall have to get down to those shelves and see who the publishers are, and what years. That would make a nice wall chart, for the chalkboard, though sadly not related to the adelphi project, so perhaps not what goes on the wall.

My favorite thought experiment — maybe not quite thought — of this year has been to replace the grid in my mind with equilateral triangles.  When I look at the world it is less flat, has greater topographic detail, and shifts the way in which I memorize space. Try it! It is super fun.

I find that if I catalog the world around me with triangles, I can walk the city streets, those I walk regularly, with my eyes closed, because what I see has greater fidelity to what I walk. And for whatever reason, I like to walk the city streets with my eyes closed, for as long as possible, just to see if I can.

A forest dark

I missed dawn yoga today, sidetracked by Dante. So, let me do the same to you.

Inferno, Canto I
Dante Alighieri, 1265 – 1321

Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.

But after I had reached a mountain’s foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
Vested already with that planet’s rays
Which leadeth others right by every road.

Then was the fear a little quieted
That in my heart’s lake had endured throughout
The night, which I had passed so piteously.

And even as he, who, with distressful breath,
Forth issued from the sea upon the shore,
Turns to the water perilous and gazes;

So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward,
Turn itself back to re-behold the pass
Which never yet a living person left.

After my weary body I had rested,
The way resumed I on the desert slope,
So that the firm foot ever was the lower.

And lo! almost where the ascent began,
A panther light and swift exceedingly,
Which with a spotted skin was covered o’er!

And never moved she from before my face,
Nay, rather did impede so much my way,
That many times I to return had turned.

The time was the beginning of the morning,
And up the sun was mounting with those stars
That with him were, what time the Love Divine

At first in motion set those beauteous things;
So were to me occasion of good hope,
The variegated skin of that wild beast,

The hour of time, and the delicious season;
But not so much, that did not give me fear
A lion’s aspect which appeared to me.

He seemed as if against me he were coming
With head uplifted, and with ravenous hunger,
So that it seemed the air was afraid of him;

And a she-wolf, that with all hungerings
Seemed to be laden in her meagreness,
And many folk has caused to live forlorn!

She brought upon me so much heaviness,
With the affright that from her aspect came,
That I the hope relinquished of the height.

And as he is who willingly acquires,
And the time comes that causes him to lose,
Who weeps in all his thoughts and is despondent,

E’en such made me that beast withouten peace,
Which, coming on against me by degrees
Thrust me back thither where the sun is silent.

While I was rushing downward to the lowland,
Before mine eyes did one present himself,
Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse.

When I beheld him in the desert vast,
“Have pity on me,” unto him I cried,
“Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!”

He answered me: “Not man; man once I was,
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.

‘Sub Julio’ was I born, though it was late,
And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
During the time of false and lying gods.

A poet was I, and I sang that just
Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
After that Ilion the superb was burned.

But thou, why goest thou back to such annoyance?
Why climb’st thou not the Mount Delectable,
Which is the source and cause of every joy?”

“Now, art thou that Virgilius and that fountain
Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?”
I made response to him with bashful forehead.

“O, of the other poets honour and light,
Avail me the long study and great love
That have impelled me to explore thy volume!

Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honour to me.

Behold the beast, for which I have turned back;
Do thou protect me from her, famous Sage,
For she doth make my veins and pulses tremble.”

“Thee it behoves to take another road,”
Responded he, when he beheld me weeping,
“If from this savage place thou wouldst escape;

Because this beast, at which thou criest out,
Suffers not any one to pass her way,
But so doth harass him, that she destroys him;

And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.

Many the animals with whom she weds,
And more they shall be still, until the Greyhound
Comes, who shall make her perish in her pain.

He shall not feed on either earth or pelf,
But upon wisdom, and on love and virtue;
‘Twixt Feltro and Feltro shall his nation be;

Of that low Italy shall he be the saviour,
On whose account the maid Camilla died,
Euryalus, Turnus, Nisus, of their wounds;

Through every city shall he hunt her down,
Until he shall have driven her back to Hell,
There from whence envy first did let her loose.

Therefore I think and judge it for thy best
Thou follow me, and I will be thy guide,
And lead thee hence through the eternal place,

Where thou shalt hear the desperate lamentations,
Shalt see the ancient spirits disconsolate,
Who cry out each one for the second death;

And thou shalt see those who contented are
Within the fire, because they hope to come,
Whene’er it may be, to the blessed people;

To whom, then, if thou wishest to ascend,
A soul shall be for that than I more worthy;
With her at my departure I will leave thee;

Because that Emperor, who reigns above,
In that I was rebellious to his law,
Wills that through me none come into his city.

He governs everywhere, and there he reigns;
There is his city and his lofty throne;
O happy he whom thereto he elects!”

And I to him: “Poet, I thee entreat,
By that same God whom thou didst never know,
So that I may escape this woe and worse,

Thou wouldst conduct me there where thou hast said,
That I may see the portal of Saint Peter,
And those thou makest so disconsolate.”

Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.

Invisibility and the last man

In M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, all of humanity is killed off and he is the sole survivor.  Eventually he finds the courage to return to London, to see what has become of the world he knows.  He goes off to the Turkish embassy to rifle it for clothing, as he likes the fashions.  He fashions himself a monarch. He is not the most likeable of chaps, but it is an interesting read. What would you do if you were the only person left living on earth?

Reading Philip Ball’s Invisible, he asks the question of what you would do if invisible, that usually one desires invisibility for some particular motive, as he says, that likely has to do with sex, power, or money.

The Ball reminds me of the Shiel, as when I first imaged being alone on the planet, my initial desire was not to steal from the Turkish Embassy, but to go to the British Museum. I’ve always wanted to hug the Rosetta Stone.  I can’t actually think of much reason to be invisible, unless it also let me fly, which seems like a separate skilll. Does invisibility not make me lighter than air? Well then, I don’t know.

What would you do, if you were last, or invisible?


Means vs motive

“In old tales — and usually in our new ones too — no one becomes invisible without a motive. It’s the peculiarity of our times that we focus on means and not the motive.” Philip Ball, Invisible.

I hadn’t really considered this, means versus motive in our modern era, til this bit of Ball’s book.  I suppose in the past, when means was unknown, or guessed at, or fabricated, motive could have been less slippery? With the changes in technology and science in the past millenia, we know more about means, though really, still far less than we think we know.

Do we head more towards the how than the why, in our modern enquiries?


The Quran attributes the Tower of Babel to Nimrod. It is not by explicitly naming, but by reference to a king who wishes to claim divinity for himself. (Flavius Josephus agrees.) So the tower is built, and according to Tha’labi’s commentary, it is blown down by a great wind. This wind, which destroys the summit, sending it into the sea, also brings fear, and this fear fragments one language into 73. Why 73?

73 is prime, the 21st prime number. It’s reverse, 37, is also prime. Primes have been around longer than Babel. Well, primes have always existed, but the awareness of them is quite explicit in Euclid’s Elements, and it seems the Egyptians had a thing or two to say about them as well.

The numerologists have a lot to say about 73, as does the writings on the numerical aspects of Hebrew.  I am going to table this for the time being, I shall come back to 73 later.


“An origin story cannot be read or adequately understood without taking into account the contemporary experience of those who pass down the story.”

Pierre Gibert. Bible, mythes et récits de commencement.

I used to have two sites, studiotheory, and akathesia. ST was where I would toss odd things I was pondering, because I was always reading and pondering something, and akathesia was for small, anonymous fiction. I made them both go away a few years ago, decided they were noise I needed to quiet, within myself, to focus. However I found I missed a place to toss things, rather than on scraps of paper in my studio.

This site is meant to be a combination of both, but who knows what will really come of it.

I feel a pull between site, which is supposed to be adelphi focused, and the reality that everything in some way returns to Adelphi, because my thoughts circle the same pathways. Though it would be hard to argue that my fascination with the Arctic relates to Adelphi. Or other natural world things, like virus and disease vectors and epidemiology and all that.

So I will leave this for now.