The basement crawl space is tinged with dread. And a little bit of pride too. Because both my late husband John and my father—and even the firefighter I had to call when it flooded—hated the idea of having to go in. The dimly lit space is only eighteen inches high, a tight spot for a grown man, and full of spider webs. The floor is dirt; overhead is crumbled fiberglass insulation. You climb a ladder and go through a small rough hole in the house’s fieldstone foundation, then crawl about seven feet to reach the valve that supplies water to the outside faucet. This needs to be turned on in spring and off in late fall so the pipes don’t freeze and burst. To get out, you have to crawl backwards and reach a foot through the rough hole, searching blindly for the top step of the ladder. That last six inches is hell on the knees, all sharp rock and crumbling mortar.
This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one. (…) Why is this woman in this airport? Why is she going nowhere, where has she been? —Joan Didion, “Why I Write” (1976)
In the margins of the Strip, planes shimmer in and out of Las Vegas. I photographed this periphery, populated by plane watchers. Why they watch and why I write seem to be connected by a tenuous link that became clearer as the afternoon transpired.
Sundown marks the time and the place for a discreet show among Las Vegas locals. At the golden hour, vehicles on Sunset Road veer toward McCarran International Airport and park in front of the runway. While the casino-jammed stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard known as the Strip blinks itself awake in the background, the airstrip stages a steady stream of landings and take-offs. Every day, new and seasoned plane watchers come here to view the aircrafts rolling between the sky and the Vegas skyline.
I walk slowly, each step sinking a little into the ground. With every footfall, a puff of ash curls upward, dusting the top of my boot and disappearing into the soft stillness of the day. It is a clear day with no clouds, but the air around me has a gentle haze, a film that sometimes resolves into particles, pinpoints of ash in a slanting ray of sunlight. It has been two months since the fire, but the rising ash and the smell of smoke are strong, stinging the back of my throat and settling into a familiar ache in my temples.
I had one recurring nightmare as a child: I am standing in the dry bed of a creek looking upstream, the sun shining and the stones warm on the bottoms of my feet. Suddenly, a roaring wave rushes toward me around a bend and I have no choice but to be swept along with it. The water drags earth from the river banks until it is so thick with sediment it has turned the color of Swiss Miss.
“It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth.” —Isaiah 40:22
In the cosmology of Patrick Burke, a flat-Earth believer, humans can spoon-eat uranium flakes like Cheerios.
The Hubble Space Telescope never existed, nor did dinosaurs. Hiroshima was dynamited, the Titanic sunk for insurance, and New Orleans flooded by government agents.
Earth—our sapphire speck, our pale-blue lifeboat in an ocean of dark—does not, after all, perch on a Milky Way tentacle. Earth does not spin like a Dervish; rather, its plane reclines and stretches beyond the thousand-mile-thick ice wall encasing us. The land reaches out, sprawling with undiscovered countries and unimaginable lifeforms. At some point, the world meets sky, earth bleeds into atmosphere, and God lives at that nexus of matter waiting for us.
You stare low on the horizon into the black sky and wait for the next tiny circle of light. A flash. You hold your breath. You listen to the high-pitched whir as each pinpoint shoots upward, and your eyes follow the undulating trajectory, one, two, sometimes three seconds and still you’re not really breathing. The light vanishes, and you wait, bracing yourself for one loud low boom, a series of pops and crackles, or a deep, hard blast that feels like a punch in the chest. And in that instant before each burst you hope for your favorite colors and shapes, for purple or green or one of those big white sparklers that puffs out like a giant dandelion cloud then hangs suspended, for just a heartbeat, before each shimmering speck flickers and falls toward earth.
“Name and fame,” Mohammad Sabir said in English, shouting over the noise of the traffic. Manager and occasional trumpet player for one of dozens of marching bands for hire in Kolkata, India, he was describing the glamor that once compelled families across the city to hire bands like his.
Fifty-year-old Master Sabir, as bandleaders are known, was sitting behind his desk in a pink, threadbare shirt. A goat was tied to the electricity box out front, barefoot children raced past, and, nearby,bidimakers sat chopping dried tobacco by hand. According to my phone, it was only 103 degrees, but the reported “feels like” had hovered between 118 and 125 for days, and it was sometimes hard to breathe. This was in May of 2019, halfway through Ramadan and an hour before iftar; Sabir had not eaten or taken a drink of water all day.
We are dodging icebergs at twenty-five miles per hour. From the bow of our eighteen-foot Zodiac, I try to make sense of the ecosystem I’ve come here to investigate: northern Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coastline. But my customary visual bearings don’t seem to be serving me here in Alice’s Arctic Wonderland, where even the most fundamental rules of spatial arrangement have been upended. I see liquid lying over land, tundra hovering in midair, and chunks of ice floating several feet above the sea. I strain to delineate boundaries between water and sky, solid and gas, near and far. Where I expect borders, I find continuity—gradations of color, shifting shapes, and fluid forms. Reflections are sharper than the objects that make them, forcing me to question which way is up.
The morning was clear and the colors vivid: yellow brush, white ocean froth against cobalt sky. In front of me, dense gray volcanic stone appeared to consume the light. I stood in salty mist before an altar on the north coast of Rapa Nui, Easter Island. A single toppled moai lay in violent chunks on the ground. At 9:00 a.m. the sun still hovered tight at the horizon. Rapa Nui, which is part of Chile 2,300 miles away, is kept closer to mainland time than by geographical rights it should be. The sun rises gray and sticky at 8:30 in the morning, and sets late, too. This is not the only disorienting thing about Rapa Nui, but rather the most objective example.
Last year, I wandered through Greece, knocking on all the gates of Hades. I walked along the Acheron River, whose icy blue waters seemed colored by the spirits of the dead. Stalactites dripped onto the back of my neck as a silent boatman ferried me through the caves of Diros. I searched for the entrance to the sea cave at Cape Tainaron, scrambling over sharp rocks below the lighthouse as darkness fell. Sometimes I wondered if my search for the underworld tempted the Fates. I remembered Orpheus, the father of music, who charmed beasts with his lyre and descended into Tainaron to find his lost bride, Eurydice. With song, he implored Hades and Persephone to bring her back to life, and his words moved the deathless gods to tears. They granted his wish, allowing him to lead her out of the underworld on one condition: he must walk ahead of her, not looking back until they left the dark halls of death. Approaching the surface, the farthest reach of light, Orpheus feared his love’s silence behind him. He turned to look and saw her sink back into the depths, reaching out to him and bidding him farewell for the last time.