Where Earth Meets Sky

By CLINTON CROCKETT PETERS

 

“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.

When he began proselytizing a few years ago, Burke became one of the most notorious citizens in Denton, a college outpost roosting above Dallas/Fort Worth. Dentonites may not know Burke’s name, but they know his car. Burke wheels around a silver Scion wrinkled up like a discarded bag of potato chips. An American flag whips from the hatchback. The car’s innards are exposed where bumpers should be; pink leis hang from side mirrors. All available surfaces are decorated with stickers that read something like, “Scientifically, the Earth is Flat.”

Every day, Burke drives this barely legal heap around Denton, parks his car for extended visibility, and walks up to two miles home. He has to trudge back to his rolling conspiracy theory billboard in the morning. His house is correspondingly adorned—the siding, glass, and lawn peppered with signs like “NASA = $54 Million Per Day Joke” or “Water’s Surface Does Not Curve!” Burke has been forced into court over property code violations. He defended himself unsuccessfully, paid a fine, and redecorated.

Before parking, Burke likes to drive by high schools, rolling past with his oracle. “Those are my money minds,” he says, of students gawking, pointing, and some (yes, some) thinking.

 

Thanks to Burke and those of his faith, a worldwide conversion is taking place. A few years ago, a YouGov survey found fifteen percent of responders felt doubt about the spherical Earth. In 2017, 500 flat-Earthers conferenced in North Carolina. Another enclave populated Denver in 2018. Then in 2019, Aukland. Later that year, they circled up in a North Dallas suburb. Musician B.o.B. and basketball ace Kyrie Irving have converted (B.o.B even started a flat-Earth GoFundMe to launch flat-Earth-sponsored satellites).

While getting a PhD in Denton, I kept a copy of a newspaper on my desk with Burke’s picture on it, his garage door telling me the planet was “motionless,” “scientifically.” I felt drawn to the confidence bordering on pathological narcissism of a person claiming something so ridiculous so proudly. In truth, there was a pinch of self-recognition, like finding an old photograph of yourself.

After graduating high school in Lubbock, where I grew up, I studied to be a missionary, filling my hours waylaying coffeeshoppers and hitchhikers, spreading the word. Born-again in the Church of Christ, I felt a craving to be inside a spiritual vortex, one of the blessed few in a room. Now, I’m wondering what’s behind that desire to be an informer, even when (or precisely as) the evidence piles against the message. What brings believers to sail off the edge of reason?

 

 

After tracking Burke down on Facebook, I sent him a message stating that I was curious to write about his cause and then set up a visit to spend a day with him.

It’s a pleasant June morning when I drive to Burke’s house. Dentonites bicycle in flannel skirts, and men in trucks thump along with tattoo sleeves and Black Sabbath blazing. Marshmallow cumulous ornament the sky. I mention clouds because, full disclosure, I believe they float within a spherical atmosphere encasing our globe.

However, I’ve also come to believe that everyone dabbles in at least one conspiracy theory. Mine is that humans evolved from semi-waterborne origins, which explains our hideous upright stance and hairlessness—a belief, “aquatic ape hypothesis,” derided as pseudo-science. I don’t firmly believe it, but I don’t dismiss it either, despite what experts say.

Burke and I sit at a plastic table in the shade, chairs decorated, like his car, in pink leis. His cat curls up on the lawn. “I’ve never seen myself as a misfit,” Burke says, and he doesn’t look the part. Burke dons a polo and jeans. His hair is bunched into a topknot, and his shoulders cut a military air with a stiff back and intense, clipped voice.

I ask him how he converted.

“I’ve had seeds planted my whole life,” he says.

But one memory anchors everything. Burke recalls a fourth-grade geography teacher lecturing about medieval Europeans presuming the world was flat. The teacher unfurled a fanciful map—the image stretched out, promising infinitude in all directions and sea monsters and mermaids. The map haunted Burke. He held onto the ancient idea, that old faith. He says, “I remember thinking, so you’re telling me we just got this wrong?

Still, Burke grew up a self-described “space junkie,” craving telescopes and solar system posters. Then, in his twenties, he met and began dating a Dentonite I’ll call Rachel, who scoffed and led him to YouTube backwaters “debunking” Apollo 11. Burke fell into conspiracies, as lost as David Bowie’s Major Tom in “Space Oddity.”

“I don’t think there’s credible evidence that anybody has ever been to space,” he says. “The overwhelming majority of astronauts end up being Free-Masons.”

For three hours on his lawn, Burke regales me with conspiracies. He chops the air when he arrives at a point. His voice becomes almost-but-not-quite yelling. He rattles off numbers, maneuvers through his spiel like a Taekwondo student at a belt test. He eyes me every moment I glance up from my notepad. It’s as if he’s trying to hold my gaze in a tractor beam. It’s eerie, creepy, unnerving (sexy?). As I write, I glance up, and Burke’s face is there, pupils aflame, blazing with presumed truth.

Thirty minutes pass, and I relax. I realize I know this eye-Jitsu. Among Lubbock evangelicals, we called it “Jesus Eyes.” Fellow missionaries taught me to hold the gaze of a listener, who is meant to feel seen-through, even charmed. Jesus eyes can be electric, transportive. They bore into the soul.

We told ourselves the light of God emanated from our pupils when we did this, but I’ve seen the look on street magicians. It’s a cunning conjurer’s ace. Keep pressure on the listener so they doubt themselves, focused on our eyes, not analyzing the nonsense filling their ears. They feel vulnerable, and vulnerable people believe things.

For most mammals, stares are a threat. Humans value soul windows because we are the only primates with white eyes. Hued irises float against canvas—biological signal flares. We evolved to follow gazes, are enchanted by them because eyes help us study tasks, communicate, and partake in mutual lust. If someone is elated with what you are saying, they will draw out your sight, make a connection. New lovers drink in each other’s eyes, as do parents and children and listeners to speakers amid the retelling of a good story. So too, the car-monger with an oil-burning Camaro that he assures will be the best thing you’ve ever bought into.

 

 

 

In Lubbock, chumming for converts, I preferred people who were alone. I slithered up at the neighborhood caffeine watering hole, offering a one-dollar coffee. My eyes beamed. Lubbock is possessed by kind people who would smile back. Some offered me to sit.

The thing about proselytizing in a Christian town is that most people had already bought what I was selling. But the Church of Christ didn’t think anyone but their own ascended (another kind of narcissism). Thus for us, billions and billions and billions flared in Hell.

Mine was a horrific message, one I couldn’t buy even if I tried. I had to back my mind into this faith. I couldn’t look at its eyes, nor acknowledge the implications that most of my friends and family would suffer eternally for mere ignorance. From the beginning, there was already a divide between myself and my beliefs, so I defined my own religion, as I suppose everyone must—their own spin on the world’s old songs. I ignored what I could and left un-pondered the rest. I craved the sturdy shelter faith can provide—a direction forward, a path, a promise. To chip away at that would undermine the whole.

How many people did I accost with my message? Upwards of 200, I believe. I counted twelve in one day. I snagged hitchhikers on I-27, which sprawls across the panhandle. I lectured as I whisked them home through rain. What a salesman I was, hocking eternity. Possessed of my own inner light.

I realize now these car and coffeeshop conversations were about me. I was shoring up against doubt, buttressing my invigorating tingles of clarity and purpose, sensations that came until they didn’t. I now know that I believed and preached for mercenary reasons. Every person became an attempt to win me over to my message.

In college, I enrolled in an evolution class with the expressed goal of converting the instructor. He was affable, bespectacled, tweed-jacketed—the most professorial you could find. I’d had him once for natural history and adored him. I did all the reading, attended every class. He listened, chuckled, let me embarrass myself.

I was converted by my own preparation for debate: I made the mistake of trying to see the other side, which was really my buried doubt all along.

 

 

For a man purporting malicious global machinations, Burke remains remarkably optimistic about his neighbors. As a pickup wheels by, Slipknot pounds out the windows, and the mullet-haired driver leans out and hollers, “Fuuuuuuck yooooooou!” in our direction. Burke murmurs, “Aw, I think he was just singing.”

I ask about the reported vandalism on his cars and house, signs and leis stolen, broken, and marked. He shrugs, “It’s like when nature takes its course, something happens.”

He changes the subject from property destruction and purrs on about his rescued cat flopping in the dirt beside us. Later, when we’re walking back from town, he asks three times if I’m comfortable in flip-flops. If I didn’t know that he was trying to convert me, I’d say Burke was kind.

I get the sense that he doesn’t have many friends. Not when he drives his eyesore everywhere and reminds people, as he does me, that Santa Claus is an anagram for Satan Lucas.

Burke’s work as an independent contractor has suffered, too. Customers don’t appreciate it when he pulls up to their house to hammer on their shingles. Imagine having his propaganda-plastered car parked in front of your home or business for a few hours.

After talking all morning and into the afternoon, Burke and I lower ourselves into his shock-less, scotch-taped Scion and squeal off. Today, Burke will leave the car in the Denton Square. A jazz band starts in ten minutes on the courthouse lawn—a perfect place to park where everyone can witness his truth.

Inside Burke’s dusty Scion, wires slither everywhere. It’s disorienting. Burke reports the car has been officially totaled three times. The windshield fogs with grit and cracks, and the backseat groans with heavy tools. Burke rolls down the windows because he has to leave his heat on to keep the engine cooled—throughout Texas’s summer.

When we wheel onto Denton Square, a muscled man in a jeep jerks his head and glares at us. Shoppers with ice cream frown. I realize that anyone paying attention is aware the Flat Earth Guy has arrived. Burke tells me he’s accustomed to this frosty reception. “As long as people don’t act ugly,” he says.

At one point, what appears to be an entire family—adult children, pigtailed granddaughter in tow, grandfather in calf-high socks, muscled teenager—all rubber-neck Burke’s car as he rounds a corner. The grandfather shakes his head; the granddaughter points.

I tell Burke this would freak me out, the constant attention, the negativity. “Aw, this is nothing,” he says. No one has thrown their ice cream at him yet, he says. Which means at some point, someone has.

 

 

Ancient Greeks knew the world was round, and the Romans later agreed. Ptolemy of Alexandria went so far as to construct a spherical world map around the year 150 CE. Medieval astronomers wagered their world was the universe’s center, as we all do in our own way. Yet this center, they believed, was curved.

A sphere is the perfect shape, argued Roger Bacon, Franciscan friar. His 13th-century contemporary Thomas Aquinas wrote, “the astronomer and the natural philosopher both demonstrate the same conclusion, such as the world is round.”

14th-century French astronomer Nicole Oresme even postulated that the world turned.

In The Divine Comedy (1320), Dante imagined a curved Earth, perfectly spherical as he assumed heaven must be.

English poet John Donne wrote, “At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow / Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise.”

Meanwhile, nowhere in Columbus’s diaries does he worry about sailing over the world’s edge. Sailing to “India” was an idea he’d pilfered from another explorer who planned to leave a month later.

But, in the early 19th century, when Washington Irving, the Sleepy Hollow scribe, wrote The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, he turned to myth-making to fuel sales. At the nexus of Irving’s account, Columbus stood before the naysayers at Salamanca University, conclaves of doubters scoffing upon his Atlantic crossing. He’d sail off the edge! His ships would be Kraken snacks!

Irving wrote, “Such are the specimens of the errors and prejudices, the mingled ignorance and erudition, and the pedantic bigotry with which Columbus had to contend.”

American scholars at the time took to Irving’s tale, flattening Earth in medieval minds.

It does sound heroic, though, doesn’t it—Columbus braving heresy and the literal edge of the world, the leviathans between here and there? How much more archetypal than the merchant mariner who stole an idea, stumbled about an island, came back with a brutal invasion force (including attack dogs), and exterminated a population?

Irving’s “biography” later became school curricula until the 1950s. Columbus strolled off children’s books a Gilgamesh, an Aeneas—the founder-hero of our new world.

 

 

If I could read his mind, I’d bet that Burke fancies himself trekking upon the Hero’s Journey. For I did, too, braving coffeeshoppers’ stares, the strangers on the dark highways who wanted to ignore me and put their heads against a rain-coated window. In my chest cavity beat war drums; screams for dauntlessness filled my ears. My veins filled with certainty’s nectar.

It’s addictive, that sense of purpose and heroism. No wonder “heroin” derives from German “heroisch,” meaning strong, bold, heroic, for that is how the drug’s users feel. Think of what people do for their heroin, what dark nights they brave.

Following that converting evolution class, I endured a two-year come-down. The problem for non-believers is that there is no alternative but emptiness. What can fill that lost level of thrilling certainty? When hanging around Burke, an always-hungry part of me awakens in envy.

 

 

Today Burke tries to park on the east side of the courthouse. Hundreds of Dentonites in lawn chairs and blankets lean back in the shade, soothed by a classical jazz band. All the parking spots are crammed, and he is forced to occupy an opposite corner. Burke waves when a glaring cop drives by, flashing his lights quickly.

Of course, I realize Burke’s attempting to recruit me. And so, he struggles to stay positive. The sun is always up in Burke’s world. I try pressing him on what it must feel like to be scorned, to be watched, and he refuses an honest answer. He says it doesn’t bother him. But his tense shoulders and clipped tone say otherwise.

We leave the car and begin a sun-drenched two-mile walk home. Halfway back, I’m caked in sweat. When Burke’s pickup was working—another rolling propaganda piece—he used to make this hot, gruesome trek every day, twice.

 

 

There are “theories” and “hypotheses” about Burke and others like him. Such as that conspiracy cultivators often have “hypersensitive agency detection,” meaning they over-attribute complex occurrences to hidden motives. Conspiracies are like constellations—made-up shapes in a universe of light. People don’t just want stars; they want patterns. Conspiracy theorists need more closure, an explanation when one doesn’t exist.

Most humans also exhibit confirmation bias, seeking reassurance of our beliefs. We want to protect ego and investment—some more than others.

A confession: even while listening to Burke, I am tuning in maybe a quarter of the time. I fade out because his jargon is nonsense, yes, but I also don’t want to hear it.

 

 

As we walk across Denton, the asphalt muddies from heat. Burke and I pass couches weighing down lawns and boxes of free goods slumping on the streets. Dentonites leave entire living room sets out on the curb for the taking. A big wooden table, some rugs, a love seat, boxes of prayer beads. “It’s a great town,” Burke says.

Burke recalls, post-conversion, lugging a telescope to the Florida beach for his birthday. He set up the scope’s tripod, peered across the sand and ocean. He found it flat. “I was so pissed,” he said. He felt he’d been lied to. “I figured if I could make a difference to one kid in high school, I should.”

Flat Earth is faith. No one can take it away from Burke. I may poke a million holes in his logic, but, ultimately, it’s not his reality. It’s a cosmology created by Burke and those like him as they stare into the void of space. What glances back are their own Jesus eyes.

 

 

Let’s get it out of the way: 6.7 billion people believe in a supernatural essence, supreme deity, a cosmic life force like I once did, for which there is competing and scant evidence. The Earth and skies are silent—or, at best, confusing.

Because starlight falls on a world like this, one that guards its secrets, I’m sympathetic to people who believe in mystical beings and people who think those beings reside at the nexus of Earth and sky, where we will one day crawl and meet them. Burke’s is a beautiful belief if nothing else.

However, unlike Burke, I’m now unsure how to engage someone when I’m passionate, say about climate change, which looms on my horizon like a black planet. I doubt my confidence, my eyes. I teach college, but I rarely find the conviction I once had. As we walk and sweat, I ask Burke if he ever has the same inner indecision, whether to talk about something he believes in. Does he question the hubris it takes to set a person on a different plane, to change their life with his eyes?

He says he used to wonder about that. But lately, he just takes the plunge and enters the arena of awakening. No surprise, I suppose, but is he still like believer-me when I circled and circled Lubbock coffee shops and prowled I-27 sniffing doubt, or has he reached a new plane of certainty?

Because there is a possibility Burke is right, a galactically small one, but it’s there. Just as there is a minute chance climate change is a hoax. That the sun will not rise on Sunday. Is it possible for a doubter to ever be certain about beliefs again?

 

 

For some reason, for all Burke’s beliefs, it’s the one about gravity that itches, even angers me. Burke doesn’t believe in gravity. It’s not real, he says. I decide to nudge him on this (and only this) article of faith.

“No gravity, really?” I say, and I drop a pen. Then I drop my notebook. Yes, he replies, chuckling, though his shoulders vise-clamp his spine. He explains. “Density” keeps people, our cars, cats, and pens on the ground. Helium and hydrogen are more buoyant, so they float. Cats and pens and notebooks sink, just like the Titanic.

This logic makes no sense outside the context of gravity. I marvel that Burke thinks he’s gotten this right. Rather than wanting to confront him further, his answer makes me relieved. I’m calmed. Doubt has hidden away again. I feel righteous, enthralled with my superior intellect. I condescend, pushing him a bit more.

I took chemistry class, I say (or something to the effect). I took astronomy and beheld the planets’ elliptical motions, wrenched and spun by our star. I’ve been to the ocean; I’ve jetted across it several times… But before I can finish, Burke escalates by repeating his unilluminating answers and starts yelling-yelling-yelling, and I retreat into silence and footsteps. Not for the first time, I wonder how emotionally stable he is. How far gone do you have to be to buy this message?

I’m not here to convert him, though there’s a part of my personality that always wants to try. I, perhaps like other humans, so hunger to know the world, see the edges, the limits on my soul, whatever it is or if it is. Sometimes a way of examining those limits is confronting others. Is it any wonder that the lingering believer in me ponders revisiting my evolution professor who’s long retired and debating him again, winning him over even though I know the science?

I realize as an awkward pause manifests in our walking conversation that Burke is an explorer of the outer limits of faith. He can’t look at his beliefs with too much distance (who can?) because then, looking at himself, he’d see a construction worker who sluiced out the truth about astrophysics, geography, geology, oceanography, paleontology, oceanography, air traffic control, satellites, somehow discovering a universe that upends everything from superstring theory to Google Earth. Somehow, in the morass of all this information, he’s figured out the Big Galactic Conspiracy because he brought a cheap telescope to a beach.

I, too, once believed at 19 that I’d stolen from the world its secret. I believed in something like destiny—a hobbit with a ring, a farm boy with a laser sword. Storytelling, I suppose, can be a kind of faith. It’s a willing of the world to make sense in narrative, which confirms our unique place in it. Part of losing faith is undoing a sense of wonder, discovering that one isn’t so destined after all.

It wasn’t easy when I turned away from faith. I wanted it; I craved something that provided an ending. But I realized I wasn’t listening to the world, to other stories that didn’t confirm mine, that didn’t connect the stars.

After a while, Burke pipes back up. But his voice drones and drones, and the novelty wears thin, much like driving through the Texas Hill Country and popping on AM radio. We get to his house, and Burke still wants to talk. I spend thirty minutes trying to leave. I’ve ceased scribbling in my notebook. It’s hot.

Burke shuffles from foot to foot. He nibbles his fingernails. He knows I’m going to write about him. Perhaps he’s trying to make a last impression. Maybe he knows he’s failed to convert me and thus recover himself. Each time I say, “Well, I guess I gotta get—” he cuts me off with a “One more thing…” He then tries to tempt me into his house to watch YouTube videos. That isn’t happening, I tell myself.

Finally, I make up a lie. One that I tell myself is almost true—that someone is waiting for me somewhere, and I promised them dinner. Burke frowns, rolls his feet on their sides, looks a little ashamed. I wave a fictional-hearty goodbye, exhausted from being around him all day.

 

 

When I waylaid coffeeshoppers or picked up hitchhikers, somewhere inside me was this voice, a doubt, a sensation I’ll call my “precognitive itch” that there was something else out there that I wasn’t seeing and was willing myself not to. I haven’t stopped feeling that itch twenty years later. I’m not sure I will. I’m also not sure I ever believed my message in the way one knows the sun will rise in the East. I think I retold my myth until I couldn’t. Maybe someday, so will Burke.

 

 

A day after meeting Burke, a friend drives me around Denton along a curvy and hilly road. Burke’s car appears over the horizon, coming at us from the other way.

For a moment, I forget I spent the day before with this man, that I’d been a passenger in this rolling heap of faith. Instead, my eyes lock onto the flaked paint and exposed wires and bumper stickers collaring his car. It is a 98-degree Texas summer day. As usual, Burke’s windows are down, heat blasting in and out. His chest is probably caked in sweat and lumber dust. The sun shines upon his face.

He is one of the few men in Texas I’ve met who doesn’t wear sunglasses. The light is always in his eyes.

My body presses back in my seat; my hand grips the door handle. I feel that anxiety I experience when listening to someone who cradles faith. I succumb to uncertainty that I might one day evangelize again and upend my world once more. And beyond that lies more upheaval, a horizon of infinite, regressing doubt. When I try to find the edge, I end up where I started.

The moment passes. As does Burke’s car. Our stories go on. My friend jokes about how it takes all kinds to make the world go around.

Burke rounds a curve, as do we, in opposite directions. We each disappear from the other’s view, over a tiny hill that, unless you paid attention, you’d doubt was even there at all.

 

 

Clinton Crockett Peters teaches creative writing at Berry College, the largest college in the world. He is the author of Pandora’s Garden (2018), finalist for the ASLE Book Award, and Mountain Madness (2021). He appears in Best American Essays 2020, Orion, Southern Review, Creative Nonfiction, Oxford American, Threepenny Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. He has been awarded literary prizes from Iowa Review, Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Columbia Journal. He has an MFA from Iowa and a PhD from North Texas.

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