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  • Writer's pictureWesley Snedeker

Altitude Sickness

Martin Strøksnes' 2015 memoir Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean is as much about oceanic science as it is about compelling character portraits. The author spends considerable time explaining to the reader the historical and biological dynamics at play in his and his friend Hugo's quest to catch a Greenland Shark in the Vestfjorden. Without ever dipping into monotonous recollection or moralistic guiltmongering, the author (with beautiful translation from Tiina Nunnally) guides the reader into both gasping wonder at the spectacular mysteries of the deep and sober reflection on humanity's history of abuse of sea life (his description of a blue whale processing plant is especially gruesome: "the days were not calculated in hours but rather in the number of whales caught and barrels of oil produced. The smoke and steam from the enormous, roaring furnaces hovered like a thick blanket over the whaling stations. A single blue whale can have two thousand gallons of blood in its body, and then men who did the flensing waded nonstop in blubber, blood, and meat during the four-month season"). It is a book that helps one to restructure their world in a cosmic sense, to rethink up and down. It makes one feel not as a terrestrial creature moored to the ground but rather a peak-dwelling hermit clinging to the side of a tall mountain that manages to breach the water—most of the living that happens on this planet happens much further down.

[Until very recently] the prevailing opinion was that there was very little variety of life on the seafloor, that it consisted mainly of sea cucumbers, worms, and smaller animals. Even today only a few underwater submersibles can reach the deepest depths. With every new expedition they discover not only new species but also life-forms previously unknown. The same thing happens each time scientists lower nets or scrape the bottom at great depths that haven't been explored. In fact, the majority of the species they bring up have never been described before.

In chapter 6, Strøksnes writes: "More people have gone up into space than into the vast ocean depths. We are far more familiar with the surface of the moon, and even with the dried-up seas on Mars. But if we could swim around down there in the cold and dark, it would be like floating in outer space, surrounded by twinkling stars." As of 2020 it is still the case that more of our species have gone "up there" than "down there," and the pursuit of outer space continues to intensify. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and other billionaires have made it their goal to leave the earth behind, to modify themselves just right and acquire just enough resources to cruise out where they can be truly separate from us once and for all. The president of the United States just made Star Fleet a thing, and said they will have a "super-duper missile." Meanwhile, the NOAA's budget pales in comparison to the amount of money being poured into our various space programs and 90 aircraft carriers worth of plastic is dumped into the sea each year. Space is, of course, the "final frontier" in media and pop culture, while the oceans (which cover 70% of our planet and are home to almost all of its life) seem not to be worth our scholarly or artistic interrogation except for a select few. Simply put, we are enamored of the cold emptiness above our heads and disdain the masses of life beneath our feet. Consequently, we seem to think that what is beneath is only good for trampling, exploiting, and extracting, while what is above us must be holy—and to send ourselves out there must make us holy. We are reaping what we are continuing to sow in an age of rising sea levels, mass extinctions, and ever-depleting resources, and we are displacing the most gruesome results of our barbarism onto the majority of living things on the planet. One wonders what it is about us that makes us so ignorant of and uncaring to that which is around us and beneath us, yet so in love with the nothing above us.

Here is where some religious literacy might be helpful. It is common amongst Western religious and mythical traditions to have a three-tiered cosmic structure. Typically, what is above is meant for "heavenly" beings (gods, lesser gods, seraphim, etc.), the middle is for things of matter that are currently alive (us, other animals and plants, typically arranged in some kind of hierarchy that puts us on top), and the bottom is for dead things (and whoever looks after them). In more ancient versions of this conception of the universe, nothing from earth can go upward—when we die, it's heck for everybody. This isn't a moral judgment on human beings, it's just the way things are. In Greek mythology, everybody's headed for Hades. In ancient Hebraic and Jewish traditions, it's Sheol. These weren't places of eternal torment, rather just big, dusty, boring, eternal storehouses (Ecclesiastes 9 exhorts its readers to enjoy life as they can since there's "no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going."). As certain political and sectarian groups begin to arise (enter Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Islam), a couple interesting things happen. First, we see the idea not of a heavenly afterlife but a divided underworld where some are happy and some aren't (the rich man is divided from Lazarus in Luke 16 by a great chasm, but they're in the same place and can still talk to and see each other). Then, much later on, folks start claiming that the good humans who do the right stuff get let into the upper stratum with the heavenly beings.

We seem to have this hangup with being almost celestial creatures. We have decided that there is a vertical order to things and, as far as stuff on the earth goes, we're at the top of it. And there can be no other intelligent or significant or worthy community around or under us. To find anything relevant, we must go higher up. Intellectuals and religious leaders in the West applied this logic to relations between humans, as well. As one gets darker and more female, one must be more earthly, whereas whiter and more male people must be of the sky, they thought. The folly of this way of thinking is being demonstrated to us by the climate disaster, by the traumas of chattel slavery and mass incarceration, by the normalization of sexual violence. But a few powerful folks still cling to it. Sure, they must think, most of us may have been wrong about our place in the universe, but not me—I'm almost an angel! And so they exploit and abuse and extract to get them upward, where they will find only nothingness.

If we interrogate the Christian and Jewish scriptures more closely, we'll find a different movement of God. God does not go upwards and inwards, but downwards and outwards. Yes, Jesus goes up the mount to pray, but comes down to face the structures of death. Moses ascends Mount Sinai only to be told to go back down again with better ways to be human (Exodus 19-20). The new Jerusalem revealed to John of Patmos is not in the clouds but rather it descends to earth and permanently rests there (Revelation 21). If we are to be like Christ and/or like God, it follows that we should stop thinking about creative ways to kill what's below to propel us upward. We should instead be taking greater care to live horizontally and diagonally, taking seriously all the life around us and literally beneath us in an effort to truly commune with it.

The high priests of American civil religion proclaimed last week that they wish space to remain "the heavens by which we not only protect America, but we sustain our economy, we sustain our commercial capabilities, we sustain Americans' way of life." But this way of thinking is outdated and toxic. I'm more concerned with knowing the crushing spring of life around and underneath us. I want us to better understand these deep-down neighbors that Strøksnes describes who speak only in light. I want to draw near with Moses to the thick darkness where God is (Ex. 20:21).

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