This is the three hundredth post on Horizons of Significance. Milestones encourage us to look backwards. We look at a span of time as having had a beginning, if not also an end, at least a comparison of that beginning with the present moment.
What you see, looking at this screen are two identical images, the “Header” for this site used in various configurations throughout this run. It is a scene photographed in 2004 at Cabo São Vicente, the Southwestern tip of Portugal and of Europe. This was the spot where Prince Henry the Navigator, as he is known in English, O Infante Dom Henrique, in Portuguese, established a “school of navigation” there almost exactly six hundred years before this image was captured. As with so much common-knowledge this is a garbled account. This spot was his home base. Voyages of plunder and enslavement were planned and organized here, but there was no school.
The first thing I hope you notice looking at the two images is that one has the orange, rusty cast we are accustomed to seeing in our sunsets – outside of dwindling pockets of relatively smokeless atmosphere perhaps lingering in the Roaring Forties of the Southern Ocean. The other is a Photoshopped approximation of what skies looked like before the bulk of our transference of fossilized hydrocarbons from underground to the skies overhead. This has occurred within my lifetime, within my living memory. I will annoy any listener who shows any sign of willingness to hear me on this at the drop of a hat!
The reason for my mania on this topic, if manias have reasons, is that I see no sign of any shared recognition of this fact. Skies changed between the mid-fifties when I first remember them and the eighties and beyond. Having grown up thirty miles out to sea I can remember distinctly when the smudge of orange beginning over Boston, some fifty miles to the Northwest, began to overspread the western horizon. This was around nineteen seventy. Before that, sunsets may have been red, but they were not rusty orange. Rose, greens, and violets were part of a complete palette of color as the sun reached the horizon.
This was also when I can also distinctly remember finding the first widespread dispersal of plastic refuse mixed into what had before then been the interesting and fairly innocuous blend of flotsam and jetsam that joined the shells and dried, blackened eelgrass and occasional dead fish or bird along that same beach. Now there were tampon applicators and plastic beer can rings….
It is tiresome hearing the old-folks go on and on about the good-old-days!
This isn’t simply sentimental nostalgia. These are memories of the arrival of the Anthropocene.
This juxtaposition of images is a visual meditation on embedded and interlocking transformations. From this spot, as it might have appeared somewhat like the second image, the first stabs at the conquest and subjugation of the greater natural world and of its indigenous peoples was launched. The power of mutually reinforcing delusions, of spreading salvation and of amassing wealth and power, found their most propitious moment to that time and began a process whose ultimate outcome we are now witnessing. There had been instances of both of these elements of human nature before. Europe, here distilled down into the person of this third son of a Portuguese King, Dom João I and the sister of England’s Henry IV, did not invent empire or conquest or the notion of salvation. Europe did put them all together and, through what began at this point in those days, stumbled upon a way to fund this orgy of acquisition on the backs of the world entire.
This place therefore held a pivotal moment in shaping us. This isn’t about adding to an “enemies list.” We are complicit within so many tangled levels of interconnection – perhaps an unseemly part of what is in fact the true interconnectedness of everything everywhere at all times. Our interconnectedness and our complicity cannot be pried apart. Nor is there any value in doing so. This is who we are. This is where we are. This is when we are.
And this is what this site has been about. For all of our civilized history, and before that as evidenced in our migrations out of Africa and across the world, we have often stood on western-facing promontories and felt the pull of a far horizon beyond the setting sun. The ancient Egyptians, whose religion and founding principals of organizing a society spread across the Mediterranean world and paused at this spot before spreading out beyond it, first connected the lands imagined beyond the setting sun to be a longed-after eternity that could be arrived at by amassing power and enslaving people to one’s will to provide an elite few with the means of such travel. Here, the longing for salvation and the coercive manipulation of whoever could be bound to ones’ will had its prototype. Its end is now fizzing and sparking in the dying glamor of a myth known as “California.”
This is why this spot and this image called to me as an appropriate banner for this site. It encapsulates so much that has been deeply pivotal and it keeps before us the hints, not only of the dangers of our striving, but of an impulse that lies behind these all and which might not be bound only to such toxic outcomes. We are drawn to horizons. They help us define who we are and they help place us. This has been twisted and has led us astray. It may be our ultimate downfall, but I am drawn to explore the edges of this urge and to look for ways to combine what I see as our fundamental roles, as witnesses and creators, with everything that is there to be discovered gazing upon a western horizon.
Life is movement. Much of what we expect to be an antidote to our current illness is concerned with rooting in place. These are admirable signs of awakening humility. But interconnectedness is easily lost and forgotten if we isolate our selves.
Are there ways in which we can explore and travel and cross-pollinate that do not involve coercion and subjugation, the spreading of toxic notions alongside virulent infections?
As this investigation proceeds, it is more and more critical to me to follow clues and catch glimpses of what this kind of life might hold.