Escape Velocity Girl

“Though I’m past 100,000 miles, I’m feeling very still”
April 7, 2010, 6:17 pm
Filed under: Real Worlds, Uncategorized

I’ve always believed in two basic human subspecies: Homo sapiens peregrinae and Homo sapiens homebodiensis. But the more interesting taxonomic differentiation is not the rather cloying one between those with wings and those with roots, but rather is a further bisection of the former category based upon where exactly its members lust to wander.

There are those who are drawn to the jungle, proverbial geographical cups spilling over with vegetable fecundity, humanity’s perpetual motion machine in all its different ethnic and cultural permutations. Silks, spices, endangered species! In a phrase: saturation of experience. I would venture that most wanderers can be classified thus. But then there is that rarer breed of traveler who spends his accrued .833 days/month in search of desolation, who would choose the Gobi dunes over Goa, Antarctica’s wastelands over the Amazon’s chlorophyllic chaos, the silence of the inorganic over the caw of the macaw or rickshaw rumble. These people recharge their so-called batteries not in scenes of riot and color, but rather in the contemplation of barren landscapes that seem to belong more to geologic time than the blink of the biologic.

The word that best describes this predilection is, perhaps, fernweh, a German word meaning “farsickness” or the “ache for the distance” (whereas wanderlust, despite its usage in English, translates literally as the more quotidian “to enjoy hiking”). But in this case the distance desired can not be measured on a GPS, but rather in terms of the scale of spacetime; our allotment of years in the mere dozens and miles in the thousands seems puny. Deserts and frozen wastes, lands seemingly outside the feverishly ouroborotic world of man, offer the illusion of the eternal and the endlessly vast. (Through a Freudian lense one could characterize this contrast as a case of Eros vs. Thanatos: extreme fernweh as representing a kind of death instinct or desire to return to a pre-biologic, inanimate state of being, the obliteration of the ego in the face of inorganic immortality…but this line of reasoning leads to Oedipus and oral fixation and sundries indecent and unscientific…)

How does this relate to the (admittedly loosely-defined) purview of this web log? The above photo was taken in 1984 and shows astronaut Bruce McCandless II free-flying a full 320 feet away from the Challenger, farther from the safety of steel and plastic and man-made home than any man in space had been before. Now there are manifold reasons to explore beyond the Karman Line, from the fol-de-rol of flag-planting to the speculative economics of interstellar resource exploitation, but it seems to me that those who willingly venture into the (almost) vacuum of space must share something in common with those earthbound desert-lovers described in the above paragraphs. Reactions to this photo (at least among those of my acquaintance) fall into two distinct camps: “terror! vertigo! embrace me Mother Gaia!” and “if only I had a Manned Maneuvering Unit of my own I’d gun for the next galaxy over.” Whether or not this split is related to extroversion vs. introversion, misanthropy vs sociability, adventurousness vs. conservatism, or one of countless other psychoanalytical spectra, I suspect it has to do with something innate. Question: are spacemen born?

photo credit: NASA


2 Comments so far
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as a bush pilot who has wandered this lonely planet from the barren windswept alaskan tundra to the brain-baking heat of darfur’s deserts, i am a hopeless peregrino.

i lived in a town in chad called abéché, which is arabic for “gateway to the desert.” every day, from my perch a couple miles above the sterile saline sands, i wondered how people lived out there. and why their ancestors were drawn to this environment to begin with. over time it made sense.

“fernweh” is certainly the best description i’ve heard for this gizzard-twisting unexplainable bittersweetness.

you might enjoy a book by antoine st. exupéry called “wind, sand, and stars,” and also a glen phillips song called “the spirit of shackleton.”

and though i’m not sure whether spacemen are born, i know i’ve always been drawn to desolate places. i love that picture, and the way you’ve written about it here.

Comment by paddy

You have comments off on the post I’m quoting, but I’d just like to say that “… the tessellated radiolaria of Ernst Haeckel’s plates illustrate the mathematical regularity of Nature’s microstructures…” is my new favorite phrase.

Comment by oof

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