Tuesday, August 19, 2008


I sat shamatha this morning. Felt the long, long sweeps of the shoreline behind my back. So far as I can tell, right around here was Cook's first landfall on his third voyage, when death was marking him. Cape Foulweather, which looms over our apartment, was the first place he named on the northwest coast.

I had often wondered why the exploration along this coast came so late, and was so cursory: how could a navigator like Cook have missed the mouth of the Columbia, Straits of Juan de Fuca, indeed the whole Inside Passage? But now I understand: he was in a hurry. His real business was to find the Northwest Passage, and the summer was already waning. They knew by then that Hudson's Bay, as an entrance for the Passage, was a washout: if a passage was to be found, it was going to be by way of the Arctic Ocean, or Baffin Bay. Way north. Seawater, the science of the day declared, could not freeze: the ice encountered in the north must therefore just accumulations of river ice. The Arctic ocean should be open water. You just had to get there.

So Cook sailed north as fast as he could. No time to nose around river mouths and estuaries. His Russian maps, which showed Alaska as an enormous island, were worse than useless. He cursed them and went on, finding the Bering Straits anyway.

And came, of course, to a wall of ice. Cook saw at once that not the hugest rivers in the world could have produced such an ice pack. Science was no more dependable than Russian mapmakers.

He grimly established there was no way north, and bore away to winter in the Sandwich Islands, where he was to be held down in a couple feet of water and bludgeoned to death: he was a god, sure, but a god in the wrong place, at the wrong time of year. Europeans thought of gods as immortal, but Hawaiians didn't. Theology had failed Cook too.

It's simpler now that I'm cast out altogether. I gather scattered pieces of myself. I find odd bits here and there, things I hastily discarded lest they should make me look bad. No one's looking now; I can take them back.

A few of the Hawaiians, at considerable risk, brought some uneaten bits of Cook back to his shipmates. His right hand bore a very distinct scar: they recognized that.

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