Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) trip on the ferry across Lake Champlain leads to some reflection on ordinary miracles like boats and ships, airplanes, and even bicycles. We'll even start the reflection with a memory of Bangladesh. If you wish to know how all these things connect, read on! If you want to see just where to catch the ferry and the route it takes across Lake Champlain, consult your bearings, nautical or otherwise, on the map.
"A ferry, interrupted off and on only during the Revolutionary War, had crossed the long lake at this narrow point since the 1740s. The boat of 1759, large enough to carry a stagecoach, had a sail, but on windless days, boatmen walked the length of it and pushed with a single, thirty-foot oar....
"Almost a century and a half later, I made the same crossing with only a few technological changes here and there: the sail and oarsman had given way to a modified, Navy-surplus landing craft attached to a cargo barge...."
Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 7
Somewhere on Lake Champlain
Have you ever contemplated the sheer wonder of how simple, ordinary things work? I'm going to preface a post that explores this type of wonder with a story from a ferry ride I took in Bangladesh.
In the late 1990s, I traveled to Bangladesh while I got my masters degree in international relations. My goal was to visit a micro-lending program that had been organizing in rural communities, making small loans to women to not only help them finance their own small businesses, but also to teach them the value of savings and, most importantly, to increase their status in society by turning them into earners making incomes independent of their husbands. I stayed in Bangladesh for a month, and during that time I was taken by a variety of modes of transportation, including car and motorcycle, to various places where their programs were in effect.
I arrived at the start of the monsoon season, the regular afternoon rains that are responsible for rejuvenating the groundwater and the plant and animal life in that region of the world. From the time I landed to the time I left, the country, which is mostly at sea level, filled up with water. From one week, even one day, to the next, roads that we traveled on the day before would be impassable the next day due to mud and flooding. Fields and rice paddies became lakes and ponds. On some roads on raised roadbeds, it almost felt like we traveled across a shallow inland sea, dotted with islands with dwellings on them.
On one of those trips, we stopped our small SUV where the water had inundated the road in years past and the roadbed had not been fixed. I looked across the expanse of water to the other side, maybe a quarter mile away, and saw a flat boat with people on it coming across. Similar to what LHM describes above, the operator of the makeshift ferry had a long pole to push the boat across the water. I assumed that we would take the ferry across and our car would be driven another way around.
I assumed wrong. After some haggling over price, boards were put down to create a ramp, and our vehicle was driven onto the boat. We climbed on, and just as before, the boat was propelled by pole across the water to the other side, where the vehicle was driven off and we resumed our journey.
In Bangladesh, where people work very hard to scrape out the most rudimentary living and in which, unlike the stereotypes we have in the west, people are extremely entrepreneurial. It is not surprising that somebody saw an opportunity to provide a ferry service in order to make a living and created it. That in itself is a wonder. But the wonder that I write of is a part of those everyday wonders that when I think about it, just makes me drop my jaw before I accept it's every-dayness. We put a ton of car onto what was a small wooden float, and one man poled that ton plus the added weight of people across water. Isn't that amazing? I would have to strain to push that car on land. The fact that a few bits of wood, configured into a raft could move it so easily is a miracle to me.
A similar feeling came over me recently when I visited San Diego and took a tour of the aircraft carrier Midway. At the time it was built, in the 1940s, the Midway was one of the biggest and most complicated ships ever produced. It carried 4,500 people and a large number of planes and equipment and stores. And that's just what was in it. The carrier itself weighed, at its decomission, 75,000 tons. Now, I don't know about you, but boats are a miracle to me in general, and a ship like the Midway is almost incomprehensible. If I take a piece of steel and drop it in the water, it sinks like a stone. But, a ship like the Midway is made of 75,000 tons of steel and not only floats, but managed to take on additional weight and survived voyages and rough seas through war and peace time for 60 years. Another miracle.
Airplanes also constitute a miracle to me today. I've flown on jets routinely and yet, as I watch Boeing 757s and other aircraft at the Albuquerque airport, marvels of metal and electronics, take off and land with a weight up to 255,000 pounds, my mind still sometimes reels. I understand the mechanics of air flight - thrust is generated by engines that creates speed, and that speed leads to a rush of air over a fixed wing which provides uplift and then flight. Yet occasionally I see one a jet, and I really get this when I see it landing, hanging there in the sky, and my mind still argues that so much weight in the air shouldn't be possible. And yet, it is.
Lately, I've been contemplating the miracle of a simple bicycle. I note that I'm unable to balance it when there is lack of motion, when standing still. Yet as soon as I move forward, I have balance. Again, I understand the mechanics of how I ride a bicycle. The wheels moving forward provide stability because they act like gyroscopes. The bike's inertia in motion means that it is reluctant to move any other way and this counteracts some of the force of gravity which wants to pull it to one side or the other. Yet sometimes, when I am on a bike and zipping down the street toward my work, I am amazed that I can, balancing on two thin wheels, get to another place more quickly and efficiently than walking. Another small miracle.'
LHM contemplated only a part of the miracle as he crossed Lake Champlain on the ferry. He saw how little the conveyance had changed through a century and a half of use. To me, however, the fact that humans could understand, unlike any other beings on earth, how to put materials together that by themselves are useless, and make a mode of transportation on the water that not only carries them, but if we extrapolate up to the biggest ships of our time, anything we want to carry...to me, it still touches the side of my brain connected to the miraculous. I think that always, even as I understand how and why such things as ships, planes and bicycles work, there will be a side of my brain that will be astonished that such things are possible.
The song and video I found for this post, Sarah McLachlan's Ordinary Miracle, was part of the soundtrack for the movie adaptation of Charlotte's Web. Charlotte's Web is a wonderful story, and is all about miracles, so I think it fits the sense of seeing miracles in our lives each day, even those that may not register as such until you really think about them. By the way, I read this story first when I was young, and it was the first and last time I ever cried over the death of a spider. Spiders are miraculous beings in themselves, and I respect them, but the primitive side of my brain gets the willies over them. So that I cried about the death of a spider - that in itself is a miracle.
If you want to know more about Lake Champlain
Next up: Orwell, Sudbury and Goshen Corners, Vermont