Cut Down Your Mast To The Boards And Heave It Into The Sea

There was a time a few weeks ago here in New York City that the two most prevalent sounds were ambulance sirens and bird song. And here we are in a city that is light 30,000 souls. Over the weeknd The Houston Chronicle had an obituary section that was forty three pages long. COVID-19 deaths are the vast majority of them. I was watching a news report where the Chief Medical Officer of one of the hospital systems in Houston was speaking to the onslaught of patients and describing what they, as doctors, are dealing with. This isn’t an exact quote but it was something like “The patients are drowning in their own lungs. And we are drowning in patients.” He was trying to hold it together but he repeated drowning a few times and was, properly, undone. It broke my heart that another city was having to bear the burden of what mine has had to endure. So I have been thinking about drowning the last few days and using it as a departure place to lead me to wonder about these times, relationship to place, and it does relate to Primal Derma and culture making, I think. Stick with me!
Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea wrote of drowning:

“The instinct not to breath underwater is so strong that it overcomes the agony of running out of air. No matter how desperate the drowning person is, he doesn’t inhale until he’s on the verge of losing consciousness. At that point there’s so much carbon dioxide in the blood, and so little oxygen, that chemical sensors in the brain trigger an involuntary breath whether he’s underwater or not. That is called the “break point”, laboratory experiments have shown the break point to come after 87 seconds. It’s sort of a neurological optimism, as if the body were saying, Holding our breath is killing us, and breathing in might not kill us, so we might as well breathe in. If the person hyperventilates first – as free divers do, and as a frantic person might – the break point comes as late as 140 seconds. Hyperventilation initially flushes carbon dioxide out of the system, so it takes much longer to climb back up to critical levels.

Until the break point, a drowning person is said to be undergoing “voluntary apnea”, choosing not to breathe. Lack of oxygen to the brain causes a sensation of darkness closing in from all sides, as in the camera aperture stopping down. The pain of a drowning person is mixed with an odd incredulity that this is actually happening. Having never done it before, the body—and the mind—do not know how to die gracefully. The process is filled with desperation and awkwardness. “So this is drowning”, a drowning person might think. So this is how my life finally ends.”…

These thoughts shriek through the mind during the minute or so that it takes a panicked person to run out of air. When the first involuntary breath occurs most people are still conscious, which is unfortunate, because the only thing more unpleasant than running out of air is breathing in water. At this point the person goes from voluntary to involuntary apnea, and the drowning begins in earnest.  A spasmodic breath drags water into the mouth and windpipe, and then one of two things happen. In about ten percent of people, water—anything—touching the vocal cords triggers an immediate contraction in the muscles around the larynx. In effect, the central nervous system judges something in the voice box to be more of a threat than low oxygen levels in the blood, and acts accordingly. This is called laryngospasm. It’s so powerful that it overcomes the breathing reflex and eventually suffocates the person. A person with laryngospasm drowns without any water in his lungs.

In the other ninety percent of people, water floods the lungs and ends any waning transfer of oxygen to the blood. The clock is running down now; half-conscious and enfeebled by oxygen depletion, the person is in no position to fight his way back up to the surface. The very process of drowning makes it harder and harder not to drown, an exponential disaster curve similar to that of a sinking boat.

Occasionally someone makes it back from this dark world, though, and it’s from these people that we know what drowning feels like.”

Rough. Forgive me that. Surfers have said that ‘it is hard to drown’. They might be correct, we humans can be quite resilient. Many people have ‘near-drowning’ stories that they can tell at parties when drowning conversations make their way across wine glasses and couches in lieu of real war stories. Surfers tend to be experienced in water and in reasonably good shape. This will help you avoid drowning for sure. Drowning, however, is the sixth leading cause of unintentional death for people of all ages. What does that mean? The risk of fatal drowning when in water (not specifically surfing) is estimated  to be 200 times greater than the risk of death from driving a car in the United States. Or there is 800 times more risk of death than when a fit and well person has a (non-emergency) general anesthetic. Identified risk factors for drowning include male gender, risky behavior and lack of supervision. Regardless of all this…surfers have some kind of lived relationship with the water.
So this is a true story. A true story that really happened. About one thousand years ago Captain Aligargh sailed regularly the eastern coast of India. He was born in what we would call Pakistan as the son of a shepherd. He became a sailor at a young age and became well known in his day.
The sea trading route between India and China at the time was treacherous. If you made the trip you factored into it that you would lose something into the blue-black frothed waters: men, goods, fingers. 
Captain Aligargh, as the old stories go, made the trip seven times solo. This image here is a replica of a 9th century trading ship from that part of the world. I imagine that the boat Aligargh sailed on was bigger, but I don’t know. But maybe it looked similar to this.
One season another captain, Captain Shahriari, was off the Eastern coast of India during monsoon season with wide open skies and gorgeous clear weather. He was worried. As a brief side note, we know this story because Shahriari recorded it virtually contemporaneously.
In the distance he saw a speck that troubled him as out of place that far out at sea. So he sent two scouts out to inspect the matter in a small dinghy. When they got there they found Captain Aligargh sitting in a canoe in the middle of the ocean. The scouts and Aligargh had some words and then the scouts returned.
The men came back to the ship and reported to Captain Shahriari.
Captain Shahriari spoke “Men, what was it that you found?”
“Captain Aligargh, sir. He was in a canoe in the middle of the sea.”
“Aligargh? In a canoe? Why, pray tell, didn’t you bring him back with you?”
“He refused, sir. He said that he was perfectly fine in his small canoe and that it was we who were in danger. We plead with him but he refused to come.”
Shahriari waited a moment and the men added one more salient detail.
“He said he would come only if we gave him one thousand dinars.”
This was a fortune. Shahriari reflected for a moment and then told him men “go fetch him.”
Once Aligargh got on board he immediately asked for his one thousand dinars and Shahriari handed them over himself.
Aligargh then said to the crew assembled on the deck “Are you prepared to do exactly as I say? For if you do not you will surely die.”
They nodded silently.
“You must immediately cut down your mast to the boards and heave it into the sea. You must take all your cargo. Everything. All of it is cast away into the black water. And cut the rope and the chain of your anchor and drop it into the deep.”
For a sailor and trader at the time this is about the worst thing you could suggest – give up the only thing that gives you any real direction or speed or control, everything that might be of value to you, and the one thing that might actually hold you still when everything around you rages.
But they did it. And a few hours later a truly massive storm struck. With the boat light as a cork now it bobbed through the storm. Not that there was no damage, there was, but they wouldn’t have made it at all unless everything was cut, thrown, and dropped away.
They limped to China and got a new mast and cargo. Sailing back south Aligargh suddenly told Shahriari to stop the ship and send his divers down to retrieve the anchor. Shahriari sent them down and they found it and retrieved the massive metal hook. Shahriari asked Aligargh, “How could you have known it was here?”
Aligargh said “If you are friends with the sea then all can be read very easily.”
Might we need to cast our masts and cargo and anchors into the sea in times of trouble? How must we submit to the times?
The Marshall Islanders are among the many Pacific Islanders that are astounding navigators who can read waves and see pathways between islands. They are so versed in the ways of water that they don’t even consider navigation on land to be of note because their land is so small and so flat. They navigate by water even when on land. I don’t even understand how you would do that.
But these people know the waves and the ripples and have names for all of them. Some are friendly waves, others are vengeful. But they consider them all alive and worth knowing.
Drowning (broadly speaking) happens to people who are of the land. Those who need solid footholds and landmarks to make their way in the world. What does a watermark even mean for a land-based person?
When the world is going wrong we often say that we ‘feel at sea’…this is something that only a land-oriented person could say.
How might we court the sea? How might we court the sea knowing full well that it is probably far too late in our lives to ever become anything more than acquainted unless you have already put in thousands of hours? 
That courting might have to go like Shahriari’s – total surrender. And only then you might have a chance to not drown.

I can’t say that in every trying time that this is what you must do – cut your mast, get rid of all your possessions, and lose your anchors so you can bob through the troubles. But we are in troubled times and Aligargh embodies, and those Marshall Islanders embody a skill that we here at Primal Derma admire  – belonging profoundly to a place, knowing a place so much so that the  place might speak with you. Victory is not assured, but victory is not required either. Here at Primal Derma we try to practice belonging to a place and being faithful to a time and the human making response to limits and telling stories that speak to such things.

Thank you so much for your ongoing orders and support during these strange days.

Grateful for them,


twitter: @stillm

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