On the Dead Sea (2012.4.2[Mon.])


It is February 2011, and I am by the shore of the Dead Sea, marveling at the majestic vistas of this low-lying, saline basin lake and its surrounding bluffs. I've heard that its waters are receding at a meter per year, due to the damming and diversion of the rivers that feed it for human use. At this rate, in three centuries only a dry bed of salt will remain. Is this what we have come to, killing a sea that is already Dead? And is this what we have come to as scientists, holding our meetings in places such as this? Are we the dead, or the living? Or we are lost?

    I am here for a meeting on muscle development, with many of the same faces as were at the conference in Malta I wrote of before. In fact the swimmer I described in that account is now the organizer, and I suspect he will find his way to the beach here as well. And, on speaking with him, I find he is indeed looking forward to the famously buoyant waters. Our gathering is at a shorefront hotel, where we are roomed in a bungalow complex and make our way each morning to the sessions in a multipurpose hall at the edge of the property, with the massive, unearthly landscape looming off to our right.

    How to describe this place, with its cliffs that seem as if carved by some devil's claws from rocky faces unlike any in the world? It is not entirely without pattern, as the wrinkles and pocks left by wind, sun, weather and ancient time have given the rocks a somehow organic feel, like the skin of an ancient beast. Colors run though the rocky bluffs, following the geometry of gravity across their many strata, laid bare with heartless precision. In the stark sunlight, the gnarled cliffs reveal a new face with each changing moment. This layered, phantasmagoric tapestry, crafted over the eons by geological forces, has captivated adventurers and explorers since the 18th century.

    Voices speaking Hebrew sound almost German, but somehow not. Here, camel, hyrax and ibix amble free, hummingbirds and swifts flit about unaware of their evolutionary kinship, cats strut arrogantly, enjoying their protection by law. Everywhere is haunted by the uncanny smell of the desert and death, and we are trapped in this hole that has been opened into the earth, 400 meters below sea level where both carbon dioxide and oxygen are stiflingly thick; here, at the bottom of the world. I can almost the words of the old folk song “Lady of the Kasbah” (kasuba no onna) hanging in the wind. The geography may be wrong, but it feels right nonetheless.

    We arrived in Ein-Gedi by bus, accompanied the whole way by vintage Henry Mancini Orchestra, songs out of touch with their environment, recalling me to 1970s Japan, when the construction boom was underway and, even in my neighborhood, mountains were stripped to feed the demand for flat ground. Once the leveling was complete of course there was little admire, but during the process, as whole mountainsides were torn away, we could glimpse at their geology, and the many little wonders within. The chaotic form, and the redefined surface of the earth were viscerally unsettling - the queasy disorientation of an alien landscape. I painted them often, and my Dead Sea journey brought those images flooding back.

    We don't always seek beauty, as scenes of the peculiar make clear. The pioneers of yore did not always find beauty - more often they encountered only the unfamiliar. In the Japanese aesthetic, we instinctually look for a sense of livingness, of lush vegetable forms well-lit by the sun and browsed by insect fauna, which in turn makes prey for the birds. Snow-capped mountains and drizzling woods may serve as fitting background accompaniments, but never bare hillsides or dry riverbeds. For such a sensitivity, the desert scenery of Ein-Gedi is as foreign and unreal as the pictures of the floating world (ukiyo-e) from late feudal Japan. It stands as well in undeniable testament to a geophysical power before which we are dwarfed and speechless. Gazing upon the incomprehensible age and scale of the earth so directly leaves one abject and in awe; there is nothing in our experience with which we can compare.

    One of the highlights of the meeting was a barbecue among the dunes. As the sun fell and the air began to chill, people emerged from bathing among the canyon waterfalls to gather by the fire. I could only hobble about, having pulled a calf muscle hiking in the mountains, and contemplated the stars as they found their usual places in the sky: the Hunter, the Great Bear, Cassiopeia. Our host brings out some speakers, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” plays....

    We humans have only been around for the briefest moment of geologic time, less than the millions, or tens of millions, of years needed to form even a single band in the crags nearby; to them, the span of our history means no more than a rounding error. I suppose they will be around for a while more. But just as the opening of the Gibraltar straits unleashed a deluge into a long-dry basin to create the Mediterranean, these rocks too may one day drown. And as I sat watching the stars, I wondered whether, when that day comes, we ourselves would still be here.