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Small Fires in the Deep

Bioluminescent bacteria occur nearly everywhere, and probably most spectacularly as the rare “milky sea” phenomenon, particularly in the Indian Ocean where mariners report steaming for hours through a sea glowing with a soft white light as far as the eye can see. — The Bioluminescence Page

There is another world above this one; or outside of this one; the way to it is thru the smoke of this one, & the hole that smoke goes through. The ladder is the way through the smoke hole; the ladder holds up, some say, the world above; it might have been a tree or pole; I think it is merely a way. — Gary Snyder- Through the Smoke Hole

These days she wakes before dawn. The sound of the automatic coffee grinder and its aroma is her alarm. Before first light today, out on the deck overlooking the Pacific, she was gazing at the sea and saw, across the flat miles of ocean stretching out to Catalina, bright flashes come and go like wet fireworks exploding under the waves. Binoculars brought the flashes closer but didn’t explain them. They were scattered all across the wide water except where the full moon sliding down the sky towards the western horizon smoothed a bright white band across the slate sea.

Later, when he woke, she brought him out on the deck to see the place where she’d witnessed this strange antediluvian light show. After a few more minutes he noticed that, in the rising light, large patches of the sea were dark, as if secret islands had risen just beneath the surface. Secret until his ‘compulsion to explain the mysterious’ arose.

“It’s most likely a large algae bloom,” he claimed. “When it was dark and the algae were stirred up by waves, breaking combers probably excited and concentrated the algae. What you saw was bioluminescence.”

“Bioluminescence,” she said. “That’s such a fine, soft word.”

They watched the dark islands under the surface of the sea for a while longer and he wished he’d seen the flashes in the pre-dawn dark.

Toward the end of his life, Carl Sagan wrote a book about how most of humanity still lives in a “demon-haunted world;” and how science drives us relentlessly out of the dark oceans of our ignorance until, like some stump-legged fish, we scramble gasping onto the thin, dry strands of our knowledge about the truth of this world.

One of those strands in his mind was ‘knowing’ that the miracle of rushlights within the ocean was caused by the phenomenon we label “bioluminescence.”

Mystery seen, mystery solved.

Wonder summed up crisp and clean by Science, our youngest and most robust religion. A religion whose prime attraction is to transubstantiate the miraculous with the dependable; whose creed reverses the Eucharist by rendering the body and blood of God into bland bread and indifferent wine.

He’d long been a lay member of this fresh, muscular faith whose liturgies are written in arcane symbols of mathematics rather than arcane phrases of Latin. As a lay member and mere acolyte his understanding of science is as shallow as his faith in science is adamantine.

He has worshiped the Saints Einstein, Darwin, Newton, and Bohr. He has believed that in time all will be known and, when all is known, all will be explained and all mystery resolved. He has not yet read The Testament of the Unified Field, but he hopes to before he dies and rejoins said Unified Field as empty matter glowing in the dark. Some of our current priests growing old in the quest assure him that he will. They currently hope to hunt Higgs-Boson to its burrow.

Yet still, he wonders. Still, he persists in his scientific heresy.

He wonders, “When we explain what we experience in life in the steel language of science, do we drive the mystery out or merely mix more mystery in?”

Perhaps neither. Perhaps what we do, through our relentless human need to explain, is to simply dive, as blindly as fish born below the light, ever deeper into the miracle. Perhaps we dive deep in the hope that the light from our minds and souls will, on some immensely distant day, grow large enough and bright enough to illuminate one crest of one wave rising once only out of the darkness. And that something, somewhere else in the immense darkness in which we dwell, will see our small fire and answer.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • John Venlet March 2, 2018, 9:25 AM

    Off topic: Auden’s poem is good, up there in the sidebar, but what happened to the other the poem, which I was only able to read once, that was just previous to Auden’s? It didn’t stay up there long, and I’d like to read it again, as it seemed quite apropos to today, though Auden’s speaks to today also.

  • CW March 2, 2018, 9:30 AM

    Deep thoughts for a slow Friday morning. I enjoyed that more the second time through. Excellent work, much appreciated.

  • Terry March 2, 2018, 9:48 AM

    The Auden poem is as true as it gets. Authority is a myth. The State is part of that myth. The people have been dumbed down to accept both as terrestrial gods.

  • Vanderleun March 2, 2018, 10:54 AM


    Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto VI, [My Native Land]
    Sir Walter Scott
    Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
    Who never to himself hath said,
    This is my own, my native land!
    Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
    As home his footsteps he hath turn’d
    From wandering on a foreign strand!
    If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
    For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
    High though his titles, proud his name,
    Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;—
    Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
    The wretch, concentred all in self,
    Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
    And, doubly dying, shall go down
    To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
    Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.

  • John Venlet March 2, 2018, 11:04 AM

    Thanks, Gerard. Melodically acerbic, and worth writing down in my little notebook.

  • Ten March 2, 2018, 11:48 AM

    Nice piece, Gerard. I especially liked the paragraph about Sagan and scientism. I like to call it Science! with the caps to signify its being branded as a weaponized noun instead of what it really is. Not to slight Sagan, but I remember him waxing on about the magnificence of man in the wonder of Everything. All he needed was a deity somewhere to make his sermon religious.

    Funny too how the Higgs Boson, before it apparently proved that ours is neither a big banger or a multiverse, was to have lent everything to everything when we have no idea what any of the forces are, starting with gravity and magnetism and extending through to how the universe itself violated its purported, subsequent natural laws just in order to exist.

    Of course, then the gigantic collider was briefly re-purposed into a Big Bang-disproving device before something else that didn’t quite pan out and now it’s on to some other grant-funded exploration that, as likely as not, terminates in another door opened into a hallway of locks.

    Gravity waves were another controversial finding whose proof was, according to the articles of actual science, confirmation that if you looked at it just so, it fit the theory. Of course, it fit a few things.

    Rosetta showed how comets aren’t ice at all, but dry, dusty rock. Not to be deterred, no pop-sci writings noticed and we’re still saddled with the speculative Oort Cloud as the great seeder of life. With no evidence thereof.

    Now dark matter takes a blow, probably fatal, although it was never science so much as a placeholder for an unknown phenomenon.

    And so it goes. Science! has as much faith in it as religion, possibly because science knows vastly more but its ratio of known to unknown remains not much different than the rest of us.

  • John Venlet March 2, 2018, 12:02 PM

    Science! has as much faith in it as religion, possibly because science knows vastly more but its ratio of known to unknown remains not much different than the rest of us.

    Not to be contrarian, Ten, but I’d say science, no matter on you write the word, has more faith than religion, and it’s dogmas are more potently dangerous.

  • Buz Cederlof March 2, 2018, 12:43 PM

    In the movie “Apollo 13” when Jim Lovell (Hanks) was describing trying to find an aircraft carrier in the dark in the middle of the ocean, and following the glowing wake of said carrier, now makes a lot of sense!

  • Roy Lofquist March 2, 2018, 8:04 PM

    Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner for his work on Quantum Electrodynamics, is consistently rated as one of the top ten physicists in history. The following video of one of his lectures is queued to his discourse on our complete lack of understanding the very fundamentals of our existence. Enjoy.


  • Fletcher Christian March 3, 2018, 8:34 AM

    A couple of quibbles here:

    First of all, does it diminish the wonder when you know how the blue light is formed? And in the case of one science, astronomy, I think the wonder is increased by knowing more. Once, we thought that the sky was a dome, not too far over our heads, with a couple of big lights and a few small ones wandering about on it and a few thousand pinpricks static upon it.

    Now, we know that the sky is a gulf whose grandeur mere humans cannot begin to comprehend; in fact, the discovery of perhaps a hundredth of its true extent was one of the causes of a whole new field of literature – the field started by H.P. Lovecraft.

    And finally: Science, if it is a religion (and it isn’t; true science is an organised way of finding out about the world) is different in one respect from all other religions. Science works, particularly when its findings are applied. And all the trappings of religion – all the mumbled or chanted spells, the bizarre clothes, the tortuous and complicated rituals, and the arcane rules – don’t.

    If you contracted sepsis, would you rather be prayed over in relays or given a shot or two of the right antibiotic?

  • ghostsniper March 4, 2018, 7:04 AM

    I’d rather avoid the 2 steps PRIOR to contracting the sepsis.

  • Howard Nelson March 4, 2018, 11:25 AM

    Roy, great YouTube. I better understand my incomprehension of explanation.
    Fletcher, like Science, Religion works when its concepts, principles, tenets, rules, beliefs are applied in human behavior — that is, tested against reality of results, as does Science. Science emphasizes predictability of results from its rules.

    Science, as Feynman notes, is mainly about the How (‘laws’) describing behaviors of What (phenomena).
    Philosophy is mainly searching for reasons for How to live sanely.
    Religion is based in beliefs that it has found How to live, and Why, and its mission is to convince non-believers of its great value.
    Different strokes for different folks, as the Great Oarsmyn might say to us, in an otherwise rudderless and compassless world beneath an opaque sky.

  • Fletcher Christian March 4, 2018, 2:52 PM

    ghostsniper: The first trial patient for penicillin was suffering from sepsis and severe skin disease (huge abscesses covering half his face, beginning to invade the sinuses) and was given about two or three days to live – from an initial lesion caused by a scratch from a rose thorn. He would have been cured, but the supply (at the time, the entire world supply) of penicillin ran out before it did its job.

    In any case, I could have used just about any disease as an example.

  • rabbit tobacco April 20, 2021, 10:20 AM

    Just remember this: EVERYTHING is happening
    right NOW.

  • james wilson April 20, 2021, 10:42 AM

    The first man to examine science as pseudo-religion was the agnostic Henry Adams, who was in London assisting his uncle, the American (Union) ambassador to London during the War Between the States.

    Henry Adams was a Darwinist because it was easier than not, for his ignorance exceeded belief, and one must know something in order to contradict even such triflers as Tyndall and Huxley.

    He felt, like nine men in ten, an instinctive belief in Evolution, but he felt no more concern in Natural than in unnatural Selection…

    Natural Selection led back to Natural Evolution, and at last to Natural Uniformity. This was a vast stride. Unbroken Evolution under uniform conditions pleased everyone –except curates and bishops; it was the very best substitute for religion; a safe, conservative, practical, thoroughly Common Law deity. Such a working system for the universe suited a young man who had just helped to waste five or ten thousand million dollars and a million lives, more or less, to enforce unity and uniformity on people who objected to it; the idea was only too seductive in its perfection; it had the charm of art. Unity and Uniformity were the whole motive of philosophy, and if Darwin, like a true Englishman, preferred to back into it–to reach God a posteriori–rather than start from it, like Spinoza, the difference of method taught only the moral that the best way of reaching unity was to unite. Any road was good that arrived.

    Steady, uniform, unbroken evolution from lower to higher seemed easy.

    So, one day when Sir Charles came to the Legation to inquire about getting his “Principles” properly noticed in America, young Adams found nothing simpler than to suggest that he could do it himself if Sir Charles would tell him what to say.

    Ponder over it as he might, Adams could see nothing in the theory of Sir Charles but pure inference…He could detect no more evolution in life since the Pteraspis than he could detect it in architecture since the Abbey. All he could prove was change.

    All this seemed trivial to the true Darwinian, and to Sir Charles it was a mere defect in the geological record. Sir Charles labored only to heap up the evidence of evolution; to cumulate them till the mass became irresistible. With that purpose, Adams gladly studied and tried to help Sir Charles, but, behind the lesson of the day, he was conscious that, in geology as in theology, he could prove only Evolution that did not evolve; uniformity that was not uniform; and Selection that did not select.

    To other Darwinians–except Darwin–Natural Selection seemed a dogma to be put in the place of the Athanasian creed; it was a form of religious hope; a promise of ultimate perfection. Adams wished no better, he warmly sympathized in the object; but when he came to ask himself what he truly thought, he felt that he had no Faith; that whenever the next new hobby should be brought out, he should surely drop off the Darwinism like a monkey from a perch.


  • julie April 20, 2021, 11:50 AM

    This calls to mind a long-ago summer night, a group of teenagers sneaking out and going for a ride with friends of friends. Riding in a loud car through sketchy Sea-Tac neighborhoods and ending up on a little hidden beach surrounded by trees, somewhere just upwind of Tacoma’s pulp mills. Walking along muddy sand with soft, unassuming waves, and seeing footsteps revealed, the splash of a thrown stick, the wonder and mystery of unexpected light which made the formerly boisterous group quiet and reflective. Not much else to remember about that night, the light in the water was the only part that mattered.

  • Double XX April 20, 2021, 12:36 PM

    First Pascal’s Wager, Second from Louis Pasteur “Little science takes you away from GOD but more of it takes you to him” And third from G. K. Chesterton “When men stop believing in GOD, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything” dr. fakey, black lies matter the gov. is here to help. I could go on but you get the idea. GREAT WRITING Gerard THANKS

  • Fletcher Christian April 20, 2021, 12:50 PM

    Pascal’s Wager is a poor argument for one good reason. It’s about believing in God, specifically the Christian God, in order to avoid the punishment for not believing and/or gain the benefits of believing (and, incidentally, stating it publicly and doing what His self-appointed representatives tell you to). Do you not think the the One who knows everything won’t know why you are doing it, and do you think, knowing that, He will be impressed?

  • Bunny April 20, 2021, 2:11 PM

    He isn’t proud and will take us however we come to Him. We aren’t punished for our unbelief, but by it. I doubt that He is impressed by too much. That’s what I think, anyway.

  • gwbnyc April 20, 2021, 2:21 PM

    IIRC- WW2; a flyer separated from his task force in darkness was able to return to his blacked-out carrier by dimming the plane’s cockpit lights and following the ships’ lume trail.

  • ghostsniper April 20, 2021, 3:02 PM

    “When men stop believing in GOD, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything”
    Probably one of the top 10 silliest things ever written.
    “If not this, then it MUST be that!”
    Sounds like the argument of an 8 year old.
    There is nothing to be gained by arguing about religion, or, in today’s psychotic world, science.

  • Jack April 21, 2021, 8:56 AM

    Christian faith (some call it ‘religion’) and Science – both work for me and for what little I know of each, I can’t see where either weakens the claims of the other. Actually, I’ve been blinded by both.