Saturday, May 1, 2010
Horizon is a place where the earth and the sky appear to meet. In terrestrial sense it is also a place that is furthest from the eye of the beholder. We can’t see what lies beyond our horizon and we don’t know how the world really is beyond our horizon. Horizon is always mysterious, haunting, exciting and intensely bewitching – at least to me. Is it any wonder then that horizons have always attracted me and have incited me to look beyond where my eyes couldn’t travel.
My life as I have lived has always had its ample share of horizons. Despite being a submariner cramped within a tiny steel tube thousands of feet below the inky ocean depths my world has always been redolent with the most remarkable and abundant horizons and I have never missed a chance of looking at them, staring at them intensely till my eyes could not stare into the darkness any more. The most symmetric, clearly demarcated horizons are seen either over the oceans or great bodies of water, over deserts and from the top of very high mountains. You don’t see horizon from a city or from the windows of your room. You need to go out into these vast expanses of spaces and merge with infinity to really understand and experience what horizon is all about. As is evinced almost all my life I have been in such places since this boundless universe has always been my home. Today I will tell you the story of two horizons.
When dawn breaks across the ocean, as we see it in the early morning surrounded by endless body of water all around, the horizon begins to emerge out of the darkness. A faint thin line of darkness that breaks away from the water and lifts up towards the now brightening azure. The sea could be stormy and ferocious around you but as you let your gaze travel across the white horses and the waves and continue towards the horizon, you will find that the water seems to calm down further your eyes travel from where you stand. Around half way to the horizon, the water seems as calm as a level ground of blue-green and from there on it simply reaches out and meets the sky. During a bright day with haze and hot sun it is often difficult to decipher the horizon but if you look carefully you will see that the sky is slightly paler and of silver streak from the water. Though it needs an experienced eye to see where the blue water ends and the paler sky begins. Through the day as the sun travels across your meridian and then towards the western horizon the horizon too alters and shimmers as if it is alive and redolent with life force. With the setting of the sun and onset of the dusk, as the sky turns pink and orange, so does the water and suddenly the horizon seems more discerning as the ocean water still retains its emerald hue. As the sun sets further and dips below and into the horizon, suddenly a deep ochre streak zips across the horizon almost as if it had been drawn right then and there by an invisible hand. I have no explanation for this phenomenon but I have seen it often through the crosswire of my periscope or from across the deck of a ship and it is a constant no matter which ocean I am traversing.
From there, the night descends real quick as stars start sprouting as if with the wave of a magic wand someone pulled the bright curtain aside and the dark sky came rushing down with its infinite stars. It’s a celebration of comets and meteors, of planets and stars of galaxies and supernovas and of the moon that finally joins the mirthful merry makers in the night sky. While the heavenly bodies sparkle like diamonds the horizon by then is totally immersed into the black sea. But with the appearance of the moon, the horizon again comes alive as bio-phosphorous activities cut across the ship’s wake. The horizon thereafter remains a silvery line where the moon sparkles while on the other side it is completely black and invisible.
As a mariner and navigator we must know where and how far our horizon is, and why there is a horizon at all. Horizon happens due to the earth’s curvature and the fact that light travels only in a straight line (not true when it is influenced by strong magnetic forces around massive bodies). So as the light that is reflected from an object travels outwards it follows a straight path and as soon as the curvature of the earth is encountered this path of light doesn’t curve along with it, instead goes out straight into the outer space. Therefore to see this object the observer has to be within the curvature horizon and the distance of this horizon depends on the height of eye of the observer. Higher you go wider and further your horizon would be. The first inkling our ancient mariners got of the earth’s curvature was when at sea they would sight the mast of a ship first and the body later. If earth were flat, the entire ship would be seen at the same time. Therefore to have a fair estimate of a ship’s distance when it is first sighted (just the top tip of the highest mast) on the horizon, if we know the distance to the horizon from the observer’s height of eye, then that is exactly the distance of that ship from the observer. Even modern navigator’s use this estimate to know with a fair amount of accuracy the distance of a ship (contact) when sighted first on the horizon. Using a simple formula we can calculate every observer’s (depending on the individual’s height of eye) distance to horizon. You will perhaps be surprised to know that though the ocean horizon looks so distant and unreachable, for an observer’s height of eye of 40 ft (average bridge height of a ship, from where all navigational observations are usually made) the distance to the furthest horizon is only in the range of 12 – 15 km.
Now let’s look at the other horizon, which is equally enchanting and mysterious and closer to my heart since it is also very cold and at places that are much above terra firma. You have guessed it right; I am now going to talk about mountain horizons.
At the bottom of a mountain, the horizon is extremely small and almost right above your head rather than all around you, like in the oceans. But as you begin to climb the magic seems to unfold. Higher you go, bigger and wider the horizon opens up. It seems like coming out of a deep well towards widening sky. As we climb higher smaller peaks and summits fall below while higher ones emerge from our horizon, dwarfing us often with their magnitude and scale. This is an amusing experience. Your horizon keeps pulsating like a pendulum, now wider, now smaller, now further, now closer, now more, now less. This happens as long as we remain within normal altitudes but the real drama starts after crossing the 20 K ft threshold. This is my real world, anything below is much too cramped with features. Once you cross 20,000 ft (6000 m) suddenly the world seems to be falling away and down all around. Above 6500 m this world becomes even less populated as now almost the entire world around would be beneath your feet and the horizon would have grown to a mammoth scale. And if you remember, with higher height of eye we can see further and thus our horizons are suddenly immense. But above 7000 m suddenly we are transported into a whole new world. And this is the horizon that I am going to tell you about today through the leaf of a single day from one of my numerous expeditions to this altitude and beyond.
Dawn and dusk are two moments in a day when I seldom move since these are the periods of transformation, when the world alters itself like a beautiful woman with a single stroke of her hand or a flick of her hair. In this expedition, I am perched at a tiny ledge overlooking a 6000 ft sheer drop at an altitude of slightly above 7000 m. At this altitude every action is difficult including that of thought and emotions. Sleep doesn’t come easy since the brain screams out for oxygen and for relief from the sheer agony of fighting to stay alive every minute of your existence. It’s four in the morning that is so cold that I can almost hear my breath freezing the moment it leaves my nostrils. With infinite care I put on my down jacket and shoes and crampons and emerge out of the tent to start my vigil of the horizon. Back to the mountain that I am here to climb, I dig into the ice and aligning myself to the east begin my agonizing wait. The terrifyingly cold wind carrying snow dust and fragrance of no man’s lands lashes into my eyes and eats into my exposed skin. I rub my nose with my gloves but can feel no sensation at all. The tip of my nose had already started whitening and freezing as the clock ticked towards the intense drama that had already begin its entrée beyond my horizon.
The sky turns grey as the black sheet is lifted ever so slowly by the rising sun. Countless peaks of lesser dimensions flicker out and start populating my horizon. Each ice encrusted summit is my friend, many of whom have seen my footsteps while others I have waved from a distance. The horizon crackles and sparkles like a flash of thunder as the deep pink-orange hue emerges. Stars flee from the sky and the darkness surrenders to the mighty Sun. I stare fixated. Nothing on earth can make me move right now. I am transfixed by the vision, by this spectacular show of grandeur and color on my horizon. The top orb of the sun finally reaches my horizon and the first streak of its tawny ray slaps me on the face. It feels like heaven though I am alive. The pale sun is not strong enough to deter the chilling cold but it is strong enough to dispel all darkness from the horizon. I stare deep into the distance, trying to count and recognize each of the summits, now each painted gold and yellow by the rising sun. It seems as if a celestial hand is pouring molten gold from above on the conical summits that now dance and pulsate with a life of their own.
The air is unbelievably clear and crystalline and crackling with cold. My legs and bottom are frozen stiff. I inhale and fill up my lungs with the oxygen deprived air and feel emptiness fill up my insides with nothingness. I remove my hood and let the sun caress my tousled hair. The cold stings my eyes, my face and my exposed head. I grit my teeth and don’t let the horizon out of my sight. Soon it would be far too bright for me to look there and I wish to linger as long as possible. The endless sky is Shiva’s canvas and He fills it up with every shades of the rainbow and then some. Red, orange, purple, ochre, yellow, blue, turquoise, amethyst, copper, and ruby burst in and out from every corner, merging and disappearing like myriads of Diwali sparklers. My senses are numb but my eyes register this epic grandeur. The sun rises further and I put on my UV sunglasses and get down to digging out snow and get the burner going. Not a moment to lose, we have long way to go.
Around dusk, we pitch our camp at another ledge looking down at our footsteps across the virgin snow. The day is gone and I sit once again, now with a steaming cup of tea and wait for my friend dusk to make its appearance. Dusk occur almost in reverse. The summits around and below begin to melt into the darkness. They lose their identity and individuality and start becoming one with the horizon. I too don’t seem to exist anymore. The sun dips now and drops out of sight like a stone thrown in a pond with deep orange ripples across the sky. Stars rush in to fill the void and finally, like in the ocean, here too the horizon ceases to be. When there is nothing else to see, I still stare across and look for my horizon, knowing that it is still there somewhere within that vast emptiness waiting for me to arrive.
Can we ever touch our horizon? It’s a physical impossibility and there lies my enchantment with it. Horizon is forever receding, the closer I get to it, the further it goes away; I could make it bigger or smaller but never nearer. It stays exactly where it has always been no matter how many times I go around the world or touch the sky from the top of Everest. Horizon can never be reached it is unreachable but the effort must be made to reach it. That’s where the importance of action is, even when our destination is unachievable, we must strive and continue to be fascinated with the effort and the phenomenon. We may never reach it but we will certainly reach somewhere that will be much further and more enthralling than the place where we were stuck till then since before we didn’t have the courage to reach out to the horizon.
Horizons are good places to aspire for and destinations worth striving for. No one lives there, no one can live in their horizon, but they can be there in their dreams in the power of their vision and in the triumph of their efforts.
I am never going to give up on my horizons and I sincerely hope that you won’t give up on yours too. Your and my horizons could well be different since we see them from different locations and different altitudes but they are still identical since in their quest we both would traverse through a wonderful journey called life in search of the potion for happiness.
Even after you and I cease to be, our horizons would continue to enchant others in their path and their stories would merge with ours and thus the chain of humanity and civilization continue for all the times to come. How can you not then be on the road to your horizon! You must, you should for that’s all that you can really do – reach out for your horizon.