"There is a lurking fear that some things are 'not meant' to be known, that some inquiries are too dangerous for human beings to make." Carl Sagan
Here I am last week on the island of Guam asking questions. That's me on the left. On the right is a man I admire very much. His name is Manny Sikau and he's a seventh generation master navigator from the tiny atoll of Puluwat. He can, and has, steered small, marvelous, fragile outrigger canoes across hundreds of miles of open ocean using only the stars, the waves, clouds, and sea life to navigate; no compass, no sextant, no radio, nothing but his bone-deep knowledge of the sea and its relationship with the rest of the universe.
I admire him because I've been out there with him on the open sea. And there are few experiences that can match the feeling it gives a sailor than to be on the ocean, at night, in a small boat, alone on watch with the utter loneliness of deep space arcing above you. Even in the tropics, the stars, the very things you are depending upon to guide you, seem cold and unfathonable because you know they are, in fact, profoundly uncaring.
And so the sailor inevitably gets the answer to this, the ultimate question: Does it matter to the stars if I continue to live or if the sea chooses to swallow me up and cause me to disappear? It quickly becomes obvious: No, it doesn't. The life of the sailor matters only to the sailor himself and to those who love him.After that, there are no other questions worth asking.
In this picture, though, I'm not asking Manny about such impractical, existential nonsense. Each of us has to find those answers for himself or herself. Don't bother the master with such things. Ask instead, which star path do I follow to get from, say, the nearly invisible atoll of Pikelot to tiny island of Saipan when there's a big sea running? Ask instead, what oceanic swell does one learn to feel as it passes under the hull of the canoe to steer this course? Inquire as to which of the sea birds will not spend the night at sea and can be relied upon to lead the navigator to land as the sun goes down.
I'm asking because I have before us the loose leaf-bound draft of my next novel, a book I'm calling, Brothers of the Fire Star, and I'm picking at the master's brain. I have too many questions, it seems, for one afternoon. I've finished writing the book--the story as been told, the characters have met their fates--but in this case, the details matter very much; I want to get them right and I must have answers before I can truly be finished.
We sat in the dark shade of the sacred canoe house, among the hulls and spars of at least five equally sacred proas and as I probed, Manny smiled and answered in his soft voice: Yes, there is fresh water on those small islands, but one has to dig for it. Yes, the first thing an island sailor does upon landing on an atoll, is search for sea turtles on the beach. He then flips them over on their backs so they can't escape. Later he will eat them, cooking them in their shells over an open fire. Yes, there are maybe five ocean swells one must be able to understand simultaneously to be truly a good navigator, and some swells are nearly impossible to see or to feel yet one must feel them or die.
For men such as Manny Sikau, this knowledge was learned as a boy and he was steeped in it as a man; it is second nature. For me, a farm boy from Massachusetts, other things are second nature, but not this. I understand its significance but struggle to grasp the technique itself. Only more time at sea will reveal that to me and I don't have much time left.
Instead, I will write my books and remain awestruck by the courage and skills of these islanders. And that may be enough. I guess it will have to be enough.