Times past, I never cared much for long-form non-fiction. I always preferred novels. However, two years ago on the recommendation of a few people I read Richard Holmes’ 2008 book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science and got hooked on the genre. The Age of Wonder has the most beautiful book cover I’ve seen and feels like a great adventure novel in many places, particularly the chapters about Tahiti.
I returned to Sutro Baths today with my zoom lens in the hope of catching closeup photographs of Sutro Sam, but San Franciscans (plus a handful of tourists) had swarmed the ruins because we are absolute suckers for a Pacific sunset. Perhaps Sam didn’t like the vast numbers of two-legged interlopers infringing upon his territory. As I snapped shots of the freighter above, I recalled the stories told within The Age of Wonder about the Romantic age of exploration, the age when almost all of the remaining blank spots on the world map got filled in. The navigator on board that freighter can pinpoint the exact square meter on the globe the bow of that ship sails through at any instant. Only a mere 200-250 years ago, a navigator would have had no idea where he was and no idea where he was going, beyond knowing that he sailed west from the New World.
Beyond Sutro Baths, the surf. Beyond the surf, Seal Rocks. Beyond Seal Rocks, the sea. Beyond that, the sunset. Beyond that–well, beyond that, what? What could possibly exist beyond the known world? If you went there, would you find anything at all? If you found nothing, what would you do when the fresh water ran out? In those days, sailors and explorers ventured into the world knowing perfectly well that there existed a very good chance that they would never come back.
We don’t wonder about any of that anymore. We don’t need to wonder about anything.
Our plane will touch down in Honolulu’s airport. We’ll step into the terminal while the plane refuels or we transfer to another jet, and there’s plenty of bottled water in the airport shops to drink whilst we await the connecting flight to “Otaheite” (Tahiti).
The greatest strength of The Age of Wonder is that the book engenders within the reader the sense of wonder and amazement people felt when Banks explored Tahiti, Mungo Park explored Africa, and Herschel turned his giant telescope to the heavens. These days, we need to look harder for the places where no one has ever ventured. Sometimes I wonder if one can find a single acre anywhere within the continental United States where no human being has ever stood.
Keep the wonder alive. Turn your eyes to the heavens or to the depths of the oceans, but keep the wonder alive. Wonder what the heck is out there.
Vonn Scott Bair
PS–Except for the one picture, all shots taken with a Nikon D40 with a polarizing filter; none edited.