‘The Eye in the Sand—On Creative Remoteness’
The Best Australian Science Writing 2014. Sydney: New South Books, 2014. (Originally published in Meanjin Volume 72 Issue 4, 2013).
Edited by Zora Sanders
One bright October morning in 2012 a blue eyeball the size of a melon appears on Pomano Beach in Florida. No one can say where it has come from, what creaturely skull once held it. It shows signs of having been plied out with a knife. The eyeball has a dark blue pupil, surrounded by an egg-blue iris, set in a steely blue sphere. “It was very, very fresh”, declares the beachcomber Gino Covacci, who found the eyeball, rocking in the surf. “It was still bleeding”. He took it home in a bag, and put it in his fridge. Then he called the police. In footage he mimes holding the blue eyeball, standing atop a mass of tumbled jetsam; weeds, netting, shredded consumer goods. He stares aghast into the open cup of his palms. The camera pans out to the indecipherable sea. Dazzle and distance. What unfinished animal patrols there, sweeping the deeps with its blue, cyclopean beam?
Blue, as the American author and activist Rebecca Solnit puts it, is the “colour of distance … the colour of where you are not”. Landmarks seen from afar, scenes from the softening edge of the terrain, indigo gloom spooled in ocean caves. Blue speaks of vastness and the unexplored, of places it takes a day or longer to get to. Who will you be by the time you get there? What this is known as is the Rayleigh scatter effect; the strewing of atmospheric light particles as they reach far-flung places. Blue is the colour that can’t be caught up with—it trundles out ahead. ‘There’ is forever retreating, even as we draw the hall-runner of the world towards us. Arrival destroys blue. For that reason we are inclined to view it as a kind of deceit, and a species of art. Blue stands not just for the unknown (that which might eventually become known); blue represents an imperative in our popular imagination to signify that which will never be fully knowable, a zone outside comprehension and creative perception. The end of imagination, we imagine, is an immaculate blue vault in the sky.
Australians have a profound attachment to the blue wash of remoteness. Scale is a national obsession here, and notions of expansiveness pervade our social and political dispositions. Where the European impulse is for personal space (‘noli me tangere’), and public collectivity is the spatial ethic of the Chinese, Australians are prone to romanticise not just open scapes, but aspects. The land of sweeping plains is loved best when viewed long-range. Oh, the tenderness we feel towards a distant dusky chasm, the dissolving perspective of an upland plateau! Ours are the bluest mountains of all, over which sheets of airborne oil are drawn, released by the leaves of the coachwoods and sassafras below. On hot days the colour of the ranges deepens to a rich and roiling azure.
Blue is trusted in Australia, speaks less of artifice than of authenticity. To call someone ‘true blue’ means they are a patriot. The Southern Cross constellation, against a blue field, whips in the wind atop government buildings. Our only major historical rebellion took place under another, navy-blue flag. The attachment is to a belief in the undiscovered and undefined, to the wilds we won’t (but could) enter; a kind of oblivion. ‘Blue-sky thinking’ is imagination untethered from topography—the brain permitted to drift like a balloon. There are places to stand in this country where the sky comes down to your ankles. Where, at night, the entire galactic dome is set down over your sleeping body like a drinking glass. Blue’s mood is yearning, with a zealous or violent bent. To have ‘a blue’ is to fight, to be beat blue and black.
And then, of course, there’s the sea.
As is the condition of our networked era—to be compelled to exhausting topics of marginal importance—so I have become obsessed with looking at photographs of the blue eyeball. The eyeball gazes back at me through the screen, seeming to convey some great challenge as yet unmet by human ingenuity. (Twice dead as it is—being actually dead, having been detached from its host, and then killed again by excessive circulation in the kookier regions of the internet). Five days after its discovery, and the owner of the eye has not yet been located or declared. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission run DNA tests, but the results are not immediately clear. One expert posits a swordfish or other billfish, based on a fragment of bone-casing left on the outside of the eye. (‘Xiphid’ is the species name for these types of fish, but that doesn’t sound like something aquatic to me at all—more like a brand of hayfever medication or a pesticide). Colossal squid, speculates yet another expert.
The possibility is debated, dismissed and then revived, that the eyeball could belong to animal as yet unknown to science. A gliding voyeur of the deeps. An evasive animal, in need of huge eyes to penetrate the murk. What body tugs behind the eye, out of the dark, up onto the beach? I call my friends to ask if they have heard anything new about the eyeball.
That eyeball in Florida.
N. says—What are you talking about?
M. says—I’ve heard a little over thirty-two years of silence on the subject of eyeballs in Florida.
The eye from the sea.
And then I have the great delight of sending them photographs of the big blue eyeball, glowing in the gloved hands of a scientist. Why, I wonder, does some local fisherman not fess up to having gouged the proverbial leviathan? What a big fish story that would be! Not one of my friends has any useful information, but every one of them confesses to being startled by the eye, to being unable to look away. Perversely, someone has posted a recipe for cooking the eyeball on a forum site. It involves pineapple for tenderizing. There is, in fact, a popular eating-fish in Australia called ‘Blue-Eye’, but it is a smaller, schooling fish. I resist the urge to buy a filet of Blue Eye from the fish markets and try the pineapple method.
During this time my mind keeps returning to a Ted Hughes’ story, called ‘The Iron Man’. More specifically, I think often of the beginning of ‘The Iron Man’, in which the mechanical giant of the title, falls off a cliff and is shattered in the surf below. How his eyeball (“its light glowed blue”) is located by the giant’s hand, after narrowly avoiding being eaten by seagulls, and then the hand goes hopping about over the rocks, looking for the rest of the machine to assemble. It drags pieces of itself up the beach; legs, arms, head. The other eye is slurped back into its socket and lights up there.
This is the dream of the self-identifying monster.