True Story: The Central American, was a steam/sailing vessel that carried gold and passengers during the 1850's from gold rush in California to the east coast of the United States. Everything started in California, went to Panama where it was carried across and then reloaded onto ships waiting on the Atlantic side, The Central American being one of them.
The vessel encountered a hurricane 200 miles off the coast of the Carolinas. She was filling with water and the people on board were desperate to keep the water from extinguishing the boilers. That was the critical thing. As long as they had the boilers they could propel the ship and keep her from turning sideways to the waves. The men bailed all day and all night, and they continued into the next day, but they were passing out from exhaustion. The women begged to be allowed to bail, some of them even dressing as men, but they were thrown off of the line as soon as they were discovered.
Another ship passed and they threw a line, but it missed. Neither ship could turn because of the wind, but life boats could travel from one ship to another. All they needed was the strength to last until everyone could be rescued, but the men were already exhausted. A few trips were accomplished as the ships grew farther and farther apart. That saved the children, the women and some of the men, but by then, their strength had failed them completely. The water rose. The boilers were extinguished. The mighty Central American broached and she was overcome. She sank with almost 600 souls, including the brave Captain Herndon, who had refused to leave the ship while a single person remained aboard. The year was 1857. The ship and its treasure remained 8000 feet below the surface until 1989, when the treasure was salvaged. It was one of the most difficult and expensive salvage operations ever undertaken and one of the greatest treasures ever recovered.
I'm telling you this story and showing you this picture (I drew it myself by the way), in part so you can see why I chose photography over illustration, and in part because I think there might be something in this story that is relevant right now.
Here is more of the story.
The people threw all the gold overboard to lighten the ship, 21 tons of it. Survivors reported that it became a sort of ecstatic frenzy, that people found liberation in discovering that when faced with death, the gold meant nothing to them. There was also a couple on their honeymoon. The young man sent a note to his bride after she had been carried to the other ship. He said that he could die in peace because he had found such happiness in the time they had been together. The woman reported about it later. She said that there she was, exhausted, wet, cold, seasick, desperate, grieving, and by no means out of danger. She said that note made her so happy that in that moment, nothing else mattered. The note made all of her suffering go away.
I like it that the love between this young man and woman was more important to them than anything, more important than their lives. I also wish to point out that the people could easily give up their gold, but they couldn't give up their beliefs - in this case, their beliefs about men and women and about their proper place. This story helps me understand how strongly beliefs are held inside of people, how they should not be taken lightly, how people will die before they will give up their beliefs.
I don't think they had a choice about it. I don't think they could say, "Shall we go down with the ship, or shall we think a little more broadly?" I think their identity was at stake and their sense of self-integrity as well as their reputation and their place in their tribe. I think it was about what they thought was important and true and real in the world. It would have helped if they had had time to think about it, and perhaps a little diversity. I think they could have used a couple of different opinions.
So now I will come to the political application. I consider this story when I can't understand why people act or believe the way they do, and I especially think of it when I want to challenge my own beliefs, especially the ones that might be blinding me to what what might be possible in life.
People are now saying anything, and they act like it doesn't matter if it's true. People act like they could easily sacrifice their country to serve their parties' interests. And as much as some call on higher ideals, they act like there are no ideals at all.
I don't think there is any wall we can build when our enemies are in our own country, and the current climate could turn us into a country full of enemies. I listened to the audience during the second debate last week, and I found it quite disturbing. There were times when it sounded very primal. It sounded like the people wanted blood. We have become a deeply fractured country. People have their beliefs and we already know about how people commit to beliefs. So what do we do about that?
Photography has taught me about certain kinds of truth - physical truth, practical truth. And perhaps that kind of truth can be unifying, if people get used to knowing what it is. For example, when I lost my new camera, it could only be in a one place. No matter where I wanted it to be, no matter how many opinions I might have had about it, it could only be in that place. In that case, perception was not reality. Reality was reality. And if I wanted to find my camera I had to look for it where it was.
Perhaps there are things we can agree on together, certain physical things, and if we can't agree on the truth itself, perhaps we can agree on where to find it. Because now everything gets picked apart and taken out of context, put in its most click-worthy and divisive light and I don't think we can afford that. I think that falsehood comes in many flavors. I also think since it has no inherent reality it needs a lot of propping up. But truth is true, and it waits for us, because there it was, in the ferry parking lot, dangling by its camera strap from the driver's side mirror of my car.
The Ship of Gold story tells me two things. First, that people can get stuck on a certain point of view. But second, that people are much more than their point of view. They are about each other, and also about honor and love. So let's start with that.
And now I have some pictures for you, just to cheer you up. I thought they might show that nature still knows what she's doing. And perhaps we might find in this story some hope for the future, because it tells us that more is possible than we currently can know.
PS. You might like to know that the new husband was one of those ultimately rescued, so he and his new bride were able to live out their lives together.