Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Hole Mountain

The Hole Mountain
A Life Without Mystery?

What would life be without mystery? While hiking in the Cajas, I took a photo that surprised me later when I got it home. Somehow, a curved wedge of sky had superimposed itself over the jagged rock face of a mountain. Obviously, it was an error, an artifact of a digital camera in technical confusion.

...Or perhaps not.

What is better, to explain all mysteries away or entertain their possibility? Sometimes the sky where the mountain should be is just a digital error. But must it always be? If we believe that, I wonder what drives such a need for a mystery-free certainty in life. People like that are a mystery to me.

It would be easy to start branding anyone who believed in the existence of mysteries. We could ostracize them if they dared to raise their addled heads or let their voices be heard. We could label them "Mystery Theorists" just like anyone who believes in the possibility of hidden schemes and agendas are now branded "Conspiracy Theorists." Of course there are no hidden schemes and agendas, especially among the elite and power-class of the world. Whoever thinks that deserves their tinfoil hat! Likewise, heaven forbid you ever get labelled a "Mystery Theorist." What immense ridicule you'd open yourself up to -- "Image that," they would laugh, "here we have one of those rare, peculiar sorts who actually believes in mysteries!"  Of course, everything is explainable they would insist. Not only is it explainable -- but the way one explains it has to make sense. And making sense has already been defined and agreed upon once and for all by the sensible people. The sensible people got to be the sensible people because they branded themselves so. And that's it. Case closed. Enough said.

My aberrant mountain photo made me think about the mystery of the ghost lighthouse. 

As the tall tale goes, old-time mariners who frequented the waters of the Bismarck Sea off the Northeast coast of Papua New Guinea would argue among themselves about the existence of a ghost lighthouse that shined its light only when ships were in peril. Adding to the mystery, not all ships in trouble saw the light. No one could ever figure out why some did when many didn't. 

Some swore they had seen the light blazing through the rains of angry typhoons while others offered to bet money to cash-in on the fact that no such thing happened. Part of the confusion lies in the fact there was no reliable way to see the lighthouse or find it once it had been seen. Those who had encountered it couldn't guide anyone back to it. They claimed they were lost in storms at the time. Most hadn't been sure of their bearings. All they knew was, whenever the light appeared a ship's captain took evasive action that saved his vessel from ending up broken on the reefs. 

Some industrious chaps, eager to collect on bets, actually led search parties through the islands in the area. Surveys of the coastlines of island after island yielded nothing. Even the best guesses of those who had seen the rescuing light were dashed when surveys of Mussau and Narega Islands found only sand and trees. And so the impasse lasted for many years - so many years that it extended beyond the lifetimes of many of the believing mariners. 

The story was almost forgotten until one stormy day a stranger walked into a bar on the island of New Britain and slapped down a photograph he said was the lighthouse matching the legend. Most ridiculed the man's suggestion. What proof was that, they shouted at him. There were no landmarks to be seen, just a lighthouse. It could be anywhere. Except, as one patron pointed out, there was one extraordinary peculiarity about the man's photo. At first, eager to dismiss the claim, none of the other naysayers had noticed what jumped out at them when given another look. On closer inspection, all had to agree to be dumbfounded. 

This lighthouse in the photo was in a small clearing, surrounded by tropical trees. How odd. Who would build a lighthouse inland? What would be the point? It was ridiculous. Except, as one patron pointed out, it appeared that the top of the lighthouse reached above the treeline. If someone should turn on the light mounted there at night, there was a very good chance it could be seen by ships at sea. Perhaps the surveys of the islands never located the place because the industrious chaps only looked along the shoreline, as was reasonable. But maybe the reasonable was thinking too small. Maybe the ghost lighthouse did exist. At least, this new wrinkle had revived the legend. 

By the time the patrons seriously considered the new evidence, the man and his photo had gone. To this day, there are sailors who swear a light appears on stormy nights for chosen mariners in peril. But to this day, no one can say where the saving light comes from, if it is real, or who turns it on. As one old sailor remarked while puffing on his pipe and walking away, "Fools! They'll never find the damned thing. It doesn't want to be found."

Who knows if the ghost lighthouse story is even true. Most likely, someone made it up -- one of those tall tales to amuse newcomers as they sink into the mysterious darkness of night with drinks around the fire. I'm not sure I'd enjoy being around a group of "Certainty Theorists" who deny the existence of mysteries or claim the unknown is just a collection of things not yet explained by their interpretation of the "sensible." People who are that overtly sensible seem to be in a self-hypnotized state of denial. They can't even see the mystery of why they act that way. For me, the Hole in the Mountain is most probably a digital error of a camera. But it's not a certainty. And I like that. I will always leave open the door to mysteries. I can't imagine a fulfilled life without them.

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