Authors: Oliver Sacks
Knut must protect his rods from overload and, at the same time, if detailed vision is needed, find ways of enlarging the images they present, whether by optical devices or peering closely. He must also, consciously or unconsciously, discover ways of deriving information from other aspects of the visual world, other visual cues which, in the absence of color, may take on a heightened importance. Thus – and this was apparent to us right away – his intense sensitivity and attention to form and texture, to outlines and boundaries, to perspective, depth, and movements, even subtle ones.
Knut enjoys the visual world quite as much as the rest of us; he was delighted by a picturesque market in a side street of Honolulu, by the palms and tropical vegetation all around us, by the shapes of clouds – he has a clear and prompt eye for the range of human beauty too. (He has a beautiful wife in Norway, a fellow psychologist, he told us – but it was only after they married, when a friend said, ‘I guess you go for redheads,’ that he learned for the first time of her flamboyant red hair.)
Knut is a keen black-and-white photographer – indeed his own vision, he said, by way of trying to share’it, has some resemblance to that of an orthochromatic black-and-white film, although with a far greater range of tones. ‘Greys, you would call them, though the word ‘grey’ has no meaning for me, any more than the term ‘blue’ or ‘red.’’ But, he added, ‘I do not experience my world as ‘colorless’ or in any sense incomplete.’ Knut, who has never seen color, does not miss it in the least; from the start, he has experienced only the positivity of vision, and has built up a world of beauty and order and meaning on the basis of what he has.
As we walked back to our hotel for a brief night’s sleep before our flight the next day, darkness began to fall, and the moon, almost full, rose high into the sky until it was silhouetted, seemingly caught, in the branches of a palm tree. Knut stood under the tree and studied the moon intently with his monocular, making out its seas and shadows. Then, putting the monocular down and gazing up at the sky all around him, he said, ‘I see thousands of stars! I see the whole galaxy!’
‘That’s impossible,’ Bob said. ‘Surely the angle subtended by a star is too small, given that your visual acuity is a tenth of normal.’
Knut responded by identifying constellations all over the sky – some looked quite different from the configurations he knew in his own Norwegian sky. He wondered if his nystagmus might not have a paradoxical benefit, the jerking movements ‘smearing’ an otherwise invisible point image to make it larger – or whether this was made possible by some other factor. He agreed that it was difficult to explain how he could see stars with such low visual acuity – but nonetheless, he did.
‘Laudable nystagmus, eh?’ said Bob.
By sunrise, we were back at the airport, settling in for the long flight on the ‘Island Hopper,’ which calls twice a week at a handful of Pacific islands. Bob, jet-lagged, wedged himself in his seat for more sleep. Knut, dark-glassed already, took out his magnifying glass and began to pore over our bible for this trip – the admirable
, with its brilliant, sharp descriptions of the islands that awaited us. I was restless, and decided to keep a journal of the flight:
An hour and a quarter has passed, and we are steadily flying, at 27,000 feet, over the trackless vastness of the Pacific. No ships, no planes, no land, no boundaries, nothing – only the limitless blue of sky and ocean, fusing at times into a single blue bowl. This featureless, cloudless vastness is a great relief, and reverie-inducing – but, like sensory deprivation, somewhat terrifying, too. The Vast thrills, as well as terrifies – it was well called by Kant ‘the terrifying Sublime.’
After almost a thousand miles, we at last saw land – a tiny, exquisite atoll on the horizon. Johnston Island! I had seen it as a dot on the map and thought, ‘What an idyllic place, thousands of miles from anywhere.’ As we descended it looked less exquisite: a huge runway bisected the island, and to either side of this were storage bins, chimneys, and towers: eyeless buildings, all enveloped in an orange-red haze…my idyll, my little paradise, looked like a realm of hell.
Landing was rough, and frightening. There was a loud grinding noise and a squeal of rubber as the whole plane veered suddenly to one side. As we skewed to a halt on the tarmac, the crew informed us that the brakes had locked and we had torn much of the rubber off the tires on the left – we would have to wait here for repairs. A bit shaken from the landing, and cramped from hours in the air, we longed to get off the plane and stroll around a bit. A stair was pushed up to the plane, with ‘Welcome to Johnston Atoll’ written on it. One or two passengers started to descend, but when we tried to follow, we were told that Johnston atoll was ‘restricted’ and that non-military passengers were not allowed to disembark. Frustrated, I returned to my seat and borrowed the
from Knut, to read about Johnston.
It was named, I read, by a Captain Johnston of the HMS
, who landed here in 1807 – the first human being, perhaps, ever to set foot on this tiny and isolated spot. I wondered if it had somehow escaped being seen altogether before this, or whether perhaps it had been visited, but never inhabited.
Johnston, considered valuable for its rich deposits of guano, was claimed by both the United States and the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1856. Migratory fowl stop here by the hundreds of thousands, and in 1926 the island was designated a federal bird reserve. After the Second World War it was acquired by the U.S. Air Force, and ‘since then,’ I read, ‘the U.S. military has converted this formerly idyllic atoll into one of the most toxic places in the Pacific.’ It was used during the 1950
for nuclear testing, and is still maintained as a standby test site; one end of the atoll remains radioactive. It was briefly considered as a test site for biological weapons, but this was precluded by the huge population of migratory birds, which, it was realized, might easily carry lethal infections back to the mainland. In 1971 Johnston became a depot for thousands of tons of mustard and nerve gases, which are periodically incinerated, releasing dioxin and furan into the air (perhaps this was the reason for the cinnamon haze I had seen from above). All personnel on the island are required to have their gas masks ready. Sitting in the now-stuffy plane as I read this – our ventilation had been shut off while we were on the ground – I felt a prickling in my throat, a tightness in my chest, and wondered if I was breathing some of Johnston’s lethal air. The ‘Welcome’ sign now seemed blackly ironic; it should at least have had a skull and crossbones added. The crew members themselves, it seemed to me, grew more uneasy and restless by the minute; they could hardly wait, I thought, to shut the door and take off again.
But the ground crew was still trying to repair our damaged wheels; they were dressed in shiny, aluminized suits, presumably to minimize skin contact with the toxic air. We had heard in Hawaii that a hurricane was on its way towards Johnston: this was of no special importance to us when we were on schedule, but now, we started to think, if we were further delayed, the hurricane might indeed catch up with us on Johnston, and maroon us there with a vengeance – blowing up a storm of poison gases and radioactivity too. There were no planes scheduled to arrive until the end of the week; one flight, we heard, had been detained in this way the previous December, so that the passengers and crew had to spend an unexpected, toxic Christmas on the atoll.
The ground crew worked for two hours, without being able to do anything; finally, with many anxious looks at the sky, our pilot decided to take off again, on the remaining good tires. The whole plane shuddered and juddered as we accelerated, and seemed to heave and flap itself into the air like some giant or-nithopter – but finally (using almost the entire mile-long runway) we got off the ground, and rose through the brown, polluted air of Johnston into the clear empyrean above.
Now another lap of more than 1,500 miles to our next stop, Majuro atoll, in the Marshall Islands. We flew endlessly, all of us losing track of space and time, and dozing fitfully in the void. I was woken briefly, terrifyingly, by an air pocket which dropped us suddenly, without warning; then I dozed once more, flying on and on, till I was woken again by altering air pressure. Looking out the window, I could see far below us the narrow, flat atoll of Majuro, rising scarcely ten feet above the waves; scores of islands surrounded the lagoon. Some of the islands looked vacant and inviting, with coconut palms fringing the ocean – the classic desert-island look; the airport was on one of the smaller islands.
Knowing we had two badly damaged tires, we were all a little fearful about landing. It was indeed rough – we were flung around quite a bit – and it was decided we should stay on Majuro until some repairs could be made; this would take at least a couple of hours. After our long immurement in the plane (we had travelled nearly three thousand miles now from Hawaii), all of us burst off it, and scattered, explosively.
Knut, Bob, and I stopped first at the little shop in the airport – they had souvenir necklaces and mats, strung together from tiny shells, but also, to my delight, a postcard of Darwin.
While Bob explored the beach, Knut and I walked out to the end of the runway, which was bounded by a low wall overlooking the lagoon. The sea was an intense light blue, turquoise, azure, over the reef, and darker, almost indigo, a few hundred yards out. Not thinking, I enthused about the wonderful blues of the sea – then stopped, embarrassed. Knut, though he has no direct experience of color, is very erudite on the subject. He is intrigued by the range of words and images other people use about color and was arrested by my use of the word ‘azure.’ (‘Is it similar to cerulean?’) He wondered whether ‘indigo’ was, for me, a separate, seventh color of the spectrum, neither blue nor violet, but itself, in between. ‘Many people,’ he added, ‘do not see indigo as a separate spectral color, and others see light blue as distinct from blue.’ With no direct knowledge of color, Knut has accumulated an immense mental catalog, an archive, of vicarious color knowledge about the world. He said that he found the light of the reef extraordinary – ’A brilliant, metallic hue,’ he said of it, ‘intensely luminous, like a tungsten bronze.’ And he spotted half a dozen different sorts of crabs, some of them scuttling sideways so fast that I missed them. I wondered, as Knut himself has wondered, whether his perception of motion might be heightened, perhaps to compensate for his lack of color vision.
I wandered out to join Bob on the beach, with its fine-grained white sand and coconut palms. There were breadfruit trees here and there and, hugging the ground, low tussocks of zoysia, a beach grass, and a thick-leaved succulent which was new to me. Driftwood edged the strand, admixed with bits of cardboard carton and plastic, the detritus of Darrit-Uliga-Delap, the three-islanded capital of the Marshalls, where twenty thousand people live in close-packed squalor. Even six miles from the capital, the water was scummy, the coral bleached, and there were huge numbers of sea cucumbers, detritus feeders, in the turbid water. Nonetheless, with no shade and the humid heat overwhelming, and hoping there would be clearer water if we swam out a bit, we stripped down to our underwear and walked carefully over the sharp coral until it was deep enough to swim. The water was voluptuously warm, and the tensions of the long hours in our damaged plane gradually eased away as we swam. But just as we were beginning to enjoy that delicious timeless state, the real delight of tropical lagoons, there came a sudden shout from the airstrip – ’The plane is ready to leave! Hurry!’ – and we had to clamber out hastily, clutching wet clothes around us, and run back to the plane. One wheel, with its tire, had been replaced, but the other was bent and difficult to remove, and was still being worked on. So having rushed back to the plane, we sat for another hour on the tarmac – but the other wheel finally defeated all efforts at repair, and we took off again, bumping, noisily clattering over the runway, for the next lap, a short one, to Kwajalein.
Many passengers had left at Majuro, and others had got on, and I now found myself sitting next to a friendly woman, a nurse at the military hospital in Kwajalein, her husband part of a radar tracking unit there. She painted a less than idyllic picture of the island – or, rather, the mass of islands (ninety-one in all) that form Kwajalein atoll, surrounding the largest lagoon in the world. The lagoon itself, she told me, is a test target for missiles from U.S. Air Force bases on Hawaii and the mainland. It is also where countermissiles are tested, fired from Kwajalein at the missiles as they descend. There were nights, she said, when the whole sky was ablaze with light and noise as missiles and antimissiles streaked and collided across it, and reentry vehicles crashed into the lagoon. ‘Terrifying,’ she said, ‘like the night sky in Baghdad.’
Kwajalein is part of the Pacific Barrier radar system, and there is a fearful, rigid, defensive atmosphere in the place, she said, despite the ending of the Cold War. Access is limited. There is no free discussion of any sort in the (military-controlled) media. Beneath the tough exterior there is demoralization and depression, and one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The authorities are not unaware of this, she added, and bend over backward to make Kwajalein more palatable with swimming pools, golf course, tennis courts, and whatnot – but none of it helps, the place remains unbearable. Of course, civilians can leave when they want, and military postings tend to be brief. The real sufferers, the helpless ones, are the Marshallese themselves, stuck on Ebeye, just three miles from Kwajalein: nearly fifteen thousand laborers on an island a mile long and two hundred yards wide, a tenth of a square mile. They come here for the jobs, she said – there are not many to be had in the Pacific – but end up stuck in conditions of unbelievable crowding, disease, and squalor. ‘If you want to see hell,’ my seatmate concluded, ‘make a visit to Ebeye.’