28 May 2009

Challenger Deep of the Soul

Night, coagulated.

Solid cold blackness bearing down with pressures in the tons per square inch. Forget breathing, the real hope is to survive long enough to avoid being crushed. The pressure turning the body into a reddish smear. Reddish, if there was enough light to see it.

No, that couldn’t happen, could it? The pressure is all around; the body is fully enveloped, so the tons per square inch come from all directions. There would be no place for the red cloud to go. So what happens? Perhaps the body would simply compress into a dense jelly. The cells ruptured and forced into each other, no boundaries anymore, no discrete borders as the contents are squeezed by pressure into something new. Diamonds, perhaps, if the body was coal.

But it’s not coal. It’s flesh. A frail container for the soul.

The Mariana Trench is in the Pacific Ocean, near Japan and just east of the Mariana Islands that give the trench its name. The Trench is in the deepest part of the Earth’s oceans. It also contains the deepest spot on the planet: the Challenger Deep. The depth has been measured at 35,797 or 36,201 feet. That’s fuck-all deep.

Flesh, battered.

There are times when the container of the soul falls overboard from the ship that is life. This even after preparations are made, to weather the storms seen rumbling in over the horizon like a stampede of enormous angry cattle. One minute, lashed to the deck, swaying and rolling in heavy seas. The next minute, the loud twaannnng as cables break and the containers tumble over one another to plummet into the roiling sea. The shock is overwhelming, the water too thick and heavy. First order of business is to find which way is up: try following the bubbles, leading to the air. But what if up cannot be found?

Challenger Deep was named after a British Royal Navy survey ship, the HMS Challenger II, which located and surveyed the Mariana Trench in 1951. At that time, the navy survey measured the depth at 35,760 feet. In 1960, the United States Navy sent the bathyscaphe “Trieste” on a dive into the trench. The submersible made it to a depth of about 35,813 feet. The dive itself took nearly five hours. Five hours of slow free fall in water heavy, cold and black.

Mind, panicked.

In the icy metallic grip of fear the mind can become unglued. It loses it bearings, its ability to hold itself together on center. Lights fade into shadows and shadows morph into monsters. Nameless, faceless and in pursuit. The mind shrieks and flails to send the body into spasms. The limbs jerk with minimal control, just enough to keep the body moving. Motion is the key. At least motion gives a sense of being in control even when not knowing the destination. The motivation is strong to look for escape, so the body swims hard. Sometimes pointing down.

Usually when we think of extreme measurements, we think of height above us, not depth below us. Rarely do we hear something compared to the Grand Canyon; most often we think of Mount Everest. By comparison, though, Mount Everest has some growing to do. Put Everest in the Challenger Deep and the Roof of the World has over a mile of water over the top. So if extreme dimension is the criteria for hyperbole, why don’t we say “As deep as the Mariana Trench” instead of “As tall as Mount Everest?”

Swimming, downward.

Confusion reigns and the body goes deeper, deeper into the dark. The mind realizes its mistake, sometimes too late. In the blackness we grope and flail as panic takes over again. The pressure increases to the point where we can barely move except to keep sinking. The eyes are open but see nothing, except for possibly phosphorescence so faint as to be nearly undetectable. The mouth opens to scream or cry, but fills rapidly with water like cold metallic syrup. It is then the mind realizes it is going to die, unless a miracle happens. It shrieks soundlessly, limbs twitching like a bizarre clockwork toy made of flesh, winding down. If fortune smiles, the mind goes black before the heart stops.

The rag doll ceases to move, gliding inexorably down, a forlorn kite lost to the inky black. Somewhere below lies the ocean floor, and surely death.

We shy away from depth because it frightens us. We are conditioned to believe that impurity and evil dwell in the depths, and that goodness and light inhabit the heights. Hell versus Heaven. Dirt versus Air. The depths contain corruption. You cannot breathe dirt. Or water. But remember that the heights have their own dangers. Cold. Ultraviolet overexposure. And not enough oxygen to make breathe comfortably. Keep climbing and you will reach vacuum. So which is the greater danger, if either will eventually kill you? Suffocate or implode?

Face down in the inky black ooze, lost somewhere at the bottom of the trench. Immobile and freezing, no objective observer could believe that life has not fled this poor body. Pressure from a water column of almost incomprehensible force will surely drive out the last vestiges of life.

One of the surprises that researchers encountered in all this picking and probing at the Mariana Trench was that there is indeed life at these depths of the ocean. Some fish and shrimp have been spotted. There are species of crabs that are adapted to living around hydrothermal vent in the ocean floor. Numerous soft-shelled organisms have been found in the deepest parts, living in the ooze. These are not life as we are accustomed to, but life nonetheless. Observe closely, and perhaps learn some keys to survival.

Pressure. We all feel it, in varying amounts and intensities. Sometimes, the pressure increases faster than we can counteract it. We swim as hard as we can but the pounds per square inch turns into tons per square inch, grinding us into the mud. Life seems impossible so we slowly collapse in on ourselves, believing we cannot go on.

But…there is life in the mud. We have to believe in that to recover ourselves. Bring the mud into your core, filter out the tiny things that burrow and squirm, and learn from them. Learn to breathe and eat and live as they do. Of course it won’t be the life we knew, but it is living.

Embrace the cold, the dark, the mud. In the Challenger Deep of the soul, learn to live.


  1. Wow Irish, that was a fascinating read, so many ways to think about it. I kept having visions of a movie it reminds me of, but I can't recall the name. It'll come to me.

  2. Awesome read! but I have to admit it was hard for me, the very thought of drowing and not being able to breathe terrifies me, i had to keep taking deep breaths! but the last sentence sums it up nicely!

  3. Wow, very intriguing, thanks for making me gasp for air!!!! You write very well.

  4. Whoa. This was really beautiful

  5. Good stuff, sir, made me feel properly claustrophobic...

  6. Thought provoking. Well done.

  7. I had to laugh, Gumby, because isn't it some sort of sponge that can live well at those depths?
    Gorgeous writing, as usual. Nice to see you out and about!

  8. That trench is deep, brother. Have to take your time coming back up so you don't explode.

  9. what a pleasant surprise to see a post from you! hope you're well.

  10. Found you through the google reader recommendation thingy. Fantastic writing. Looking forward to digging through your blog for laughs and inspiration.

  11. Amazing read. I think Rachel was thinking of the movie "The Abyss" which was awesome.

    So well written!!!


  12. Perhaps that is why I am a girl of the prairie.


"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...