Thinking 'bout Cassini (Sept 2017)
As I so boldly declare in the programme note I prepared for the piece I have written for Cassini’s funeral, I am in love with Cassini. My zefriend calls her my space-girlfriend, and I am her terrafriend, awfully close to the earth, perhaps even elbow deep in the earth itself, turning sods and pulling out bracken roots. It is a reference to Ursula Le Guin’s sci-fi novel The Left Hand of Darkness, but I try not to think of the painful implications, of the enormous distance between my world and hers, even if we did share the same planet for a brief few years.
By coincidence, in the course of writing about Cassini’s final days and thinking about her impending demise, I actually learned to use both a scythe and a sickle. It’s quite a good way to grieve, swinging an enormous blade in broad crescent moons, hacking down thick stems of bracken. Clouds of midges rise up to meet you, but you don’t care, because you’re furious, and sad, and hacking down these plants with this piece of wood and metal is helping. I think of Cassini as I make my way up the hill to the west of the drainage ditch. I think of Saturn’s sickle, soon to hack Cassini down, to end her life. It’s all very Thomas Hardy.
As my scything reminded me, I see Cassini everywhere I look. Yes, on her instagram, or in my notes about her that I forgot I even made, but also in the miscellaneous encounters of my everyday life — the horns of a ram washed up on a remote island beach, the extra twenty pence pieces the drinks machine at college returned to me all the way through finals, or perhaps even those listeners who have spoken to me about Cassini during the last year.
And now it’s only a few weeks until Cassini’s funeral. There is a lot of unhuman mourning in my life, both for my past self, whose experiences left it unhuman in the big city, and for creatures such as Cassini, moving across the sky, and for bigger things, nearer ideas: ecological loss, the loss of wild spaces, and the longing for what has been lost and cannot be recovered. I wonder how to live with my stasis, watching so much end. My grief-stricken scything and Saturn’s brutal sickle have already made the link for me.
John Jacobi writes,
"[…] no 21-year-old who was raised in a highly populated city is going to live an entirely wild life — ever. In addition to recognising that we have real, achievable goals, we also need to recognise the proper place for mourning."
I read all of Ellen Macarthur’s books this summer, too. Her accounts of her solo circumnavigations are the closest correspondence I have found to give me something that shows me what Cassini’s life might feel like. There was some mockery of Macarthur’s video-blog style, often very emotional, that she hints at throughout her narrative. She films much of her sailing as she goes, but she doesn’t look back at what she has recorded, or try to record over the messiest bits:
"Perhaps I would have seemed much more of a ‘hero’ if I’d come back without the footage of the bad bits. It would certainly have been a much easier task if I hadn’t filmed those parts of the journey; but I chose to share the downs just as much as the ups, and though I didn’t need to film myself in a totally exhausted state, in doing so I was being honest about what really happens out there."
She talks about times in her races when she had ‘cracked’, was injured, exhausted, sad, alone, assaulted on all sides. It seems that part of the strangeness of her video communications from her voyages is that all her immediate interactions and gestures are nonhuman. There is the boat, which she listens to in order to know what she needs. There is the sea, the icebergs, perhaps some small sight of land. Then there are the dolphins swimming alongside, the albatross shapes and sounds, and any number of other wild critters too. A helicopter that flies overhead and does a small stunt to say goodbye is the most human gesture she sees for months at a time. How can one process emotions in an unhuman world? I wonder what kind of wild gestures Cassini has found out there, and wish she had a video-diary, snapshots of her emotional landscape, not just holiday snaps of the Iapetus’ Equatorial Ridge (the ‘Voyager Mountains’), or her jotted notes of the tide times on Titan.
There is a definite element of misogyny in the ‘overemotional’ or ‘neurotic’ woman trope applied to Ellen Macarthur. There was a parody sketch about Ellen Macarthur in the noughties that really makes me particularly furious, in which a Macarthur stand-in is depicted as a sex-starved, lonely, batty woman is doing an interstellar solo circumnavigation, ‘making a big circle in the sky, because [she’s] got to mates’. Another parallel has been made for me — I am forcibly reminded of Cassini, and I wonder about her shiny instagram feed, her NASA blog, and the apparent nonexistence of her emotional life. What would it feel like to travel alone in space for twenty years? If one can lose grasp on things that seem everyday in the middle of the city in just a month or two (for example, gender, or socially acceptable expressions of emotion), then what would it even be like to have emotions, to love, to feel 1.2 billion kilometres away — seven years away from home.
John Jacobi, Taking Rewilding Seriously <> 31/07/2017
Ellen Macarthur, Taking on the World (Penguin, 2003)
Ellen Macarthur, Full Circle: My Life and Journey (Penguin, 2010)
Thank you to Ella Frears, for involving me in the project and suggesting this small piece of writing.