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49 Emptiness What is it about the experience of emptiness, about turning your back on the world and facing nothing? For me, this happens in front of the sea, each time I face the brightness over the sea. One looks at the sea and feels an emptiness. Facing the sea is absence regarded. It evokes a feeling that I want to call calm. The body slows and the mind lays by its trouble and adapts itself to the rhythm of the waves, where time is tide, and tide is endless to and fro, coming and going. Time becomes a circle rather than a line, a cycle endlessly renewed rather than a movement of decline or deadlines. At times like this, I begin to think. To be honest, I don’t know what goes on in my head much of the rest of the time, or what to call what goes on in my head, but it is not thinking. Facing the emptiness 50 of the sea, one begins to think: slowly and with a deliberate carelessness. Cities sometimes slip into the sea, eaten alive by their thoughtfulness, like Dunwich on the Suffolk coast in East Anglia. Or the sea slips away from them, in some act of historical thoughtlessness, where tides’ time thickens into silt. Harbours get blocked with silt and clogged with mud, becoming unnavigable. The land seems to rise like the wooden top of an old school desk and the cities slip back into an inkwell of obscurity, like Ephesus and Miletos on the Ionian coast in Turkey or Istria at the mouth of the Danube. Other cities are destroyed by a vindictive violence that is the enemy of thought like Carthage, ravaged brick by brick with godless Roman arrogance. Silt sometimes slows the water, allowing malarial swamps to form, like Torcello in the Venetian lagoon, the proto-Venice with its rubble in the marshes and a few lonely Byzantine mosaics. I sometimes dream of writing a volume on the role of silt in determining the shape of world history and I imagine whole chapters on lagoons and blocked harbours and subsections on ox-bow lakes and alluvial deposits. 51 I have, for as long as I can remember, been obsessed with cities prior to their settlement or at the moment of settlement. I like to think of what opposed sets of eyes were seeing and minds thinking as white sails were spotted on the horizon at what would become Jamestown or Botany Bay or off the coast of the treed vastness that would become Brazil. I think of vicious settlers, happily decimating the local populations and of the broken Jesuits who landed in Brazil with the text of a Papal bull declaring that they must save the souls of the natives. I think, repeatedly, of the first European feet to tread on Manhattan, on this hilly, handsome island situated on a huge river beckoning possible passage to the Indies. I try and think about the places I know at a point approaching emptiness and therefore, I suppose, thoughtfulness. Emptiness – this is how the earth will be after humans have finished with it, or – more likely – it has finished with them. ...


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