Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sabbath day rumination

Yesterday we had to get the exact length of the ridge to install the second segment of the ridgepole. I climbed up onto the gable plate and reached up to the peak to hold the end of the tape. Thirty feet down looks about a hundred times as far away as thirty feet across the room. Believe me, I hugged the framing tight with my left arm.

Later I stood on a piece of 2" X 6" that was lying on the deck, and I said to Mark, "It's hard to explain why evolution gave us this disability. I can jump up and down on this little plank, dance a hornpipe on it, I can certainly walk back and forth on it and I'm not going to suddenly topple over. But put it 20 feet in the air and it's all you can do to stand up. I can see why we'd be averse to heights, but once you're up there, it ought to get easier to balance, not harder."

It is, for some people, once they get used to it. Mark's father, early in his career, was employed as the chief rivet inspector for construction of the Baldwin Bridge over the Connecticut River. That was a truss span bridge, meaning that instead of having towers and cables like suspension bridge or a cable stayed bridge, the roadway was supported by a steel lattice.

Like high steel everywhere, the bridge was built by Mohawks. When the European invasion robbed them of most of their territory and destroyed their way of life, somehow they adopted this specialty, of walking untethered on narrow girders hundreds of feet in the air. One man would work on a platform on a lower level, roasting the rivets red hot, then throw them up to a man on a higher girder who would catch them in a basket, then set them in place with tongs while another man hammered them home. Occasionally the catcher would miss, and a hot rivet might go down his shirt. The wind would gust, the steel would sway, but the Indians wouldn't fall.

Some of you may have seen the film of Felipe Petit, walking on a wire strung between the roofs of the World Trade Center towers. At one point, Petit lay down on the wire and stared up. He saw a bird far above him, and he suddenly thought that he had invaded a realm where he did not belong, so he stood up and walked off the wire.

There is no physical reason why most people shouldn't be able to work in the high steel, but we can't. Our minds won't let us. As David Wilcox put it,

On this high trestle span
The distance down is what
We must ignore

Balance is no harder after all
Out across this bridge so tall
Balance is no harder
Its just that you've got farther
Now you've just got farther to fall.

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