Almanack Essays: The World Is Flat

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet…. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind.

 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

Almanacs came of age in modern, scientific times. They were the first popular documents to espouse the radical, sense-defying beliefs of the new astronomy. “The world is round,” those almanackers said. “Contrary to what our eyes seem to tell us, Earth is not the level, stationary center of the universe. We are inhabitants of an insignificant asteroid which is spinning at soul-splitting speed through infinite space for all eternity.”

Almanacs were partial to other kinds of bizarre information. Not only did they provide astronomical pronouncements, such as the above, with statistics to support their assertions, they sought out the most sensational and peculiar news items. They were the check-out counter tabloids of their times. They printed exceptions when other genres printed rules.

Novelty was absolute. And quantity was far more important than quality; if a man had lived to be one hundred and fifteen, almanackers cared little whether or not he had had a good life. How many times or how long something was supposed to have happened was considered more noteworthy than other characteristics of the event itself.

The obsession for the uncommon soon perverted even the simple pleasures of gardening. That someone should have grown a tomato was hardly worthy of mention; tomatoes were easy givens in the equations of horticulture. That someone should have grown a record-breaking, behemoth tomato was always something else again.

Such values have survived to this very day. In my capacity as Poor Will, I once was called to the house of a woman who had probably grown the fattest tomato of the season in all of in my town of Yellow Springs. Unfortunately, however, my visit was delayed several days, and when I arrived, the prize had decayed to an unpleasant smelling, olive-green mass, an amorphous wad of mush.

But the lady had preserved it for me anyway in a plastic bag. She pulled it from the refrigerator, and held it up for me to see. “It’s not what it was,” she admitted, but she showed me a piece of paper on which were written its impressive former circumference and weight. The idea of the great tomato transcended its demise. The bag of foul-smelling flesh and seeds was of more significance than

some small, sweet, red specimens that lay before us on the table, flushed and firm in the prime of their edible lives.

Early almanacs flourished not only because of their exploitation of the outlandish, and their glorification of the oversized, but because they appealed to authority of data in itself. Feathered with easily understood tables of weight and measures, the almanacker’s nest held eggs of surprising and less ordinary dimensions: predictions about the risings and settings of planets, the arrival of comets and occultations and eclipses of the sun and moon. And most of the readers, never matching the events with the supposed times, were comforted simply to believe that the turning of the firmament could be measured.

When I was just learning how to calculate moonrise and moonset, I discovered that the information printed in my metropolitan daily paper was completely wrong. I called to inform the editors of their error; they apologized, but added that no one had ever complained about the problem before. For as far back as I cared to check in the newspaper archives, moonrise and moonset had been miscalculated. Half a million readers had never cared enough to match the data with the occurrence. Or maybe if someone had tried, he or she had given up in frustration, attributing the problem to personal incompetence.

It is not enough to reason that all data is somewhat arbitrary, and that the world spins on assumptions and creeds that may or may not really and truly be valid. Such naiveté is the almanacker’s profit. It is the naiveté that embraces size over taste, numbers over experience.

Personal observation and existential fortitude are the only antidotes for such spiritual torpor. And the first step on the journey to intellectual liberation is to have enough courage to say what your senses have told you since you were born: that the world is flat.

Explorers may sail west in order to go east; rockets may go to the moon; satellites may send us electrical impulses that many interpret to be pictures of a “round” earth. You believe their messages at the risk of losing your soul. A healthy skepticism toward vicarious science will keep you from living in a place in which the sun and moon rise only on charts, where distance is measured by the speed of light, and where circumference is the equivalent of flavor.

A flat world is accessible to everyone, and it offers challenge enough. When you have come to its edge, having found your way by the stars you can name from the closed dome above, there will be time enough for other notions.





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