September 2007

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination by Michael Sims

Imagine that tomorrow you’re going to spend the day standing on a boulder whirling through space, a sphere with water clinging improbably to its surface. If you’re in Lima, you’ll be moving almost twice as fast as your cousin in Anchorage. You’ll be moving at an impossible speed around a dazzling ball of fire, like an out-of-control chariot driver destined for death. In fact, you will die some day or night, from life itself, but hopefully not tomorrow, and hopefully not before you’ve read Michael Sims’ Apollo’s Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination. Sims, a great poet and storyteller, escorts his readers through the most ordinary, mundane, unexplored and magical of terrains -- literally, a journey through the everyday. Sims has a rare gift for showing the most taken-for-granted basics of human life as radical, mystical and strange. In his award-winning Adam’s Navel: The Weird and Wonderful Story of the Human Body, he did it with basic anatomy -- after reading and rereading that book, I’ll never experience my skin, heart or lungs the same way again. In Apollo’s Fire, he turns his X-ray gaze to a single day on earth from morning to night.

“We all transfigure the world with our playing,” writes Sims. Myths about the sun, for example, proliferate because, “imagination never waits until the facts are in.” In Apollo’s Fire, though, facts astonish as much as myths. Every day, we are dying as we live -- we are time travelers -- and the sun itself is dying. There will be a morning, a few billion years in the future, when it doesn’t exist. And, when we look at the star closest to the sun, we’re seeing it as it appeared two years and two months ago -- we can’t see it as it looks now. “The sun is always new, always recreating itself... at every moment, the sun is using up its own fire. For physical processes as for animal lives, living is dying.”

Sims deftly draws on mythology, history and literature, returning throughout to the story of Phaeton, and his prose is so illuminating that science becomes poetry and poetry, science. He reveals the intensity in every moment of an ordinary day. Light, for example -- “omnipresent, mostly ignored, and deeply weird” -- is only the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and electromagnetism, in turn, is only one form of energy. Sims quotes the physicist Heinz Pagels: “Science shows us that the visible world is neither matter nor spirit... the visible world is the invisible organization of energy.” Most of us, watching old TV, have imagined a world without color -- but have we imagined a world without shadows, with no gradation of tone? After I finished Apollo’s Fire, the ground felt unfamiliar under my feet as I was walking in Central Park and shadows (which are everywhere) seemed like such strange phenomena when I realized that I wouldn’t really be able to see without them around. I noticed light in a new way, including artificial light: “Long ago, our ancestors decided that the nightly departure of light -- along with our clawless hands and weak muscles and slow locomotion -- was a natural barrier that they were unwilling to meekly accept.”

After a first person introduction, Sims steps aside and uses an omniscient narrator as the tour guide on our adventure through the day, but the book stays deeply intimate. Sims’s literary references, while not comprehensive, are idiosyncratic, hypnotic and charming. In his brief section on bats at twilight, for example, he invokes Hieronymus Bosch, Evan S. Connell, Nietzsche, Batman, Aesop, Emily Dickinson, Christian iconography, an African folktale about a battle between birds and beasts, and Joyce’s Leopold Bloom (himself on a journey though a single day), who says of a bat: “a little man in a cloak he is with tiny hands.” His choice of subjects within the scope of the day is as quirky but profound as his references -- jet lag, jet streams, insomnia, the wind, and time itself. In lesser hands, this material could be too diffuse, and the subject of a day on earth could be too broad and ambitious, but Sims pulls it all together. The virtual journey he guides us on becomes a true journey because every reader, with no exceptions, is living through a day on earth as we read. In that way, this book is a magic carpet for the armchair traveler.

“Every day we live,” writes Sims, “constitutes a smaller percentage of the accrued experience with which we awaken each morning, and therefore seems proportionately a smidgen quicker and smaller than the day before.” True. But readers of Apollo’s Fire will suddenly experience today -- this ordinary day, like any other -- as grand and momentous. They will be reminded that we are on a spectacular trip this very moment, moving faster than we can understand, staring up at stars that have already transformed.

Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination by Michael Sims
Viking
ISBN: 0670063282
320 Pages