The truck slowly lurched out of the pine forest like a big game cat stalking prey. The headlights streamed through the forest, straight up the trail, deliberately blinding us. A little patch of fog wafted in front of the headlights. The more we looked at the truck the more it seemed to hesitate, its engine rattling and sputtering, just ever so quietly being revved up and down. The driver turned on high beams and a second set of light. We held our hands up to our foreheads and squinted our eyes. We were miles off the paved road in the middle of a game land, several hours after the sun had set. Eastern screech-owls trilled in the branches of darkened trees. Coyotes howled to each other like a chorus a ner’er-do-wells. But the truck, with its headlights shining in our face, eerily stopped, blinding us, ruuuurrump, ruuurrump – no one should be back here.
I had picked up John several hours earlier in Beans. (Beans is the name of my truck.) The game land in Bladen County was a good hour away so we filled the time by talking about camera lenses, software, tactics and strategies. John is a much more qualified photographer than I am, and the conversation quickly accrued an interview like quality. I asked him everything I knew to ask about astrophotography. What’s the best ISO? How do you know you’re in focus? He responded with short answers and then started repeating, “We’ll figure that out when we get there.”
The entire ride out we had our eye on the reddening sky and the palette of blended pastels clouds with gossamer threads and smeared bands. John promised dark skies, the sort of dark skies from out west or the movies. “Yeah,” he said, “I’ve been to the game land at least two other times. It is amazing. But Joe’s been out there lots.”
We pulled into the game land entrance and pulled off the road to wait on Joe, who had been following behind us for miles without our knowing. We unloaded Joe’s gear, rearranged bags and tripods, and Joe parked his car to the side of the gravel road. The gravel popped underneath Beans like popcorn kernels as we drove deeper and deeper into the game land.
The gravel road gave way to packed dirt, mud, tired-chiseled channels and pockets of mud. Silhouetted pine trees laced the tip of the horizon and were rowed along the side of the road. We found a nice set up where the trail divided in two directions. If John knew more than I did, Joe seemed to me the expert. They each carried two or three cameras apiece, multiple tripods, an assortment of bags, gizmos, and doohickeys. Together they looked like a Mr. Gadget fan club that had knocked off the local Radio Shack. I had a camera and a tripod. I didn’t know if I was the reasonable one or if I was, so to speak, underdressed.
When I finally looked up at the subject we had driven an hour away from city lights for, a wave of vertigo raced over my body as though I were standing on the ledge of a skyscraper. The stars crowded the sky in such a way that if I just looked long enough there wasn’t the smallest spot that wasn’t dotted with something glowing. The swarthy Milk Way band breached the trailhead and rose directly over our heads. The commonplace stars and constellations, like Ursa Major and Cassiopeia, Betelgeuse and Rigel, were unrecognizable because their familiar patterns and shapes and tones blended into the random jumble of other stars.
I’ve seen darker skies before, places far away from the east coast like a national park in Kenya or the base of Arenal Volcano. In the northwestern mountains of Honduras where Guatemala and El Salvador pinch together, a man had asked me, ¿Tienen ustedes el mismo luna? (Do you have the same moon?). The question was sincere and reflected not so much a cosmic misunderstanding as much as it demonstrated how alien I seemed to him. And maybe now I understood a little bit differently the man’s question. These stars, under this sky, tonight they were ours, and it was a good question to wonder if anyone else has ever seen anything like it.
We photographed for an hour before cloud cover obscured the scene. I packed up my camera and tripod, certain the night was over. And it had been worth it, peering back further and further in space and time. But Joe and John weren’t convinced the evening was ruined. They checked apps and weather forecast and concluded the cloud cover was temporary. Joe went so far as to say, “There are no clouds. It is clear.” Joe was the optimist, the Pollyanna, choosing to believe the good news of a phone app rather than the reality of his own vision. They clearly wanted to stay and I didn’t want to come across as the grumpster prematurely ending the night. So, I dangled my legs on the back of Beans, swatted a thousand mosquitos, and then the clouds were brushed away. The Polyanna had been right, or, his technology had been right.
I had set my camera back up when I first noticed the lights. The woods flickered brighter and brighter with the metallic color of hyalogen lamps. The truck rounded the last corner and faced us directly. Joe and John seemed unconcerned about a truck blinding us, revving its engine; rather, they made adjustments, altered camera settings, captivated by knobs and dials. When the truck finally approached us, it drove double-quick to our feet with every light blazing. The truck abruptly stopped and sort of rocked back and forth with the saved-up inertia of the vehicle. A man jumped out of truck and said, “Hey, are you guys flat earthers?”
An image of a tactical weapon was on the front license plate and several machine guns were visible when the interior light came on. The beat-up truck had rusted patches, a busted side mirror, and a missing gas cap. But the driver was a spry, near-dancing man with his hair twisted up into some kind of knot. His animation seemed to spring from having found other people. I wondered if he had been living in the woods.
“Are you guys flat earthers?” he asked again.
“We are shooting the night sky,” Joe said.
“You hunting?” I asked.
“Yeah, but I didn’t see anything. Nearly fell out of my tree. So, you guys are photographing your hunt? That’s cool. I saw that on YouTube.” He had a mouth like a puppet and talked as though it were full of oyster crackers.
“We’re not hunting,” John tried to explain.
“That’s cool, that’s cool. I’m not gonna say anything.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Where is that?”
“Brunswick County.” He fidgeted about as though a voice were singing Camptown Races over and over again in his head. Or maybe he was medicated, or unmedicated. Behind his eyes I’m sure were carousels or clowns, the mirror not firmly attached to the wall or the weighted door slowly pulling hinges away from the wooden frame. “So, are you?” he asked.
“Are we what?” John or Joe responded.
“Are you flat earthers?” No one much answered him. “Well, make sense that you are. Out here in the dark. Looking for aliens, cameras going, you know, UFOs and all that stuff.”
John and Joe heard enough and returned to their cameras, which I thought was a shame. A guy comes creeping out of the woods with tactical weapons, talking about the flat earth and extraterrestrials – can it get more interesting?
The man told me about the flat earth, how it was made, where it came from, and, most importantly how it can be proven to be flat. The Book of Genesis was the best source of information, but secret societies that had access to government conspiracies helped. The space program, the moon landings, the visible satellites orbiting the earth were all fakes. The number of people who lie to us to prop up the deception of the spherical earth were numberless. “Liars,” he called them with a twinge of hatred in his voice. Even the Antarctic continent didn’t really exist.
“But people have been to Antarctica,” I said.
“Not really,” he said.
“Yeah, they have. You can take a cruise there.”
“Oh sure. You can go to the edge of Antarctica but that’s all there is. Just an edge. All those people who are flown into the South Pole science station aren’t really at the South Pole because there’s no such place. They fly them to Greenland. How would they know the difference anyway? You go too far in Antarctica and you’ll hit the dome.”
“Yeah, the dome of the firmament.” And then he went on to explain how the dome of the firmament was in the Book of Genesis, which meant it was a geological fact, and a crack in the firmament is where all the water came from that flooded the earth. “Before the flood,” he said, “it had never rained.” This firmament held in place all the stars we were photographing but they weren’t really stars. They were jewels or something like that. And the Sun and the Moon weren’t really all that big and certainly not that far away. The Sun, it turns out, is quite small and about 30 miles away, give or take.
His cosmology lesson continued and every objection I mounted was rebuked with something ludicrous. I knew that people, if they ever believed in a flat earth, which I’m pretty sure they didn’t, knew the world was a sphere. And they’ve know about how big it was for thousands of years.
“What do you say to the people who have sailed the world, always going east or always going west and then they end up right back where they started?” I thought for sure I had him cornered. But he squatted down, drew a giant flat earth in the dirt, and showed me in diagram form exactly how that was in fact possible.
Every thought, every insight, all his ideas about the flat earth were the words of a ventriloquist – someone who had given him answers, taught him foolish things, inspired a creed of pseudo-science and bad religion. And he seemed to me a man less of convictions than a transgressive, middle child who argued and reasoned for attention.
I looked away from the diagram he had drawn in the dirt and noticed my friends giving me the look. So, I shook the flat earther’s hand, thanked him for his insights, and said, “I don’t want to keep you from getting home. It is already late.”
“You think I’m crazy,” he said happily, and he got back in his truck and pulled away.
We all had a good laugh at the expense of the flat earther after he drove away, but we all quickly agreed that we probably all believed dumb things too. But what’s the difference? I believe God created everything, that a man came back from the dead, something called the Holy Spirit. How is that not just as dumb as a flat earth? What a lurid temptation it is to call my religion right and call someone else’s religion wrong.
Maybe I shouldn’t have engaged the flat earther in conversation, I don’t know. How do you have a sensible conversation with someone who will not submit themselves to a collectively agreed upon set of facts? An orange is not a purple. Dogs are not cats. The world is not flat. But then you have Jesus coming along and upsetting the status quo by saying blessed are the poor, love your enemy, you have heard it said, but I say…
But still how far are we supposed to go tolerating each other, being respectful of others’ beliefs? I don’t know. It is a hard question. And before we slip back into the tolerant trope of judge not lest you be judge, Jesus also said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement.”
Here I wish I could tell you that the Greek word Jesus is using means don’t be stupid. I’m pretty sure that’s not what he means, but I’ll venture a guess that Jesus would agree that we shouldn’t intentionally be stupid. There’s nothing wrong with being stupid, as long as you’re unintentionally stupid. It happens to all of us, especially me. So, there’s a difference between temporary stupidity and certified stupidity. And stupid doesn’t have anything to do with intellectual deficiencies or ugly playground taunts or sibling ribbings. Stupid is being stupid on purpose, and it is a right judgement that we live in the age of stupid.
It is stupid to believe in a flat earth because the earth has been explored, investigated, and scrutinized by smart people. It is stupid to not believe in climate change because scientist have made measurements, done calculations, and very complicated things like averaging out the water temperature of the ocean. And saying Donald Trump isn’t a racist is stupid; it is so demonstrably not true that one would have to be ignorant of their own racial proclivities to hold such a belief.
There have always been stupid people, dumb ideas, a history of ignorance. But I don’t know of a time when stupid was more powerful, more consequential, and more celebrated than now. The difference between the diversity of ideas we should celebrate and the religious/political/ideology that we should judge and correct is that stupid hurts others… massively, systematically. And maybe that is a good definition of stupid: stupid hurts others. The mistrust sown by conspiracy theories, the future generations who will be displaced by rising sea levels and violent storms, the violence inflicted on racial minorities – stupid is unchristian.