Cutting Edge


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Boats traversing the Panama Canal look strange and out of place, like mirages or optical illusions. That’s because the Canal — especially at places like the Culebra Cut — goes right through what would otherwise be continuous land. The Canal is, in essence, a trench. It was dug right across the width of Panama in order to connect two oceans: Pacific and Atlantic. Ships going through the Panama Canal, therefore, are strange-goers, undertaking a journey that would be fantastical but for feats of engineering that still boggle the mind. 

268,000,000 cubic yards of earthy stuff was moved to create the Panama Canal. Something like 27,000 people died from accidents and disease during construction. (The French, who started the project, did not keep accurate death records). A three-mile-long peninsula jutting out into the Pacific Ocean was created with material dug from the Canal. There are 46 gates along the Panama Canal, each of them weighing between 354 and 662 tons. 101,000 cubic meters of water are needed to fill a Panama Canal lock chamber. An average of 52 million gallons of fresh water are used in each transit.

These are just some of the raw numbers that tell the tale of the Panama Canal. Building the Canal took about 35 years. The French began the project in 1881. But there were so many problems (human and mechanical) that the project was abandoned. In 1904, the Americans took over the task. The Panama Canal was officially opened on August 15, 1914. One hundred years ago.

The Panama Canal was built to solve problems of global circumnavigation that first began to dawn on human minds during the Age of Exploration, five hundred years ago. Today, the Panama Canal serves the global shipping industry. Goods are moved across the surface of the water at ever-increasing rates, with ever-increasing tonnage loads. The Canal is a functional part of a vast, global infrastructure. Because of this functionality it is harder, today, to see the Canal as fantastical. We no longer think of it as the result of an outrageous dream to connect oceans and leap over continents. But that’s what it was at the beginning. It was a crazy notion, one that took centuries to dream itself into reality.

There has always been a contradiction at the heart of exploration. To explore is to “go out.” But those who go out eventually come back. And in coming back, they draw in what was far away. Explorers make the world smaller by making it bigger.

The Age of Exploration is considered to have begun in the 15th century. The Portuguese loom large here. In the 15th century, Portugal had the money, the will, and the geography (out there at the end of the Iberian Peninsula) to send ships out long and far into the oceans. The Portuguese brought us men like Infante Dom Henrique de Avis, more popularly known as Henry the Navigator. Henry headed out to the seven seas before he, or anyone else, was even sure what to look for. Gold? New lands? Prester John’s mythical Christian kingdom somewhere in Africa? The Fountain of Youth? Exploration was still defining itself.

After Henry came Ferdinand Magellan, a slightly more practical fellow and the man responsible for the first circumnavigation of the earth. For Magellan, exploration could give itself definition by serving conquest. Ships could carry guns and new lands could be conquered in the name of Portugal. Magellan was killed fighting the natives in the Philippines. Eventually, Portugal was itself conquered by Spain. Live by the sword, die by it. The Portuguese legacy was picked up by Christopher Columbus, now financed by the Spanish crown. Under the Spanish colonial program, the New World began to fall into the grasp of the old.

By the 18th century, men and women were crossing the great oceans more or less with impunity. Trade routes had been established. Goods were coming and going. Persons were transported (willingly and not). New colonies were being set up all around the planet. Old civilizations were destroyed. New cities were built.

An idea, a compulsion really, pressed at the minds of the people engaged in these far-flung enterprises. How to make it all go faster? How to increase the efficiency? How to make travel more direct?

Any idiot can look at a globe and see the basic problem. The continents are arranged poorly, from the circumnavigator’s standpoint. To get from Europe to the Far East by sea, for example, you’ve got to go all the way down around the tip of Africa. It’s a long way. Plus, the Cape of Good Hope is bad news for sailors. Dangerous waters. Going the other way causes just as many problems — as Columbus found out on the trip to India that landed him in the Americas. Getting down around the tip of South America is another long trip. And going up north to go around is a disaster of ice and cold — as Henry Hudson learned, and he learned the hardest way you can, by dying out there on his quest for the Northwest Passage.

By the 19th century, it had become clear that the explorers were not going to solve the problem. The problem would be solved by the engineers. Again, it takes no genius to see the possible solution. You look for thin strips of land separating the seas. At the thin strips, there might be a way to go right through. For the eastern passage, the engineers found a thin strip in Suez.

Going west, the thin strip was in Panama.

Cutting the Panama Canal was a way of shortening the distances between one continent and another and, therefore, between all the continents. It really is a big idea. It is an idea that comes from looking at the entire planet, tracing one’s finger across sea routes that run all the way around the globe. It’s why the idea for the Panama Canal could only have come more recently in human history. You’ve got to map the whole planet out before you can start having dreams about continent-cutting canals. You’ve got to understand how the continents and the seas fit together in the first place before you can start getting ideas about how to improve upon the matter. The Panama Canal, in the 14th century, would not just have been nonsensical; it would literally have been impossible.

Yet, for all this talk of progress and accumulated knowledge of the continents and seas, there is also something prehistoric about the desire to bring all the continents closer together. That’s because they were all together once. The continents have drifted apart over the eons. We are going back three hundred million years or so, now. We are going back to the continent that the geologists call Pangaea. Pangaea was a supercontinent in the late Paleozoic era. It was one block of land. On Pangaea, what we now know as Africa was nestled in the crook between North and South America, almost like a baby. Eurasia was connected to the top of North America. Then, over millions of years, the land mass began to break up, due to motion of the tectonic plates. The continents separated from one another. The oceans filled up the spaces in between. What was one, split into many.

Unknowingly, unconsciously, the engineers of the Panama Canal were acting as agents of the ancient supercontinent of Pangaea. Bring it all back together. Shorten the distances. Heal the wounds, maybe, from the terrible splitting that tore the world out of its oneness hundreds of millions of years ago. That is how it can seem, anyway, when you take the long view, when you look at it from a geological perspective. It is like an old dream of continental unity that we never knew we had. It is like the crust beneath the earth found a way to influence the minds of the men who crawl upon the surface. “Bring us back together.” You can hear it whispered from the cracks and crevices and fault lines that go down into the dark places beneath.

The first man to work up a practical plan for the Panama Canal was Ferdinand de Lesseps, a Frenchman. It’s a nice historical accident that his first name was Ferdinand. He was, after all, the man who took up the mantel that Ferdinand Magellan laid down during the Age of Exploration. De Lesseps had a good resume when it came to canal building. He’d spent a good portion of his life building the Suez Canal.

His plan for the Canal was to dig all the way down to sea level and thus avoid building those complicated locks. This made sense from one perspective. But it didn’t take enough account of the wetness. Panama is a tropical place. It rains and rains and then rains again. The earth there is, more often than not, mud. De Lesseps never dealt with that problem at Suez. There, he had the desert to contend with. In Panama, he faced the forest. The jungle. The wetness of the earth was a curse. The men would dig the trench, and the wet earth would slide right back in. Hundreds, thousands of men were buried alive.

In the wetness, the jungle had another weapon. Fever. Two fevers in particular. Yellow Fever and Malaria. The workers died, sometimes faster than they could be replaced. When another round of fever struck an area around the Canal, panic would spread with it. Over time, Yellow Fever causes internal hemorrhaging. As the disease progresses, you begin to vomit thick and black. Then you die. When the fever hit, workers fled. Their work would be abandoned. Then the rains would come again and the mud would start sliding. Every step forward meant two steps back.

Finally, the French gave up. They couldn’t defeat the wet earth, the mud, the jungle. De Lesseps died in ignominy and shame. He was accused of being a con man. More likely, he was a man unable to comprehend and accept the power of mud.

The Americans finally came in to finish the Canal in 1904. They brought a heavier dose of engineering, on two fronts. The Americans brought locks and fumigation. The locks solved the mud problem. Raising boats up over some of the land meant that they didn’t have to dig so deep into the mud. The fumigation stopped the fevers, killing the mosquitoes and anything else caught in the poisonous clouds. American engineers solved the problems of the Panama Canal much in the same way that Ulysses S. Grant won the Civil War. Attrition. Grind the problem down to a nub.

There’s a painting by the now largely forgotten American painter, Alson Skinner Clark. It was painted in 1913. It is called Pedro Miguel Locks, after the Panama Canal locks it depicts.

Skinner Clark spent much time in Paris, where he became an Impressionist painter. He returned to the U.S. in order to bring the good news of Impressionism. In Clark’s Panama Canal painting, you can see a little hill above the locks. The hill is covered in pretty wildflowers. Purple and yellow. The hill could have been painted by Monet at his garden in Giverny. Below the flower-covered hill is the lock. Clark has tried to integrate the scene. The concrete wall of the giant lock is painted with the same Impressionistic daubs of light and color as the hill in the background.

But the integration doesn’t work. Indeed, Pedro Miguel Locks is an interesting painting for that very reason. The massive concrete wall presented a challenge to the Impressionistic study of light and color. Clark attempted to render the concrete with a symphony of gray. But gray just doesn’t make a visual symphony the way wildflowers do. A fascinating predicament. It would take art another fifty years or so to come to terms with concrete. But that is another story.

In 1913, Skinner Clark painted a painting that records a simple fact: “We’ve done it, we’ve solved the engineering problems and built this Canal across a continent.” And then the painting asks a question: “What have we done?” • 25 August 2014