Keith Cowing's Devon Island Journal - 2 Aug 2002: Green overdose; Home at last


I got all of three hours of sleep last night. Before I had a chance to fall fully asleep I was awake getting ready to leave for the airport. I had a lot of electronic gear with me and was certain that security would make things as tedious as life post 9-11 now requires.

I was right. After allowing every item I was carrying on to be examined, bought something to eat and collapsed into a rigid plastic seat. The only amusement was someone from the British embassy trying to get on our flight to Washington with a mammoth diplomatic pouch. According to the airline representative who was giving him a hard time, he needed to buy a ticket for the bag if he wanted to carry it on and have it occupy a seat. After some grumbling the diplomat pulled out his wallet and bought a second seat.

It was still dark outside. Having not seen 'dark' for a month I found the lack of any detail outside of great interest. Meanwhile, I still had absolutely no view of the landscape. The last land I had seen in daylight was several hours out from Ottawa last night - and it was utterly devoid of any vegetation.

Soon enough we boarded the plane and taxied for takeoff. By now the sun had come up. As soon as we were airborne the odd imagery began to appear. Green. Green everywhere. No sharp lines made by geology - everything was softened by the ubiquitous and gaudy presence of green. How odd. Just as the oddness made itself apparent, so did my fatigue. I was soon sound asleep.

I awoke an hour later as we began final approach to Washington Dulles. Minutes later we were on the ground. A few minutes after that I was walking, slightly dazed, towards baggage claim. I soon saw my wife who was smiling. A hug and a kiss and I was determined to get my bags and get home.

As we walked to the car I experienced the same eerie feeling I had experienced the night before in Ottawa airport: all these people. I had grown accustomed to a universe of 30 people - all of whom I knew. This was curiously unsettling but that soon passed. Oh yes, there was the humidity.

A 10 minute drive through lush and forested Reston, Virginia and I was awash in green. Our neighborhood is one of the oldest in Reston and is extra green. It was so intense that I just fixated on the experience. As we pulled into my driveway at 8:30 AM I was prompted to look at my watch (already set to the correct time zone) and then asked my wife “what time is it?” I was not connecting sun angle and clock time yet. How odd. It was almost as if the darkness had given my body’s internal clock a firm slap.

Here I was: home. The total amount of time I had been exposed to greenery was little more than two hours. Until this moment, it was at a distance. Being quite the gardener I immediately scanned the yard to see how things had fared during the heat wave.

I opened the car door and new things hit me in the face: smells. The sounds of insects and birds. Oppressive heat and humidity. It felt like being inside our greenhouse on Devon Island. I use harsh terms to describe the experience - it was not unlike being assaulted by nature.

This day was one of catnaps, unpacking, and general odd reactions to things I'd otherwise consider mundane. Our two cats seemed so small after a month of interacting with dogs.

That night I sat out on my deck so as to look up at the stars. I did not see any at first. I had not seen any for a month. It took some time before my eyes could make them out. To be fair, the area was in the midst of a muggy heat wave so viewing conditions were not optimal.

After a few minutes, my eyes and brain saw stars again. I found this very reassuring. Then, after barely a few minutes, a bright light zipped across the sky: a meteorite. What a wonderful welcome home gift. Later, I would start to regain my rather good ability to spot satellites as they zoomed overhead. Space was something that I could see once again.

How odd: I had spent a month in an extreme environment where we all were working on projects aimed at simulating life on another planet - and we could not even see the stars.

Physically, I was home. Mentally - and emotionally - I was still there, on Devon Island: Mars on Earth. I have talked with enough astronauts and other explorers to know that this is not an unusual phenomenon. Indeed, it is a malady common to seafarers and explorers in centuries past.

The one place where I found this curious feeling to be best expressed was in the old sailor's lament "When I was at sea I wished I was at home. When I was at home I wished I was at sea."


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