Valley of Wrath

As we move toward the ides of September, the weather cools, and on the western coasts of Iberia and California the mists of fall appear. Through my open window, the foghorn sounds—a reminder that in these days of satellite navigation, smart bombs, and location-based shopping, the old ways still count.

Lighthouses and foghorns testify to the difficulties in measuring latitude and longitude, without which the best chart becomes useless. In the days of The India Road there were no such land-based luxuries, particularly where they were needed most—the parts of the world unknown to navigators.

Latitude readings, done either with an astrolabe to ‘weigh’ the sun, or quadrant, cross-staff, or kamal,  might provide you with an accurate position in the north-south axis, but that wouldn’t be much use unless you had a map to check it on—or if the map showed only water, as in Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark.

So in the fifteenth century the Portuguese ‘navigated the parallel’, which is to say once they reached the desired latitude (since no one could accurately measure longitude) they headed due west or east until they reached another ‘marker’. That marker could be land, or for instance a shift in ocean currents, such as the start of the Gulf Stream. For the British ships going to the Caribbean, the marker was temperature: sail south until the butter melts. That was the time to rotate west out of the Canary Current and into the North Equatorial, which crosses the Atlantic, pushed by the trade winds. Steer too far north, and you hit the Horse Latitudes, where sailing ships were often becalmed.

The late Jim Morrison described it thus:

When the still sea conspires an armor
And her sullen and aborted
Currents breed tiny monsters
True sailing is dead
Awkward instant
And the first animal is jettisoned
Legs furiously pumping…

The Doors were one of the most eclectic bands of the 1960s, a decade which was itself a musical revolution. Nowadays the band, if remembered at all, is known only for ‘Light My Fire‘, and Morrison’s arrest for indecent exposure at a concert in Florida. But the lead singer was a poet, as ‘Riders on the Storm’ attests, and a consummate showman, without the need for live consumption of avian fauna that marked the shows of some of his successors.

There was always darkness and mystery in his music, and an element of danger. Much the same aura that surrounds the murders committed this week in France, at a place called Combe d’Ire—a two thousand acre forest area near the city of Grenoble, where four people were assassinated a few days ago. This kind of murder rampage, where a whole family is liquidated, leaving only a seven year old with multiple skull fractures, and a four year old practically scared to death, is thankfully most unusual.

The name of the crime scene is pretty ominous—it means valley of wrath. It might be serendipidity, but who knows? The focus for motive is on the man, rather than the two women. The fact that he was Iraqi-born, and worked with satellite and aerial imagery, could suggest an espionage angle; the type of crime would not. Robbery seems implausible, unless it was carried out by bumbling psychopaths, who were simultaneously crack executioners. Organized crime? Perhaps, but to the old school Mafia or Ndrangheta, killing of a family in this way is Infamitá.

The inheritance theory is also suspect, although I suppose that wiping out a whole family would effectively secure  full rights. Effective, if a little extreme. But in that case, wouldn’t the executioners make sure both little girls were also dead?

I believe the killings were a professional job, designed to send a clear message. So perhaps the recipient was some other person, maybe a relative in the Mid-East, who must be pressured in a particular direction. I was also struck by how swiftly the prime ministers of both France and the U.K. reacted, in person, and with a joint press conference. A little panicked, perhaps? Somehow, this is linked to the Iraq War—possibly, it also involves the battle around the Iranian nuclear program. Or perhaps… A Syrian connection.

The Portuguese call it uma história mal contada, a poorly told tale. The Americans simply say it doesn’t pass the smell test. But the intelligence agencies already know.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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