BrownBerry

It’s been a year since I pored over the maps of Andrea Bianco. At that time, I’d almost finished writing Clear Eyes, and during my research for the book I’d found copies of a map from 1436 that mentioned the Mar da Baga, which means ‘The Sea of Berries.’

Bagas are part of the Sargassum seaweed—they are pneumatocysts, to give them their scientific name, gas bladders rich in oxygen. Practically all plants are photoautotrophic—they depend on light for energy—and therefore they face a major challenge in the ocean, since things get dark pretty quickly.

Because the sea is deep, there can be no plant life below a couple of hundred feet—but there’s nothing as wonderful on this planet as life itself, and plants have adapted to the marine environment by floating.

Usually this means they have to be very small—if you’re tiny enough, you live in a weightless wonderland, the anti-gravity world of Atmos Fear. But there are advantages in growing larger—you get eaten less (though you may get nibbled), you live for longer, and you get to have sex.

Sargassum stays in the limelight because it floats—the Sargasso Sea occupies two million square miles in the western Atlantic Ocean, between the Azores and North America, and although it’s not chock-full of seaweed, there’s lots of it floating on the water.

In the fall of 1492, Columbus was stuck in it for a good while, his sails dead, his men getting increasingly restless.

Bastos awoke at dawn and looked aft—the mainsail was slack. He made his way to the gunwale and urinated, then spat into the sea. From his pocket he pulled a wad of salt pork and chewed pensively as he gazed into the green waters below.

He could see the captain talking to Pilot Nino on the poop deck, pointing at the Pinta and the Nina—both vessels were practically becalmed. Bastos lowered a baler and pulled up a tangled mass of weed.

Around him, other sailors did their ablutions and muttered uncertainly about the vegetation in the water.

Es un mar de yerba,” one of the men said, a sea of grass.

“And no land anywhere,” said another.

Mala yerba!” The two sailors crossed themselves.

The muttering grew louder, as the men again doubted whether they would ever find land to the west, and most importantly, whether they would ever return home—in one week, it would be two months since they had left Palos de la Frontera. The sea was like a pancake and the sails hardly moved.

Columbus’s fleet was becalmed in an area of high pressure, stuck between the northeast trades and the Westerlies. This pressure band, at around thirty degrees north, was later christened the horse latitudes, due to the practice of throwing the animals overboard to conserve drinking water.

The two sailors looked aft at the mizzen mast, and noted the flaccid lateen. Despair set in.

Estamos plantados num mar de coles”—we’re planted in a sea of cabbages. The men’s despair slowly turned into a seething anger at the foreigner who had put them in this predicament.

Bastos looked at the seaweed in his hand. It was a patchwork of dark and light brown, and the fronds were knotty and ribbed. The Portuguese had seen similar weeds in Lisbon—the Tagus was full of oysters, and a brown wrack was often fixed to the oyster shell—but the brown plant was smoother than this one, with bladders all along the frond.

He knew that when those brown weeds detached they might survive a short while, then die. But these ones were clearly thriving, just floating at the water surface, and there was a mighty forest of brown, as far as the eye could see.

Bastos understood how they floated—each plant had dozens of grape-like berries on it, each fixed on its own little stalk.

Berries! Bagas!

Something was bothering him. Where had he heard that word before?

“Bastos!” The captain looked down from the poop deck. “Bring me that yerba. And get to work.”

“Sir.” Bastos walked up the companionway and handed over the tangled mess.

Columbus fingered the weed, stopping at the round vesicles as if counting a rosary. “Odd. Like grapes.”

“In Portugal we call them bagas.” Bastos turned and walked down, afraid the captain would see the hatred in his eyes.

The diary of the first voyage of Columbus, compiled by Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, contains the first account of the Sargasso Sea; of the brown weed, and the home it provides to shrimp, worms, and small fish—an ecosystem more typically found inshore, close to the sea bottom.

Las Casas is the primary source, as historians are fond of saying—how then do we find a reference to the Sargasso Sea, using its Portuguese name, in an obscure Venetian map that precedes Columbus by fifty-six years?

"Higher floor, per favore!" You might be excused for such a request at your hotel, as the Venetian aqua alta occupies the lower stories of the beautiful buildings that line the Grand Canal.

“Higher floor, per favore!” You might be excused for such a request at your hotel, as the Venetian aqua alta invades the lower stories of the beautiful buildings that line the Grand Canal.

On the plane leaving Venice last year, I wrote of my disappointment in not finding the magic words on the original map, and then my joy when I discovered I must have missed the correct folio.

Among other things, it gave me a reason to return to Venice.

A freezing wind blows across the city, and storm surges have flooded the Piazza de San Marco and other low-lying areas. The water laps at the doors of the good people of the Serenissima Repubblica, while the oblivious Chinese wave at the vaporetto from their gondolas.

Venice is still one of my favorite cities, but lots has changed for the worse. The monumental area (well, the whole city is monumental) of San Marco is a babel of selfie-stick-toting fools, and the locals are moving out in droves.

The main culprits are short-term rental platforms like airbnb, which have destroyed the residential fabric of city centers. From Dublin to New York, from Venice to Lisbon, residents have simply given up, saturated with groups tramping up and down the narrow stairs of old buildings, marching suitcases in and out, and raucously celebrating their two days in town. Premium rental price points did the rest.

Venetians have moved out of the city, going northwest to small dormitory towns like Mestre.

The flooding in San Marco meant I had to share the emergency walkways with the selfie-stick brigade, but as soon as I ducked into the library entrance, I stopped at the sign and smiled.

Italy is big on the phrase solo persone autorizzate, and the Chinese tourists hell-bent on exploring were stopped in their tracks.

They watched jealously as I pulled out my library card and crossed the hallowed archway.

I approached the guard, scanned the card, and that was it! Of course there are always a few small hitches, revalidation and registration, but I did all that with the smiling lady in the reading room.

She examined my correspondence, typed some mystery strokes into il computer, gave me a clean bill of health until 2018, and vanished in search of Andrea Bianco.

I sat at one of the long wooden tables and gazed at the beautiful bookcases, filled with the history that the new US president refuses to read, and waited.

The maps arrived. I pored. I found the Mar de Spagna, which had so disappointed me before. I looked at the spread of islands marked there. The Canaries, and particularly La Gomera, home to the insatiable Beatriz de Bobadilla, mistress of both Columbus and the Spanish king Ferdinand of Aragon, are poorly drawn.

But they are marked. Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, and Hierro, the most westerly one. If Columbus knew this map (in my book he does), it would easily support his mistaken belief that Asia was very close to Europe.

Bianco draws the Antilles, or rather a large rectangle called Ante Illa, just to the west of Hierro—he misses the detail that the two are on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

You turn the page to Folio 8. Not 6, as the library description itself tells you.

Northwest Europe. England. Scotland. Ireland. I can recognize a few place names, the Thames Estuary, astonishingly magnified, and what looks like the Mersey. Bristol is marked, as is the Severn, and southern England is fairly well drawn—I suspect we must thank the Romans.

Ireland is a mess, cartographically speaking.

The Sargasso Sea, represented on a map from 1436, over half a century before Columbus sailed.

The Sargasso Sea, represented on a map from 1436, over half a century before Columbus sailed.

To the west of Ireland (which on this chart is to the right) is a big brown circle, labeled to its right as ‘y. barzil’. The ‘y’ is for isla, or island, and the name is misspelt—on the previous page, another island near the Azores has the correct spelling.

Almost directly south (upward) another island is drawn—it looks like a crescent moon and appears to be called Ysla d’Ventura. To its right, further west, we hit gold.

Questo xe mar de baga.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

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