Earthy: Sweater-powered human space travel

A new more pragmatic generation of space exploration researchers has outfitted its small crew with a key new piece of technology: Icelandic sweaters. Four heavy, somewhat misshapen pullovers, differently-hued radial patterns across their chests, literally redolent of peat smoke and wool, of human sweat. The world’s television screens have fixed upon these lumpy traditional garments as totems of restored hope.

After nearly a decade this new mission, scheduled to execute moments from now, marks only the fourth trip into the reaches using a method known as leaping. Three prior deep space leaps have been tragedies, from which the crews have returned, because of the way that leaping must work, without any memories of the voyage. The data collected from devices about reaches of space previously unavailable to us is unimaginably rich, opening whole new fields of inquiry and research. But the leapers themselves have had nothing to tell us, nothing about what it’s like so far beyond the Earth and our solar system, what they’ve experienced. The world has wept at the grim, now-familiar images of the last three crews, emerging from the vessels in silver space suits, staring literally like idiots, unable to recall any details about their trip, or indeed anything from the lives they lead before they left for space. Some eventually regain their memories. Others, unfortunately, have come back lost to us utterly.

The Icelandic sweaters represent a very different approach to leaping. A return to earlier modes of travel, to a human-based program and a literal disenchantment with the garish silver metal rockets of the 1950s, the glass geomes and other basic shapes of the early 2020s. This time on our terms, the sweaters say: as humans, our outsized brains floating in liquid, our minds so prone to worry and to wander, our fragile skins.

Wool, it turns out, is very good at repelling solar radiation in space. No one knows why. The sheep in Iceland so close to what’s left of the intense ice sheets, the polar light of the North. Much more important, however, may be the actual feel of the sweaters, the deep odor of Icelandic wool, the talismanic wholesomeness they afford their wearers.

Wool sweaters are earthy. That’s the main thing. We believe that the astronauts now waiting to launch in thick traditional wool sweaters will retain more of themselves on this flight, and will share something real to us upon return.

This obsession with the future, we realize now, was about forgetting! Of course our astronauts would come back blanked. We would never conquer the reaches with fantasy. Silver shiny is not us. We’re wiser now. What had this abandonment of ourselves gotten us, this fetish of sleek and futuristic, the shiny Will Robinson fantasies? Making it there and back wasn’t a matter of faster vessels, more leap drive, or dilithium crystals. It was a matter of being able to maintain yourself, to keep your self organized. To feel and be present, no matter what.

To travel through distances any greater than to our own moon, you just need to leave the earth’s orbit with your space craft–almost any craft will do here–and then, working together, leap into the reaches with what’s more like a shared mental exercise than a spatial journey.

The astronauts stride into the small capsule. They know they are risking their lives, their memories, what makes them human. Researchers are already investigating an even stronger formula of Icelandic sweaters and Spanish rioja wine.

Zach Hanner and the New, Old, Coastal Southeast

ZACH HANNER IS WORKING A KIDS BIRTHDAY PARTY in downtown Wilmington. In a bright Hawaiian shirt, on a wide front porch overlooking raised herb beds, miniature soccer goals and skateboards, Zach plays a ukulele version of the Pixies 1989 song “Here Comes Your Man”. Cars roll by with their windows down and their thumbs up. Around Zach, holding their wine glasses, sitting knees-up in twos and threes, cradling babies in organic cotton slings, the parents bob their heads and smile wistfully, sing along.

Zach runs the uke through a little digital effects pedal that loops his strumming. He lays down a beautiful Bossa rhythm, then plays some groovy solo lines over the top, a duet with himself. Next, he beat-boxes Biz Markie style in his deep voice, sets that looping as the drum and bass behind a song whose words—about the bubbly seven year old birthday girl, this beautiful, languid Southern day—he makes up on the spot. Here comes your man.

Kids of every age are at this party. Babies to teenagers. Young parents in neck tattoos and vintage dresses, grandparents, neighbors. Zach knows us all. He already works with many of the kids at TheatreNOW, where he’s the theater director. Later tonight he’ll be the MC for Cucalorus, Wilmington’s independent film festival, which attracts thousands of attendees from all over each year. Tomorrow morning, he hosts his Super Saturday Fun Time, a variety show where he screens short films, puts on an episodic live mystery show about Wilmington called The Dock Street Kids, plays eclectic music. At the last Fun Time we attended, he showed a film reel about surfing on inflatable rafts, demoed and let the audience try playing a theremin, did a Dock Street episode on the possibly-haunted 18th century Burgwin-Wright house on Market Street. This coming week he’ll volunteer at local schools, as usual; put on a mystery dinner theater show, teach at his film and acting program, Superstar Academy; and play one or two gigs with his bands Da Howlies and the Noseriders, who specialize in surf music of different flavors. He may teach a surf lesson or two next weekend, or donate more Zach Hanner solo show gift certificates to the charities he’s closely involved with.

Kids scramble onto Zach’s lap to get themselves onto the live mic, into the looper, to make scary noises or fart noises, to bray Happy Birthday, yell their own names. Zach is unflappable, helping them to chop their contributions into loops, into new pieces of the puzzle, figuring out something else that will go here, or here. Making sure every kid who wants to can contribute.

WHAT IS CAPE FEAR? Is it a beach town, with Wings sunscreen shops and Confederate beach towels? Is it a coastal outskirt of the Triangle? An environmental sanctuary, an SUP and dragon-boating mecca? Is it mainly an antebellum Southern city with ghost walks? Is it a pirate bar crawl, a music scene? A key historic site of the Civil War? Tech hub? A film epicenter—”Hollywood East”, as it was called for many years, when Dennis Hopper, Dino DeLarentis and others fell in love with it and made for years literally the second busiest film production area in the US?

All of these are right in some respect. There are many more right answers besides. And that’s good! The Cape Fear area is so many things to so many people. But what about when you want it to become more of one thing or another, or when it grows very quickly, as this region has, and you want it to stay some way? Grow in what direction? What is our region’s guiding identity? Our vision? For that matter, what is Durham’s, and what does Savannah have that we do not? How do we tell our story here?

I think one good answer about who we are and might be is in the figure of Zach Hanner. People have talked for decades about the “New South,” its food and music, literature, its sophistication, civility. They mean cities like Charleston. The New South trope has really helped cities like Charleston establish themselves—perhaps by quelling the fears of northerners and other outsiders for whom the “Old South” was something to be passed over. Zach is more like…the Old, New Coastal Southeast. A model of how it all might fit together, of how wayward forces might be reconciled. It isn’t just that Zach does so many different, good things in town—theater, music, surf, film, education, charity. It’s that he loves these things first and foremost, and pursues them with heart. In doing so he’s made them real, and for many, many others, he’s made them a part of what our region is.

ZACH’S PROFESSIONAL BLUEGRASS-PLAYING UNCLE, his mother’s career as an art teacher, the film work, his being singled out at twelve as a singer and diving into high school chorus, then opera. All these Zach sees as “arrows in a quiver” of experiences and aptitudes. He sees himself as a self-promoter, which sounds like ego but is really its opposite: Hanner is completely self-deprecating, a booster for the things he loves. And he’s lucky, as he says. He describes the success of Da Howlies as almost accidental, for example, says that his long-time musical collaborator Seth Moody is “the lynchpin” of their musical projects, the real prodigy. In typical modest fashion, Zach paints a picture of the almost accidental way in which this Hawaiian music band, a “sunset” band of older dudes (Hanner was 32 when he co-founded) started playing at what was then the “Center Pier” in Carolina Beach and is now the Ocean Grill and Tiki Bar, run by Dave Sinclair, former lead singer of Rural Swine. Zach admiringly describes the musical framework that Moody created, the expertise that allowed the band to be whimsical while still being entirely groovy and tight, musical. It’s become a thing. On Friday nights in summer, couples and families bring their beach chairs and blankets to sit in the cool sand as Da Howlies play at the end of the lighted, rickety pier overhead.

Another bit of good fortune, Hanner says, was landing a speaking part in the movie Forrest Gump after graduating from Performance Studies and Improv from UNC in 1991. Less Ibsen and more Stanislavsky, Hanner says. Applied theater. This lead to work in the film industry, in television ads. Hanner was also a journalism major and, for a while, a technologist at the firm Citysearch in Raleigh. That was before the economic bust forced him and many others to find different work. Zach became a bartender at Wilmington’s rooftop bar Level 5, next door to City Stage, and was soon performing there, helping organize events and productions, getting the word out and connecting things.

What our region needs more than any new thing is to find its voice, to come into itself. We need Zach’s brand of synthesizing and “self-promotion” and, before that, a dose of his understanding, self-actualization, and energy. Was post-punk ukelele a thing before Zach Hanner decided he wanted to do it? Is a surf-soaked beach band doing Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” alongside Nat King Cole tunes part of a committee’s “vision” for this area? What would it look like to actually bring the present and the past together, as Zach does, or the beach and the downtown, kid and adult fun, Monkey Junction and Mayfaire? Is there anything more winningly “cultural” or “educational” than the film schools and acting troupes and music lessons and antic variety shows that Zach puts on for love, that he does to add to the place he calls home?

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY IS WINDING DOWN. Kids are inside now. Moustachioed dads are mulching their rinds in the yard and washing their own wine glasses. Zach bundles up his orange amplifier and his gear for the next gig, calls his wife Dagmar to see if she’ll meet him for a late lunch at Flaming Amy’s before the next event.

As someone who works a bit in economic development, I think the quirky projects that people like Zach Hanner and Cucalorus Film Festival “Chief Instigating Officer” Dan Brawley have started as forms of self-expression and outlets for their own creativity have done more than twenty commissions or long-term plans for the Cape Fear. They help you see your home and find your own place within.


Picture from WHQR, from an interview that radio station did with Zach in 2013 about the TheatreNOW show he did, Country Cookin’ with the Good Old Boys