Self in Society
© Instructor's Text/Papers©Back to Home Page Chapter 4 The Oceans Within Us Casting Off on the Soul's Restless Voyage
Robert A. Harsh
When I come to face the sea, the great bulk of the land at my back falls away. It is the measurable and the known; before me is all unfathomed magnitude and mystery.
Jennifer Ackerman, Notes from the Shore
Our planet is three times more sea than land; our bodies three times more water than tissue; and earth's waters nine times more salt than fresh. In the same arithmetic of life on land and sea, a voyage is a trip beyond certainty; the deep ocean an infinite mystery of depth and darkness above an invisible geography; and a storm at sea a whirling chaos without horizon or home
We can as easily find or lose ourselves at sea, and we move across the face of the deep afloat but alone in a profound uncertainty of endlessly shifting wind and water. More brain than brawn, we map the land, chart the oceans, but lose the sun's familiar landscape in its rising and setting at sea. Tide and time, rhyme and reason, adrift and aware, promise and discovery, undrinkable possibility and relentless fatethe ocean is just what we imagine it to be and still much more.
"The Umbilical Pull of the Ocean"
The biological lore of the oceans traces whales and humans back to similar progenitors on land, our human ancestors heading home to plains and hills and the great whales out to sea. "Both whales and dolphins bear traces of their kinship to land creatures. Their flippers have bones similar to those in a human arm and hand, though much reshaped" (Ackerman 104-105). Moving further back to the beginnings of life on earth, another scientific legend has it that the first single-cell organisms were perhaps born of lightning striking a tidal pooland the rest is our history as we know it. We cry salty tears, sweat salt from our pores, and, "solid as we seem, we are liquid beings, three-quarters water like the planet, and composed of motion down to the agitated atoms of our cells" (31).
But if humans and whales survive at the top of their landlocked and marine food chains, it has not been an easy evolution or certain future. Neither of us can breathe the water from/into which we emerge, and we both must find or synthesize fresh water to survive. We produce only several children in our long lives, betting the future on our parenting skills and bigger brains, though in fact we are our own worst enemies. We hear better than we see, whales signaling their intentions from as many as 3,000 miles away (from Canada to North Carolina!) while humans sign on to "surf the web." We think ourselves alive, live socially but alone at heart, and exult in moving from here to there for survival, amusement, and adventurewould-be masters of all we survey. Both neurotic and "oceanic," we are Freudian captives of contending instincts, psychologically both lost and found at sea.
And so we are drawn back to the oceans even as whales move close to land in their mating and feeding. "There is comfort in the ticking meter of the sea, perhaps, and in returning to an environment for which we were all originally suited and which still lies slumbering somewhere deep inside us" (81). This is the instinctive lure of the seas that singer Jimmy Buffett terms "the umbilical pull of the ocean." A lifelong captive of the rhythmic relaxation of life on the beach, Buffett sings his landlocked, "Parrothead" fans away from the confines of their careers and compromises and too-tight business suits to la pura vida across the Southern oceans. Fishing, sailing, swimming, flying, or just "wasting away in Margaritaville," Buffett happily surrenders his fate to the oceans, confronting terror with laughter, healing sadness with salt and surf, his life reinventing itself where the ocean meets the sand. "I have always looked at life as a voyage, mostly wonderful, sometimes frightening. ...I have paid attention when I had to and have made more right tacks than wrong ones to end up at this momentwith a thousand ports of call behind me and, I hope, a thousand more to see. My voyage was never a well-conceived plan, nor will it ever be. I have made it up as I went along" (Buffett 8-9).
Metaphors for an Unknown World
The mystery remains, and the oceans are often easier to enjoy or fear than to understand in the fullness of their natural complexities. An apparently chaotic mix of swirling, interactive ecosystems, the seas are often compared to the wonders of outer spacedeep ocean, deep space; wonders of the deep and the deep mysteries of the galaxies; the vast unknowns below and beyond us; science-fiction frontiers far from home and devoid of the air we breathe.
Simultaneously scientific and poetic, Rachel Carson steps forward, in The Sea Around Us,, to at last match metaphors with these profound mysteries. In a near-perfect book on an otherwise invisible world, she brings the oceans within the mind's eye, shimmering with wonder, complexity, and the power to give life to the planet.
The oceans, Carson tells us, can best be thought of as basins bounded by continents, rocking their waters in moonstruck tides and continuous wave forms. The ocean winds mirror the layering of the underwater currents. The Gulf Stream swerves between its underwater banks, tilting up at one edge as it moves between continents. The Atlantic pours endlessly over Gibraltar's lip into the Mediterranean, where shallower, warmer water evaporates in a more temperate basin, the Cradle of Civilization. The canyons deep within the ocean replicate the channels cut deep into the dry lands. Self-similar on the grandest scales, the dynamics of the open ocean swirl and eddy in mythic time, flowing through a restless underwater universe where the smallest life forms sustain the largest creatures, phytoplankton to krill to whales and back again along a unbroken marine lifeline from top to bottom and land to sea.
For Carson, the ocean ecosystem even includes the dry land we inhabit, and nothing is discontinuous from land to sea.
The continents themselves dissolve and pass to the sea, in grain after grain of eroded land. So the rains that rose from it return again in rivers. In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives, in the end, after, it may be, many transmutations, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the seathe Oceanus, the ocean river, the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end (Carson 212).
Life Between Land and Sea
Most of us do not often set out upon an ocean voyage, instead flying "overseas" or enjoying the oceans' rhythmic therapy on trips to the beach or the seashore. On these eroding margins we can watch sea creatures moving between two worlds and wonder at the ocean artifacts rolled up on shore by currents and waves from a strange other world. In Notes from the Shore, Jennifer Ackerman brings a naturalist's soul and ecologist's eye to the description of this coastal life. "The coast is a rhythmic landscape cut from marshes and sand. ...Age by age the ocean has risen; age by age it falls again, sweeping back and forth across the coastal plain" (4).
The seacoast is also the commingling junction of freshwater from the rivers and the briny ocean waters, often sustaining the unique brackish ecosystems of bays, salt marshes, and estuaries. Fish that migrate thousands of miles at sea come to spawn in these shallows, and the tidal alteration between wet and dry land has evolved creatures uniquely adapted to these coastal rhythms. "The tide is sliding up the marsh slope, slithering into the creeks and spilling over between the blades of grass. The up, down, in, out of the tides makes this place dangeroussometimes inundating animals with lethal doses of saltwater, sometimes exposing them to a devastating high-and-dry deathbut also inconceivably rich. The tides distribute food and flush out waste, encouraging rapid growth and decay" (119). At the same time, coastal marshes often preserve life living deeper inland, absorbing hurricane waves and damping their energy on their way to land.
Tidal creeks brought early North American settlers to safe harbors and fertile land while keeping them in life-sustaining touch with commerce and fishing on the broad oceans. And along with the pilgrims came the "immigrant" plants and animals to take up life in a new natural world. Parrots and parakeets now live here in the United States, and, as Ackerman tells it,
The exotic is everywhere: mute swans nesting at the cape, those long-necked beauties brought to North America from Europe in the late nineteenth century to grace family estates; ring-necked pheasants from Asia foraging in our cornfields; English house sparrows nesting in our bluebird boxes; and European starlings everywhere, in great muscular black bands (134)
Rock ballast dumped on land from ships after ocean crossings brought new plants as well, including "crabgrass, common mullein, and daisy fleabane, horseweed and Queen Anne's lace. Not one of these plants grew here before the Puritans landed" (135). And we, too, are migrating creatures tossed up on shore to begin our lives in new places, terrorizing the natives like Columbus or rolling in on the tide beneath the Statue of Liberty seeking liberty, shelter, wealth, and new beginnings.
Fishing for a Living
One of the strongest attractions of our North American New World were tales of codfish as big as people and gathered in schools thick enough to walk upon. Perhaps the Vikings first recorded this abundance (Kurlansky 19), but the word spread fast to Europe, where the tasty, flaky fish quickly became a delicacy, and to the slave colonies in the Caribbean, where dried cod fed the misery of forced labor in the triangular trade of cod, sugar, and rum. And from Cod Wars off Iceland to the near extinction of the species by high-tech harvesting, the cod has never been left alone at the oceans' dark bottoms. Migrating stocks have stopped migrating; catches have plummeted; and the struggles for fishing rights have exploded into international incidents. Along the way, the Atlantic cod has also become a poster child for the wages of greed. In their desperate drive to survive, "The cod have been reaching sexual maturity younger and smaller. Undersized four-year-olds are spawning. ...When a species is in danger of extinction, it often starts reaching sexual maturity earlier. Nature remains focused on survival" (203).
A very different fishery for blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, while endangered by pollution and development, has better managed to balance commerce and a healthy ecosystem, synchronizing these concerns in the closeknit family and community lives of the baymen. The tidal crabbing communities described by William Warner in Beautiful Swimmers are remarkable both for their cohesion across generations and their concern for the health of the creatures that sustain their way of life. Hard work through glorious and difficult seasons daily bonds the watermen to their prey and their communities to the sea around them.
But the destructive environmental pressures around Chesapeake Bay are incremental and chronic and the future therefore unsure. "The Bay is changing in ways that are very subtle. The agents of destruction take their toll stealthily, and in diffuse and complex patterns that are hard for the public to grasp" (Warner 257). But for now the generations sustained by the harvests are intact and continuous from the "memories of its oldest citizens, who enjoy telling how it was only thirty years ago living without electricity and working the water mainly by sail" (252) to the newest generation who "listen and follow. You see them around every crab house or shanty standing defiantly in the cockpit of their boats, alternately taciturn or shrill with complaint about the hard times of their profession. To reach them at all one must show some knowledge and appreciation of their work" (254).
Played out at these margins of the seasby tourists on beaches, by polluters and developers, by lobsterman off rocky shores, by deep-sea commercial fishermen, and by crabbers working the shallows of bays and marshesis a parallel tale of another species endangered mostly by itself and struggling to find ways of living that do not exact a toll of dying in the ocean ecosystem that nurtures and sustains our common livelihood. It's anybody's guess and everybody's responsibility how this tale may endand food for thought in our walks along the ageless beaches.
Discovery and Seafaring
For all their mysterious beauty, the oceans are also formidable, intimidating boundaries to knowledge and trade and the forbidding horizons of our contending national influences. We seem to live on a "need to know" basis, uncomfortable in claiming only the boundaries of the lands we inhabit. In this context, the oceans remind us of our isolation and limited dry-land domains, thereby fueling our culturally-constructed drives to discover, understand, and conquer.
Organizing the earth by continents, oceans, poles, regions, and nations, the compulsion to map and chart defines and pushes back the frontiers, replacing imagination with sure knowing. And though we "discover" distant lands across the ocean already inhabited and "claimed" by those who live there, we instead insist that these "new worlds" are now ours, planting our national flag and thereby mythically assembling them into empires spanning the oceans.
Christopher Columbus is the paradigmatic hero and, more recently, the arch villain of this colonizing history. Exalted as the courageous discoverer of the New World and condemned as a genocidal tyrant, in his own words from the journals of his four voyages he is more often a driven pilgrim longing for both souls and gold in the service of his king and queen. Sailing westward toward the Orient on the surface of an earth that he thought resembled the shape of a woman's breast, he searched for the literal Garden of Eden, for mythic deposits of gold, and for a harvest of Christianized native souls. More a cultural imperialist than a racist, he claimed all he saw for Spain in exchange for the blessing of "civilization" in an otherwise "barbaric" wilderness.
Yet 500 years later Columbus's first landfall still resonates in our landlocked imaginations.
They saw petrels and a green reed near the ship. The men of the Pinta saw a cane and a stick and picked up another small stick, apparently shaped with an iron tool; also a piece of cane and some land-grasses and a small board. Those on the caravel Niña saw other indications of land and a stick covered with barnacles. At these signs, all breathed again and were rejoiced. ...The caravel Pinta, being swifter and sailing ahead of the Admiral, now sighted land and gave the signals the Admiral had commanded (Columbus 52).
What the Vikings and Columbus began is now routinized in the modern oceanic commerce that links supplies and demands across the oceans in the cargoes of the tankers and freighters of the merchant marine. John McPhee describes this contemporary seafaring in Looking for a Ship, himself heading out on a container ship bound for both coasts of Latin America. At over 500 feet in length (Columbus's ships and the Mayflower were less than 100 feet), these big boats sailing far from land create a floating environment more urban than nautical. "Few of the watches that begin at 4am turn up the lights of cities. Most watches have a rhythmic sameness, plunging through the dark, with the scent of coffee percolating on the bridge, the scent of bacon from five decks below" (McPhee 45). Still, the dangers of shipwreck or even pirates are never beyond the horizon, and in fact McPhee's ship is several times attacked by waterborn thieves in port. "Very powerful boats appear. One of them circles the ship. Two lingering pirates cling to the bills of the anchor not in use. The stand on the flukes. They plunge into the river" (194).
Nor does gross weight ensure safety. A crewman describes a night of terror on another freighter in which "waves tore off the masts. The bridge was a hundred and fifteen feet off the water. The waves went over us. The decks were solid ice. Whole tractor-trailers went over the side. A forty-five-ton truck-crane was loose on the deck like a battering ram" (134). GPS, sonar, Loran, radar, satellites, and radiostechnology notwithstanding, knowing where we are at sea can as quickly become the last sighting of even the most formidable vessels.
In the Teeth of the Gale
Perhaps no one has better known the power and oppositional momentum of the high seas than explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose 1914 expedition to the Antarctic aboard the Endurance left him and his crew shipwrecked in the grip of crushing ice floes. Forced to find safety by a 1,000-mile journey in small boats across the fierce southern oceans, Shackleton's expedition has become a legend of courage and determination, refusing to give in to the relentless power of the wind and waves.
The waves that clear the decks of 500-foot freighters confront Shackleton's 25-foot boat with a force both more intimate and more terrifying.
For a long instant nothing happened. The Caird simply rose higher and higher, and the dull thunder of this enormous breaking wave filled the air.
And then it hitand she was caught in a mountain of seething water and catapulted bodily forward and sideways at the same time. She seemed actually to be thrown into the air, and Shackleton was nearly torn from his seat by the deluge of water that swept over him. The lines to the rudder went slack, then suddenly seized up again as the boat was viciously swung around like some contemptible plaything (Lansing 238).
Seventy-six years later, off the coast of New England, the crew of the Andrea Gail, long-lining for swordfish, were not so lucky. Caught in what author Sebastian Junger calls "the perfect storm," they go down with the ship, without a trace but not without a desperate struggle. "The winds have set so much water in motion that the ocean gets piled up against the continent and starts blocking the rivers. The Hudson backs up one hundred miles to Albany and causes flooding, and the Potomac does the same. ...Had the storm occurred a week earlier, during the highest tides of the month, water levels would be a foot and a half higher, flooding downtown Boston" (Junger 205).
Without a word from the lost crew across the angry waves, Junger is left to imagine the "dreams of the dead" as they drift toward the ocean floor entombed in their high-tech fishing machine. "They are suspended, open-eyed and unconscious, in the flooded enclosures of the boat. The darkness is absolute and the boat may be already on her way to the bottom" (145).
Fictional accounts in this genre also abound, including Charles Johnson's Middle Passage, an awe-filled novel of mythic racial and philosophical struggle aboard the slave ship Republic. Taken over by its captive cargo, the ship founders after a storm in mid-passage. "Cluttered with bodies, wooden crates blown apart earlier, their contents strewn every which way, and draped with dangling sheets of sail, the sunken portion of the Republic from tiller to stern felt like a makeshift refugee camp, a smelly, chaotic strip of shantytown where the injured and ailing were tossed helter-skelter together" (Johnson 106).
(The ocean can also evoke this same sense of terror much closer to shore, as in Jimmy Buffett's more plain-spoken account of his struggle with a rogue wave while surfing in Costa Rica. "...there it is, hiding among the little inside waves, waiting to clobber someoneme. ...I am in the impact zone and about to experience an overhead condition, which means that I am about to get the shit pounded out of me" (Buffett 256).
Common among these fictional and real-life tales of mythic struggle with the sea is an image of a ship as a civilization setting sail, a human space apart from the chaos of wind and water but always subject to their vagaries and destructive power. Thus, Jonathan Raban concludes,
The ocean itself is a wilderness, beyond the reach of the morality and customs of land. But a boat is like an embassy in a foreign country. So long as you are aboard a boat, you remain a social creature, a citizen, answerable to the conventions of society. You might as well sally forth alone across the trackless ocean in a clapboard cottage with a white picket fence and a mailbox (The Best of Outside 229).
Afloat on the Face of the Deep
Yet for all their mysteries, moods, and manic power, the oceans are in many ways contained within us, biologically encrypted in our DNA and psychologically persistent at the imaginative horizons of our self-consciousness. We are often most at peace in the rhythmic embrace of the wind and waves, and our world would be barren indeed even without the idea of the oceans stretching out beyond our landscaped lives.
In fact, like distance swimmer and author Sally Friedman, we can stay afloat and move on our own across the face of the deep. And though even for Friedman the ocean is "a whole different kettle of fish. ...home to creatures far bigger than I, and [where] even the smaller varieties of marine life were capable of inflicting great pain" (Friedman 71), she nevertheless sets a record for the swim around Manhattan and then throws in an even more challenging swim across Long Island Sound in her training for the English Channel. Then, when the sudden, accidental death of her husband unhinges her emotional life, the physical presence of the ocean returns to soothe and heal.
I have my bicycle with me and I ride to some beaches, drive to others, exploring as many as I can. When I arrive, I walk the length of the beach, struggling against the wind. ...I don't fully understand my need to be near the ocean. Once it was because of the desire to swim, but the sea no longer draws me in, is no longer my intimate. I have become a spectator, observing from the shore, at a respectful distance form the stinging spray, lost in the simple beauty of light on water, mesmerized by the repetitive motion of the waves. They no longer frighten me, now that I remain on the beach, fully clothed, but rather seem to hypnotize me into a state that approaches peace of mind. I stop and stare until the cold drives me to move (181-182).
And the lessons and dreams of the oceans are deeper still. Like Hemingway's lone fisherman, we connect with the world through our loves and losses, fearing most of all the breaking of our connectionsour lifelinesto all that we cherish and adore. The oceans remind us that we can never keep what was not ours to own; they hold us and our earth in an embrace of mystery and wonder; and, eternally, they spin out tall tales of survival, discovery, and triumphthe offshore whispers of our earthly delights.
He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.
Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
This essay reflects on and references the readings in a topical honors seminarLost and Found at Sea: The Lure and Lore of the OceansI taught at Plattsburgh State University (New York) in the spring 1999 semester. Students who shared their perspectives on these readings and issues in our seminar discussions include Caty Koehl, Devin Lander, Bridget LaPage, Joshua Llinas, Sara Matott, Jeff Meigel, Ryan Monpetit, Anton von Nickel, Jennifer Powers, and Asher Williams. The seminar also included a whalewatching and fishing field trip to Plymouth, Massachusetts, and a seafood dinner expertly prepared by Chef Llinas.
Ackerman, Jennifer. Notes from the Shore. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
Buffett, Jimmy. A Pirate Look at Fifty. Random House: New York, 1998.
Carson, Rachel. The Sea Around Us. Oxford University Press: New York, 1961.
Columbus, Christopher. The Four Voyages of Columbus. Ed. J.M. Cohen.
Penquin Books: New York, 1969.
Friedman, Sally. Swimming the Channel: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Healing.
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 1996.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1952.
Johnson, Charles. Middle Passage. Penquin Books: New York, 1991.
Junger, Sebastian. The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea.
W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 1997.
Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.
Penguin Books: New York, 1997.
Lansing, Alfred. Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage.
Carroll and Graf: New York, 1986.
McPhee, John. Looking for a Ship. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 1990.
Raban, Jonathan. "At Sea." The Best of Outside: The First Twenty Years.
Vintage Books: New York, 1997. 227-233.
Warner, William. Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay.
Little, Brown, and Company: New York, 1994.
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Copyright 1999 Robert Harsh
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