I walked on the bluff earlier watching today’s high surf. Waves up to 28’ were forecast; hard to tell if they reached that but the sea was certainly tumultuous, as high as I ever remember seeing it. Extremely frothy and carrying considerable woody debris, which I suppose had been washed from beaches where it was left by previous storms since there’s not been much rain in several days to raise rivers and bring it down from inland; besides which it had the characteristic cleansed look of driftwood. Also, it may have been hanging around across the ocean and the extra water movement brought it in. I only speculate since I don’t really know the source. The ocean is still mostly a mystery to me even though I live alongside it. Dereliction on my part since I venerate Nature but remain so ignorant of this expression of it. Come to think of it, I probably know more about the damage we do to it through overfishing and destructive fishing practices, plastic and other pollution from shore, and climate change. It steadily acidifies, deoxygenates, warms; I carry ambivalence with me every time I get close, knowing the invisible damage but still admiring the energy, regularity, and beauty of it. It was a water creature almost forty years ago that stimulated my movement to vegetarianism and eventually animal rights—a minnow’s mouth flew open in silent pain as I speared it on a hook for fishing. The ocean’s pain is also silent to human ears while it slowly dies. As Leopold came to see the wolf as component part of mountain, I see the declining creatures as intrinsic to ocean along with its chemistry and assaulted majesty, all of which register dying. As with climate change as a whole, we don’t clearly see the harm we do, and the signs of harm can easily be interpreted in other ways by those who prefer to deny reality. Along with ambivalence I feel the irony of it: filled with knowledge of decline I stand, listen, and watch what looks unchanged, emotion and perception still trailing well behind intellect. When the worst happens and we seek to understand how we allowed it, this will be part of the explanation. The water birds still fly by, still call, give every impression of normalcy.
I’ve become morbid and didn’t intend that. This Pacific Ocean feels to me as if it has a mind and will; it vibrates with energy that I see and life that only rarely shows itself. I can’t help wondering if its wholeness is conscious in an inscrutable way, a synthesis of the consciousness of its component beings, perhaps, just as schools of fish and flocks of birds and termite mounds are said to be. It feeds imaginings as I try to picture all that’s unseen beneath its surface. Ocean is both another world and this world.
None of what I’ve said quite captures what I want to say. Whenever I have encountered Nature in its most overwhelming, or most humility-inducing, forms—the vast unpeopled Yukon, the Sierra Nevada, Death Valley and other deserts, rainforest—I am moved to my depths. I feel no more than a particle yet still a part of where I am. It puts normal human-centered consciousness in perspective and lifts me out of it. As familiarity grows it becomes normalized, more comfortable. I think the initial awe sets the stage for the future relationship and to miss that or to fail to grasp it attenuates everything that follows. Ocean’s impact is parallel to that of other landscapes but has the quality of deeper mystery because it is so damned different and more hidden and can be easily felt as hostile. Nature devotion should never deny the sense sometimes of its indifference, which can feel hostile but is not. For me, the difference between ocean and desert or mountain is so great that I can never love it as much, but in place of love comes a respect that feels a lot like intimidation. In the presence of natural spectacle, I feel companionship, but as the dependent member. And I never want to forget, although I often do, that everyday Nature is also worthy of devotion and respect; it’s my limitation that it often takes the spectacular to fully get my attention.
Photo by Georg Eiermann