Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll.
I am sitting at the edge of a continent, looking out at a flat expanse of grayish blue, which falls away from me, and when I force myself to notice it, rolls downward at the horizon and below my line of sight – it is the rounded top of a ferris wheel revolving eastward at some speed.
Nearer to shore, the color is broken with bands of white, breakers on the beach, but further out it is expansive. Somewhat below the horizon, far out to sea, a hurricane is sending its message in waves to our shore. Wind blows the trees nearby, and the surf is riled. There is mizzle in the air. The storm has passed here once again, only glancing at us as it moves by.
When we are young, the sea is romantic. It is the cradle endlessly rocking, we write poems about it, spindrift and seawrack, we stare out at it as if we were expecting to discover our adventure.
Many of us manage to maintain this sense of awe in the face of the waters, but for others, the sea has become a summer rental, or a weekend away from the city. If you were privileged to sail across the ocean on a ship, you will change your attitude in another way: It will become a daily monotony of wet flatness. Either way, the ocean will lose some of its mastery over us.
It is the edge of a continent. I have been back and over that continent more times than I can count, and have a body memory of its extent. I know in my bones the size of it, measured in days on the road, in the exchange of one horizon for the succeeding one. There are hills, cities, forests, grasslands, rivers, traffic lights – let’s not forget the traffic lights – and the homes of friends we stop to visit.
Looking east from here, though, out to sea, the globe is not speckled with features; it is uniform, save for the wiggle of waves and the rise and fall of the swell. It is a face without eyes, nose or mouth. And one senses that if you were to reach the horizon – that edge of your vision from any single location – you would find only another, identical horizon the same distance hence.
Inland, the picture is busy, it is our daily lives, the commerce between people, the schedules, the hubbub, the striving, the disappointment. It is populated and squirming. In that sense, it is life.
Outward, the sea shows us blankness of the non-human cosmos, seeming to be unlimited, at the very least, with no surveyor’s stakes plotting out squares of ownership. It is the blankness of death, and therefore, death itself. It is why we stare out at it, why it stares back, why it fills us up so we are like a bottle overflowing.
I have seen three of the planet’s oceans and several of its smaller seas – small but still immense. I have lived on the Atlantic shore and on the Pacific Coast and felt very different oceans. I have sailed on both. I have seen the Indian Ocean, and felt the warm, humid air, thick as a fur coat, from its shore. I have seen the North Sea and the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Sea of Cortez. And all of them leave me with a sense of a flatness stretching out like a drumhead, but curling down over their horizons, and always, I know that past that eye-reach is more flatness. More water; more swell, more wave, more whitecaps, more low clouds, shifting with the barometer.
The oceans are not infinite, I know. They are not eternal, I know. Byron’s encomium is nowadays wishful thinking: “Man marks the earth with ruin; his control/ Stops with the shore.” Pace Byron, but we are fouling the seas quite efficiently now.
Nevertheless, that does not change our sense of the watery parts of the world. They beckon us to our life adventure – at least in our minds, they do – and they speak what Whitman called the low, delicious word, “The word final, superior to all.”
They remind us of the vastness of the universe, our measly place in it as pismires, our short parole upon the watery planet, to be revoked at a time unknown to us – a knock on the door, a suitcase packed ready to go.
No doubt it is why the oceans look so beautiful to us. They promise that there is something larger, less transitory, less mutable.
I look out on the Atlantic this morning, storm offshore, waves pawing the sand around like a cat playing with a mouse. I look up at the clouds, gray as the water beneath; I look beyond them.
“If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”