In Praise of the Pacific

August 13, 2014 | Posted in: Psychology, Science

The Angry Sea, James McNeill Whistler, 1884.

The Angry Sea, James McNeill Whistler, 1884.

“Ocean: A body of water occupying two-thirds of a world made for Man, who has no gills.”
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary


“[The Pacific] is the biggest ocean on earth and perhaps in the universe. It is about half of the wildernesses we call oceans on this planet. It composes about a third of the surface of the earth. Some parts of it are more than six miles deep. On average it is about two miles deep. It weighs about eighty quintillion tons, an idea represented by an eight followed by eighteen zeroes. In the hundred thousand years or so that human beings have been exploring the Pacific, we have discovered some two hundred thousand species of animals and plants living and working in it, which some of us believe to be perhaps a tenth of the actual animals and plants in it, the rest of those beings not having revealed themselves to us as yet.” Brian Doyle, The Plover


It’d been two years since I’d last jetted across the summer sand to bathe my burning feet in the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean. And when it’s been this long since I’ve last melted into the seashore modus vivendi, that lifestyle incubated by the meeting of land and ocean, I always make the same mistake: I pack a bag full, with multiple books (all of which I intend to crack open), sketchbook, journal, and pens, several lotions, the camera, wallet, lip balm, hair brush, sunscreen, and a change of warm clothes.

The sunscreen and change of clothes are essential, as I’m greeting the Pacific on the northern coast of California, and summer weather here is as likely to be frigid with blasting winds as it is to be blazing sunshine. Everything else I loaded into the bag and then hauled (like some overburdened pack animal) down to the seaside remained in my bag, untouched and forgotten.

The beach is not a place where one need bring things to do. For doing gives way to being where water and dry earth meet, and whether strolling along or in rest watching the waves, there’s a strong beach magic that fortifies one from the lure of distraction, whether it’s in the form of reading, writing, planning, worrying, fantasizing. The waves drown out the thoughts, the sand kicks off the shoes, the sun or wind or fog embraces the mind in a sweet and quiet solitude. There’s nowhere to be and nothing to do, only an invitation to wander with the flux of wave and sand.

“The beach is not the place to work, to read, write or think. I should have remembered that from other years… One becomes, in fact, like the element on which one lies, flattened by the sea; bare, open, empty as the beach, erased by today’s tides of all yesterday’s scribblings.”
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

Yes, the ocean-side can scour us clean of habitual thoughts and behaviors, but at least in northern California it also demands a certain level of awareness. A few lives are lost each year on this vast range of coast when cliffs suddenly give way under hiking feet or a huge sleeper wave crashes far above the tide line, knocking down the oblivious and sometimes washing them away. These beaches are both lovely and dangerous, a place where polarities collide and respect is wise. On this edge of crashing waves and shifting sands, humans are visitors, never true inhabitants.

Beach at Nassau, Albert Bierstadt

Beach at Nassau, Albert Bierstadt

But we once were. Not in human form of course, but our most ancient relatives were all citizens of the seas, evolving from single-celled to multicellular organisms in the watery womb of the Earth’s oceans. These early single-celled ancestors of ours may not have been complex, but as their number grew, their respiration altered the very chemical composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, slowly unleashing a flood of previously rare oxygen into the air. Oxygen for these early life forms was poison, forcing life to evolve to harness the destructive power of this newly dominate chemical, leading to the formation of life as we know it today.

For billions of years life remained static in its simple single-celled form, floating enduringly in an intemperate and otherwise lifeless ocean. We don’t know exactly when or how organisms began to shift from tiny microbes to animals, because the fossil record is terribly patchy when we go that far back in time (like turning on a flashlight for a split second every hundred feet down a seemingly endless, pitch dark tunnel). But with the discovery of the incredible fossil record known as the Burgess Shale, we know at least that life in the ocean was in a wild, abundant bloom as of 505 million years ago:

“Suddenly, without any obvious precipitating event, the seas had birthed advanced life at an evolutionary speed previously thought impossible… Multicellular life poured down many channels, but then subsequent evolution took a few of the most successful anatomical designs and used them as the basis for everything that would follow. The Explosion’s creative chaos was pure and open; then the process of extinction broke life’s broad river into the tributaries we see today.” Palumbi & Palumbi, The Extreme Life of the Sea

Tiefseefisch, Krabben und Meeressschnecken (Deep-sea fish, crabs and sea snails), Maria Sibylla Merian, c. 1717.

Tiefseefisch, Krabben und Meeressschnecken, Maria Sibylla Merian, c. 1717.

Staring out into the endless blue water of the Pacific can be both alluring and frightening, especially when I remember that humankind descended from ancient creatures who managed to survive and evolve in that salty, fluxing, fierce, and deep expanse. The ocean is both our origin and one of the most inhospitable environments for a human. We can float atop the water or huddle in submarines for a time or live on tiny dots of land in the ocean’s midst; but skin to water contact cannot last long before our lives are claimed.

“[T]he world ocean is our distant origin and by far the largest environment on Earth, covering more than seven-tenths of its surface and compromising more than 95 percent of its habitable zone. And yet this great realm is far less known to us than is the land… Only recently have we begun to learn that the seas are rich with real rather than mythical beings that are strange and sometimes delightful in ways we would never have imagined — that there are, for example, creatures as tall as men which have no internal organs and thrive in waters that would scald us to death in moments, that there is a vast world of cold darkness in which almost all creatures glow with light, or that there are intelligent, aware animals that can squeeze their bodies through a space the width of one of their eyeballs.”
Caspar Henderson, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Deep sea luminous fish, from Living Lights : A Popular Account of Phosphorescent Animals and Vegetables, Charles Frederick Holder, 1887.

Deep sea luminous fish, from Living Lights: A Popular Account of Phosphorescent Animals and Vegetables, Charles Frederick Holder, 1887.

When I become overwhelmed with gazing out into the hypnotic liquid expanse, imagining the battles raging between sperm whales and their prey the giant squid, or envisioning the terrifying features of angler fish and giant isopods, I bring my attention back to the golden sand stretching out on either side of me, like a road between the worlds of land and ocean. Here at least my feet are on solid ground, though occasionally covered with water up to my thighs, and yet strewn about me are the remnants of ocean dwellers: a kaleidoscope of shells, claws, jellyfish, crabs, algae, corals, barnacles, sand dollars, starfish.

If the tide is low and I’m on the right sort of beach, I’ll be able to peer downward into the daily life of a few ocean dwellers, from the safe and mostly dry position of rocky edges (grandly imagining myself like Zeus casting his gaze down from Mount Olympus).

“[W]hen the tide goes out the little water world becomes quiet and lovely. The sea is very clear and the bottom becomes fantastic with hurrying, fighting, feeding, breeding animals. Crabs rush from frond to frond of the waving algae… Orange and speckled and fluted nudibranches slide gracefully over the rocks, their skirts waving like the dresses of spanish dancers. And black eels poke their heads out of crevices and wait for prey. The snapping shrimps with their trigger claws pop loudly. The lovely, colored world is glassed over. Hermit crabs like frantic children scamper on the bottom sand…

A wave breaks over the barrier, and churns the glassy water for a moment and mixes bubbles into the pool, and then it clears and is tranquil and lovely and murderous again… And down to the rocks come the black flies to eat anything they can find. The sharp smell of calcareous bodies and the smell of powerful protean, smell of sperm and ova fill the air. On the exposed rocks the starfish emit semen and eggs from between their rays. The smells of life and richness, of death and digestion, of decay and birth, burden the air. And salt spray blows in from the barrier where the ocean waits for its rising-tide strength to permit it back into the Great Tide Pool again.” John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

The World of Animal Life, Fred Smith, 1910.

The World of Animal Life, Fred Smith, 1910.

The tidal pools are no longer as rich with sea life as even I remember from ten years ago, and so it goes with the great oceans themselves. We, these bumbling apes with large brains, big hearts, but limited wisdom, have polluted and overfished even the oceans’ seemingly endless abundance and overdeveloped the coastal areas where much of the biodiversity on our planet lives and breeds. Trash now litters the beach even up on seemingly remote coasts, reminding us that truly there is no “away” when it comes to the waste from our modern lifestyle.

Recognizing the severe dangers threatening the integrity of the ancestral water worlds of Earth, the lessons of the ocean’s shore appear even more essential: if life is to thrive we must learn how to live in balance with the ancient cycles of flux and flow, life and death, give and take.

“Consider, for a moment, the Pacific Ocean not as a vast waterway, not as a capacious basin for liquid salinity and the uncountable beings therein, nor as a scatter of islands still to this day delightfully not fully and accurately counted, but as a country in and of itself, dressed in bluer clothes than the other illusory entities we call countries… a tidal continent, some ten thousand miles long and then thousand miles wide, bordered by ice at its head and feet, by steaming Peru and Palau at its waist; on this continent are the deepest caves, the highest mountains, the loneliest prospects, the emptiest aspects, the densest populations, the most unmarked graves, the least imprint of the greedy primary ape; in this continent are dissolved beings beyond count, their shells and ships and fins and grins; so that the continent, ever in motion, drinks the dead as it sprouts new life…” Doyle

The following books informed this post:
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson
The Extreme Life of the Sea, Palumbi & Palumbi
The Plover, Brian Doyle

Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.