The silent sea

Other people’s words about … the sea

I thought about the kind of people who come to the sea to look at it: how they put themselves down on whatever rock or bench is around and gaze for hours into the distance as though something out there makes life seem meaningful, or at least less incomprehensible. What are they looking at? I asked myself. What do they see when they see the sea? Most people seemed to find the sea deeply interesting but it held no particular depth or virtue for me. The most profound effect the sea had on me was that sometimes, from the living-room window, it quite literally made me want to throw up. I’d always thought that people who liked the sea were people who didn’t like society, that it was people who’d failed in their relationships who turned to the sea. There was something in their glazed faces — leaning on harbour railings, walking along the crumbling promenade, staring over the tops of their newspapers — which disturbed me. It seemed they wanted to be immersed in it, that as they looked out at the sea they entered into a special relationship with it which, to a certain extent, entitled them to speak to it. Because people who spent too much time looking at the sea did start to commune with it, as if nature held the answer to all of life’s important questions, their expressions suggesting that they were not so much watching the sea as conversing with it. I could tell from the way they sat, dead still, that the sea spoke to them and that they, for their part, were receptive to its communication. But what was the sea saying to them? The sea didn’t speak to me. What do you say to them that you won’t say to me? I asked the sea, but the sea was silent and had no communication to make.

from ‘Somehow
by Danielle Dutton (in the Paris Review, #224)

This passage made me laugh (which I think — although I’m not entirely sure — was the writer’s mischievous intention). So I had to include it in my collection of passages about the sea, didn’t I?

Anyone who even glances at my blog will know that I fall into that category of people to whom the narrator in the passage above, Mr Field, refers as people who spen[d] too much time looking at the sea

And I suspect I always will!

Something out there …

Unpacked

Other people’s words about … surfing and the sea

Nearly all of what happens in the water is ineffable — language is no help. Wave judgment is fundamental, but how to unpack it? You’re sitting in a trough between waves, and you can’t see past the approaching swell, which will not become a wave you can catch. You start paddling upcoast and seaward. Why? If the moment was frozen, you could explain that, by your reckoning, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the next wave will have a good takeoff spot about ten yards over and a little farther out from where you are now. This calculation is based on: your last two or three glimpses of the swells outside, each glimpse caught from the crest of a previous swell; the hundred-plus waves you have seen break in the past hour and a half; your cumulative experience of three or four hundred sessions at this spot, including fifteen or twenty days that were much like this one in terms of swell size, swell direction, wind speed, wind direction, tide, season, and sandbar configuration; the way the water seems to be moving across the bottom; the surface texture and the water colour; and, beneath these elements, innumerable subcortical perceptions too subtle and fleeting to express. The last factors are like the ones that the ancient Polynesian navigators relied upon when, on the open seas, they used to lower themselves into the water between the outriggers on their canoes and let their testicles tell them where in the great ocean they were.

Of course, the moment can’t be frozen.

From ‘Barbarian Days’
by William Finnegan

I know someone who is in his mid-fifties now, and who, like William Finnegan, has been surfing since he was a teenager. Though he and I are both avid beach-lovers, I know that when he looks at the sea, he sees something different from what I see.

I (from my admittedly middle-class, Western, leisured perspective) look at the sea for beauty. I don’t understand the sea’s tides, its swells, its waves. I understand, simply, how the sea makes me feel.

It’s hard to express my feelings about the sea in actual words, though. They are, to use Finnegan’s words in a slightly different way, subtle, fleeting,subcortical, ineffable.

And … good.

 

 

Big

Other people’s words about … sunsets

The sun was setting. There were plenty of natural phenomena that went unrecognised (snowflakes kissing a windowsill, fingernails dug into the skin of a tangerine), but Cameron could see why people made such a big deal of sunsets. The sunset at Pine Ridge Point always made Cameron feel so disastrously human, caged inside his own susceptible self.

From ‘Girl in Snow
by Danya Kukafka

I found Danya Kukafka’s words in the passage above very poignant — although when I watch the sun set, I feel, unlike her character Cameron, as though I am escaping the cage of my susceptible [human] self to join with the rest of the natural world.

For me, both the sense of bigness, and the sense of being a tiny part of that bigness, make me feel at once grounded and free. Perhaps some of the photos below, which I took on a number of evenings this past January and February, might give you that sense, too?

Snatched phrases: stolen

‘[I] saw a squawking flash of cockatoos
go reeling and wheeling into the sky.
The soft secret underside of their wings,
so close, so tender.’

From ‘Skylarking’
by Kate Mildenhall

 

I was standing at the bus-stop the other day on my way to work when an odd commotion across the road caught my eye. A car had driven past, fast, and something had got caught up in the passage of its passing: something grey and small and warm and moving, something that gave the impression of flight, of flurrying. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, although subconsciously I registered feathers, but after the car had sped past, I saw that it was a small bird. In my memory I replayed what had just happened and this time, in my mind, I saw it: the bird had swooped down from the branch of a tree overlooking the street, but somehow it had mistimed its dive, and so it had got caught up in the passage of the car. Got hit, is what I mean.

The dove — that’s what it was, I saw: one of those spotted turtle doves with the iridescent sheen on their neck and the rash of white spots over a patch of purest black — had landed, after its collision with the car, on the ground in the middle of the far lane. Now the wind was playing with its feathers a little, and I saw the dove try get up on its legs but then fall back down again. It was young, not quite fully grown. I glanced around me, at my fellow commuters waiting at the bus-stop, but though I saw people looking, though I saw them seeing what I was seeing, no-one moved.

And so I ran out onto the road before the next car came past and crouched down beside the dove. I looked down at it, hesitating, and then I whispered to it, because I felt I should, I’m just going to pick you up and get you out of the way of all these cars; and then I reached for it and clasped it between my hands. I could feel its heart beating inside my two hands, and the warmth beneath its feathers, and I could feel it trying to gather itself and flap its wings to free itself from me; it didn’t want me to hold it, not at all. But it was too small or injured to shrug itself free and so I held it gently and lifted it and crossed to the far side of the road, opposite the bus-stop, and then I set it down on the footpath, there out of reach of the traffic.

Once I had put the dove down I crouched down beside it a moment on the footpath, watching it. I said to the bird, You’re safe now, and then it blinked — only it wasn’t a blink, not really. Its eyelid came down far too slowly, like a shutter, in a kind of world-weary exhaustion; and then its eyelid opened again, also too slowly. I could swear it had let out a little sigh as it blinked, although birds don’t sigh, do they? After that, it went utterly still. When I glanced across the road at the bus-stop, no-one was looking my way anymore; everyone was busy with their phones and their handbags and their earbuds. After a moment I stood up and walked back across the road and waited with them at the bus-stop. Five minutes later the bus arrived, and still no-one had spoken, and still the bird hadn’t moved from the place where I had set it to rest on the footpath.

I thought as I sat on the bus that the dove had died: that perhaps the shock of me lifting it up had added a final trauma to its day and its heart had stopped right then, as I crouched by it on the footpath and whispered to it, trying to comfort it. I thought about that all the way to work, and then I tried not to think about it anymore.

Doves are a dime a dozen, and there was nothing more I could have done, I guess, but still I felt sad. It was the intimacy of that moment, I think: feeling the secret beat of the dove’s heart between my hands, the warmth of its soft chest against my palm. I felt, perhaps, the way the narrator does in the passage above, as she observes the cockatoos in the sky, seeing the soft secret underside of their wings. It was the stolen, fleeting nature of the moment between the dove and me, tinged further with the thought that I hadn’t helped, and maybe — just maybe — I had made the dove’s last moments worse, not better.

When I got off at the bus-stop that evening, on my way home from work, I saw to my surprise and my slow delight that the body of the bird wasn’t there as I had expected it to be, cold and long dead. There were no feathers there, either, no signs of blood or injury or scuffle.

And I think now — I truly think — that when I set down the bird on the footpath and it let out that terrible not-sigh, it was in shock, but it was essentially uninjured; and so afterwards — after it had recovered from its shock — it got up and it flew away to safety.

That’s what I think.

Hint

Other people’s words about … the world below

For a time I was obsessed with the idea that I could live under the sea. Not … using a great tank of air strapped to my neck. No, I wanted to dive deep down, skimming the sandy bottom of the ocean with my bare skin. I wanted to glide through fingers of pink weed and velvety fronds of green and come face to face with a mullet, or a gummy shark, slide up to the rubbery flank of a great whale and feel her song vibrate through my cheek to the very centre of my brain and understand what she told me.

From ‘Skylarking
by Kate Mildenhall

We’ve all felt like the narrator in Skylarking, at some point in our lives, haven’t we? Living by the ocean, as she does in Kate Mildenhall’s novel, I often think about the world below the surface of the water.

In the summer heat, on days like the one pictured below, I feel like that even more. It was about 5 pm on a day in the middle of January when I took this photo, and it was 42 degrees Celsius. It was too hot, truly, to spend much time with a camera in my hand. Moments after I’d put the camera away, I slipped into that silky, blue expanse and felt the water washing softly over my skin.

Sometimes when I swim on afternoons like this, I see shoals of little white fish darting ahead of me, or a blue swimmer crab scuttling along the bottom of the sand bed. Sometimes I see a sting-ray. Sometimes I feel fronds of seagrass and kelp brushing over my limbs as I swim. They are tiny hints of that underwater world that seems so fascinating and so close, and yet, somehow, so very far from reach …

Snatched phrases on … (Christmas and) the sea

‘The sea is flat silver under a lapis sky.’

From ‘I am, I am, I am’
by Maggie O’Farrell

Christmas in my neck of the woods is all about summer, so what better way to celebrate it than by the sea?

That’s how I’ll be spending my Christmas season, anyway — how about you?

Meanwhile, I just wanted to wish a quick merry Christmas to everyone who reads this blog.

Thank you for your companionship once again this year … and here’s to more reading next year, as well as walking, wandering and (of course) time spent by the sea!

Rebecca xo

Snatched phrases on … birds

‘It was eluding her again: the essence of bird.’

From ‘Nest
by Inga Simpson

I love this sentence. Jen, the protagonist of Nest, is an artist, and in this passage she is trying to draw a fairy wren.

I’m not an artist; in fact, I’m spectacularly untalented when it comes to drawing. But I know the feeling of trying to capture — in a photograph, perhaps, or in conversation, or in writing — what you see when you see a bird. To say that a bird flies, or that it sings, or that it is beautiful is true, but those descriptions come nowhere near to capturing what a bird really is, or how it makes you feel.

The essence of bird. Perhaps it will always elude me, as it does Jen. Perhaps that’s part of the fascination.

Snatched phrases on … the sea

‘The sea pronounces something,
over and over, in a hoarse whisper;
I cannot quite make it out. But God knows I have tried.’

From ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’
by Annie Dillard

Sometimes when I’m walking on the beach I close my eyes and listen to the sea as I keep walking. It’s a way of shutting out the beauty of the visual world, in order to concentrate on the other kinds of beauty accessible to me at that moment, in that particular space.

The sea murmurs.
It sighs.
It whispers.
It roars.

Like Dillard, I can’t make out the language of the sea  …

… although unlike her I’m not sure that I want to try.

I’m happy just to keep listening.

Snatched phrases on … pretty days

‘The grass had been cut and gave off a warm, allergenic smell.
The sky was soft like cloth
and birds ran over it in long threads.’

from ‘Conversations with friends’
by Sally Rooney

The image in today’s post doesn’t quite match the words, I’m afraid:

Still, it’s a pretty image, and perhaps it captures a little of the essence of Rooney’s soft spring day …