Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Sea is Awesome

Yes, it’s been said before. But I’LL SAY IT AGAIN—the sea is awesome. You can look out at it for hours without being bored. On the other hand, looking out at the sea often engenders a sort of mental stupor, because every little thing seems interesting—the oyster-catchers climbing on the rocks, the starfish clinging just below the surface of the water, the surge of the spray, which reaches high into the air first in one place and then another. Seeking respite from this mesmerizing but vacant allure, you begin to pace, and your attention is drawn to little pieces of nothing on the beach—broken shells, strands of kelp, a translucent jellyfish that’s been left high and dry.

And then there is that never-ending question of whether the tide is coming in or going out.

I am sure that those who live near the sea can tell at a glance which way it’s running, but for land-locked Midwesterners like me, the question is a source of unending fascination. Not that it matters, one way or the other. But an event is taking place right before our eyes, and we want to know what it is. Because the tide moves so slowly, it can take quite a while to reach a conclusion.

Gazing out into the middle distance you slowly scan the horizon, looking for those tell-tall clouds of spray that betray the presence of a gray whale heading north. Such sightings are common on the California coast in early March. Once you’ve spotting one, it’s likely you’ll catch sight of the back and perhaps even the tail with a pair of binoculars.

On top of all of these sources of stimulation, you have the waves themselves.

In the opening pages of his novella Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino offers a detailed analytical description of waves, of how they come in to shore, of how difficult it is to separate them one from another. The details are right but the temperament is all wrong, for the man observing the waves, Mr. Palomar himself, is a nervous, analytic person who finds it convenient to measure his observations for the purpose of mastering and then dispensing with them. Thus Calvino writes:

Mr. Palomar now tries to limit his field of observation; if he bears in mind a square zone of, say, ten meters of the shore by ten meters of sea, he can carry out an inventory of all the wave movements that are repeated with varying frequency within a given time interval.

These efforts are doomed to failure, of course, and Mr. Palomar recognizes the futility of the enterprise. He even goes so far as to admit that “if it were not for his impatience to reach a complete, definitive conclusion of his visual operation, looking at waves would be a very restful enterprise for him and could save him from neurasthenia, heart attack, and gastric ulcer.”

It is only by limiting our field of observation that we come to some sense of mastery over our impressions. Looking at the sea, more than any other experience, perhaps, defies such analysis. The incoming waves do follow patterns. The crest and the trough, the layering of one mass of water on top of the one preceding it. The point where the wave “breaks.” And the size of the waves, which vary in both length and height.
Gusts of wind far out at sea caused these variations, no doubt. (And this thought throws into doubt the very notion of causality.) A pleasant tussle goes on inside our heads between the order we seek to find in life and the irregularity nature presents to us. It's the stuff of music. Endless music. Like the Sirens call, I guess.

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