The California Coast can take on a mystic aura in February. I observed this while cozying away at a B&B near Huntington Beach one year ago, during part of a sabbatical from the University in Indiana where I teach.
One day, I stood under a pier as fog blanketed the coast. Fog and sea blended at a point of oblivion beneath the pilings; the sounds of wind-whipped waves served as a reminder of the unseen ocean beyond.
On other days, I played in sand made from a thousand crushed sea shells, conversed with sea birds, explored rock-bound tide pools, watched the ocean shift from sage-green to sky blue, sat silent before vermilion sunsets, and camped with old friends. The joy of sea beauty filled my soul.
I love the ocean. Perhaps it’s because it was such a treat for our family to go to the beach when I was a child growing up in California. On childhood family beach outings, my only complaint was when my dad used an old cotton towel to wipe sand from my sunburned shins.
Perhaps this love is caused by the smells I recall from those youthful beach days—seaweed, suntan oil, salty air, beach food.
Perhaps it’s all those negative ions from the crashing waves, or the repetition in the ebb and flow of the tide; the coming crash and receding slide.
I think, in part, it is the sense of infinity I feel when I stretch my eyes to the edge of my vision and cannot see over the arc of the earth to the continents beyond—an endless horizon, unmarred by obstructions, natural or man made.
The sea is in great danger now, though. Scientists warn that the ocean is warming rapidly as it absorbs carbon dioxide. Pollution is decreasing oxygen levels. Coral reefs, highly susceptible to pollution and changes in water temperature, are dying. Over-fishing is extinguishing marine species. Plastics are choking the ocean with plastic islands. “So much plastic is ending up in the ocean that in just a few years, we might end up with a pound of plastic for every three pounds of fish in the sea,” warns the Ocean Conservancy.
And recently, the US Department of Interior said it will auction off oil leases for 47 new sites along the Atlantic and Pacific shelves, Alaska, and the Gulf of Mexico, risking oil spills that will kill fish, and obstructing the sublimity of the coasts with dozens of rigs.
The seas, these great bodies of water that keep us alive, need our help.
The sea inspires many stories. I’m going to recount one you may have heard before. The author, Loren Eiseley, wrote many versions of this story, and you may have heard a different, simpler, version.
This one, though, is my favorite.
“The shore grew steeper, the sound of the sea heavier and more menacing, as I rounded a bluff into the full blast of the offshore wind. … Ahead of me, over the projecting point, a gigantic rainbow of incredible perfection had sprung shimmering into existence. Somewhere toward its foot I discerned a human figure standing, as it seemed to me, within the rainbow, though unconscious of his position. He was gazing fixedly at something in the sand.
Eventually, he stooped and flung an object beyond the breaking surf. I labored toward him over another half-mile of uncertain footing. By the time I reached him the rainbow had receded ahead of us, but something of its color still ran hastily in many changing lights across his features. He was starting to kneel again.
In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.
‘It’s still alive,’ I ventured.
‘Yes,’ he said, and with a quick, yet gentle movement, he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sank in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.
‘It may live if the offshore pull is strong enough,’ he said. He spoke gently, and across his bronzed, worn face the light still went in subtly altering colors.
‘There are not many come thus far,’ I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. ‘Do you collect?’
‘Only like this,’ he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. ‘And only for the living.’ He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water.
‘The stars,’ he said, ‘throw well. One can help them.’
He looked full at me with a faint question kindling in his eyes, which seemed to take on the far depths of the sea.
‘No, I do not collect,’ I said uncomfortably, the wind beating at my garments. ‘Neither the living nor the dead. I gave it up a long time ago. Death is the only successful collector.’ … I nodded and walked away, leaving him there with the great rainbow ranging up the sky behind him.
I turned as I neared a bend in the coast and saw him toss another star, skimming it skillfully far out over the ravening and tumultuous water. For a moment, in the changing light, the sower appeared magnified, as though casting larger stars upon some greater sea. He had, at any rate, the posture of a god.
But again the eye, the cold world-shriveling eye, began its inevitable circling in my skull. He is just a man, I considered sharply, bringing my thought to rest. The star thrower is a man, and death is running more fleet than he, and along every sea beach in the world.”
But is it? Eiseley’s star thrower had a more hopeful view than his beach walker.
I choose to have a hopeful view too. I do find it difficult to know where to begin: Reduce disposable plastic? Stop new coastal oil drilling?
Despite my questions, I believe we can make a difference, if we will take into account the common good of all the creatures with whom we share this blue and green globe.