A Life Of WaterIn his recent book, A Man Without A Country, author and American iconoclast Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. writes that he was born a freshwater, continental, Great Lakes person. He says that whenever he swims in an ocean he feels as though he’s dogpaddling through chicken soup.
Vonnegut goes on to cite a few prominent fellow freshwaterians including poet Carl Sandburg and a man he knew named Powers Hapgood, who inherited a cannery only to allow that well-intentioned, idealist-socialist part of him give it over to his employees who proceeded to run it onto the unforgiving, rusted rocks of American capitalism.
Of course, this made me stop and echolocate my own self in the cosmic dice roll that one is not responsible for throwing, that becomes wherever you’re born. Turns out I’m a coastal saltwater person. While I understand Vonnegut’s feeling of swimming through chicken soupiness, I personally find there is something uniquely balancing and invigorating about buoyantly bobbing about in salt water.
Fresh water, while remaining the successful and preferred alternative for drinking, lacks a global vitality found only in the energetic signature of salt water. Sure I enjoy swimming in streams, rivers, and lakes, nearly as much as simmering in a treated hot tub, but whenever I do I can't help but think I'm beavering around in animal waste and tributary urban sewer runoff, farm fertilizers and fecal matter, industrial chemicals and solvents, engine fuels and oils, the toxic sum totality of amalgamated flushmush flowing into it, all that is the wringing weep of filthy towns and cities upstream making their way to tenderly enshroud me in parasites and metropolitan poisons.
And just as surely as emerging from the salt-laden surf, I head straightaway for a nice rinsing shower or bath. That said, I much prefer to reverse-osmosally drink it than swim in it.
Yes, I’ll concede there is an easily demonstrated case for increasing oceanic pollution that can be made by any adept third-grader with an updated Golden Book Encyclopedia, but there is something in an ocean's immense replenishing ability that eases my mind enough to mercurially venture in, for better or worse, than the comparatively fragile ecosystem of a closed watershed, none of which can match the world’s oceans in size and toxin-depleting volume.
Whenever I wade out into ocean waves, I wonder who else I might be connected to in that exact moment by an immeasurable but finite chain of salt water molecules stretching all the way to India, South America, Oceania, Africa, every place an ocean ventures into seas and inlets and bays that happily receive the perpetual flowdowns of the world’s numerous streams and rivers. That and whether or not I’m in far enough for sharks to get me.
You see, once fallen as snow or rain, all fresh water wants to do is head immediately on vacation for the ocean. Not all of it makes it, of course. Landlocked is called that for a reason. Yes, there are drillions of wonderful freshwater lakes and ponds that dot pristine places from mountains to deserts, high grassland valleys to the cavities of geologically upthrust niches, all filled by brooks, creeks, and streams that never leave the land.
Some are nearly perpetually frozen; others thrive lush and fertile, while still others are fed from underground aquifers that all get their juice from somewhere else. But adventurous brooks nearly always find their way to streams, streams to rivers, small rivers to bigger rivers where in turn they find their way inexorably to the ocean.
Gravity decrees that fresh water run downhill.
Lunar gravity invites oceans to dance.
The gushy romantic in me looks on our oceans as vast repositories for the sorrows and joys of the world. All that salt came from somewhere, and all that sorrow and happiness has to go somewhere. Thus chicken soup is miraculously turned into happy sorrow soup.
There is a beguiling comfort in that for me. When I walk along the seashore, I feel as if I am being consoled while at the same time a willing and compassionate participant in the tendering of global consolation. This is, of course, wholly silly and arguably way too metaphysical for a hall pass. But it remains what I have always sensed about it even before I could ascribe words to it.
When I was a boy, my incorrigibly capricious Uncle Bill and my bathing suit beautiful Auntie Joanie would take both of our collective overgrunioned families to one of the best saltwater and sand places in the world: Laguna Beach.
In spite of Uncle Bill convincing us kids that renegade Indians lay in wait to rain arrows and teetering boulders down upon our station wagon, it was thrilling to survive one of the then prettiest coastal canyons in California to emerge safely around that final stony twist to behold the blazing mystery of the western seaboard found along the semi-arid, sub-tropical, Mediterranean coastal desert region of the North American Pacific Ocean.
I was genuinely awestruck to see the expanse of that wet cobalt wasteland stretching towards forever. The sheer size of it made me feel infinitesimal and leagueless, sub-atomic and spatial, a tiny but necessary part of nothing and everything all at once.
From 1938 through the war and post-war reconstructive 40’s, through the onset of the baby-boomered cold war 50’s and the rebellious psychosociodelic 60’s, and eventually into the drug-whacked Disco-diseased 70’s, Laguna Beach had what every sleepy, artsy tideside village should have: an immigrant welcome wagon of one to cheerfully receive travelers and visitors to its little footprint in the sand.
Blue-eyed with white flowing hair like the sash of a cresting breaker, The Greeter stood at the corner of Laguna Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway waving and shouting hardy hellos to strollers, cyclers, and the beachbound occupants of every automobile that passed him.
Born in 1890 in saltwater Denmark and a WWI veteran, the avuncular Eiler Larsen would smile and greet you in any one of the six languages on his palate, point his index finger towards you with a wink as if he remembered you from the last time you were there. And as a kid I believed that he did, every single time we went, until his eventual passing in 1979.
Larsen had been Laguna Beach’s second Greeter having inherited the avocation from a Portuguese fisherman known as Old Joe Lucas whose only spoken English was proper profanity. Needless to say, though I never personally saw Laguna’s first Greeter, he surely greeted in his own native saltwater tongue.
I still sense Eiler Larsen there whenever I pass through that now traffic-congested, rent-prohibitive, yuppie-infested seaoplis that thankfully has not spoiled one single arc of tidal grace found in the blue-green waters that continue to lap up freely against its shores.
Unlike nighttime star hopping, there is no guessing whether sentient beings on some other imagined shore might be gazing out across this same azure girdle of hydrogen and oxygen. There are. So whenever I stroll the shoreline of an ocean, I look out towards its horizoned plate of aquamarine and wonder who else might be looking back, imagine other greeters simultaneously wondering and waving in that exact same moment.
Though I had no hand whatsoever in the choosing, I’m pleased to be a saltwater person. I’m pleased because my reptilian brain stump somehow still subconsciously honors and recollects having crawled out of that solar bombarded, electrically stimulated, polypeptidal gruel of primeval amino acids and frothy bio-polynucleic proteins to collect and amass enough to stand up, turn around and say, “Well, I’m glad that part’s over.”
But mostly I’m pleased to be a saltwater person because, like the cosmos above me, it is my future retirement home. All this sorrow and happiness has to go somewhere.
February 18, 2007