Ocean Planet: Writings and Images of the Sea

Visions of the Sea

Peter Benchley

I have a favorite place. I've been there only twice, but I revisit it often, whenever I feel rattled or suffocated by the press of daily life. I go there in my mind, and find serenity.

It is blue, this place of mine. There are no reds or yellows, and only a hint of green, though sunlight from above casts shafts that look like gold. Fish swim by on silent patrol, unhurried, unconcerned with me, as if sensing that I pose no threat, that my quest is for peace.

My place is a sand shelf, sixty feet beneath the surface of the sea, surrounding the Turks and Caicos Islands, south of the Bahamas. It is a tiny patch of flatness at the base of a gentle slope, a plateau that ends abruptly in a sheer drop into the abyss. Sometimes I swim to the edge and look down into the deepening blue that darkens finally into blackness, into a world I will never know, where wondrous creatures respond to the natural rhythms of life and death beyond the reach of man.

After half an hour or so, I surface, and I feel revived, resuscitated. For I take nourishment from the sea, in reality or imagination. It speaks to me of continuity, of promise, of adventure. Some people hate it, or fear it, or feel threatened by it. Being on the water gives them an uneasy feeling of exposure and vulnerability; being under the water makes them claustrophobic.

Not me. Even in times of danger, I don't personify the sea as a foe. I try not to personify it at all. I don't think of it as angry or vengeful, vicious or merciless. It is what it is, a force of nature--in company with the sun and the wind--possessed of inconceivable power that is sometimes destructive but more often, far more often, benevolent, vital to the sustenance of life on the planet.

Throughout history, our visions of the sea have been as varied as the moods we ascribe to the sea itself. Ambivalence has been the only constant in the attitudes of human beings toward the ocean environment that once was womb to the entire race.

In the selections that follow, Kenneth Grahame portrays the ocean as a highway to romantic adventure, exulting in "the sounding slap of the great green seas," while, writing at more or less the same time, Joseph Conrad declares it to be "the irreconcilable enemy of ships and men ever since ships and men had the unheard-of audacity to go afloat together in the face of his frown."

It has always struck me as fascinating that Conrad, who spent much of his life at sea, and devoted much of his prose to the sea, seemed often to loathe the sea with an abiding passion. "The most amazing wonder of the deep," he wrote, "is its unfathomable cruelty."

The only time I recall anthropomorphizing the sea, ascribing human characteristics to it, was on a three-day trip across the Gulf of Mexico in a small boat, in a terrible storm, with our compass smashed and all other navigational gear out of order, with no idea where we were or which way we were headed, and with a yawing wind that caused a confused, unsteady sea.

I was afraid, of course, though I harbored a confidence"foolish and unfounded"that even if we capsized or sank I would survive by surrendering to the sea, not fighting it, by floating with my back to the cresting waves.

I wasn't resentful, I didn't blame the sea. All I remember thinking was, "She's putting us through our paces this time." Conrad's ocean, you see, is personified, in the Classical manner, as a masculine deity; mine is a goddess.

Until very recently, the sea was seen as immortal, invulnerable, eternal. In 1818, Lord Byron wrote confidently:

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean--roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin--his control
Stops with the shore.

Even Rachel Carson, who was one of the first major writers to sound environmental alarums, perceived the sea as eternal and used it as a metaphor for life, which she described as "a force strong and purposeful, as incapable of being crushed or diverted from its ends as the rising tide."

Today, her confidence seems misplaced, naive. For though we have long since learned that we cannot tame the sea, we are just now becoming aware that it is in our power to destroy the sea. Man's effect, his scourge, extends far beyond the shore, beyond the continental shelves, into the deepest recesses of abyssal canyons.

As recently as 1969, in "The Star Thrower," the mystical naturalist Loren Eiseley made up a parable of salvation by opposing human will and nature's chaos, a vision in which the sea symbolizes death, disgorging its helpless creatures onto the sand with every wave: "The beaches of Costabel are littered with the debris of life."

Today, we are more likely to remark that the beaches are littered with . . . litter. And what writer would now have the confidence to celebrate our humanity in the face of nature?

The tide, we now know, may not always rise and fall with healthy cadence, unless we change our ways. We may love the sea or hate it; we may seek it out or fear it. But we all share one absolute imperative: we must treat the sea with respect. We cannot continue to use it as a dumping ground; we cannot continue to poison it; we cannot strip from it the life it produces and return to it only the waste we produce.

We do not deserve, nor can we afford, to treat anything in nature--on land or sea--with contempt.

No one has ever said it better than Henry Beston, in his 1928 classic, The Outermost House. He is writing about animals only here, but, like all fine writing, it is larger in implication.

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

The sea is not eternal.

Let us not be the ones to ruin it.

Ocean Planet Exhibition Floorplan

gene carl feldman (gene@seawifs.gsfc.nasa.gov) (301) 286-9428
Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)