There’s a small story in the Lord of the Rings trilogy about one of the characters, a wood elf, being confronted by the sea for the first time. Although the life of his people was far from the ocean it still was a part of their heritage and he both dreaded and anticipated finally confronting it. He was even warned about it by one of the wise, “Beware of the Sea! If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore, Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.”
I grew up in the south, where the “sea” basically meant the Gulf of Mexico. On average it’s a pretty mellow body of water, shallow and warm, lapping the beaches rather than attacking them. When I was a kid visiting I always wondered about the contrast between what I would see from the Gulf’s beach and what I was seeing on television or in magazines – great walls of water pounding rocky shores and surfers sliding down building-sized waves. There seemed to be some disconnect going on and it wasn’t helped by the Gulf infatuation I kept seeing in my friends. Some people I knew spoke of visiting the “Coast”, capitalizing the word with their speech like going there was a pilgrimage to some deeply moving experience. I never really got what people felt so strongly about when visiting the Gulf and when I was older I put it down to the difference between beach and mountain people, the latter group I totally identified with.
Then I visited the central California coast. It took only one trip for me to realize the connection people have with the sea – the real sea – and for me to realize the peril of finally confronting an ocean (not a gulf) with its power to draw you in. Much like the wood elf in Tolkien’s story, I realized a deep inner urge for a connection to this place and several more visits just served to reinforce that link between me and the mystery such a bond represents.
At the end of the Monterey penisula and down the Big Sur coast the Pacific unleashes wave after wave on the shore, releasing energy picked up across the broad expanse from the coasts of China, Japan and Russia. You can stand on the shore and feel the vibrations in the land as it resists the constant onslaught – here the phrase “immovable object meets irresistible force” must have been born. The repetitive vision of wave breaking over rocks again and again, green water topped by white frosting enveloping multicolored stones, throwing spray high into the air – here was the mystery I never felt from the southern gulf.
Now I understood a little better what some people get from the ocean. Not the sun worshipers lying on their towels surrounded by sand nor the weekend athletes with their balls and nets or even the people with line, lure and rod trying to attract the fish cruising just beyond the surf. No, I joined the people who stand and soak it in, admiring the curve of a wave breaking, the foam swirling among the rocks, the gliding of sea birds stealing some energy from the ocean in their flight. And the spray fragmenting the sunlight into a rainbow to crown a wave.
But unlike the elves trapped by their connection to the sea, a path over which they must travel to their final destination, I am not tied to the ocean. I remain a woods, lakes, mountain and stream person who now has a broader connection to the world, even if it’s a part I don’t return to for spiritual renewal. And a person who has shed parochial views about why someone might need such a place for their personal recharging.
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. Antoine de Saint-Exupery