I was born just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. My first memories are of orange blossoms and sea salt conjoined in the air. In 1955, California was paradise. My mother took me to the beach near Capistrano. Daily. While my father was in the Air Force, my mother and I played in the sand. It is here I must have imprinted on the rhythmic sound of waves, the cry of gulls, the calm of my own mother’s heart.
It is here, on this edge of sand and surf, I must have developed my need to see the horizon, to look outward as far and wide as possible, because this hunger for Western vistas has never left me. And it is here I must have fallen in love with water, recognizing its power and sublimity. Here I learned to trust that what I love can kill me, knock me down, and threaten to drown me with one unexpected wave. But I also came to believe that I can survive my affections. I came to believe in the cyclic nature of things, including my capacity to bounce back and run into the waves again and again, no matter the risk. One wave breaks and rushes toward my feet and slips back into the sea, followed by another. There was no end to this joyful exaltation between me and this edge of oscillations. Not a year of my life has missed a baptism by ocean, a resurgence of sand and sea. Not one.
Edges are where I feel most alive. January is an edge between the new year and the year just passed. “Ecotone” is another word for edges. An ecotone holds the Greek root tónos and describes a place where ecologies are in tension. When I stand on the edge of the land and sea, I feel this tension, this fluid line of transition. High tide. Low tide. It is the sea’s reach and retreat that remind me we have been human for only a very short time.
Liminal. The mind between worlds. It is this word that sends me back to my pre-human state reminding me, “I am water. I am water. I am water.” I am sea cells that have evolved over time to a consciousness that has pulled me upright. It is here walking the wrack line on a sandy beach picking up shells, a whelk or a cowrie, that I witness the threshold of an invisible world, this vast, undulating ocean that cradles us, still, and delivers us with gifts. So much of who we are originates and remains here in the bounty and generosity of the seas.
Water is nothing if not ingemination, an encore to the tenacity of life. And life held in the sea is surface and depth, invisible and visible, violence and peace. We throw down a line, we cast a net, what emerges is religion in the form of fish.
But no longer can the sea be the repository of our acts of faith or folly, drilling for oil or feeding the multitudes with chopsticks and sushi. We can say these are the last days, cry apocalypse that our oceans are being overfished, bloodied, and oiled, see them as the ultimate downstream destination for our toxins, trash, and neglect. And much of this is true. A floating gyre of garbage in the northern Pacific Ocean is killing generations of albatross. Adults foraging out at sea are unable to distinguish what is organic and what is not. They return to the atoll at Midway, regurgitating plastic to their young, which then grow up with distended bellies of bottle caps, toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, and balls. They are not nourished by fish but poisoned by what we discard. Walk along these beaches and you find their decomposing bodies as wreaths of bones, the feathered nests of plastics, the decomposing state of our unsustainable lives. The albatross around our neck that Coleridge speaks of in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is not poetry but our own unconscious lives.
This is the shadow side of our relationship to the sea. Where is our reciprocity for all the ways it has fed us, sustained us, and kept us alive? I traveled to the Gulf of Mexico after the BP blowout and when I close my eyes at night, I still see the rivers of oil cutting a red-brown scar through the rainbow-tainted waters. It is a sickly sheen: oil stretching from horizon to horizon where the soaked mats of sargassum became death barges carrying the corpses of dolphins and all manner of fishes and birds.
Edges. Edges of living and dying. I think about this as we enter this new decade and wonder what is to come. I see us on the edge of a transformation, where we, as a species, learn to live with empathy and compassion. There is still so much beauty below the surface of our gaze. The day I swam in a silver swirl of tuna is the day I prayed I might live forever among such shimmering beauty. Presence is not just a state of mind, but a state of being in relationship to other beings.
When I took a shell from Comfort Island that had been burnt with oil and put it on my altar where I was staying, it moved. I screamed. It moved again. I laughed. Inside the ravaged old shell was a hermit crab, and it was crawling across the table. It had been in my canvas bag all day. I laughed and then I realized I had to return the hairy-legged creature, but Comfort Island was miles away. I should never have taken it in the first place.
The next morning, I went down to the shores of Mobile Bay in Alabama, found a rugged little stretch of shoreline with fallen trees where other hermit crabs dwelled and let him go. I rationalized my actions by telling myself that the crab would have died on the oiled island. My act of displacement had given the hermit crab a fresh start. In truth, if the animal was to survive it would be because at least it had its shell, the shell I thought was uninhabited. And so, on my knees, I put the shell down on the mudflats, apologized to the crab in tight retraction, and left.
“The oceans are telling us a very important message,” says Carl Safina, the renowned ecologist and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute. “Maybe we need to metaphorically pick up a big seashell and hold it to our ears and listen.”
I wish I had done exactly that with the shell I pocketed. Listened to what was inside rather than outside. The only voice I could hear was my own voice of need: “I need this shell to remember.” To remember what? How much the sea matters to me, to the point of taking what is not mine to take, threatening to kill the object of my affection, using it once again to quell my insatiable appetite for meaning? The voice I failed to hear, relentless and reassuring, is the song from the liminal space that invites me to be quiet, quiet enough to recognize there is life even in the places we think are empty. The ocean is alive. Emptiness is a lie.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “The Open Space of Democracy” and, most recently, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” She is the recipient of the 2010 David R. Brower Conservation Award for activism.