Monday, March 15, 2010

the dead poet and the sea

Big Sur is a protected stretch of land along the western edge of the continent. About three hours south of San Fransisco - it's a place where few humans have built and where I drove the winding highway 1 at a slow, grazing pace. A journey here needs to allow for pulling into each lookout and gazing over precipice - looking to the ocean for signs of migration. If your road trip has little hike time, then the highway drive gives some satisfaction as it is precarious enough. And by making frequent stops, or by staying put on a razors edge, one may consider the greatness of Big Sur and hope, from this high vantage, to see whales.

I wanted to see this bit of coast because Robinson Jeffers - a dead poet - had made me aware of it - because it had exerted some power over his life. Living on the edge of land and sea, where fists of waves and wind-muscle pound and shape rock and tree - here Jeffers had sounded alarm and recorded thoughts that would lead us to identify him as an early environmentalist. I think Jeffers went out to live in this less populated place (at least, less populated in 1913) with his wife and their sons, to find peace in the wild and quite in the roar of the shouting sea. He rolled the stones for his Tor House up from the coast and watched as more humans came - moved in around this house at Carmel Point.

Maybe Jefers thought he could live there - better than the others - because his eye was keen toward the natural beauty and his humble cobbled home was borrowed from the shoreline. His voice spoke for this world, reminding humans to be a part of nature. He scolds, apart from nature we're like a severed hand in his poem The Answer. Jeffers, I think, recognized that to be a human and live in any place, we alter it - but perhaps the earth would always be more powerful and able to erase our careless traces. I hear this sentiment in Carmel Point.

Carmel Point

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses-
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads-
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.-As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

But Jeffers wrote edgy and haunting works, which feel appropriate to our life now and still I think they are little-heeded - we could have been listening to him since 1910. Maybe we will listen soon. Maybe now.

At one lookout, my sister and I saw the unmistakable sign of whales - waterspouts! First their exhalations, then their backs broke through the waves. This is what we had hoped to see. The gray whale migration is on, and while they are returning from the brink of extinction, their population may number 23,000 individuals only found in the Pacific.

Also found in the Pacific is a frightening amount of our rubbish - and I don't mean the bits I saw on the shoreline. The currents that move like enormous rivers stirring the seas have collected our buoyant trash - especially plastic - that we've launched into a perceived oblivion. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is vast - two times the size of Texas and deeper than the Golden Gate bridge is high. It's a flotilla of trash - what we're throwing away daily and on an ever-increasing scale, but there is no away. There's isn't only one garbage patch, but many. Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, who discovered the Great Pacific gyre, says the soup is getting thicker. This trash is in my soup and yours too, in our actual food, because creatures that ingest it make their way up the food chain and into the bellies of the things we might eat. Plastic gets into everything and some things die of starvation with their bellies full. Nature has always been cruel and violent and survival a struggle. And now we give it this - sea bird parents feed their chicks our bottle caps and lighters. Our plastic breaks down to bits, mixing with phytoplankton, becoming the tiny plant's empty doppelganger.

The other side of nature's ferocious gnashing-toothed edge is a soft and soul-shaking beauty. The layered earth is squished, sculpted and lived on by those forms fit for survival. And fitful rest is due those survivors - like this loafing seaman warm in his blubber-wrap, asleep on a stormy shore.

"There is a great and quiet
water reaching to Asia and in
an hour or so the still stars will
show over it, but I am quieter
still inside than even the ocean
or the stars."
Robinson Jeffers

PS I've been thinking about what we're taking out of the ocean too. This documentary series about fish - The End of the Line - is one that ecosystems beneath the waves need us to view. We may be easily awed by the rise and fall of waves against shores - meditating on the sound of their sizzle and the pounding beat. But we are emptying the seas of creatures and filling them with the bobbing cast-offs we thought we'd never see again.


  1. I enjoyed this blog Gaea, your writing is eloquent and thoughtful. So glad you were able to spend some time on the west coast!

  2. Thanks Debby! It was beautiful there and I want to see more whales! More!