The Rejuvenatory Power of the Ocean

This summer I was able to get away for three weeks at sea, not a bold deep water crossing but that wonderful cruising, mostly down east, that is such a rejuvenatory part of living in Maine. With wife and dog, we gunk-holed from cove to cove, occasionally rafting up with friends, mostly going it alone, guided by wind and weather. Two storms passed through – one had us on a mooring in the Benjamin River, the other had us cozy for two days in the Mud Hole at Great Wass Island.

It has been a strange summer for us all, and instructive in how weather can affect not only our gardens, but also our psyches. The constant rain of June and July, and the unavailability of the boat, taken to Nova Scotia by our partners, made for an odd compensatory mixture of compulsive work and introspection, a different way of being, provocative, frustrating, sometimes depressing. It was typical to hear grousing and complaint, dour thoughts and dire opinions, from friends and neighbors.

I spent more time reading, for me always a diversion, a dive into the calming waters of narrative, a good story, the odd poem. I had been recommended an ocean book, The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils, by Kimberly C. Patton, a professor of comparative and historical study of religion at the Harvard Divinity School (Columbia University Press, New York, 2007). I was unsure about an academic text with chapter titles like "Ocean as Divinity and Scapegoat," or "The Crisis of Modern Pollution," or "The Purifying Sea in the Religious Imagination." But Professor Patton surprised me with her observations about the sea and the supernatural, the marine rituals of ancient Greece, Hindu submarine fire, and Sedna, the Inuit indwelling spiritual force, or Sea Mother. Part historian, part theologian, part folklorist, part cultural anthropologist, Patton made me think about the ocean again differently, to pause the pursuit of the science or economics or governance of the marine ecosystem, and immerse myself in the psychological swim, the realization and understanding of value in the ocean that is aesthetic, moral, perhaps divine, that has been known, articulated, and expressed ceremonially for all time.

Her text explores the idea of pollution as both the unreflected dumping of waste into the ocean, a kind of senseless vandalism, and as a rejuvenatory element that can cleanse us of despair. “In tons of water,” she writes. “in saltiness, in bottomless depth and endless horizon, and, above all, in the many forms of ceaseless motion, human populations, especially those who live along the littoral, see – and have always seen – in the world’s oceans a mighty, efficacious means of ‘cleansing’ our habitat and making it safe and viable.”

The sea, she suggests, is both familiar and strange, and represents a place of reunion, of heart and mind, body and soul, past and future, abandonment and dedication to the meaningful things in our lives. In 1921, after a long separation from the ocean, William Faulkner wrote to his mother:

"Then suddenly, you see it, a blue hill going up and up, beyond the borders of the world, to the salt colored sky, and white whirling necklaces of gulls, and,if you look long enough, a great vague ship, solemnly going somewhere. I can’t express how it makes me feel to see it again, there is a feeling of the utmost inner relief, as if I could close my eyes, knowing that I had found again someone who loved me years and years ago."