As a boy, I was forbidden what were then called “horror comics.” So, of course, with the first purloined dime I could get my hands on, during a vacation when I was eight or nine, I snuck into the local store and bought the grisliest looking one I could find. Predictably, it scared the hell out of me. I still remember the story — or one of them anyway — about a little boy who went swimming in the ocean, was dragged under the water by a race of reptilian creatures, grew scales, and never returned to humanity. I can also remember being on the beach that summer and my mother urging me, “Tommy, go ahead, go in the water.” I was hesitating on the shoreline, worrying about the actual crabs that I knew were out there somewhere, waiting to spot my tasty toes, and then of course that reptilian crew I had no doubt were also lurking just beyond the first small waves of Long Island Sound, preparing to drag me to my fate.
So don’t tell me I don’t know the dangers of this planet’s waters. I do. They remain alive in my mind more than six decades later. I’m now a swimmer, but take me out of the pool and put me in open water of any sort, even a pond or a lake, and it doesn’t take long before I can sense the Great White (thank you, Jaws!), the massive anaconda, or the more prosaic giant snapping turtle heading my way. Yes, I know the stats on shark deaths off the U.S. (essentially zero). Yes, I know it’s irrational. But what can you do?
These days, we also know that the ways the inhabitants of the waters of the world can attack us are far less fearful than the ways we continue to attack them, or perhaps simply the ways we use those waters as if they were a vast sewer system into which we dump the overflow, material and chemical, from our world. The increasing overfishing, acidification, and garbage-ification of the planet’s waters is a disturbing development. As ever, versatile TomDispatch regular Lewis Lapham focuses on a new subject, those planetary waters, about which he once again turns out to know more than the rest of us combined. He catches the dreams, the glories, the fears, the fantasies, and the modern nightmares involving the seven seas in his introduction to the summer issue of his remarkable magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly. As always, that magazine unites some of the most provocative and original voices in history around a single topic. (You can subscribe to it by clicking here.) TomDispatch thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive look at Lapham’s introduction to the new issue. Tom
The (Less Than) Eternal Sea
The Poet’s Metaphor and the Styrofoaming of the Waters
By Lewis Lapham
[This essay will appear in "The Sea," the Summer 2013 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]
In heavy fog on the night of October 7, 1936, the SS Ohioan ran aground three miles south and west of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and by noon on October 8th, I was among a crowd of spectators come to pay its respects to the no small terror of the sea. I was two years old, hoisted on the shoulders of my father, for whom the view to windward was neither openly nor latently sublime. The stranded vessel, an 8,046-ton freighter laden with a cargo valued at $450,000, was owned by the family steamship company of which my father one day was to become the president, and he would have been counting costs instead of looking to the consolations of philosophy. No lives had been lost — Coast Guard boats had rescued the captain and the crew — but the first assessments of the damaged hull pegged the hopes of salvage in the vicinity of few and none.
Happily aloft in the vicinity of my father’s hat, and the weather having cleared since the Ohioan missed its compass heading, I was free to form my earliest impression of the sea at a safe and sunny distance, lulled by the sound of waves breaking on the beach, delighting in the drift of gulls in a bright blue sky.
The injured ship never regained consciousness. All attempts at righting it were to no avail, and in the summer of 1937, the removable planking and machinery having been sold for scrap, the Ohioan was declared a total loss, the hull abandoned to the drumming of the surf and the shifting of the sand. The prolonged and unhappy ending of the story my father regarded as a useful lesson, and over the course of the next three years as I was moving up in age from two to five, he often walked me by the hand along the cliff above the wreck to behold the work of its destruction.
To foster my acquaintance with the family’s history and changing fortunes, he spoke of distant ancestors sailing from the port of Boston and the Gulf of Maine in the early-nineteenth-century China trade, of my great-grandfather’s organizing the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company in 1899 not because of the money in the business but because of the romance. My father’s turn of mind was literary, and he was fond of strengthening his narratives with lengthy quotations from William Shakespeare’s plays and extensive recitations from Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.