Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What you know. Who you are.

Surf 5, 2006

I have spent most of my life within just a few miles of the Atlantic Ocean. It was never further than the end of the block when I was a kid. It’s only about three miles away now. Even during the thirteen years when I didn’t live in this area I never lived more than a hundred miles away from the ocean, and even then never more than a mile from some large body of water.
I once considered a job in a great city on the Mississippi River. It was an exciting job opportunity. But it took standing beside the mighty Mississip’ one humid August morning for me to realize that a river, even a big one, is not the same as an ocean. I realized that enough of my life has been defined by proximity to an ocean that I wouldn’t know what to do in a place that didn’t have one.
There’s hardly anywhere you can live around here and not be within five or ten minutes of a large body of water. These waters are why people settled here originally and are why we’re a major international shipping port and home to a lot of U.S. Navy installations.
It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of people around here place a high priority on the protection of our region’s many waterways. But it still amazes me when I come across people who live in my city who have no desire whatsoever to have anything to do with the water. It isn’t a surprise that there are people here who don’t know how to swim or have never been out on a surfboard or in a boat.  A lot of them were transferred here by the military and didn’t need to know how to swim when they grew up in Iowa or Kansas or Arizona. And if you don’t swim confidently, it’s not likely you’ll be comfortable on a surfboard or a boat.

Under the Pier, 2006

From a young age I learned to take the ocean seriously. The lone siren of a fire truck headed up Atlantic Avenue on a sunny summer afternoon meant that someone had been pulled from the water and needed to be resuscitated. The break of a wave on your back could knock the air right out of your lungs. Storms could push the ocean right into your house. Still, the worst we worried about when we went in the ocean was how in the late summer there could be crabs nipping at your toes and jellyfish. We knew there were other things in the water. But we weren’t traumatized by them.
Then came “Jaws.” People got a lot more scared about sharks. I still encounter people who haven’t gone any further into the ocean than to wet their toes since “Jaws” came out.
Unless one washed ashore, we were also much less conscious of the presence of whales. But now we have boats that go out every day taking people on whale watching tours. Whales have become just another tourist attraction.
Oceans cover much of the earth, and yet I’ve heard scientists say we know less about them than we know about the moon. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know that the water is what I know and is a big part of who I am.


  1. I love the ocean. I've only rented close to it, though--never lived permanently there. I think it's good for what ails you. Funny--one year, right when Jaws came out, my sibs and I were at the beach, and Eddie noted that everyone was sitting there on the sand reading it. He said he was going to write a different book, after our experience on the beach this visit, and call it "Jellies."

  2. What a lovely essay, Chris. And the first photo is one of my new and absolute faves.

  3. Yes, wonderful essay.
    Growing up about an hour from the ocean formed me too ( I've only rented right by the ocean also, as Sue above, but do feel like it is Home, when there) I think. I feel a bit land-locked now at 3+ hours away, but still: it's close, and I can't imagine living inland further in the US. ( and yes, rivers and sounds and bays, etc too, there's something about being near moving water...)
    People say, oh, the Mountains! but that can still be a bit claustrophobic - or, a "view". The ocean isn't a "view", it's more.