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I Must Go Down to the Sea Again

by Deborah Streeter




The Old Man and The Sea

I am reading ocean fiction this summer.  My first two columns were about contemporary ocean novels with female lead characters, Manhattan Beach and The Essex Serpent.  Today, a very different novel, an old guy author and an old guy protagonist, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea.

Does he catch the fish?  Yes.  A huge marlin, longer than his boat, 19 feet. Every day he set sail, but for two months the old man, a heroic fisherman, had not caught a single fish.  But this day Santiago hooks a big fish and for the next three days he and the marlin become one, chaser and chased, as it pulls him ever eastward away from Havana, into the Gulf Stream.  The marlin leaps, circles, slows, and finally Santiago kills it with his harpoon, lashes it to the boat side, and sets his course home to Havana. He imagines the money he will make from this catch, and the people who will find dinner from this massive fish.   But quickly sharks attack the lashed catch, and although an exhausted Santiago kills four sharks, by the time he returns home there’s only the head and skeleton, what might have been.

I read this book in high school, and remembered only the chase, not sure if the old man finally got the fish, or made it home.  Surely someone dies.  Well yes, the fish died, but not the man.  After three long painful days and nights alone at sea, he does finally land, hauls his boat up, and carries his mast back to his shack, as fisherman do, to make sure no one takes their precious cargo, and it is a Christ like scene, the tired man carrying the wooden beam on his back, just as he had imagined himself, his sore hands nailed and crippled.

Hemingway too was an older man when he wrote this in 1952.  After early success, he had struggled personally and professionally, and just two years earlier, his book Over the River and Through the Woods, had been universally panned.  He seemed like another old man with no luck.  Then he published this novella, first in Life Magazine, and it sold 2 million copies in a week.  Two years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and this work was specifically cited, as well as his earlier work.  But Hemingway’s troubles continued, and in 1961 he shot himself.  Not really that old, only 62, but like Santiago, a tired man with failure as well as success, after a hard life of wars and women and drinking and adventures on four continents.

Santiago sails alone, but he keeps in mind his two friends, a boy who cares for him on land and cries when he sees the marlin carcass, and Joe DiMaggio, who Santiago admires, himself the son of a fisherman.  He dreams of his dead wife, but otherwise there are no women in this story.  You could say it is a lonely man’s story.  But there is the sea.

“He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her.  Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her, but they are always said as though she were a woman.  Some of the younger fisherman, those who used buoys as floats for their lines, and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had bought them money, spoke of her as el mar, which is masculine.  They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy.  But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favors.”

For all his macho hunter persona, Hemingway seems, like Santiago, to embrace the sea as a lover, not a contestant or enemy.  He and the old man both won and lost, landed huge prizes, but came home with just a carcass.  It’s a sad tale, but one that lasts.  Like the boy, I ended the novel in tears.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


Ocean Fiction II: The Essex Serpent

After writing last week about the new novel Manhattan Beach, I got to thinking about other fiction where the ocean is not just scenery but a character itself, for good or ill.   

Sarah Perry’s 2016 novel The Essex Serpent practically reeks of the sea.  Its setting is a small coastal town on the Blackwater Estuary in 1890’s Essex, England and its titular mystery is whether there is a large sea serpent in the marsh’s literally black water, killing sheep and children.  Some fear it’s divine punishment, but for what?   Others recall that strange skeletons have been found in that region, named by their discoverers ichthyorsaurs, ocean dinosaurs.  Is the past still present?

Even the main character’s name is marine:  Cora Seaborne.  Born of the sea?  Borne by the sea?  She is indeed born anew when her abusive husband dies and she can leave gritty sooty London for the town Colchester and then a small fictional swampy town on the water.  She is curious about fossils and makes interesting new friends as she roams the countryside, free of convention and expectation.

But this is no Rosamunde Pilcher Shell Seekers seaside romance novel.  Perry wrote her PhD thesis on the Gothic in Iris Murdoch novels, so we can expect tragedy and mystery.  Indeed I was drawn to the book after hearing NPR’s review, which began, “The best kind of nature writing celebrates not the placidly, distantly picturesque — mountaintops and sunsets — but the near, dank, and teeming. The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry's gloriously alive historical novel, squirms with bugs, moss and marsh.”

The main character of the ocean novel I wrote about last week, Manhattan Beach, was a diver, and the dark ocean depths seemed to represent her path to freedom and to recover what she had lost.   The Essex Serpent is a novel full of ambiguity and challenging boundaries, and the landscape of permeable estuaries and fens seems to mirror this ambiguity as land and sea dangerously meet.  As Cora befriends the rector, spirited children, rich and poor, a doctor who is challenging medical convention, she takes part in all kinds of conversations and adventures that push back traditional distinctions (there’s a lot on science and religion), and she too is “borne by the sea” to new possibilities.

I was reminded of what another nature writer, John Murray, wrote in his introduction to The Seacoast Reader, “There are all manner of coasts.  Every person born in this world has a coast, an edge, a boundary, a transitional zone between themselves and the world.”  Cora’s coastal explorations are as much about herself and her future as they are about fossils and the mysteries of the past. 

Murray’s coastal metaphor of human psychology, that some people are like hard rocky shores, others more sunny and open, helped me understand Cora’s fearless walking day and night on these fens, and her ultimate discovery of the real story of the serpent.  Hers is a more ambiguous marshy personality, neither wet nor dry, but both.  It’s not that she is wishy washy (Washy? Wet?) but that she refuses to accept conventional boxes for her future, or, for that matter for various causes she is involved in, like the interesting parallel plot lines about urban poverty and new forms of surgery.

We call areas like the Blackwater Estuary “wetlands,” wet – lands, low, fetid and fertile meetings of land and sea.  There we find danger, confusion, boundary, the sucking mud and the lurking beast beneath the waters.

The Essex Serpent is a novel of ideas as well as a cracking good tale.  Perry mercifully does not wrap everything up neatly or solve the various love triangles, but it is still a novel of hope and possibility.  The borders are messy but permeable; they are not walls designed to keep things apart but life enhancing wet-lands.

Reading The Essex Serpent makes me want to go back to Norwich and East Anglia and see those mysterious waters and fens.  Or to reread some regional fiction like Phillip Pullman’s His Darker Materials with the rebel communities living on houseboats in East Anglia’s canals.  Or WG Sebald’s moving ruminations about walking in that area in his The Rings of Saturn

I think I’ll spend the summer reading ocean fiction.  Suggestions welcome.

 Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


Women Diving

I’m returning to my theme of “Ocean People,” this time in fiction.

Anna Kerrigan, the protagonist of the new novel Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, is the only woman on a team of divers during WWII, building and repairing war ships at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Her first job at the Yard is with other women sorting trays of machine parts for the Missouri, under construction there.  But out the window she sees the divers, and is powerfully drawn to the job’s mystery and danger.  With persistence and by proving her skill, even with the 200-pound clumsy suit and helmet, she wins a job and grudging acceptance by the male hierarchy.

Anna also dives one night into the East River in search of the body of her father whom she believes was killed and dumped there by organized crime.  For this illicit dive she “borrows” the Navy equipment and convinces two men on the team to help her.  She finds her father’s wristwatch, but no body.  She barely escapes both the river’s currents and the shady crime boss who has shown her where to look.

By the end of the book she has pulled off another escape job from these various dangerous dead ends and maneuvered a new identity and yet another diving job in California. 

It sounds like a great adventure story, and it is.  Or an interesting historical novel, as it also is.  But mostly it’s a tale of Anna diving deep into the dark and dangerous waters of her own life, the challenges of Depression poverty, a disabled sister and disappeared father, the unglamorous parts of New York and the perils of life pre-birth control, diving in and emerging as her own person.

45 years ago I studied with theologian Carol Christ and read her book Diving Deep and Surfacing, an analysis of women’s spiritual quest.  We read the then young Margaret Atwood’s second novel, Surfacing, and Adrienne Rich’s poems, including “Diving into the Wreck,” and Kate Chopin’s 19th century novel of female emancipation, The Awakening.  In all these (and other) feminist classics women dive into ocean depths and find freedom both in the depths and in the surfacing. 

Christ help us see how different these women’s spiritual quests are from the traditional male hero’s tale of a pilgrimage or quest to a distant land or mountain top.  For these fictional women and for many women in myth, (like the ocean deities I wrote of here earlier this year,) the quest is downward, not up, to the dark not light.  We young feminists and ministers-to-be wondered if these unusual (to us) tales were inspired by women’s anatomical interiorness, our wombs, unlike external male anatomy.  We rejected the idea that anatomy is destiny, but we dreamed of a non-patriarchal culture where all could find the holy not only by looking out or up and into the light, but in and down and into the dark.

Years later, I am now an ocean inspired theologian (as well as a feminist) and I wonder if the ocean might also be a source and image of spiritual meaning because everyone begins life in our mother’s amniotic fluid, the exact same salinity as the ocean.  We all begin our spiritual quest, for life and meaning, in an inward sea.

I wrote a column here a few months ago about diving, my own experience snorkeling, and stories from Monterey Bay scuba divers.  All these dive stories were likewise “spiritual,” awe-some experiences of quiet and beauty and mystery.  As with many spiritual quests, there is always the possibility of danger, going so deep you don’t return.  And like Anna, many divers risk their lives not just for beauty, but for a purpose, in my local divers’ case, pulling up old fishing gear and trash.  The ocean hides beauty but also the trash we think we can hide in its dark.  Another rich diving metaphor – underwater we see not just beauty, but wrecks, the lost.

Egan did a lot of research on the rich history of Navy divers for her novel, but I have no idea if she knows of Christ’s work or this metaphor in feminist spirituality.  Even so, the novel took me back to those images, especially from Atwood and Rich.  Both authors paint vivid pictures of women diving not for pleasure, but to seek a lost father or wrecked ship, risking life by leaving dry land and sunlight.  And then returning to the surface deeply changed.

It’s worth reading Rich’s poem in full.

“I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail….”  Like all her work, it is fearless and full of mystery.  Atwood’s 1973 novel is powerful also, especially given her lifetime since of writing chilling tales of women and power. 

Anna Kerrigan’s brave diving eventually does help her find her father.  But more moving is how she finds her own life’s calling in the depths.  She will not keep sorting unnamed machine parts nor get stuck in the limits of the post-war “feminine mystique.”  She keeps on diving.  While most poetic and mythic tales are of a single dive that reveals the mystery or truth, Anna makes a lifetime of diving, literally and figuratively, finding in the diving and surfacing a new freedom and her true self.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


Clean Waterways and Healthy Oceans

I’m “Marching for the Ocean” Saturday June 9 in Washington DC alongside tens of thousands of other ocean advocates, “a growing chorus of supporters including environmentalists, scientists, surfers, divers, students, parents, teachers, celebrities, fishermen, social justice advocates, small businesses, major aquariums, deep sea explorers and citizen activists.” 

Last week I wrote about the difference between a march and a parade, and how the Trump administration is helping me stay in shape by inspiring me to go on all these marches (Women, Science, Our Lives, Ocean). 

Today, rivers and oceans and Washington’s “forgotten river.”

The Ocean March begins on a river.

The Ocean March organizers are clear that we march for all of Earth’s waters; all connected, all mutually dependent, all should be healthy and clean:

“Every community has the power to protect our local waterways, lakes and rivers that lead to the ocean.  We stand united to protect all the waters that give us life.  Contribute to building this blue wave.  Celebrate and protect all that our waters – salty, brackish and fresh – provide us.”

So June 9, the day of the March begins on water, at 7 AM with a flotilla of kayakers meeting on Washington DC’s Anacostia River and paddling to the Southwest Waterfront Park where they will leave their vessels and walk several blocks to the starting point of the March in front of the White House.

Actually, some members of this flotilla hit the water two weeks earlier, May 19, when they set out for DC from Atlantic City.  A brave group called “AC2DC Paddle/March to the Ocean,” vows, “What better way to get to the March to the Ocean than to paddle there?  As we paddle and navigate a section of our country's amazing coasts and waterways, we will meet up with various coastal organizations and fellow ocean loving individuals, pick up trash along the way, and participate in local events.”

They will set out that Saturday morning from the fabulous Jersey Shore beach at Avalon, after a ritual called “Hands Across the Sands.”  The next day they’ll cross the dangerous Delaware Bay from Cape May at the tip of New Jersey to Rehoboth, Maryland, and proceed along the ocean coast, south past Chincoteague, to Cape Charles.  Then they will turn northwest into Chesapeake Bay, camping on Tangier Island.  Last leg is up the Potomac River to the point where the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers meet, arriving the Friday night before the March.

I hope to meet these intrepid kayakers from my home state that Friday night in DC.  Their schedule says they will attend the Sign Making workshop that night at the Earth Conservation Center on the banks of the Anacostia River.  I had already planned to go as well, to make my sign, but now I look forward to meeting these brave seafarers as well.

When I think “DC river” I think Potomac River.  But DC is bordered on two sides by rivers, and the Anacostia is called DC’s “Forgotten River.”  Long polluted by coal and cement plants and a horribly outdated sewage system, the low-income neighborhoods alongside the river endured for decades raw sewage and dangerous chemicals within a few miles of the President’s mansion.

In 1992, a local effort to clean up the river began when “nine unemployed young men and women living at Ward Eight's Valley Green public housing community volunteered to change their lives by restoring the obscenely polluted Anacostia River. Motivated by the belief that their strong hearts, minds, and muscles could reclaim the Anacostia they pulled on waders, climbed into the polluted Lower Beaverdam Creek and started to prove that their river and their lives were worth saving. Their struggle launched a community youth movement to take back their Anacostia River. ​

Following their leadership, thousands of youth from troubled neighborhoods near the Anacostia River laid the cornerstone for a solution to the city's intertwined problems of pollution and poverty. Our vision is that every young person in the Corps and throughout the District not only survives, but also thrives. Our collective effort on behalf of disadvantaged youth is a down payment toward transforming our city's greatest assets: our young people and our natural resources.”

That’s the mission and history of the Earth Conservation Center and its Youth Conservation Corps on the banks of the Anacostia.  That’s where we’ll make our signs and I’ll meet my new kayak friends.

The river is no longer deadly, and no longer smells.   Saturday morning those same kayakers will show their support of river cleanups by launching from the “forgotten river,” paddling past the Conservation Center, with their new signs, and paddling around the point to the Potomac and the Ocean March.

Next week I will write more about the Ocean March’s different participants and partners, and maybe about some of the cool slogans and come-ons the organizers are using.  Here are a couple favorites:

  • “Restore the blue in the red white and blue!”
  • “Together we are as big as an ocean!”

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter




I’m going to Washington DC next month for the March for the Ocean, June 9. In the weeks before I go, I’ll be writing here about marching, and about why march for the ocean.  On my return, I’ll tell some stories about my experience.  The ocean is rising, and so are we!

Trump has been good for my workout plans – I have been marching like crazy ever since he was elected.  I joined 500,000 of my closest friends in Oakland for the Women’s March the day before his inauguration.  A few months later I walked down Market Street in San Francisco with thousands of folks in white coats, for the Science March.  In March I walked a couple miles in Monterey with many high school students in the March for Our Lives, protesting gun violence.

On June 9 I will “March for the Ocean” in Washington DC.  Folks in at least 40 cities will have other ocean marches, kayak parades, beach cleanups, flotillas, bay swims and other events. 

Why go to all these marches, why march?  Because I need to do something in the face of Trump’s horrors and evil.  Because during and after each march I have been hugely inspired simply by being with so many other like-minded and like-hearted folks.  Maybe we get some media attention and raise the public’s awareness of an issue, be it women, science, violence, ocean.  To “demonstrate” my opposition. 

It’s a little selfish, or self-indulgent, these Saturdays on the streets.  I get a rush from being with all these folks, go home and brag a little about it, and then I go back to feeling helpless in the face of this evil regime. 

But it’s something.  And just by talking about it (“I’m going to the Ocean March in DC!) and writing about it, I am maybe raising some awareness.  Marches are visual, they are all about numbers and speakers and signs.  I will be visual too, wear my new March for the Ocean T-shirt, post pictures on Facebook.   I will also wear my minister’s stole, with ocean creatures on it, to signal and signify that I am part of a religious community that supports ocean conservation. 

What should my sign read?  I saw one at the Science March that said “Love Your Anemone.”  Suggestions welcome.

I wrote some church colleagues in DC that I was coming, asking if anyone in their congregations was going, organizing a group etc.  No one had heard of the Ocean March.  They did say that the same weekend is the DC Pride Parade.  Talk about double booking!  But when I looked at the website for each event, I see that they coordinated timing: Ocean March 8AM-3PM, Pride 4:30-7:30PM, different neighborhood.  How considerate.  I could bring my rainbow stole also.  I will certainly find some of my liberal church friends at the Pride Parade.

Got me thinking about the difference between marches and parades.  Marches seem more about protest, parades about celebration.  Pride parades certainly began as protests, and were first called Gay Liberation Marches, when they began in 1970 in NYC, Chicago and LA on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in NYC in 1969.  Gradually they became more celebratory than political, Pride rather than Liberation, especially in accepting cities.  The San Francisco Pride Parade feels like Mardi Gras. 

Perhaps a difference between march and parade is the difference between a public demonstration AGAINST something and FOR something.  I’ve marched against wars many times in many cities, against our wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq. 

But this generation of marches, the Trump era marches, are FOR something, March for Science, March for Our Lives, March for the Ocean.  God knows we have much to protest against.  Maybe it’s just marketing, to be FOR something is more appealing.  But in the same way that conservation psychology teaches us that “hope stories” are much more effective in changing people’s environmental attitudes and behavior than are “doom and gloom stories,” so it may be that marching FOR something, indeed parading FOR something is more effective in both inspiring and motivating people. 

We hope.  The March for Our Lives wasn’t just the march, they also organized lots of voter registration.  The March for the Ocean is part of Capitol Hill Ocean Week, CHOW, a week of ocean conferences and lobbying visits to legislators that the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation has organized for 20 years.  I went once years ago and we visited our senators and encouraged them to vote for ocean friendly legislation.   They didn’t seem any more aware of ocean issues then than my religious colleagues were last week.  Still work to do.

But this year CHOW will be more than just lectures and banquets and awards for best ocean volunteer.   An impressive alliance of ocean organizations has organized this powerful and celebratory March.  Next week I’ll write more about the organizers and the issues.

At minimum, marching FOR something means you are trying to “walk the talk,” “put your body on the line,” all those good old protest phrases.  The Ocean March has added a few new ones: “The ocean is rising and so are we.”  “Get in motion, march for the ocean.”  “It’s not too late to turn the tide.”  Let’s hope.

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter