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I Must Go Down to the Sea Again

by Deborah Streeter

“I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide, is a wild call and a clear call that cannot be denied.” That’s the call, from John Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever,” that I try to follow as a longtime ocean volunteer and an ordained minister on behalf of ocean conservation.

I already write a short weekly devotional piece, “Blue Theology Tide-ings,” linking ocean and spirituality. In this new column I will try longer ocean essays, with more detailed science as well as personal reflections.

Having achieved ocean literacy (hah!) my next series in this marine column could be called “They Had to Go Down to the Sea Again…”  I’ll look at various people through history who have loved the sea, studied it, aided it, spent lots of time in and on it – ocean people.  I’ll start with a portrait I did a few years ago, on Veterans Day, of Jacques Cousteau, ocean explorer and, surprisingly to me, war hero.



What’s at Stake?

In my last “Ocean People” column, before Christmas, I wrote about how I applied, along with many others, to be a “member-at-large” of the Advisory Council of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and how surprisingly I was chosen and later elected Chair.  It turned out the staff had thought (mistakenly) that I, as a minister, would somehow help this very contentious group get along better and figure out how to balance commercial and conservation interests in this huge ocean protected area.  Instead I just rolled up my sleeves and jumped into the fray, mostly on the conservation side. I’ll be spending a couple more columns on the personalities of this 25- member “stakeholder” group and the issues it confronts.  Today – some thoughts on what’s at “stake?”

  • Who owns the ocean?
  • If the ocean is “public property,” can anyone at all simply “stake” a claim to use ocean waters for some activity, be it commercial, like fishing, or recreational, like jet skis, or should there be some rules?
  • What happens when staked claims conflict, like noisy jet skis scaring away fish? Or when the conflict is that a claim staked by human beings (this is my ocean oil drilling platform) might harm the ocean and its plants and animals?
  • Can we assume that people will exercise care and caution in their staked claims?  Will the profit motive outweigh the uncertainty principle?  (The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was designated for the express purpose of prohibiting oil and gas drilling in the oil rich waters between San Francisco and Cambria, 300 miles of coastline, and for the general purpose of “resource protection.” Staff seeks community input on management decisions.)
  • Can the ocean itself, or its many life forms stake a claim?  Can nesting birds or migrating whales or microscopic plankton say, no, this is my part of the ocean?
  • If we were going to get a group together to advise staff on some of these questions, who should have a seat at the table?  Those named above: fishermen, ocean recreators, business and industry, ocean conservation groups, government agencies?  Who else?
  • How do we decide who should have a seat at the table?  Who has a “stake” in the ocean, a claim on the ocean and its management?
  • The word “stake” is used in two different phrases related to these questions, “staking a claim” and “being a stakeholder.”  Government agencies and businesses have in the recent past started using the idea of “stakeholder groups,” as important decision advisors or makers. Is there a difference between “staking” a claim, and “holding” a stake?
  • What is “at stake” for the oceans and how can marine sanctuaries and sanctuary advisory councils, made up of ocean stakeholders, impact the ocean’s “stake?”

Easier to ask these questions than answer them.  Nine years as a Member-At-Large on one such Sanctuary Advisory Council led me to ask these and lots more questions.  In this column I will suggest a couple answers, or ways I chose to answer them, and how I came up with my answers. 

First, a little word history, about “stake.”  Sometimes I find it helpful to learn the language history of a word or phrase.  Where did it come from?  Does it mean the same thing today? 

To “stake” a claim is to pound a big strong stick, a stake, in the ground and say, “This land is mine.  These stakes mark its boundaries.”  Metaphorically it has become “I stake my life on this.” “Here I stand, I can do no other!” Luther staked this claim, as he put a small stake (a nail) in the door.

“Stakeholder” is a little more complicated.  Etymology accounts suggest that in English gambling, a stick/stake was used to indicate how much someone had bet, what “stake” they had in the game.  If the bettor had to leave the gaming table, they would hand that stake to someone else, their representative, to hold for them, to keep the claim.  The rep was their “stakeholder.”  They represented/held the interests of the one who had put money into the game.

So the first thing I would do at a meeting of the Advisory Council, when confronted with an issue about conflicting claims, would be to follow the money.   “Stake” language is about money, either a staked land claim or an absent gambler.  California is the land of gold rush and tech boom because of many bold and sometimes reckless entrepreneurs.  Like John Sutter, who discovered gold on the Sacramento River, aggressively staked his claim and change history.  Likewise Steve Jobs, who brashly founded Apple, quit, came back, was fired, left others to hold his gambling stick, but ultimately returned to cash in the chips and claim his billion dollar stakeholding.

At first I found it odd that the Marine Sanctuary Program is part of the federal Commerce Department.  That’s because it’s under NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (and a pun on the Biblical mariner NOAH).  Shouldn’t ocean concerns be in an environmental agency, like the Department of the Interior, or the Environmental Protection Agency?  Why Commerce, whose job is to promote economic growth?  Well, historically, most commerce happened on the sea - it’s called shipping.  But still, following the money, there’s lots and lots of money to be made today in trade, tankers, oil and gas, commercial fishing, aquaculture, even cruise ships.  Ocean trade, ocean extraction and ocean recreation generate billions and billions of dollars.  Our local university has a Center for the Blue Economy, the business of ocean and the business oceans generate.  So it’s highly appropriate to use language about staking a claim; the ocean is like a gold mine.  It’s the wild west, the ocean is the frontier, and there are fortunes to be made.

On the Advisory Council the biggest money makers from the sea were represented by the Fishing and Agriculture Seats.  Both reps opposed most regulations of their business, from catch limits to water quality issues resulting from ag pesticide runoff. Fishing and Ag often sided with each other in votes.  (Of the 15 National Marine Sanctuaries in the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf, and one in the Great Lakes, only Monterey Bay has an Agriculture seat on its Advisory Council – the other sanctuaries are remote or off shore.)  These two often dressed casually, cowboy or sweatshirt, masking the multimillion dollar industries they represented.  Fishermen gamble more than farmers do, who have some control over their water, and like our etymological gambler, fishermen are often gone at sea for long periods.  But both are sort of individualistic loner occupations; they grumbled about meetings and the slow pace of decision making. 

The farmers seemed a little more interested in their public image and took some initiative to reduce phosphate runoff into the rivers and estuaries.  The fishermen complained more about being victims of over regulation.  They also claimed our then congressman Leon Panetta, who shared the Sicilian heritage of many of the fishermen, had made them a “promise” that the Sanctuary would have no effect on fishing.  But such a promise never appears in writing and while Leon tried to downplay the idea, he never denied it, either because he is a good politician or because he feared some kind of Godfather type retaliation. 

The Harbors rep was always in the fisherman’s corner, and would try to argue that Monterey and Santa Cruz were primarily fishing and boating communities, when the three biggest regional economies are tourism/hospitality, agriculture and education.  All three of these commercial reps would also say their vote was more important than the other members’ because people’s jobs depended on them, claiming that those conservation or recreation people (and even the government agencies it seemed) didn’t have real jobs.  Getting a salary from the Ocean Conservancy or a dive shop wasn’t as important as bringing in the catch or the crop.

You can tell I was not too sympathetic to the commercial interests, primarily because in the Sanctuaries Act it states very simply that the purpose of Sanctuaries, besides prohibiting oil and gas development, is “resource protection.”  Ideas like resource protection, conservation, preservation, ecosystem management are not about maximizing profits. (Except, as we would argue, that managing resources today improves the odds there will be fish to catch in years to come.  This argument did not seem to make sense to them.)  The commercial reps were there to represent their “stake” but I’m not sure they had read the Sanctuaries Act.  They would go on and on about the “promise” and about promoting “multiple use,” but resisted the widely accepted use of “ecosystem management.”

I favored the conservation side because of a second idea raised by the concept “stake.”  “Stake” is not just an economic term, it’s not just about ownership and profit. I too have a stake in the ocean, as does every person.  I have a stake in the ocean because I need it to live: three out of four breaths I take come from the oxygen made by ocean plants.  I have a stake in the ocean because all weather is born there.  I have a stake in the ocean because it feeds my soul.  I have a stake in the ocean because I believe in science and research.  I have a stake in the ocean because I don’t believe anyone can own it, so everyone must care for it.  Like Aldo Leopold, I believe that nature is not a commodity that belongs to us, but a community to which we belong.  That was the sermon I tried to preach as a Member at Large.

Ok, a little more sermon:  You can’t mark the ocean off with claim stakes at the corners and hog it all for yourself.  Even with international conventions about nations “owning” the waters 3 miles out or 100 miles out and economic influence zones and the Law of the Sea (ie nations have tried to put down some stakes,) it’s all connected, pole to pole.  Whales and tunas carry no passports, rogue factory ships from other nations steal “our” tuna, and when one member suffers, it all suffers, just think Exxon Oil Spill.  That’s the claim I stake and the stake I hold.

I am simplifying this a bit, for there were often more than two sides on an issue, but many times it was commercial versus conservation, and the debate would remind me of the difference between Republicans vs Democrats.  The commercial reps’ style was a combination of bragging and moaning, at the same time, the way Republicans will brag about how strong and moral they are, but at the same time how they suffer so much, and act like victims. 

Also like Republicans, these commercial reps often had a sharper killer instinct with no interest in compromise or finding common ground.  They would independently fly to Washington and lobby against the Sanctuary (the Harbor seat using city funds to do that.)  Like our current administration, they were obsessed with how votes are counted, saying their votes were more important since poor families depended on them. They would also claim that their constituency was larger than anyone else’s so should carry more weight.  They often tried to introduce new rules that would eliminate the Members at Large because they said we had no constituents.  How could our “stake” have any legitimacy?  One of my fellow Members at Large came up with a great response; since it is a National Marine Sanctuary, we represent the entire 200 million US citizens, making ours actually the largest constituency.  But I always felt depressed during the arguments about whose was biggest.

The conservation types (Conservation, Recreation, Diving, Education, Members At Large, Research) were like the Democrats.  We assumed that government had a role and that it was mostly helpful (we weren’t Libertarians).  We are aware that commercial interests, ie greed, can blind people to the need for care and caution.  We remembered well the Santa Barbara Oil Spills of the 70’s that first motivated years of citizens advocating for Sanctuary protection and many of us had been part of that effort.   We cared for those without a voice or vote, marine mammals and fish and plants.  We approached issues as systems, interrelated ecosystems and we cared about long term consequences, not the bottom line.  We compromised way too much.  When I was chair I went around and visited everyone, including the commercial types, at their workplace and asked them about their families and tried to find common ground.  I managed to get the Advisory Council to make most of its decisions by consensus, rather than voting, to reduce the divisive attitude, but that only worked until it didn’t. 

There were some folks in between.  Tourism and Business (two different seats, not sure why that was the case) went back and forth.  Tourists want healthy ecosystems, to see whales, not dead zones from ag runoff.  But the fastest growing industry in the county is the wineries. They call themselves farmers, and they really don’t like regs.  The government reps (Coastal Commission, Cal EPA, State Parks, Fish and Wildlife, local government) usually voted more on the conservation side, but if it got too hot they would abstain.

So how did we get anything done?  Some would say we didn’t.  We often voted for pretty weak protection or government-ese studies.  But we had some huge successes.  We enlarged the boundaries to include the largest undersea mountain in the Eastern Pacific. We put some limits on the huge krill fishery.  We prohibited cruise ships from dumping all their waste (including human, also film development chemicals) in Sanctuary waters. (They just wait until they pass the stake marking the claim.)   And when I went to a recent meeting I was amazed to see a unanimous vote for more general protections, because even the commercial interests oppose how the Trump administration is breathing down its back and panting to open up the ocean for oil drilling and other extraction. 

More on that and other ocean issues at “stake” here on the West Coast in my next column.  Take four breaths and thank the ocean for three of them.  Stay tuned.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


Can We Manage the Ocean?

The US has set aside 15 ocean areas (and one Great Lake area) as “National Marine Sanctuaries,” and empowered local communities to decide what activities to allow in these areas and what to forbid.  For the next few weeks our “Ocean People” will be the staff and Advisory Council of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

I read a small notice in the local paper that the Advisory Council of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary had some open seats and the public was encouraged to apply.  At the web site I found that the Council was a “stakeholder” group, 23 seats representing various groups with personal or professional “stakes” in the management of this huge ocean protected area (300 miles of coastline, from San Francisco south to Cambria, and up to 25 miles out to sea.) 

I did a scout of one of their public meetings.  The Council sat around a big table with name tags in front of them that said “Harbors,” “CAL EPA,” “Commercial Fishing,” “Diving,” “Conservation,” “Recreation,” “Business and Tourism,” “Local Government,” “State Parks,” “Research,” “Education,” and more.

There were also three seats for “Members at Large.”  That’s what I applied for.  In my application I said I was an active ocean volunteer (Aquarium, State Parks) and a Big Sur resident (it looked like most of the council members were from Monterey or Santa Cruz and I knew the big Sur community had strong opinions pro and con management of “their” large stretch of this wild coast.) 

I was hesitant to say I was also an ordained minister and could represent the wider religious community, which I believed to be supportive of ocean protection and stewardship.  I did not want people’s various odd projections onto clergy (that we are somehow different, holy, conservative, anti-science, boring, prudish.)  And I wanted to improve the odds that I would be selected. 

But finally I decided to include my professional credentials (“don’t hide your light under a bushel, let your light so shine that others may see your good works….”) and added a section on how as a minister I was familiar with the concept “sanctuary” and might bring some additional perspectives and connections to the group. 

Of the 50 applicants for that Member at Large seat, I was surprised and delighted to be selected.   I assumed it was because at the interview I talked about how much I loved maps and already had a Sanctuary map hanging in my kitchen.  Or it might have been because I was honest; when asked how I would represent the Big Sur community, I said that I would reach out and listen, but actually no one can represent such a varied and passionate community. 

But it turned out, I learned much later, that the reason I was chosen was that Council had been having so much conflict, fighting between fishing and conservation interests, advocates of “resource protection” or “multiple use,” (two of the Sanctuary goals), bad feeling at meetings and nasty emails, that they thought bringing in a minister would help them all get along better.

Hah!  They soon learned the folly of their ways.  I attended a few meetings, observed the different parties and issues and disputes, and instead of casting calming oil on the water I rolled up my sleeves and jumped right into the fray.  Mostly I spoke and voted on the side of conservation, resource protection.  I was not much better than the others at seeking common ground, making compromise, rising above it.  Those fishing and harbor people were political and conniving, so we conservationists had also to be wise as serpents.  This was all some years ago, I served on the SAC from 2000-2009, but looking back it reminds me of the current political scene in Washington.  There was not much currency in being the nice accommodating person.

During those years we discussed and fought about specific issues, like jet skis, expanding the boundaries, wildlife disturbance, desalination plants, disposal of dredged material, water quality and agricultural run-off, shipping lanes, and much more.  We also had strategy disputes: do we tell the Sanctuary Superintendent and his staff what to do, or just “advise,” decide by vote or consensus, how much attention should be pay to public comment sessions, where to meet, should we add new seats, etc.

After five years on the Council my colleagues voted me to be Chair.  It was a very close vote and again I heard expectations that at least I was a “safe” candidate, but also fears that I would be too much on the conservation side.   Mostly my job was preparing agendas and running meetings, and I am proud that I did get them to work more on consensus than voting, and I did work to establish personal relationships with all the members, visiting them between meetings at their workplaces.  They elected me to a second term as Chair, we completed a massive new Management Plan, but then after 9 years I decided it was time for something new. 

Last week I attended my first SAC meeting in many years simply as an interested member of the public.  Much was the same, but some differences.  Trump’s greedy policies and interest in opening up Marine Sanctuaries for oil and gas drilling was a big topic.  It was community opposition to “extractive practices,” like oil and gas drilling, that originally led to the Sanctuary’s designation 25 years ago.  Last week even the harbors and fishing reps said preserving natural resources was more important that “multiple use.”

I’ll spend the next few columns describing some of the issues and personalities of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Advisory Council during my service, and what’s happening now. 

I remember a meeting about limiting the krill harvest, a lucrative fishery, but food for many other fish and marine mammals.  At one point tempers ran so high that a SAC member said, “Holy shit, can’t we figure this out?” and then quickly looked at me and apologized for swearing.  I said, “No problem, just make sure it’s holy shit, like holy mackerel, holy moley.  It’s all holy.  Let’s try to keep it that way.”

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter


Don Pachico Mayoral and Los Ballenas Amistosos

This week’s “Ocean Person” is Don Pachico Mayoral, nicknamed the “Whale Whisperer” because of his historic “first encounter of a whale kind” on Baja’s San Ignacio Lagoon.

For 40 years Don Pachico Mayoral, a Mexican Baja fisherman, was worried every time he set sail in his small boat on San Ignacio Lagoon, especially in the winter.  That’s when the 40-ton creatures they nicknamed "devil fish" were in the lagoon, sometimes pursuing and overturning other boats on the lagoon.  He and his fellow fisherman would take along big piece of wood to bang on the side of the boat to scare the devil fish away.

Then on a January day in 1972, one of those massive monsters acted completely different. She didn’t smash his boat with her massive flukes nor crush it with her jaw.  Rather she quietly surfaced near his boat, along with her new baby (a mere ton) and gently rubbed against the vessel's side.  Don Pachico cautiously put his hand in the water, and she rubbed against his hand, lingering for some time.

That day the phenomenon known as "los ballenas amistosos," the friendly whales, began, and continues to the present.  Of the thousands of whales in the lagoon every winter, 10% regularly approach boats with their young and initiate contact with humans, rubbing, hovering, allowing touch, playfully nudging the boat, when one flick of the whale’s tail could sink the much smaller vessel. 

Gradually a tourist industry grew, but Don Pachico and the others insisted it stay small and locally controlled.  Under strict conservation rules a limited number of small boats take tourists out and wait for the whales, moms and calves, to approach them.  

Don Pachico kept fishing the rest of the year, but he and now his son are revered whale guides in the winter.  I met the Mayorals when I petted and even kissed the whales on my trip to San Ignacio Lagoon in 2003.  As ocean scientist Dr. Silvia Earle says, “Whale watching takes on a whole new meaning when the whales are watching you.”

Check out this video of the friendly whales and interview with Pachico by National Geographic. In the film Pachico describes the encounter:

“My partner and I were so afraid, our legs were shaking. I touched the whale very gently and the whale remained calm. Minutes passed, and I kept petting her, until my fear went away.” Asked how it made him feel, he said, “It was sublime for me because when I saw the size of the whale and I was so small by comparison, I gave thanks to God. Whales were heavily hunted by humans, yet they are very friendly towards us, and they forgive all the damage we did. That’s why I have a lot of love and respect for them.”

Grey whales migrate yearly between Alaska where they feed all summer, and Baja, where they give birth and mate, 6000 miles each way.  19th century whalers preferred hunting grey whales to the open ocean sperm or humpbacks, because they swim predictably near shore, north and south. Later the hunters located the hidden Baja lagoon entrances and waited each winter for the easy kills, turning the lagoons red with blood.  The harpooned whales earned their “devil-fish” name by fighting back aggressively, but in vain.  From 40,000 whales the population dropped to less that 5000, before whaling was outlawed in 1948.  The population very slowly rebounded mid century, but the whales were understandably wary and continued their aggression towards humans.  Until 1972.    

Why the change in behavior that year?  Marine biologists posit various theories; the whales finally felt safe, they have parasites they like having scratched, the moms are bored waiting for their calves to be big and strong enough to make the northward trip to Alaska (only a third of the calves make it, with hungry orcas and abandoned fishing nets ready to trap them.)

But I am taken with the speculation by some folks that the whales, considered intelligent, able to communicate by song with each other, in some way knew things on dry land were changing, people, attitudes, laws. In the very year right before they first approached Don Pachico, in 1971, the US passed both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act (these were both Nixon Administration laws!), and the International Whaling Commission tightened its ban on whaling.  Might the whales be reaching out unilaterally in thanks?  Don Pachico was not a whaler, he was fishing for scallops, but maybe these wise moms were using positive reinforcement; See, you do better when you act nicely?

Or were they laying the ground, establishing good relations, in case there were future threats?  As indeed there were.  In the 80’s Mitsubishi wanted to build a huge salt plant on San Ignacio Lagoon, lucrative salt minerals needed for computers and other tech.  They offered Mexico billions for the land and water.  The environmental movement in the US and Mexico rallied against it for years, seemingly in vain.  One strategy they used was to bring decision makers, like the president of Mexico, to San Ignacio, and have Don Pachico take him out on the water, to have the friendly whales come over with their babies. By then the ballenos and Don Pachico were good friends.  Without that already established relationship Mitsubishi probably would have won, but Mexico bravely and boldly turned them down.  And made the Lagoon an international heritage site. 

Thanks to the whale moms and calves.  And to Don Pachico.  Gracias.

Copyright © 2107 Deborah Streeter


“If Life Gets Too Hard, There’s Always the Ocean”

US and UK army vets, wounded physically and mentally on the dry, sandy battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have found deep healing by getting wet, specifically surfing. This week’s “Ocean People” are the wet healers and healed.

Returning veterans, one third of whom suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, are finding healing on a surfboard.  In a recent article in Psychology Today, “Surf Therapy and Being in the Ocean Can Alleviate PTSD,”  surfer and filmmaker Josh Izenberg talks about his new film “Resurface” (available on Netflix) and how various organizations (Operation Surf, Amazing Surf Adventures, Warrior Surf and others) are using surfing and the healing power of the ocean to bring some relief to wounded warriors.

I first learned about these projects from the book Blue Mind by Wallace J Nichols, a celebration of “your brain on water.”  He recounts the many studies from neuroscience, psychology and sociology about how living near the ocean, spending time in any kind of water, and just painting your room blue not only improves happiness, creativity and reduces stress, but actually can heal. Nichols has listed all the peer reviewed research studies, therapy programs and medical endorsers in a project called “Blue Mind Rx.” 

One example is a program called Warrior Surf, started by a veteran who was having a lot of trouble coming back from Iraq and learning to live again.  He had been a surfer and he found when he went back to the sea, he could calm down, trust, breath.  His therapist had already suggested a support group with other vets, and when he told his group about surfing they wanted to do it too.  They found surfing teachers who were vets and could understand their challenges.  Soon their families wanted to join in.  A new healing community was born.

One vet in the film, double amputee Bobby Lane, says, “When I came back from Iraq, I started drinking a lot to help me with those issues, memories, pain.  Then I was just drinking to get to sleep but sometimes you don’t want to close your eyes.  After that first wave I have such an overwhelming respect for the ocean, it is so gentle and so fierce.  When I caught that wave, I felt like a part of me died and I felt like I was reborn.  Now I see it, if life gets too hard, there’s always the ocean.”

Filmmaker Izenburg says there are at least five reasons why surfing heals trauma and stress. I’ll just quote from the Psychology Today article:

“First, the ocean itself has the cathartic ability to wash away negative emotions by putting them in a context of something much bigger and more powerful than someone's individual life existence.

“The second reason was that learning to surf puts you in the flow channel where you get into "the zone." When you're in the zone, the stress or trauma of your daily life seems to dissolve.

“The third reason Josh gave for the power of surfing to alleviate symptoms of PTSD is that surfing requires a singularity of focus that literally takes your mind off everything else going on in your life. Surfing forces you to focus on the task at hand and stay in the present tense.

“Fourthly, the adrenaline rush of surfing can recreate the novelty that many veterans may have grown accustomed to in combat but gets squelched by the ho-hum aspects of daily civilian life.

“Lastly, the physical exertion from a day of surfing is exhausting and literally wipes you out so that you sleep better at night. Insomnia is one of the most insidious aspects of PTSD. Surfing is an excellent drug-free sleep aid.”

I am neither a vet nor a surfer, but I am moved by these accounts and ideas. With humility and deep respect for the sacrifices vets make to their bodies and soul, I offer a few reflections:

  • Surfing and combat seem extremely different and strangely similar. Surely there is nothing farther from macho destroy the enemy combat than the groovy “play hooky” life style of the surfer. But both pit one small person against a massive force.
  • And while both start with one soldier or surfer facing danger alone, quickly evolves a “band of brothers/sisters” culture, where they rely on each other, teach each other, support each other, risk to rescue each other. Both lifestyles demand long periods of waiting in solitude, pierced by dramatic and dangerous rushes.
  • Surfers and soldiers I have known seem to prefer the company of others like them; they have a shared language and project a sense of being outsiders. We know how hard it is for returning vets to readjust to civilian life, but I’ve gotten the same vibe from surfers, like the ones I’ve met in the ocean conservation world. They will clean up and play the role of citizen activist with all their heart, but they’d much rather be out on the water.
  • Soldiers and surfers also project an image of being tough guys and gals, but they are so very vulnerable on battlefield or ocean. In these comparisons I intend no disrespect to the danger or nobility of military service. I simply stand in awe at the healing power of the ocean. In my own much easier life, I too benefit from that Blue Ocean Rx. When life gets hard, there’s always the ocean.

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter


Sandcastle Theologian

This week’s “Ocean Person” is Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, a man I think of as urban and urbane.  Turns out he was a beach rat!

Paul Tillich built sandcastles all his life.  First on the sands of the Baltic Sea as a child and as an adult.  Then in the US, from his 40’s long into retirement, on the Atlantic beaches at his beloved home on the eastern tip of Long Island. 

I have always pictured Tillich as a man of cities, this profound Protestant theologian.  He taught in urban, industrial Berlin, Dresden, and Frankfort until the Nazis forced him to flee Germany.  In 1933 the faculty of Union Theological Seminary all agreed to take a cut in pay to fund Tillich’s escape and new life in the bustle and business of New York City, where he lived the rest of his life.

But Tillich credited time spent on the coast and by the sea with inspiring many of his radical new ideas and new language of theology. 

In his late career reflection On the Boundaries: An Autobiographical Sketch, he frames his whole life as a series of paradoxes, boundaries he straddled, one of which is “The Boundary of City and Country.”  He writes:

“The weeks and later months that I spent by the sea every year from the time I was eight were even more important [than his family background] for my life and work.  The experience of the infinite bordering on the finite suited my inclination toward the boundary situation and supplied my imagination with a symbol that gave substance to my emotions and creativity to my thought.  Without this experience it is likely that my theory of the human boundary situation, as expressed in Religious Work, might not have developed as it did.

“There is another development to be found in the contemplation of the sea; its dynamic assault on the serene firmness of the land and the ecstasy of its gales and waves.  My theory of the “dynamic mass” in the essay “Mass and Spirit” was conceived under the immediate influence of the turbulent sea.  The sea also supplied the imaginative element necessary for the doctrines of the Absolute as both ground and abyss of dynamic truth, and of the substance of religion as the thrust of the eternal into finitude. 

"Nietzsche said that no idea can be true unless it was thought in the open air.  Many of my ideas were conceived in the open and much of my writing done among trees or by the sea.  Alternating regularly between the elements of town and country always has been and still is part of what I consider indispensable and inviolable in my life.”

Tillich can be a bit dense and abstract.  Let me unpack the above quotation for its “marine theology.” 

  • Coast and ocean give Tillich an imaginative symbol for the human experience of “the infinite bordering on the finite” and of religion as “the thrust of the eternal into finitude.” Ocean is the eternal, the infinite, while we land mammals, are dependent on the land, the finite, but drawn to the depths, to the infinite.  We are boundary, coastal people, longing for the infinite. 
  • The infinite he also calls “the depths” and “the abyss” (which in Greek means ocean depths) and writes in a sermon, “The name of infinite and inexhaustible depth is God.  That depth is what the word God means.”
  • Tillich likes the word “dynamic” – the dynamics of faith, and here, “the dynamic, ecstatic ocean” and “the Absolute (God) as ground and abyss of dynamic truth.”
  • True ideas come from the open air, and open sea.  Tillich loved cities, but he had studied German Romanticism, that we experience God in nature.  In several sermons he condemns our utilitarian view of nature and how we must hear nature itself longing and crying for salvation.

But Tillich not only thought “deep” thoughts at the sea.  He played there.  I’m reading a biography of Tillich in which this grainy snapshot of a Long Island Tillich sand castle appears.  There are also all kinds of stories about his extensive travels, long walks, mountain climbing, and rambles by the sea. 

And there is this beach story about Tillich that Frederick Buechner relates.

“They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks. One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.

“The beauty and power of it? The inexpressible mystery of it? The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again? The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain? Who knows?

“In his theology Tillich avoided using the word God because it seemed to him too small, denoting only another being among beings. He preferred to speak instead of the Ground of Being, of God as that which makes being itself possible, as that because of which existence itself exists. His critics complain that he is being too metaphysical. They say they can't imagine praying to anything so abstract and remote.

“Maybe Tillich himself shared their difficulty. Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to. Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears.”

Why is it so sweet to picture Tillich doing the childlike playful act of making a sand castle?  Why are we surprised to hear of him sitting on a pile of sand and weeping?  Maybe because we believe the stereotype of German sternness or that theologians repress their feelings?  Do we assume that academics stay inside all day?  Can one have such “deep” profound ideas and then spend hours building something that the tide will destroy?  

This ocean person is simply grateful that Tillich followed his countryman Nietzsche’s idea that true ideas must be thought in the open air.  I was unable to finish this essay until I took a walk after the rain.  Thanks, Paul.

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter