Babar and Celeste, in a hot air balloon, survey the tiny houses, the field patterns and all of the pieces which make up the everyday patchwork of our lives,
“And there was the sea, the great blue sea,” writes Jean de Brunhoff.
How powerfully can a string of simple words convey a deeply held passion.
“I love you.” “The great blue sea.” Together these convey my own passion for the briny:
“I love you, Great Blue Sea.”
The sea is no small natural ally – although it has some very tiny components. In Great Britain our weather is windy and the seas around us are often shallow. Salt spray can travel a considerable distance inland and change the character of the flora there. Our home, built to accommodate those involved with the herring boom of the early 1800s, is often coated in salt spray – and our car, built to accommodate those involved with 21st century travel, suffers the same treatment. We don’t argue with the sea. If the sea makes a deposit, we accept it. One doesn’t argue with the mighty sea. Many try to contain it – to keep it away from their streets and properties – but one cannot legislate for such immense power. In the recent storm surge of mid-December 2012, the streets around the harbour here were flooded and sandbags kept the water out of most homes, but not all.
“The Kraken” by Alfred Lord Tennyson is sensual in its description of a sea-born power – which will remain until the last days. None of us can ever forget the devastating tsunami, the destructive tidal wave which began in Indonesia and killed or ruined so many in Thailand in 2004. I have seen the trailer for the recent film, “The Impossible” with Ewan MacGregor, and the footage of the approaching wave is monstrous in its paralysing menace. Yet the sea has fed our islands and many more for millenia. Our own small town was well established before the arrival of the massive shoals of herring around our shores but it changed character early in the 19th century. Refugees from the clearances worked in the fishing settlements of Sutherland and Caithness – now my home. Neil Gunn’s book, “The Silver Darlings”, weaves a fictional account of the lives of such as these. Fiction it is – but rich and full of truths to touch even the harder heart. The novel begins with loss and paints with words the portrait of a diaspora from the fertile valleys, forced to survive in an unfamiliar landscape with deprivation and tragedy as their lot.
Yet the herring brought riches to some. If you are in the right place at the right time, the sea might become your friend and benefactor. (The wreckers twisted this type of fate to suit them, lighting fires to lure ships onto the rocks so that the cargoes became loot.) Not only were the silver darlings taken south to Edinburgh and Glasgow but, by 1850, much of the exported herring went to the Continent. The sea is voluptuous in its own seductive and opulent sense. Since time began the fruits of the seas and oceans have been used and valued by the inhabitants of our planet. Kelp has been a source of income in our islands for many years, its ash is useful as a source of iodine. In Orkney a local dessert was made with kelp before Orkney ice-cream became popular. The sea spews out seaweed and offers it to the earth as fertiliser for the coastal farmers to plough into their fields. In Scottish folklore the sea is inhabited by horses which are called kelpies – wonder where that name came from! The kelpie, though appearing as a murderous black horse, may also take the form of a handsome young man. Either way, I shall resist its charms – especially if it appears to be briny. After a recent walk along the shore near our home, I found the piles of bladderwrack and kelp, which had been deposited there in the December storm surge, were fairly intimidating and I could well imagine a snorting, rearing water spirit leaping from such a mound. Definitely not a handsome young man.
As a regular coastal walker, I am acquainted with the inhabitants of the shore – the birds, the insects, the worms and their casts, the fish and the shellfish which become stranded – poor things. I have had many a conversation with the seals and have even seen otters playing at the bottom of an Orkney cliff. Sea and bay watching are so important to me but being on the sea in a boat – well that is magic too. The only time I feel seasick is when I am cooped up inside the boat. On deck, I feel as though the sea breeze and I are taking the same breath, or else harmonising a wheezy sea shanty. The air I breathe then lifts me out of this less-than-perfect body to the heavenly place of which Hiawatha whispered to Longfellow. From the boat, I have seen dolphins daring to keep up and I have marvelled at the antics of the hefty great skua in its attempts to make another bird disgorge its dinner. Once I saw a single great skua attack two gannets at the same time for a fast-food supper. The goose sized gannet is a joy to watch from the boat as it plunges into the water with its wings folded back. “Gannet” may be used as a euphemism for a glutton, but I have never seen such streamlining.
Thomas Lovell Beddoes, writing in the first half of the nineteenth century, captures the same maritime experiences of two hundred years on:
“To sea! To sea! the calm is o’er;
The wanton water leaps in sport,
And rattles down the pebbly shore;
The dolphin wheels, the sea-cows snort,
And unseen, Mermaids’ pearly song
Comes bubbling up the weeds among.”
The reference to the mermaids’ song reminds me of an experience when we were travelling across the Pentland Firth one Friday morning en famille – some twenty or so years ago. My young and musical daughters were apt to burst into song at the drop of a hat and, on this occasion, they struck up with “The Mermaid”:
“On Friday morn as we set sail
And our ship not far from the land…
…and the raging seas did roar
And the stormy winds did blow…”
The looks on the faces of our fellow passengers varied from fond amusement to disgust. Some would no doubt have carried age old superstitions with them. I did feel sorry for those.
There is a marked difference between a sea breeze and a storm. Within a storm, the storm surge which may result is caused by a low pressure system with disastrous potential if the wind is directed to a narrow sea passage. In 1953 a massive storm surge was driven down the North Sea, flooding parts of England and of Holland. There was a total loss of life of 1800 in Holland and 307 in England.
Much more pleasant is the development of the sea breeze. Sunny days warm the land more quickly than the sea and warm air rises over the land and puts out to sea. It comes down over the water, flowing back to the shore as a cool sea breeze. Lovely.
With camera in hand, I have tried to capture the majesty of the sea but it is impossible. How can one combine the sight of a seventh wave with the sound as it hits the shore and the smell of the churning water with its salt taste on the lips? As a child I would take in great sniffs of sea air as my family arrived at the seaside in Yorkshire. I would try to spot the sea before my grandparents:
“I see it! I saw it first!”
and then we would all sing together,
“Oh I do like to be beside the seaside
Oh I do like to be beside the sea… ”
As an adult I thrilled at the joy my own children demonstrated as we walked along the shores by our northern homes. Now they are grown, we still share the thrill and the joy, learning more about this enormous force, the sea. I now know that, way back, one line of my ancestors were coastguards.
“I came back,
Not for your bobbing boats in glinting harbour…
Slipping in from the warrior sea,
Missing the tine of spume rising free
And skewering cliffs in battle rage.
I came back,
Not for your bizarre uncanny sea stacks.
Nor did I return
For your dunes and sandy bays
From where a ghastly fiery ship
Is seen clear within the wide wave’s dip
When shades and shocking spirits are up.”
(Janet Mackintosh Cayley)
I wasn’t surprised to find coastguards in the family because I love you, Great Blue Sea.