October is here and I finally feel like I have hit my fall stride. The transition from summer to fall is never an easy one for me, as summer’s expansive energy quickly contracts into fall’s regimented schedule and I feel my way clumsily through the ups and downs of the school week. Each new semester brings a new schedule, new faces to learn, new rhythms to dance through the weeks with.
One of the new things this fall has brought is a special class, a seminar on the novel Moby Dick–really is there a better piece of American culture to tackle at a maritime college than the story of the white whale? We are five weeks into the class and every class meeting has brought surprise and humility. These students are thinking deeply, reading fully and indulging in the pleasure of exploring a book in the supportive environment of a collective endeavor.
Of the many themes in Moby Dick, one is simply Melville’s goal of bringing a heightened awareness of life at sea aboard a sailing whale vessel, and to shine a light of dignity upon the men who ushered in the modern age. To this end we took our students on an overnight on the Schooner Bowdoin, a wooden sailing vessel that is used as a sail training vessel at Maine Maritime Academy. A night spent at anchor on a gaff rigged schooner is admittedly vastly different from a three to four year round the world voyage on a New England whaling vessel, but for those students who had never even slept aboard a boat, the cramped quarters even when not at full capacity, were eye opening.
Melville is quite romantic, and the dreamy first chapter of Moby Dick (“Loomings”) puts us squarely in the mind of a young man anxious for adventure. Ishmael the narrators tells us “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;…I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” Something about that passage rings so true for me, and I see it every day in my students, they are truly cut from sail cloth, smeared with engine grease and happiest with an open horizon in front of them. Nothing brings this moment home as well as the moment heading out into Penobscot Bay aboard Bowdoin when the sails are raised and we reach the outer harbor and the captain cuts the engine. A relief that starts in the unconscious slowly rises to the conscious mind. Suddenly everything seems possible. Untethered from land, quickly out of range of the electronic gagets that convenience and plague us, the world gets small even as it gets big. Your universe becomes the demarcated by the edges of your ship, populated only by your shipmates. There is really no where else to be but Here, Now.
I thought about the pull of the sea, and the fact that though we idealize her as a place where we can go to clear our minds, she is in reality a wilderness (which is perhaps why she is so good at mind clearing). But like in any wilderness (root: wild, meaning “in the natural state, uncultivated, untamed, undomesticated, uncontrolled,”) we would be foolish to discount her power, or to ever think we have the upper hand. This Saturday morning it became clear (though the news had been filtering in Friday afternoon) that there was a ship that had found itself in the path of a major hurricane, a ship in trouble, a ship out of communication, a ship possibly lost at sea. A ship carrying Mainers, and MMA graduates. A ship carrying a former student, a sweet blond basketball player who took my Ocean Science lab.
Going to work in the wilderness can be dangerous, as the crew of the container ship El Faro learned Thursday morning when they sent their distress signal, the last communication from them. Those of us back here on land know it to, in an intellectual sense. The ocean is dangerous, unpredictable, and when teamed up with the atmosphere it can be downright deadly. But knowing that in your brain is different than feeling it in your heart–and feeling it in your heart is what happens when you look at photos online of your student with his arm around his girlfriend (another delightful student you’ve taught) and realize you are seeing in pictures the joy of the beginning of the rest of some one’s life. Someone who at best is currently adrift on a nearly 800 foot long ship somewhere in the region of a category 5 hurricane. If they are found alive, these will have been the worst three days of their lives. The feeling in my heart is of it breaking.
Aboard the Bowdoin, we scarcely skirted the tamest fringe of the wilderness, but even there the ebbing tide and strong onshore wind brought heavy seas to our little harbor. We anchored behind an island and spent the first half of the night on deck watching the lunar eclipse and calling out shooting stars. We found the stars of summer celestial navigation, Vega, Deneb, and Altair, and watched as the winter constellations emerged over the horizon. On the predawn watch with the full moon at our back we recognized the planetary line up of Venus, Mars and Jupiter in the eastern sky. Sitting at anchor under a clear night sky, watching the heavens turn overhead, its like I said. There was no where else to be, and nothing else to be doing. And that kind of presence, that awareness is another name for prayer.
I’m not especially religious but today’s social media feed has been saturated with calls for prayer, prayers for the crew, the families and the heroic US Coast Guard. And in my own way, I’ve been praying, carrying them around in my heart all day, it’s actually been impossible not to. Especially the smiling blond headed blue eyed young man with the wide open horizon in front of him.
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in Peril on the Sea. -The Navy Hymn
For more information: http://elfaroincident.com/