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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

Stories of the Sea

What can I say about the sea? I hesitate, as a metaphor it is nearly too obvious, at the edge of our world, an enveloping force, a cool respite but soon a danger. Others have been far more moved by it than I, and, yet, somehow, I am always by its side, and when there, I forget where I am. All waters seem alike, all sea blurs all experience into a line at the brink of the Earth.

It is March, I am riding a huge rented SUV up Route 1 along the Pacific. It is the smallest car they had for me at LAX, as I proceed on my self-set up book tour up the coast. My cell phone rings, in analog roam range. Each second will cost. Should I answer? “Hello, who is it?”

“You know,” his voice crackles, “I couldn’t make your reading last night because I don’t drive at night. I’m too old for it, you see.”

“Who is this?” I pull off the road and face directly toward the wide expanse of blue.

“A friend. A long-time student of The Blue Cliff Record.” That was the book I had translated, in my own poetic way, and was hawking up and down the California coast, never far from the pull of the sea. “What I want to know David, is, what does this work mean to you. Are you living your life through it? Are you learning from it?”

“Well I’m on the road now, what do you want me to do? I could send you a copy of the book.”

“Books, books, I have read more than enough books. We’re talking about your life here, David,” and the signal fades in and out. “That’s what I was telling Snyder in the Zendo in Japan many years ago, and…” then I lose him.

On the other side of the same sea I am staring out at it again and it is winter in July on Stradbroke Island in Australia, and I have never seen so much life in the water as appears right then. Three humpback whales breach in the distance, and closer a large green sea turtle floats blissfully in the waves. Three dolphins surf the wavecrest, and the sand stretches out unimpeded for miles. So much appears at once that it is nearly a travesty of wildness. Perhaps California was like this fifty years ago, perhaps it never was. From the other side of the world I realize I could swim straight ahead and one day reach the same place where I sat on the phone while asked to take control of my life by a man I never would meet who never made it to the show. In Australia I’m up to the same tricks, appearing, speaking, performing, and it could be in any place and the show is nearly though never quite the same. Telling the same stories at the edge of the water, more than halfway across the world. And spring heads into summer and then back into winter as one darts around the globe, how nice for you, perhaps you think, what a life, running all over the place, free to escape wherever someone invites you to stare at the sea and the creatures within it and play your music and tell your stories and there are always at least a few people paying attention to the strange sounds and the oblique turn of phrase.

Next stop, Kaberneeme, Estonia, back to the ramshackle seaside you have already read about in another one of these columns. Every time I am confronted by this sea I am forced to rethink the freedom I nearly take for granted that I can go anywhere at anytime. For in this country, on this beautiful coast, there are no old houses looking over the water. There are some new houses, certainly, as this country is rapidly changing. But what of the old? Nothing but the ruins of border guard towers quickly rusting and crumbling into limestone dust. The sea in this country also meant freedom to those people living here at the very edge of the great Soviet empire, and some lucky few managed to get away. Now freedom is everywhere, but the ruins of oppression remain. What the sea means is not so clear. One more thing: the only time the authorities wouldn’t let you near the beach was on cloudy, foggy days. Absolutely no atmospheric walks in the mist. Too suspicious. And now, just like any sea anywhere. All the waters connect. It’s really one gigantic sea, with all these bays and eddies.

My grandmother-in-law, age 97, serves me some pickled eel from an old Estonian jar. A local fisherman gave it to her out of a swampy creek in the Soomaa park. Always impressed by the great distance eels are fated to swim, I wondered where Eastern European eels go for breeding season, so I pull out an old encyclopedia, in Estonian. Ah ah, right here is a map. These eels, too, swim to the Sargasso Sea, just like the ones snared in the Hudson River back home. You see, it really is one sea.

Down the street in my hometown of Cold Spring, under the slopes of Bull Hill, there’s a new nail shop just opened this year. I talk to the owner, a Vietnamese guy. He tells me he’s an engineer, he went to college in New York City, but he just can’t stand to work for anyone else but himself, so he opened this shop. “Business is okay, we’ll see how it works out.” His eyes glaze over when he tells me how he got to to this place. “There were forty of us, on a tiny boat. We just drifted East, didn’t know where we were going or what would happen. Many people died, I was one of the youngest, I survived. We ended up in the Philippines. There were relatives in America, I eventually got here.”

Let the sea carry you, it’s the most solid route to the unknown. But it usually keeps me silent, for as you see, others have deeper stories there than me.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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Listen to an excerpt from David Rothenberg's Language of the Water
clarinet + the sound of one wave off the Maine coast
In MP3 Format


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