In which I find my old college essays
Vignettes of coastal life, overthinking, 2009
I should be sharking right now. Hauling seven feet of muscle and teeth out of the deep, tagging the unwilling beasts, taking blood samples and fin clips. But the winds are uncooperative today, blowing in hard from the Northeast and making little boats rock too hard to handle big sharks.
Instead, I am perched on Richard’s boat in the inlet, one foot dangling over the side, toes skimming the rolling surface of the water. The mako rocks and sways and glides around the anchor as white-capped waves lap against her hull. Four months spent sanding and painting and wiring – this is his pride and joy. He points out the refinished wood, the brand new engine. The boat is older than we are.
It’s hot in the sun. I can feel my skin starting to burn, and I opt for a swim rather than slathering on greasy sunblock. I’m surprised at how shallow it is; standing waist-deep, I shiver at the first gust of wind. It is two days before the autumnal equinox, and the water is already starting to get cold. I climb back onto the boat and wrap up tightly in my towel. The heat of the sun mingles with the biting chill of faint breeze on damp skin, and I close my eyes and turn my face towards its pressing warmth. The radiant glow illuminates the inside of my eyelids, submerging me in uniform white light. Salt-encrusted hair sticks to my face as I mop up lingering droplets, and Richard points off the bow. “Bait ball.” I peer into the water. “Should’ve brought the poles.”
I’ve only been fishing once, and I cried. Salty eight-year-old tears ran down my face as I watched my friend’s dad pull the hook out of the fish’s mouth. It looked painful, and cruel. Now I spend my days sitting in class, learning about the dangers of overfishing. About the plight of menhaden and bluefin tuna. About everything we’re doing wrong. Richard treats fishing like a soccer game on the beach or watching TV. It’s nothing extraordinary, just something to do to pass the time. Just another distraction.
In a coastal town dependent on tourists and fisheries, where fishing nets are cast by commercial boats in the same waters that hold hundreds of skiffs and sport-fishers with their glistening monofilament lines, I find myself feeling out of place. The sun, the sand, the sea – that I can do. That is familiar. I can enjoy nature. I can sit quietly and ponder its magnitude, its tranquility, even its cruelty. I can hike through national parks, I can climb mountains, I can swim along the coast. I can sit on a boat and feel the sunshine warm my skin and close my eyes and enjoy the pure, primal happiness that comes with being outside. But I do not know how to fish. I do not know where the line between enjoyment and extraction lies. I do not know where mankind fits in.
Someone told me once that the red cockaded woodpecker didn’t matter. That nothing would really happen if the little bird ceased to exist entirely. Words that would send ornithologists and conservationists reeling, diving headlong into passionate arguments – yet I can’t help but think there is truth to them. The world probably isn’t going to change if we run out of North Atlantic right whales. It isn’t going to end because of global climate change and fossil fuels. The drive to conserve at all costs is, at heart, a desire to keep things familiar, to make the world look the way we want to see it. Nature will be fine without cheetahs and bluefin tuna, without us. Life will go on, in one form or another.
I am not advocating for the cessation of conservation efforts, or for uncontrolled consumption. I hate gas-guzzling Hummers as much as the next person. And you probably should be riding a bike to work. I recycle, and carpool, and turn off lights when I leave the room. I worry about the sustainability of seafood and whether the California sea otter is approaching extinction. But when I ask myself why I try, why I care at all, I am struck by my inability to reach a satisfactory conclusion. I recycle because I don’t want my trash ending up in an albatross’ belly. I ponder the plight of the sea otter and the killer whale because I’m interested to see whether we will side with predator or prey when both are charismatic marine mammals that tend to show up in children’s movies. I hope that there will be bluefin tuna still swimming in the ocean in fifty years because they’re big beautiful fish with muscle heating systems and complex population structures. I worry about the species I think are cool for no better reason than that I think they are cool. And I’m not convinced that there is any better reason than that. I can’t find any greater meaning behind reducing, reusing and recycling. At the end of the day, every species we try to save is going to evolve or go extinct. At the end of the day, we will evolve or go extinct. It’s what species do. And sure, the world will be different then. It will always be different from the way we remember it – life isn’t static. Nature doesn’t wait around so we can enjoy the comfort of a world we recognize. It changes, grows. Some things live and some things die and that’s that.
I’m still going to cry when I pull the hook out of the fish’s mouth.