When water is under our control, it is our most versatile and vital resource. It has remarkable properties of hydration and utility like cooking pasta and cleaning respiratory droplets from our hands. We harness its energy using turbines and exploit its abundance for traveling great distances. To the best of our knowledge, it is a foundation for all life, our most exciting prospect for organic existence beyond our atmosphere.
In general, the water on earth, and indeed in our solar system, is not within our control. It roils, spews, freezes, sizzles, unaffected by our paltry human endeavors. While some ancient peoples mastered navigating the depths, others feared open water’s treacherous possibilities. The psalmist writes,
This great and wide sea,
In which are innumerable teeming things,
Living things both small and great.
There the ships sail about;
There is that Leviathan (Psalm 25–26a, NKJV)
I tend to agree. I want to observe the water, even wade in under the scorching sun, but not be immersed in it, not discover its secrets.
While a lifetime in Ontario and Michigan has meant I was never far from a Great Lake’s vast, watery expanse, I now live, for the first time, by the sea. The North Sea is frigid and bustling with fisheries, wellbores, wind turbines, and ferries. In a half hour, I can walk from my bedroom to the beach, where I am occasionally brave enough to dip my toes while I observe the fortitude of children who run full-throttle into the icy waves.
The human element of this sea might appeal to me if I bothered to remember it. The fish of these waters fed my father’s grandfathers and their fathers’ grandfathers. Sometimes they brought their catch to the harbor here at the end of Beach Boulevard, now home to more supply ships and bulk carriers than northern fishermen. Generations survived by this resource that I now visit a few times a week for a pleasant view and a whipping fresh breeze.
Last week, instead of peering into the horizon, I studied the pebbles underfoot as I walked along the beach. They were fresh, shining from the receding tide. Some, perhaps, were not there twelve hours before; perhaps, if I flattered myself, I was seeing them for the first time. I pocketed bits of smoothed glass and stones that captured my attention. Near the last stair back up to the boulevard, I found the edge of a white ceramic plate. It was worn but still evidently human in a way the other beach glass was not.
I couldn’t remove myself and return to the city yet. I perched on the pillar of a nearby groyne, my legs straddling the barrier. A few metres out where the water still flowed, a bird stood on a similar pillar, preening its tail. It paused every few moments as a wave swept over the groyne, but its feet did not budge; it simply waited for the water to clear.
The receding waves brought to mind, of course, the moon—that dear celestial body that each day peels back the covers of our beaches to expose stretches of sand and rocky outcroppings, then rushes back up with treasures of the deep to deposit freshly on our doorstep. The ocean and the moon conspire as if to say, look what we brought you, look at all we hold, look at this wonder from the world you think you know. And I dutifully accept their gifts, lifting ancient stones to bring to my home where the water remains under my control, utterly divorced from wonder.
The bird hopped from the groyne into the water and swam off as if it were happily traversing a pond rather than a raucous sea. I thumbed the piece of ceramic, contemplating how each grain of sand around me was once large, too—not human craft, most likely, but creations nonetheless: rocks, tektites, pieces of a geography we cannot understand. I tossed the ceramic back into the water. It needs more time to become part of the sea.
As I got up to leave, I realized that a woman who had been walking several metres behind me along the beach was observing the same view from a lower step of the stairs.
“It’s lovely here today,” she said as I passed.
This magnificent world beckons and cradles us. It is lovely, and someone else knows it, too.