In making war with nature, there was risk of loss in winning.
—John McPhee, The Control of Nature
I’m young and I take to water valiantly. I feel brave, the first of my friends to jump into the deep end, attempting to open my eyes, without goggles, to see what the world is like down there. I ask for swim lessons when everyone else is playing t-ball and soccer. In the pool, I practice holding my breath as long as I can, scaring my onlooking mother or the teenage lifeguard. I don’t yet have a healthy fear of drowning, of what the water can do when you’re not careful. On land, I’m awkward, but in the water, I can soar like the birds in our backyard. I can take flight like they can, far away from any earthly troubles. I’m drawn to water, inland lakes and rivers and neighborhood pools. Any chance I get, I’m submerged.
We are a people obsessed with chronicling water.
Cave of the Swimmers in the Libyan Desert in southwestern Egypt: its Neolithic pictographs are beautiful in their simplicity. There is no water actually drawn, just full-bellied figures painted in a deep-umber with their arms and legs arced out, heads bobbing up. A 10,000 year-old dog paddle.
Painting of swimmers in the Cave of the Swimmers, Wadi Sura, Western Desert, Egypt. Photo by Roland Unger.
Scores of naval sea battle paintings on towering canvases in museums all over the world pit the often-pitch black sea—with its cresting waves and withering smoke—against beams of fire and helpless sailors in a watery hellscape unfit for anything other than war.
The sea novel genre emerged in fiction in great earnest in the 19th Century inspired, in part, by Lord Byron, who called the sea “the proper habit for aspiring authors.” Then came a boom in sea-faring books that no longer kept sea-life at a distance but embraced this adventure as the only real way to be a man.
Plenty of fine art attempts to make sense of water, too: Hokusai’s famous 19th-Century work The Great Wave off Kanagawa has been reproduced into oblivion, found now on t-shirts and school binders and patches to be sewn onto backpacks. Abstract painter Agnes Martin’s 1963 work Night Sea is a behemoth, six-foot by six-foot oil on canvas consisting of her signature grid of rectangles. It’s a poetic geometry set against a chaotic wash of rich, Aegean blue. Truly, this is the only way to describe the indescribable. This is how it had to be.
I’m thinking about the sea because I’m thinking about how we try to control nature. Sidewalks slicing through perfectly manicured lawns. A forest razed and shaped to fit commercial interest, sold and constructed into profitable parcels of land. However, the sea is the most egregious example of how we attempt to assert our dominance.
It’s 2019 and I’m in eastern Taiwan on a trip that has me circumnavigating the island nation. Here, emerald mountains rise aggressively out of the ocean. There is no boundary: the earth tumbles straight down into the water. Fog permeates everything, casting it all ghostly. The road we’re driving on moves furiously close to the cliff’s edge: there’s us and a railing and then nothing but drop.
At times, when the angle’s right, you can look straight down and see piles of dolosse—massive concrete blocks, often constructed in unique geometric shapes and used as a form of coastal management to protect the land against erosion caused by waves.
I’ve seen breakwater works all over the world, often crude blocks of rock or cement dropped in shallow waters as a deterrent, or used to help create jetties. Here, I’m stunned not just at the quantity of dolosse, but how they seem to halo the island, as ubiquitous as sand and rock and trees and rain. I lean up from the back seat of the tour van and ask the driver if he knows about them, how old they are, if he has any information about them.
He doesn’t know what I’m talking about at first, so I point to a dolos, then the scores of others we pass. East of us, a storm is darkening the sky. The waves are violent and crashing. He says, laughing, “They protect us from god.”
And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.
An ex-girlfriend had a predilection for stealing vitamins and supplements and baby aspirin from grocery stores. I was only with her once when she did it, and I was confused, more than anything. She’d walk down the aisle ahead of me, carefully emptying bottles into that voluminous black faux-leather purse she carried with her everywhere.
I didn’t have words then, but days later, at the shoddy, aquamarine pool at my apartment complex, treading water together in the deep end, I asked her how long she’d done that for, and why she was showing me now. She had the money. And she was stealing supplements like fish oil she refused to take and would, I found out later, just throw in the trash.
“Long as I can remember,” she said. “And because I wanted to show you, finally, who I really am.” She dog-paddled in small circles for a while, then dunked her head in the water for what felt like minutes. When she emerged she wiped her eyes clear and pulled her hair back and seemed genuinely surprised that I, and this realm, was still here with her. That the water hadn’t washed us all away.
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
—Derek Walcott, "The Sea of History"
In his book The Control of Nature, John McPhee writes, “the greatest arrogance was the stealing of the sun. The second-greatest arrogance is running rivers backwards.”
It’s true: humans have a desire not just to tame nature, but to be its master, to live where and how we want and to not apologize for it. The second half of this equation, then, is villainizing nature when it doesn’t conform. Even just using the word “kill”—“tornado kills”; “hurricane kills”; “forest fire kills”—we are imbuing sentience to a force that, like matter in the universe, merely just exists. There is no malice in a storm. A storm storms, it flares up and resets and we pick up the pieces.
It’s easy, I suppose, for humans to assume there is something out there always ready to menace us. Maybe it gives us purpose, a sense of togetherness. Homesteaders telling stories of haunted woods and why staying on the right path is key; sailors spinning tales of deep-sea creatures ready to wreak havoc lest they do their jobs efficiently. There is something inherent in making it us vs. themwhen we talk about the world and nature. It limits our stakes, perhaps. Gives us just enough distance so we don’t feel remorse for actively destroying the planet, accelerating global warming, making it a place that will, ironically, as a result of our best effort to effect the contrary, be inhospitable for us.
Take the invention of dolosse. In Greek mythology, Dolos was a trickster god, a god of cunning and deception and craftiness. I suppose, then, it’s a fitting name: dolosse, created by South African engineer Eric Merrifield in 1963 as a cheap means of coastal management that did not require exact placement. As he put it, they could be “sprinkled like children’s jacks.” These are structures meant to trick us into thinking we have any control at all over the muscularity of the sea.
Dolosse on the coast of Sylt Island in Northern Germany.
A pristine coast sprinkled with dolosse. Manufactured jetties that jut out into the water, creating walking paths for strangers. We are, quite literally, walking on water.
I’m a fan of brutalist architecture. I love the simplicity of it, taking humble material like concrete and crafting imposing, geometric structures that seem at odds with the surrounding natural environment. The movement declined in the 1970s because people began considering it unwelcoming, these mythically-imposing buildings constructed as if temples to some old gods. People wanted warmth, wanted buildings to better intertwine with nature. Again, it’s a willful forgetting: even if a building is sustainable and attractively designed, the land beneath it must be razed and ruined first.
Grand Island is a 49-square-mile island off the shore of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Now, it is owned and operated as part of the Hiawatha National Forest system.
In 1900, the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron (CCI) Company purchased the island. William Mather, then-president of CCI, had a wild dream of establishing a resort on the island, where the rich could, year-round, be restful and hunt exclusive and wild game. Mather built a hotel and introduced non-native species to the island like elk and moose and pheasants and trout and salmon. He imported new vegetation to keep these animals alive. But then the predators set in: coyotes and wolves would make their way to the island when the water of Lake Superior froze over in winter, decimating the populations. Elk left the island in droves to find new solace in the forests of the Upper Peninsula.
Then there was the human factor: Mather overestimated how many people would want to travel north across uneven land for days or weeks in freezing weather, or be assaulted by black flies and mosquitoes in the summer when they could, instead, vacation somewhere south. In 1989, CCI took out a full-page ad in newspapers all over the country, announcing they were selling the island. The US Forest Service bought it. The island, the land on it, just could not be tamed.
In a diary entry from 1894, Laura Ingalls Wilder wondered, “What is it about water that affects a person?”
My estranged brother and I, when we were kids, would swim across the same freshwater lake each summer. I was terrified of the lake-weed touching my body when we pencil-jumped in, what it might be hiding. We told tales of snapping turtles lurking there, ready to snap off our toes. We’d always help each other swim out to a floating dock anchored in the near-center of the lake. We’d lie on it for hours, jumping back in periodically and hopping back out again to dry off in the bright sun.
It was calm, and I suppose there was a sort of understanding that maybe, out there on that six-feet-by-six-feet dock, we were in control of things for a while. What’s the point of water if you can’t dip your toes in, hoping you’ll be changed? It’s a portal. Or maybe water is a hope we collectively share nowhere else together. We look out over it and dream there’s someone on the other side of it, something undiscovered beneath it.
But any sense of control is a figment. Together on that dock, he and I, we succumbed to the elements together, stray wind, splashing waves from cascading motorboat wakes. One year, after a particularly bad storm, the anchor rope snapped off and the dock blew across the lake and up into trees on the far side, nearly smashed to ruin. We were just living on borrowed time.
Underwater photo of the Bay of Weymouth, United Kingdom, 1856, by William Thompson. The first underwater photo taken.
In The Sea Inside, Philip Hoare writes, “The sea defines us, connects us, separates us. Most of us experience only its edges, our available wilderness on a crowded island—it’s why we call our coastal towns ‘resorts’, despite the air of decay.”
I often think about this, our fascination with water, the powerful charm it has over us. In 1856, William Thompson took the first underwater photo in the UK’s Bay of Weymouth. His camera was mounted inside a wood and steel box, and lowered down eighteen feet. The exposure took ten minutes, and the camera box eventually flooded even though he did what he could to reinforce the housing. It was an itch, an obsession: he just had to know what lurked in that mysterious other-world right beneath their feet.
Freediving is an incredibly dangerous sport: divers train themselves to hold their breath and sustain physiological composure as they plummet the dark ocean on a single breath, their bodies reaching depths with pressures that would instantly shatter a glass bottle. The human lungs shrink to half their size at 10 meters. The current freediving record is 300 meters. Of the estimated 5,000 freedivers in the world, around 100 die each year. But those that participate in the sport say there is a freedom under the water, due in part to the weightlessness, that feels like being in outer space. It’s quiet, in the black dark of the ocean depths, in a way they can’t find anywhere else in life.
I’m in Costa Rica. I’m studying abroad in college, and we’re on a beach along the Pacific Ocean after a water-side lesson on biodiversity. There’s a girl I like in our group, but I’m young and immature so instead of talking to her, I want to show off. We all run into the water and splash in the waves. Some of us wade farther out. I brag about swimming and playing water polo in high school, how I’m from Michigan and used to big bodies of water. I decide to freestyle as far as I can without looking back. When I finally stop, I realize how far out I am, and how alone. The people on the beach are waving frantically, nervous. It’s only then I remember this isn’t a lake, but the treacherous ocean teeming with depths and hazards I’m not prepared for.
Research shows we’re drawn to what scares us. Me, alone—my voice suffocated by the waves.
My pulse quickens, and I make for the shore as fast as I can, accidentally gulping sea water, bruised by the waves breaking along the beach as I claw my way onto the shore. I lay in the sand hacking and wheezing. Most everyone has dispersed, including the girl. I think of my brother and when we were young. Water, to me—still-black inland lakes or the cold grey sea or a winding creek splitting a restless neighborhood in two—is a liminality between consciousness and unconsciousness. It connects me to all other bodies of water I have ever been in. The sand and rock and shells are what it spits back out—debris. Here, I am debris too.
The global sea level has risen over nine inches since 1880 as a result of melting glaciers and ice sheets. A third of that increase has happened since the 1990s. It is projected that by 2050, 300 million people on land will be unable to live where they currently do. Chronic flooding will be a problem, too, affecting up to 360 million people worldwide. By the end of the century, 640 million people, or 10% of the world’s population, are estimated to be affected, disappearing island nations from existence, causing economic devastation and an untold number of deaths.
What hubris—to think we control anything at all. In attempting to tame the world, we forget how to live within it.
Across the street, students are moving into a mammoth apartment complex designed specifically for them. They’re loud, the cars, the cheers, the excitement. Sounding like breakwater. A harbor of briny noise.
And now: I’m thinking of scores of dolosse I saw in Taiwan. Every beach on the east coast blanketed in them. And to what end? The tide always comes in. It always pulls the earth back out.