Once upon a time, I sailed the Inside Passage alone, but I made friends in a Chaucerian afternoon spent trading anecdotes with three fellow seafarers. There was one from Brazil, two Americans who’d named their daughter after a number, and me, raw and fresh as a scallop in mourning with a newly minted bachelor’s degree in English literature. Looking out over the ocean, steeped in the bliss and thrill of the moment, I thought suddenly of all the events and circumstances under the water: one jellyfish fights another, everything that could ever be narrated, all posed in sublime contrast to the paltriness and brevity of human storytelling and indeed the human story itself. The ferry I was on took two lives when it sank a few months later, so now I see the media snapshot of the drowned couple’s faces whenever I think of that afternoon, the day itself, the boat, the stories, all gone.
Later on the same trip, alone again and on a Vancouver beach at sunset, I floated away on a glowing red air mattress I’d found abandoned on the sand. Adrift — I could go anywhere, my feet could fail to touch bottomless depths, I could sail over dolphins, shipwrecks, and mountain ranges. My sleep would be that of Melville’s Nantucketer: “Under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.” Breathless prospects opened with the sudden gift of sailing away. In this weird caesura — both filled with potential and caught between states, a suspension between beginnings and endings, the start of an ocean journey and the end of a day — everything was at once possible and paused. And then I became aware of a boy running along the beach, calling to me without knowing my name. The mattress was his, the story was done. I gave it back, but the feeling stayed.
Being interested in stories means we are always struggling to understand where things begin and end, and with that the sea poses a special problem. Because despite the flat line of its horizon, there are shores, some harder to define than others. Marshlands beneath cities are reclaiming their own, and structures built on sand are washing away. No building is finished until it falls, but what about the ocean itself? Lifted by melted continents of fresh water, its currents are reorganizing themselves, as its absorption of carbon raises its acidity, crumbles the shells of its creatures, and empties it of life, slowly and then quickly. When will the crest of its wave fall? We see the ocean as our closest earthbound picture of the eternal, yet we’re realizing that it too ends.
In the beginning, a spirit moved over the waters. If we take this opening seriously, if only because it’s one of the starting places of literature itself, where do we locate the end? In a sun setting over a horizon, in a coral reef blanched of life? For me, the prospect of oblivion has often looked like a pile of books in ashes or an emptied library, maybe because when I, quite small, first asked my mother who Nazis were, she told me they were people who burned books. This was an age-appropriate answer. I was horrified. Now as I try to imagine an ocean so desecrated it can’t go on, I think about books and their endings, each vanished species a work out of print.
Years ago, when I first drafted something called “The Thomas Booker Rare Fish Library,” a virtual reality story about all of this that now lives at Rarefish.ca, I meant it as a bit of a joke, a twist on the University of Toronto’s marvellous Fisher Library that would equate endangered species with disappearing books. But after this burning virtual year, with the inferno set to become a defining image of our time, much like Alexandria’s long ago, books and their ways of ending come to mind once more, and the same portholes on doom keep opening. Wherever we’re headed, whatever outcome of environmental collapse we face, we’re taking the ocean to get there.
Sea voyages have historically unfurled views of endless potential for those at the helm. “Anything can happen where they are going,” writes Sylvia Plath in “On Deck,” a dreamy poem about people on a midnight ship. “Moony balloons tied by a string / To their owners’ wrists, the light dreams float / To be let loose at news of land.” The ocean is a scene of infinite plenty, every option and alternative, boundlessness itself, until its storyline is reduced to an ending after all: lost at sea, or some worse fate, like a sea, lost. Ships have carried colonization, kidnapping, genocide, enslavement, extinction, pillage, and disease to countless shores. Noah’s great boat of beginnings is one of endings, too: just think of the genetic bottleneck he caused by bringing only one breeding couple from each species. The horizon of every sea once spelled an abundance of fish and now forebodes its opposite. If we are facing a horizon of our own, the omen is in the very water floating us there. We’re in this sinking ship together. Will we find a way to sail it, and, if so, to where? Nothing would be more human than to pick up and leave, to find another shore, but we’re down to our last one, earth itself. We can’t jump off and land anywhere but here, on a beach that’s gotten too hot, burning our toes. We’re all back on the ark, but this time the boat is the planet itself, and it’s on fire. Anything could happen where we are going.
The ocean has always told us stories about sailing to both possibility and doom, but this new variation on the tale is an unwanted guest at the yacht party. In a tidal shift in our relationship to the sea — as a landscape that borders and so gives shape to our humanity — what does literature tell us? One starting place is on Plato’s ship of fools, and indeed I think we’ve already embarked upon that “drunken and indulgent voyage.” Now we’re waiting for some stargazer to find structure to stay the course, punch our ticket, helm our foolishness.
Heeding what it means to be at sea may help us better face our destination. Whether on a passage to a new shore or headed to plain old doom, it’s an ancient habit to look in books for answers, to go swimming and see what we find. With beach vacations still tricky to plan for who knows how long, we can nevertheless enjoy beach reads, play in the waves of pages, and watch what washes up on shore.
In his recent Clarendon Lectures, published as Messing About in Boats, Michael Hofmann explores the idea of poems as ships. He quotes Guy Davenport’s claim that “the ship in history has always been a sign of fate itself.” But, he adds, it is “just as fateful, to set foot in poems, the uncertain element.”
So where are we headed, over which waves? Hofmann sees “something gallant” and “heroic” in the oranges aboard Rilke’s Emigrant-Ship because “they are going to their doom.” Not heroes so much as a chorus, Rilke’s emigrants depart “clutching or embodying” their fruit. I wonder what our ship of fools will carry when we go, what will remain to speak of us when our boat goes down. Just plastic, most likely, but maybe, when we gather up that ark and set sail, we will bring some books, to hold above our heads as the boat sinks and to stash on that little library shelf in Davy Jones’s Locker when we arrive. If a promised land offers the “last best hope of mankind,” Hofmann asks, “why shouldn’t one have to die to reach it?” Imagining a land we could reach by sailing over our broken ocean — a space beyond the impact of fossil fuels — feels like diving into that tragic paradox. Yet its grim power is vacated in the face of this century’s real choruses of drowned migrants who shouldn’t have had to die for anything.
In his reading of a Karen Solie masterpiece, “The World,” Hofmann discusses his correspondence with the poet about her inspiration: a Florida-based cruise ship condominium called the MS The World, which docked in St. John’s for a time. “Always implicit within this luxury padding,” Hofmann writes of this residential complex set sail, “is the fear of silence, the fear of running out — of experiences, of advantages, of unique selling-points.” In an email, Solie explains her goal of expressing a world that has “the feeling of an endpoint to it, a culmination.” Though Hofmann describes the malaise of Solie’s speaker as homesickness or dissatisfaction, seasickness seems like a better label. Living with instability makes us prone to nausea. The world is increasingly adrift. The waves can’t be charted. The only steady prediction is disaster.
Like a book with thick sides for its hull, a poem is a vessel for Hofmann, ready for sailing and enduring, for meeting new people, not out to evade doom or destiny but to find it along the way to some inevitable spot beneath bigger and bigger waves. “Literature to me has always been more to do with intensity than extensiveness,” he writes of short, boat-like poems. But we can also look at literature for its ocean-like extent, its churn and excess, flotsam and jetsam, the scraps of newspaper drifting alongside Spadina Avenue’s curb as much as the Vatican’s Gutenberg Bible on vellum, all of it fodder for an Alexandrian bonfire as much as for sacred preservation. “And that’s literature,” says Hofmann, as he quotes Rimbaud’s description of a shipwreck: “carrion in rivers with much carrion.”
Hofmann draws the title of his lectures from The Wind in the Willows, where the idea of “messing about in boats” suggests a suspension of duty and care. He does not reference the counterpart to this sense of hiatus in the children’s book: the restless seabound desire induced in Rat by another animal’s stories of migration. “Seawards first and then on shipboard,” Rat mutters, hypnotized and ready to abandon his life, “and so to the shores that are calling me!” For an animal not born to migrate, the shores that call him are oblivion itself. An early picture of a vanishing species, Tolkien’s elves also depart the mortal world by “sailing to the west,” where their everlasting existence looks, to those left behind, like oblivion. As Hofmann makes clear, death can also drive the wish to set sail, to catch a tide like a funnel down a drain.
Many nights of the pandemic, another disaster measured out in waves, I have fallen asleep rereading Susan Casey’s The Wave, maybe because there is some comfort in watching others hunt for structure in the random crests and breaks of something moving a hundred miles an hour. Casey’s piercing account of water’s most essential shape is told through the eyes of surfers, insurers, geophysicists, and historians. Among its many revelations are the facts that North America has experienced ninety-storey tsunamis within the last hundred years, and that rogue waves, exponentially larger than their surrounding peaks, are both statistically frequent and getting more common.
We are all going to become better acquainted with waves, so naturally this past summer saw the first Olympics to include surfing. A commentator pointed out that it’s the only sport that happens in a completely random environment. Effective wave riders recognize that their true medium is luck, and they strategize accordingly. We need to expect to be shocked by waves, random ones, if we’re to surf what’s coming.
Maybe I can’t stop reading Casey’s book because it is so strange to hear the ocean’s own stories, like reports from another planet. The bright eyes of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner are so lit because he’s seen what no human should have seen: stories of the ocean itself. Part of his punishment for killing the albatross is floating exile. The wailing repetitions of the mariner will echo our own: “Alone, alone, all, all alone, / Alone on a wide wide sea!” We will be even more lonely than him before our story is done. We’ve shot the albatross, boiled the coral reefs, and trawled heaven for novel life forms while killing them off down here — what path to redemption will there be for us? “The man hath penance done,” Coleridge writes, and we, too, “penance more will do,” when we are surrounded by the bodies of our fellow seafarers — burned, drowned, parched, starved. The endings of people and creatures mirror the endings of books. When a messenger from the animal world comes to free us from our mire — not ice, this time, but fire — we will shoot it when it does. We already have.
That whale who for seventeen days in 2018 pushed her dead baby a thousand miles around the Salish Sea is the only picture of mourning for a lost ocean I need, an image to scrawl on the caves we’ll leave behind for the next civilization-sized ship of fools to find.
When we seek to become better acquainted with the sea, to find a way of dwelling with it like a reader with a book, some places come to mind. Venice, for example. Florida. And I note that they often seem to bear great familiarity with collapse.
For Ruskin, writing on ornament in The Stones of Venice, water itself both defies and compels representation. He traces its symbols back to an “Egyptian zigzag, preserved in the astronomical sign of Aquarius,” and it seems present to me also in the letter W for waves and water, and, of course, in V for Venice. In Watermark, Joseph Brodsky aims to describe both the Italian city and certain principles of writing by explaining what it means to look at water. He references Montesquieu’s apt description of Venice as “un endroit où il ne devrait y avoir que des poissons” and brings many fresh insights of his own to the old genre of trying to describe its strangeness. “For, now and then,” he writes, in my favourite of these moments, “you feel as though you are looking into a fish through its scales, and inside of it there’s a party.”
If books impose structure on chaos, Venice turns the effort into streets traipsing through oblivion, like, Brodsky suggests, “passages between the bookshelves of some immense, forgotten library.” On New Year’s Eve, he always wants to see a wave “hitting the shore at midnight,” a view of “time coming out of water.” He concludes that Venice “beautifies the future,” which is “the role of this city in the universe.” But the opposite may also be true, because Venice has long been a city of doom, felt maybe most famously in Death in Venice and The Wings of the Dove (both epidemic novels of sorts). Rather than beautifying the future, this actually seems like a place where the sun sets, one that reveals beauty from the past. In so many stories, it’s a place to go to die, and now, as it sinks, it’s showing us both what the future has lost and what it has in store for us all. The City of Water has become an hourglass for climate change, with waves rising like sands falling, marking a finality to our ruin.
Wait — I’m not speaking too much of doom, am I? I don’t want to repeat the errors of the Y2Kers and the thirteenth-century doomsayers and all the other press agents of hellfire. Maybe it is the most human of traits to be always aware of doom on the horizon, unsure of whether we are sailing to it or away. And we’re not there yet, are we? I don’t want to overstate my case, after all, or give in to some millennial brand of default despair and just pen one more thing to doom‑scroll. That orca did give birth again in 2020, and the baby lived. Yet a town burned in Canada this summer after four days of above-average heat. The records were set and set again, nudged up, up, up, and over what had come before, and the town burned. I believe we are closer to the edge than we feel, and the question is now — when perhaps this is still a Choose Your Own Adventure, when the outcome might flip between page 181 and page 375, by shocking the imagination, by forcing it to find new ways to tell this story — whether we might be moved to change its ending.
Trying to outline the scale of adversity we confront makes older storytelling tropes seem to fall into disrepair. Man against nature is not quite right (let’s use the gendered language to mark the antiquity of these modes), but neither is it man against man, because the numbers of both the guilty and the victims are higher, and because the harm in play is not fully intentional. What we are looking for is a narrative form to describe dramatic agons where criminal negligence causing death transpires on a mass scale — where the carelessness of millions, but especially a wealthy and powerful few thousand, obliterates the future of billions. As Brodsky writes elsewhere, in real tragedy, it’s not the hero who dies but the chorus.
Many have spoken of the eerie similarities between John D. MacDonald’s Condominium, from 1977, and the tower collapse in Surfside, Florida, in June this year. One Amazon reviewer complains with cause that the novel could excite only someone who wants “a book that goes in to the smallest detail of building construction, ownership, financing, rent, maintenance, and fees.” I rather like this level of detail, and I also like the similarly encyclopedic parts of Moby‑Dick. Maybe when your theme is the ocean, going into mind-numbing detail is a way to meet its extensiveness.
Condominium explores a community of retirees who live in a building built on a Florida key — leading up to (spoiler) its collapse in a disastrous hurricane. An airport potboiler by an author who specialized in them, the book is also a sort of unexpected ecological epic. It was published when the term “global warming” was just beginning to circulate: the human culpability driving the catastrophe washes through the plot.
A vast roster of characters both innocent and guilty, Dickensian in number, swarm the pages, as though MacDonald were striving to represent the crowds both at fault for and at risk from environmental degradation. An anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, who one character warns would do better worrying about “hurricanes and tidal waves,” ends by searching his index of notes under “Climate comma Control Thereof.” After being presented with a report that presages the loss of his home, another incredulous resident demands to know whether the government “would let that construction go on, let all those hundreds of millions of dollars be spent, if they thought there was any chance of all that being washed away?” No one believes anyone in charge would let this all happen if it could really get so bad. But they would and it could.
Throughout Condominium, characters strive to find order, and only those who are able to correctly identify its permanent absence survive the catalogue of destruction and death of its last hundred pages. Early on, Gus Garver realizes the building isn’t sound, and “at night he began to think of structure in relation to the sea and the tides.” This is our challenge, too, to find some stabilizing order when faced with the structurelessness of climate change, its oceanic overwhelm. The marine engineer whom Gus asks to help has just finished a job designing a tower that must stand in giant waves. “My approach,” the engineer says, “is that it has to give. It has to sway and bob and weave.” Human efforts to bring immovable structure to water are in vain, but when order comes to the ocean on its own terms, it looks like a hurricane.
Mick Rhoades, a jaded local reporter, finds a plastic clock radio in one of the new dunes made by the storm. (A family of five still in their car are found buried in another.) Although he wants to say something worthwhile about discovering “a clock buried in the sands of time, and so forth,” he’s just struck by how all the sand is “covering up the damnedest collection of plastic and trash and gadgets and kitsch and junk anybody could possibly imagine.” Earlier in the book, the engineer Sam Harrison has tried to help another character focus on the power of a hurricane by illustrating “the forces involved, the fantastic upheavals plus the length of time” that could put hydrocarbons, the residue of once-living things, four miles underground.
We know the earth has been here for some four billion years, but I think we still struggle to envision a past beyond recorded history — or, for that matter, a future impacted by humanity on a geological time scale. Vast plains of time, stretching forward and back, are being both unwritten and cursed in every species extinction, habitat incursion, and irreversible emission. “Then all collapsed,” Melville writes in the last line of Moby‑Dick, “and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” This timeline references a Biblical horizon for history that stretched further away with modern studies of geology and evolution but that most of us still understand just as little. When we are gone, the sea may roll on as it always has, but Melville’s view of it as a shroud, a blanket covering a sea of death beneath, with the addition of the damnedest collection of plastic, may be proven true.
Two days after the collapse in Surfside, the Washington Post interviewed Daniel Dietch, the former mayor of the town and an environmental consultant. He warned that it was too soon to offer explanations, and he acknowledged that there are always risks to living on a sandbar. Nevertheless, he expressed the hope that in the hunt for causes, global warming would not be discounted. “Climate change: It’s not the story,” he told the paper. “Or to put it differently, it’s always the story.”
Summarizing his town’s catastrophe at the end of Condominium, Mick laments how “we built the whole thing up to its ultimate, creaky, freaky complexity and it all fell down.” It seems to me that one of the existential problems we’re grappling with is complexity: the complexity of our own impacts, the political complexity of fixing anything, the complexity of the physical systems we’ve changed and the ones we’ve built and must dismantle, the complexity of the ecosystems we’ve marred. Researchers studying the likely social impacts of sudden, climate-caused mass destruction of infrastructure — what we often call civilization — refer to such moments as “decomplexification events.”
Humans, as storytellers and as happy inhabitants of the intricate world we’ve created, have an inflated view of our ability to contend with creaky, freaky complexity. Stories impose order to simplify things, ideas, events, chaos, doom. They dispel complexity by revealing if not always fully explaining it. But the ocean and the planet have an order we can’t see and haven’t protected. Species unknown, literally uncatalogued millions of them, are set to be wiped out on coral reefs, planets unto themselves. We seem to think the span of human knowledge is the sum of all things. But we don’t know the half of it. And we can’t tell its story.
These are my troubles while rereading The Wave and trying to fall asleep. And I wonder whether those Nantucket whales rushing beneath my pillow are dreams, ghosts, or reflections of a living future yet to come. In that popular incantatory children’s poem by Eugene Field, the characters Wynken, Blynken, and Nod cast their nets “to the stars in the twinkling foam” and sail on a sea that is outer space and sleep itself, a nightly encounter with oblivion. No mistake that Wallace Stevens, one of the greatest poetic interpreters of Florida, spent his life as an insurance executive, hazarding guesses and wagering daily on the risk of catastrophe, partaking in that imaginative feat of distinguishing between acts of fate and human fault. I wonder if Stevens would have underwritten his claim in “Fabliau of Florida” that “there will never be an end / To this droning of the surf.” While it’s true the surf probably won’t end, it will change from what we’ve known and will come in closer, carrying less life. Some of the meanings we’ve heard in that sound will end.
In Condominium, swelling breaks bespeak the storm gathering force far offshore: “This change in the constant, unremarkable sound of the sea is the ancient alert for all living things.” If you’re struggling to place the booming from three towns over, the hot roar at your back, or the new pulse of blood in the seashore at your ear, know this: the sound is doom.
It’s hard to talk about the ocean without mentioning sand and collections. Let’s take up that beach-going pastime to find a shell or two and sit in the endlessness of the sand and stare at the sea, to view one infinitude from the throne of another, to feel at the edge of things while letting the rhythm of the waves counter oblivion with plenty.
In “The Book of Sand,” Jorge Luis Borges imagines a text so infinite that its owner is desperate to be rid of it. He thinks of burning it but fears “that the burning of an infinite book might likewise prove infinite and suffocate the planet with smoke.” We’ve lit the match, and this is the question we are pondering now: By setting fire to an infinite book, will we suffocate the planet too? Wary of doomsday visions of apocalypse, we are struggling to imagine possible outcomes as we face our own Ozymandian burial, our colossal wreck. This future is unknown but suspected. The horizon is coming swiftly nearer, but it is still not yet more in focus than blind expanses of geological time. Meanwhile, we sit on the shore as though we might suspend time by dwelling with a natural pendulum for a while, for the swing of a day, until the sun sets, wave breaks, tick‑tock, time to go home.
Maybe before we go, we pick up a few seashells or rocks to remember the ocean by. There is something nautical about collections: Noah, after all, started the hobby. In “On the Total Collection,” one of her short talks, the poet Anne Carson traces the prophet’s habit of collecting to his childhood. She equates his interest in lining up “all the objects in the world” with how “he denied lack, oblivion or even the likelihood of a missing piece.” Order, Carson tells us, “streamed from Noah in blue triangles and as the pure fury of his classifications rose around him, engulfing his life, they came to be called waves by others, who drowned, a world of them.” Like Brodsky’s chorus, Coleridge’s albatross, and that whale’s dead baby, the voices of Carson’s others trouble me at night with their watery Cassandra way of calling out world-drowning waves ahead.
Over time I’ve learned that everything I need to know about oblivion is contained in the language itself. Writing puts pressure on it, like pushing fingers through sand waterlogged with salt and watching the shapes that bubble up in answer. Every work of literature is the same thing — questions posed to nothingness, and the answers transcribed. The more I read, the more sand through fingers, the more shapes pressed out by my own. In his essay “Collection of Sand,” Italo Calvino questions “what is expressed in that sand of written words” that forms his life’s work. “Perhaps by staring at the sand as sand,” he writes, “words as words, we can come close to understanding how and to what extent the world that has been ground down and eroded can still find in sand a foundation and model.” Faced with the facts of our ground-down and eroded world, we hope for solidity even as we learn the word “subsidence.”
Through all of this beach reading, I realize I’ve been beset by what Wallace Stevens called “the maker’s rage to order words of the sea.” I’ve been trying and failing to stare at ocean as ocean and find, despite everything, a foundation, a beginning but no end.
This is what it means to play with the edge of the sea, to keep a seashell from the seashore, to visit a borderland between worlds and bring something home to report on the adventure. Humans are collectors, creators, gatherers, and storytellers, but we have entered an age of decreation. It starts and ends at sea. If in the beginning the waters parted — well, in the end, they will be brought back over to cover us. We have gathered and gathered from the sea, inspiration, fish, plunder, but we will be left with a collection of sand. A jar of plastic particulate. An eternity undone.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992
Doubleday Canada, 2010
Oxford University Press, 2021
John D. MacDonald
J.B. Lippencott Company, 1977
Jessica Duffin Wolfe is a professor of digital communications and journalism at Humber College, in Toronto.