Caught in the Breakers

A friend sent me a greeting card which I am now using as a bookmark in my daily journal. This morning the picture on the front caught my attention, of a scene that depicts ocean waves crashing onto a rocky shore in the foreground, mountains visible in the distance, and a single white sail, a mile or so out, suggesting that humans can feel at home in this realm of water and wind.

I haven’t been in a sailboat for many decades—certainly not since moving to the desert in the late 1970’s—but I grew up in a suburb of Montreal, an island in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River. Pointe Claire is one of several communities (Dorval, Valois, Pointe Claire, Beaconsfield, and Saint Anne de Bellevue), linked by a railway line and the Transcontinental Highway that spans Canada like the I40 spans the U.S.

The Saint Lawrence starts mid-continent in the Great Lakes and from there makes its way down to the Atlantic Ocean. That there’s a west/east tilt to the tectonic plate beneath the river is most evident at Niagara Falls, where the water heading back to the sea steps down 165 feet, providing millions of gallons for fool-hardy, gutsy explorers to launch themselves in padded barrels into the river (now suddenly in a hurry to get back home to the sea), fly over the edge, free fall in a curtain of falling water, and then—most of the time—bob back to the surface, ready for a few cold Molson ales or Labatt’s Blue lagers.

This same Saint Lawrence River, by then a gentler current, flows around the Island of Montreal, requiring several bridges to join the city and its suburbs with the rest of the continent. I recall two bridges heading south toward the US, one heading westward to Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia (where my sister, her family, and my friend, Paul, all live), and at least one bridge heading North, where my uncle and aunt lived in Arundel, a tiny community with one gas station, one general store, and lots of cows.

The picture of the sailboat on the front of the card brought back memories of my childhood and adolescence living on the west end of Montreal Island, where, growing up, my family always had a boat. Each summer we launched them from Lakeshore Road, and moored them on a buoy a few hundred feet off shore. I suspect that Lakeshore Road would have been the main thoroughfare across the island a century ago, part of a roadway system traversing the country—like Route 66 which is now a street that traverses Albuquerque, home to New Mexican restaurants and now more a destination than a means of getting somewhere else.

I don’t think we were very worried about someone stealing our boat, but these days it’s hard to ignore the danger of theft: certainly in Albuquerque, where every day there are break-ins and thefts of vehicles and property. And then there’s the pollution, tailing ponds and stagnant quagmires, which now imperil the free flow of the world’s rivers.

Most of us are aware that things are running down (or in the case of rivers, no longer running down in full throated return to the sea); and most of us get tired of complaining about our inability to do anything about it. Imagine how the Mamos of Santa Maria de Marta in Columbia, who are trying to warn the world that our earth is dying, must feel.

During my own short residence on Earth, with no real tradition of awareness behind me, I have personally witnessed the Saint Lawrence River changing: clean water and local fish being replaced—in just those two decades—with murky water, clouds of algae, and Lamprey eels.

I was five years old, when our family moved to Pointe Claire and purchased the first plot built in a subdivision that had very recently been a working farm. My father, turning the earth to develop his rock gardens and flower beds would regularly find cow skulls getting caught on the tines of his gardening fork. As the neighborhood filled in with other houses linked by streets and sidewalks, our property was the only one with a double lot. Someone had made a small surveying error; my parents had picked this lot because of a tall old Elm tree (the only large tree in the subdivision), and—after they started pouring cement for the foundation and basement—they discovered that this elm tree was actually a few feet to the south of the boundary. I don’t know how much my parents had to insist, but they ended up with two lots as a result. Perhaps the fact that the lot with the tree was about 20 feet lower than street level–and would have had to be filled in with countless truckloads of dirt–played a role in the developer’s flexibility.

If they had raised that lot to the level of the street, they would have cut down the tree as the first step to bringing in hundreds of truckloads of landfill. But the adjacent plot was allowed to remain lower than our house and give a natural contour in a neighborhood where the shape of the land was modified in order to lay streets and bring water and sewer lines to each home. In the years we lived there, in a heavy rain a large pond would collect and I remember once punting around in our rowboat with the lawn visible underneath. It must not have been summer then; otherwise our rowboat would have been bobbing in the bay.

Our elm tree played a role in our lives. I remember my mother writing little plays, sewing costumes, and then the neighborhood kids would practice their lines, put on their costumes, and act their parts under the vaulted canopy of the tree—which may have been grateful that it had been saved by a surveying error.

Much of our summers were spent swimming and boating in the lake; so we got to see directly the changing condition of the major continental waterway through which the Great Lakes flows into the Atlantic Ocean. For all those the years in the 40’s into the 50’s, the water was so clean that I remember swimming under water to a raft moored offshore with my eyes open, able to see fifty yards ahead with the unblemished sandy bottom providing an invitation to swim, dive off the raft, and bask in the warm summer sun.

Sometimes we rowed or sailed out a mile or so to a buoy whose bell rang in the wake of passing motor boats and in the swell from an occasional cargo ship passing in the shipping lane. We’d have box lunches in the boat and dive in whenever we got hot. At some point our row boat was replaced by an Aykroyd Dingy (gaff rigged mainsail, jib, wooden lapstreak hull, 14 feet from bow to stern), which allowed us to while away our days exploring the three mile-wide lake.

The change in the river must have been gradual; with pristine nature giving way to the deterioration caused by careless human activity. In my mind I juxtapose the clear water with several images: of pulling the row boat up onto the beach and finding that it slid with surprising ease only to find that a dead Lamprey Eel was underneath and acting like a roller; having to pull up the center board and the rudder in order to make it through a dense forest of seaweed and algae to reach the current further out; and in general a shore line so choked with algae and dead fish that no one swam there any more.

I believe that the eels, which took over the Great Lakes and killed off most of the other fish, and the blooming algae downstream around Montreal, were both the result of chemicals and soap residues getting dumped into the lakes. As with the oceans today, it seems people have trouble visualizing that anything so massive as the major bodies of water (and the canopy of sky surrounding our planet), can possibly reach a saturation point if you dump enough crap into them.

So it’s not just the indigenous people living on Santa Maria de Marta of Columbia who were experiencing, perhaps also in the 40’s and 50’s, a worldwide deterioration of our environment (which, like the rest of us, they couldn’t do much about personally). What seems significant is that on the pyramid mountain of Columbia an entire culture is paying attention and doing its best to alert the rest of the world to the irrevocable damage being done in the shadows of unbridled commercial pursuit of profits.

When I left Montreal in the mid-seventies (and I had stopped spending my summers in the water fifteen years before that), I ceased to notice what was happening to the largest river in North America. When I think back on those summers and bring to mind that probably no one swims in Montreal any more–except in chlorinated pools–I feel lucky to have been born in the last generation able to dive into a lake—like a narwhale swimming under the ice looking for the next hole in the ice; except my life didn’t depend on finding a break in the ceiling of ice overhead. I was free to surface anytime into the warm, summer air.

It is estimated that the weight of all the plastic floating in the world’s oceans–none of it likely to dissolve for thousands of years—exceeds the weight of all the fish. Dolphins and whales live like refugees in their own world, victims of plastic grenades and sonic onslaughts of ‘shock and awe’ that drive them onto beaches–as would happen to us if we were blinded and deafened and trying to escape a feeling that our heads were exploding.

The greeting card–that set me adrift on these fields of memory–depicted surf crashing against the rocky coast and rhythmic swells, with an occasional whitecap rolling by, further out. A sail boat moving with ease across the windy surface of the water reminds me of how time and space conspire to present us with boundaries, surfaces, and launching pads that invite us to embark on a journey.

In the picture it doesn’t look very inviting to launch a boat out from the rocky shoreline into the power of the crashing waves.

New beginnings can feel like that. We may feel relatively stable, down to earth, standing on the shore, gazing out over the water at the boats and the diving gulls, tasting the salt in the wind, feeling how open space runs all the way to the horizon and beyond. But if it ever arises that we can’t live here anymore, that the past has crowded us to the very edge of the world we have known up until then, then will we take our chances and push our embodied beings with there psychic passengers on board, out into the dangerous tumult at the edge of the life we have known?

One comment to “Caught in the Breakers”
  1. I have similar memories having grown up on Long Island about 8 miles east of Brooklyn (NYC). In the 50s the ocean was clean. By the early 60s we started ecountering garbage and sewage while swimming in the Atlantic. NYC was pumping sewage out to about 20-30 miles offshore. They were also dumping trash in the sea off barges. I don’t believe they are doing either any more, but I headed inland to stay after the summer of 1966 and don’t really know if it is better or worse. There is always hope.

Leave a Reply