The first time I remember seeing the ocean, I was ten years old. My family was in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to watch the launch of the NASA Mars Pathfinder mission. The launch was delayed several times due to poor weather conditions, but not until after we’d arrived to watch it, and we spent a lot of time staring up at the night sky that trip. My encounter with the ocean, sandwiched somewhere in between these unsuccessful launch attempts, stunned me. I remember being awed at the smell and feel of it and the way it seemed to stretch out eternally. I remember being frightened of it the same way that I was when thinking about the vast emptiness of outer space. For me, the two will always be linked.
When I read John Stilgoe’s “Alongshore,” and when I settle in and think about the life cycle of my net and floats and the intimate maritime connection of the historic sturgeon fishermen of Port Penn, Delaware (which is a sentence that feels absurd to type), I get caught up on their devotional attachment to something that I personally find slightly sinister. It’s weird to think that our encounters with the same body of water could be so completely diametrical.
Upon reading Dell Upton’s “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth Century Virginia,” I think I know why: We navigate different, if parallel, landscapes.
Upton writes that “an individual’s perception of a landscape changes with the experience of moving through it.” Watermen, and naval officers, and commercial shipping agents, and Sea Scouts, and John Stilgoe share a vision of a landscape, or seascape, if you will, that resembles a network facilitating movement and connection. They navigate this terrain with confidence, like the plantation masters of the Tuckahoe that Upton describes. I navigate this landscape differently; I’m either on shore or in the water, and I’m not going anywhere in particular. In contrast to those who make use of the water for their own purposes, I’m coming at the subject “from the point of view of someone surrounded by other people’s power.” I’m a spectator, not a contestant.
Sense of place is highly subjective, as John Jackson writes in the straightforwardly-named “Sense of Place, Sense of Time.” It is linked to ritual, routine, a level of familiarity, and a shared sense of time. I’ve always lived near the water, always loved being near to it. At age ten I lived twelve miles from Lake Erie, and its presence pervades my earliest memories: riding home from the beach in the summer seated on an enormous towel; climbing up on the breakers; tossing french fries to parking lot seagulls; waking up at 5am to check the TV for school closures due to lake-effect snow. This, to me, was living in communion with the water. But the waters of my childhood were reassuringly free of salt (go ahead and insert obligatory Cuyahoga River joke here) and I always had the knowledge that no matter how endless the lake looked, Canada was just a short boat ride away. This was my sense of the place, what I was familiar with, and to the Delawareans using that sturgeon net, it would likely seem just as foreign.
Igor Kopytoff, The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process, in Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
John R. Stilgoe, Alongshore, in Alongshore (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994).