The Only Real Place

cypress beach1I was four years old in 1942 when the army sent my father to Fort Ord on California’s Monterey Peninsula.  We left a dreary flat in the gray mist of San Francisco for a sunny cottage near the cypress-lined, white-sand beaches of Carmel.  As if to ritualize this rebirth, my mother took me for a walk that wound through a dark grove of those great brooding cypress—leaning and reaching with their gnarled, windswept limbs, growing ever more foreboding—until the path opened suddenly onto a long stretch of pure white sand and a vast expanse of silver-blue water that sparkled and shimmered to the edge of the world.  It was my first waking encounter with the Pacific Ocean.  I ran barefoot over the hot sand, stopping at a safe distance to gape at the bellowing breakers, feeling the cold foam on my feet.  As vivid still as the smell of ice plant on the dunes, it is a moment burned into memory, like an astronaut’s image of Earthrise from the shores of the moon.

We went often, through the dark trees to the sunlit beach.  I built sand castles while my mother sat on the grassy bank with the salt-kelp breeze in her hair, watching boat specks on the horizon.  Her death, shortly after we left Carmel the following year, seems to have merged my sense of the mother with that of the ocean—Great Mother of all, mystery of origins, milk of the world; the Good Mother, nurturing a silent undersea fantasy of living things; the Dark Mother, swallower of worlds, the black sea-bottom of death itself, strewn with Titanics, digesting Atlantis and Lemuria.

The epilogue came a few years later at a summer camp in the high mountains.  I awoke one night in a sleeping bag under a wilderness of distant worlds, recalling Asimov’s story about a planet with six suns, where “Nightfall” occurs but once every 2,050 years and the sudden appearance of a soul-searing canopy of stars plunges civilization into chaos.  Gazing out into the immense ocean of light I reexperienced my encounter with the Pacific, though there was no odor of ice plant on the breeze, no sound of breakers nor wind in the cypress, only the silence of those trillion worlds, waiting, eyes within eyes, coming through a million lifetimes to meet mine—which glanced away, struck with what we all come to know:  that each of the unfathomable immensities—Mother, Ocean, Death, and Stars—­share the barrier between known and unknown, enfolding the familiar world like the pre-Columbian gods and monsters, bounding all beginnings, all ends, all meaning.

Perhaps it was gods and monsters, not gold and glory, that inspired young Cristoforo Columbo on the shores of his boyhood Genoa, gazing out on a sea that encircled the known world like the night sky—a fathomless enigma, fading off into forever.  Men once looked out over the melancholy wilderness of water as we now look to the stars, knowing it to veil some great mystery of unknown size and origin.  Though the sea no longer bounds the universe, it remains a vast, inscrutable presence, growing darker and deeper in the distance, the darkness of a world before man, unchanged through eons of continental evolution, yet ever restless, relentlessly pounding the land, through all lifetimes.  The rush of the surf echoes the ancient Earth—the wind in the once great forests, the thunder of free-­running herds—while the sea alone remains truly free, the last untamed remnant of Earth’s tempestuous youth.  And out beyond the breakers abides the silent face of the Great Mother, an effervescence of light, flashing like countless suns. 

The interface of known and unknown, civilization and wilderness, conscious and unconscious, the beach is that narrow band of equilibrium where the city meets the sea.  To go down to the sea-scented shore on a cold, gray day and wander amid the wrack and debris of both worlds, to sit on a half-buried whiskey box, watching the birds dip and hunt with their small sad voices, is to enter sacred space, to walk the razor’s edge between time and eternity, matter and spirit, isolation and communion.  The seashore is a sanctuary, the eye of the storm, where our polarities are momentarily balanced.  It is where the temporal realm of the hot street—even the run­down hot-dog stand—is bathed in transcendent energy, touched by the breath and pulse of the sea.   The transformation is reciprocal.  With each mortal breaker the eternal sea dies a momentary death, descending into time as it licks the sands to the soft cries of gulls.  Yet the beach is a place of rebirth, where each wave erases the tracks of life and time, leaving the broad sand flats gleaming like glass.  It is a place where false selves are shed and companions transcend their separateness.  It is a holy place, perhaps the only real place.

[Excerpted from my book, The Dream of Spaceflight: Essays on the Near Edge of Infinity (Basic Books, 2000).]


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