Charley on the Ocean

Charley sat on his longboard out past this evening’s small break at the end of the Mountain. There was a gentle swell but not much action. Which was fine by him since he’d come out to center and calm from the hectic details of his day.

Sometimes a good workout and tumble in the waves was just what he needed – all his concentration could go into coordinating board, wave, feet, and balance in order to get to the exhilaration of the ride. Not to mention climbing down the rocks and paddling out. The whole process was very effective in shutting out worldly concerns.

DSC04585It used to be harder getting down to the water – sneaking past the windows of vacation homes whose owners (for some reason) tended to think of the surfers as trespassers. However, a few years ago the house closest to the best path was bought by an older couple who’d been surfing here for years. So all were welcome now as long as they cared for the path and each other, local or not. The path was artfully lined with bits of old rope and colorful floats, driftwood and bull kelp, bent crab pots, and even bits of surfboards in an ever changing array they all contributed to.

Today he was content to sit there bobbing blissfully like the cormorants around him. Alternating between facing out to sea to watch for a promising set of waves and swinging eastward to take in the view of the Mountain as it rose tall and green above the breakers rolling continuously in to the rocks at its base. There were stories about the male mountain and the female sea making love. There were also stories about the female Mountain and the ferocious male ocean teasing each other. It was all one to Charley who considered himself less inclined to anthropomorphize and more apt to take things at face value. The Mountain and the ocean both had their gentle and terrible moments as did the wind and the rain. Fire not so much in the present though occasionally someone’s abandoned driftwood cookout went nuts in a summer wind and reminded them all of the tenuousness of the dance here at the edge.

Ancient times had known big fire. If the geologists’ current theory was correct, this had been the former mouth of what the whites came to call the Columbia River. It was dammed up by a lava flow and then pushed up by tectonic cataclysm to form the chain of mountains of which their Mountain was the outermost bump. The native people seem to have had some intimation of this for the translation of their name for the Mountain was considered to have been something like “Fire Mountain” or “Home of the Fire God.”

Whatever they called it, they had sure taken care of the place better than the white folks did. Charley could see the larger flotsam along the shore. A crab pot, several tires, plastic bags and bleach bottles and a length of blue rope, along with a telephone pole and a large unidentifiable piece of metal. Not visible from this distance were the thousands of tiny bits of broken down plastic becoming part of the sand and rocks. It could break your heart if you let it. The surfers and beach walkers hauled up what they could, leaving some for the on-going path decorating, but it was a good thing the concerted effort of the Annual Fall clean up was happening soon. And glad he was that he didn’t have to organize it or even take part in it, figuring he did his share on-goingly the rest of the year.

As Charley sat rocking, feeling blue about the condition of the ocean and shore, a cheery head popped up next to him. Large eyes looked into his. “Welcome, fellow swimmer,” Charley said to the seal. “Have you come to surf along with me? Must be a set coming in. Thanks for the tip…. And for the company,” he added as the head disappeared again.

It wasn’t unusual for seals to surf the waves alongside the humans, but it was always a thrill for Charley. In his hooded black neoprene, it was easy for him to identify with the seal. In fact, a group of surfers lounging on the beach half in and half out of wetsuits resembled the gathering of the seal and sea lion clans on deserted beaches the world over. It was also one theory why surfers were occasionally shark-bait. “No point in worrying about that right now,” he grinned to himself philosophically, knowing full well that it was but one of the risks of being out here.

Drifting next into his mind were legends related to the sea and the seals – the Northwest Native American story of the mermaid deity Sedna overlapped with the Celtic selkies of his own Scotch-Irish heritage. Always the stories were so sad. Selkies were seals who fell in love with a human of the coastal villages. In this day and age it might easily be a surfer. They shed their sealskins to become human but walked painfully as if on knives and were so homesick for the sea that they eventually returned to it, often after a child had been born. Thus the land-bound lover and child mourned along the shore while the selkie called poignantly from the waves.

In the Northwest Native tale a young woman and her father were chased in their hunting canoe by a flock of birds avenging the death of their leader. To save his own skin Sedna’s father pushed her from the canoe and then chopped off her fingers when she tipped the canoe trying to save herself. In some stories it was because she was kidnapped by (or fell in love with) Raven (or Thunderbird) and her father had helped her escape when the marriage proved an unhappy one. In all the stories Sedna sinks to the bottom and her fingers become the seals, salmon, walrus and whales hunted by the coastal tribesmen. She herself morphs into a sea goddess with the head and torso of a woman, but the tail of a fish. Some say she is malevolent and some say it’s just a crankiness that needs to be appeased now and then. Thus if the hunters do not catch anything for a long time or if the sea has been raging in storms, a shaman would transform him or herself into a fish and swim down to the bottom of the ocean to comb the tangles out of Sedna’s hair and plait it into braids. Made happy again she would allow her animals to be available to the hunters. For a while.

As a child, Charley had been horrified by these stories, and now as a father and husband, he found them even more poignant. Often he wished there were a way for happier endings. Ursula had been talking lately about changing the old stories – perhaps together they could do that – though he couldn’t imagine how.

Thinking of Sedna’s father’s act made him miss the two of his own kids who loved to surf as much as he did, Marina and Salal. Marina was certainly aptly named. His heart always lifted thinking of her work with water in different eco-systems up and down the West Coast. Salal had fun surfing all over the world. Charley appreciated the surfing adventures of Salal’s life, of course, but not the travel hassle. He was a stay at home sort of guy. Seemed like with such an earthy name of the berries of this place, Salal ought to be too…. “Down, Papa,” he told himself firmly.

How to change those sad old stories? Maybe it was just about seeing that Sedna had somehow chosen to delve into the mysteries of the sea when fate pushed her there – as the selkies chose to go back and forth between the two worlds. Was his chosen “tribe” as humans now learning to do that as well?

This made him squirm uncomfortably with the notion that came up in the Medicine Circles occasionally – that he was suited to have Seal as a totem. Seal is about inner journeying including lucid dreaming…. Heck, he couldn’t even remember his dreams. He could relate to the part that since seals swim both above and below the water, they deal with the inner and outer worlds and the deeper mysteries of nature. Their lack of external ears contributed to this idea – they were tuned to hear with their inner voice. But his prosaic nature kept him from diving too deeply into the mystical. Some would say that was due to his birthday just past – on the cusp of detail driven Virgo and Libra with its sense of balance. Even though his passion for the sea implied a Neptunian connection with the deep watery worlds that Pia said showed up somewhere important in his chart along with Pisces – he never could remember where. Raven always teased him that it was “all pretty fishy.”

Suddenly an instinct prompted him to turn back towards the sun now very low on the horizon. “All right!” he whooped. No time to think about any of that now. The set promised by the seal was upon him and it was time to stop musing and catch the best wave.