From Odysseus to Styrofoam


| 6/3/2013 2:47:49 PM


Tags: Ocean, Seven Seas, Metaphor, The Odyssey, Homer, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Climate Change, Pollution, Ocean Acidification, Overfishing, Tom Dispatch, Lewis Lapham.,
Mayflower-Large

Long thought to be eternal, omnipotent, and ultimately untouched by humankind, the world’s oceans are now threatened by pollution, overfishing, and climate chaos.    

This essay will appear in "The Sea," the Summer 2013 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version was originally posted at Tom Dispatch.  

In heavy fog on the night of October 7, 1936, the SS Ohioan ran aground three miles south and west of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and by noon on October 8th, I was among a crowd of spectators come to pay its respects to the no small terror of the sea. I was two years old, hoisted on the shoulders of my father, for whom the view to windward was neither openly nor latently sublime. The stranded vessel, an 8,046-ton freighter laden with a cargo valued at $450,000, was owned by the family steamship company of which my father one day was to become the president, and he would have been counting costs instead of looking to the consolations of philosophy. No lives had been lost -- Coast Guard boats had rescued the captain and the crew -- but the first assessments of the damaged hull pegged the hopes of salvage in the vicinity of few and none.

Happily aloft in the vicinity of my father’s hat, and the weather having cleared since the Ohioan missed its compass heading, I was free to form my earliest impression of the sea at a safe and sunny distance, lulled by the sound of waves breaking on the beach, delighting in the drift of gulls in a bright blue sky.

The injured ship never regained consciousness. All attempts at righting it were to no avail, and in the summer of 1937, the removable planking and machinery having been sold for scrap, the Ohioan was declared a total loss, the hull abandoned to the drumming of the surf and the shifting of the sand. The prolonged and unhappy ending of the story my father regarded as a useful lesson, and over the course of the next three years as I was moving up in age from two to five, he often walked me by the hand along the cliff above the wreck to behold the work of its destruction.

To foster my acquaintance with the family’s history and changing fortunes, he spoke of distant ancestors sailing from the port of Boston and the Gulf of Maine in the early-nineteenth-century China trade, of my great-grandfather’s organizing the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company in 1899 not because of the money in the business but because of the romance. My father’s turn of mind was literary, and he was fond of strengthening his narratives with lengthy quotations from William Shakespeare’s plays and extensive recitations from Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

vanilluv81
6/6/2013 6:37:29 AM

THat is why I will never be a great writer... I have never had intercourse with prostitutes! damnit!.....On a more serious side, Thanks for acknowledging how foolish humans can be and are ~~~ My favorite book is "The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus" by Jacques Cousteau where he explains the ocean's dilemmas and how diving evolved. Awesome writing! Thanks for sharing!