Culture Rover

#92 - Man Overboard

"...lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Crammer's sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over." - Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Walking by Lake Michigan day after day this year, I realized that the water takes on my mood. Grumpy, uneasy on a cold day when winter won't let go of the Midwest, the lake is slate grey, impenetrable, exasperated, with bits of foam lacing its surface. The waves slam against the rocks in protest. A contained rage -- barely contained.

The next week, spring begins to slip in between the rainy days. It's harder to see the water through the tree leaves as I approach it. But at the shore, the water is blue, green -- almost pastel. Streaks of sun lean across the bank. The waves roll in, but easily, in rhythm, agreeable. The green grass in the park is freshly mowed.

Lake Michigan's mood-matching waters made me think of a Winslow Homer painting: Incoming Tide, Scarboro, Maine (1883). Homer, like Herman Melville, registered bodies of water as dangerous mirrors. Reflecting sensations and emotions, the sea, a lake, a river, moves, becomes a channel to interior conditions.

In the painting, Homer's surf reels back from the rocks, dizzy, ripping a hole of blazing white-hot light in the brooding, dark seascape. There's something about the foam that explodes even the act of painting -- a concentration of the sea's energies so compressed that it is blank, defies the painter's brush, is eternal and empty.

One evening, the lake is still. No motion. No one is around. The whole world seems to hold its breath for a moment. It's a stillness that you could fall into, lose yourself. Move back on the sidewalk, to the path.

23 May 2006

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