Sunday 21 October 2018

the sea: wave 4

Noticing, looking up with my eyes still closed as I was, that the sky was above, as it is, and that the sky was something too. That it was like The Sea but with more uncertainty. The Sea’s reflection in a dusty mirror, the something on the other side of our conscious world, a world that only rises a few stories above the ground, a thin membrane covering this earth. Planes and submarines, fish and birds, our waste and our carbon dioxide. 

There is sand in this Sea, and it used to be a parish church, or some other thing, and there is dust in the air, and it used to be the sand that used to be the parish church. And that sand was in this Sea, and now that sand is in the air, and it’s moving around this earth and finding the folds of our Sunday best, the gaps in our windows, our momentarily open doors. It has not given up, it can’t, like machinery. And it has been everywhere … everywhere and elsewhere, seeking its place, and this journey isn’t entropy, this journey is the system. We chase out of our bedrooms buildings of the last millennium with a broom and a dustpan, their slow insistence on coming in. There are particles of sand, dust, everywhere. Breaking free of the corner stone with the help of the water, the other stones. Setting off on an adventure of currents, ground even smaller climbing some far off shore, seizing the wind, travelling inland. The grains struggle to remake the Sea’s image on land, drenching landscapes in the dryness of desert dust, homing in on our freshly built free radicals, the clock of timing the struggle started with the last coat of paint.


Elsew/here the sand drawing is now complete. Over the last week, the shaven-headed monks in the saffron robes have patiently tap-tap-tapped millions of grains of coloured sand off the tips of crafted copper tubes into complex geometrical patterns. The sand flowed like liquid paint. White, black, and three distinct shades each of red, yellow, green and blue: fourteen colours in all. A pure experience of colour, and an elaborately imagined sacred space. While they worked, the monks wore linen masks to cover their mouths and noses, so that their breath would not disturb the sand. They have been building an elaborate spherical cosmic map from the centre outwards. Circle square square square circle circle, a spiralling form structurally similar to the petals of a flower. 

For the monks it represents a movement through levels of confusion towards enlightenment: an unfolding from two dimensions to many. In short, it is a cosmogram, its width the size of an adult human, with the emblem of a deity at its very centre. In this case, the deity is a goddess, both protective and given to explosive rage. It is said she is dark blue, has three eyes, and rides on a mule through a sea of blood encircled by the fire of wisdom. The sun nestles in her navel, a sickle moon arcs across her forehead. She is associated with healing through knowledge, and is consulted through a system of divination by dice.

The finished mandala is consecrated through prayer, chanting, meditation, and a series of visualisations. Each particle of pigment is charged to contain the image in its entirety, each fragment the whole, each grain a macrocosm, like the individual shards of a shattered hologram. One of the monks scatters a handful of six-sided ivory die to one side; the meanings of the numbers and symbols in this particular configuration are discussed at length. Suddenly, one of the younger monks sneezes massively, theatrically; the others laugh. 

Finally, in a ritual that stages the impermanence of all things, the monks dismantle the drawing by sweeping the sand into small piles. It’s a very practical dispersal of the image, almost casual. Four little grey piles are left, like tiny cartoon volcanos. The monks bless each of the piles, bag them up, and carry them on the short walk to the meeting point of river and sea. One final monotonal chant describes a teardrop shed into an ocean of suffering, and suffering’s release. Then four monks wade into the surf up to their knees and pour the sand into the water. Slowly, they release dry into wet, all the while visualising each coloured particle’s infinite possible trajectories, carried by the sea’s currents and flows to every corner of the world. They stand in silence, the ends of their robes bobbing on tiny waves like slopping pools of ochre wine in slow-motion.

On these journeys, there is time but not a thing by which to tell it, save the passage of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the patient pulse of the sea’s pull and give. ‘Seesoo, hrss, rsseis, oos …’ (1)


Elsew/here a fleet of steam dredgers removes tons of granite and flint shingle from the seabed beneath the cliffs to provide material for a new sea wall further down the coast. God-fearing fishermen with furrowed brows look on from their village at the foot of the cliffs, wondering what repercussions this might have, this ‘tampering with nature’, this modern arrogance to dream of ‘playing god’. No good will come of it, they say. Look at them: they couldn’t navigate a turd around a pisspot, they say. Some years later ferocious winter storms whip the sea into a frenzy, and the slate sky is thick with spindthrift, like a snow storm. As dusk falls, towering black waves blast away at the unprotected village. Never seen anything like it, they say, like the end of the world. 

Overnight most of the community’s buildings are devastated, gouged and pulped to dust by the walls of driving water. The whitewashed slate-roofed fishermen’s cottages, all of them decapitated and ground down. The small grey stone inn, its fireplace doused forever. The workshop for making lobster pots and mending nets. The stables and piggery. The chapel. The tiny Post Office shop. The village hall, for community meetings and wedding receptions and evenings of songs and shanties. (Remember? ‘I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky / And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by / And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking / And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking’). All dust now, carried away tirelessly by the sea. Even the beach is gone.

Every now and then deep in the churning bay, minute sandy particles and splinters fleetingly reconfigure to form the skeletal outlines of what they were once part of – a shed, a kitchen, the furniture of a bedroom – before a fresh undersea gust tears through these ghostly outlines, shattering them anew, and the grains disperse and disappear into the ocean’s depths.

On this journey, there is time but not a thing by which to tell it, save the passage of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the patient pulse of the sea’s pull and give.


Elsew/here a ghost net drifts across the ocean’s surface, a floating island unconsciously gathering its catch. From a distance it looks like a small reef breaching the surface. Close up, it’s another story. Caught in the net’s mesh are seaweed, drift wood, plastic bottles, lengths of blue polymer twine, twisted drinks cans, a paint can half full of toxic sludge, empty crisp packets, an aerosol can, dead fish, various bird carcasses, a dolphin cub, and a fluttering tern, its feet caught in the fine nylon filaments: its wings are the only visible sign of life. 

This is how it happens. A length of pelagic drift netting, one of the instruments of choice for those barely-legal fishing fleets engaged in a kind of maritime strip-mining, breaks loose and floats free. As it drifts it entraps whatever it encounters, gradually ballooning until its mass of waste and putrefying flesh finally sinks beneath its own weight. Over time, this material then breaks down or falls free to allow the net to rise to the surface once more - and the cycle begins again.

Elsew/here dozens of rusting metal barrels dumped out at sea are washed on shore by a terrifying freak wave. Some of the containers carry the stencilled word RIFIUTI on their ruptured flanks; others carry a warning symbol that looks like a three-blade spinning propeller or fan, black on a yellow background. Nearby, a man with his head swathed in blue cloth and an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder stares out to sea; he chews his khat leaf and spits on the sand. (2)

Elsew/here an innocuous brown glass bottle is washed ashore on an island beach. Over the next three days, eight people from a tiny tribal community will drink from it and die. (3)

On these journeys, there is time but not a thing by which to tell it, save the passage of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the patient pulse of the sea’s pull and give.


Elsew/here, another kind of sea far inland. The travellers arrive in ones and twos, sometimes a small van arrives in a dust cloud and disgorges an unsteady gaggle of people, shrouded against the sun. They carry light bags for the journey, just the barest of essentials. They have long since said goodbye to their families. Those that stay behind never say their son or daughter or husband ‘left’ or ‘migrated’; they refer to them as ‘the burnt ones’, those that have burnt the law, the past. At the meeting point in the dunes a man in sunglasses shows them the pre-fabricated kit from which they will build the boat. As he explains the process, he traces lines and swirls in the sand with a stick. Lengths of untreated pine are laid out on the ground; to one side on a white cloth, a variety of bolts, screws, two screwdrivers, a hammer, some bags of plastic ballast. The wood looks like the ruptured rib cage of some extinct beast, bleached by the sun, then buried by the tidal movements of the sand, and only now disinterred. 

Many of them have never seen the sea; with diverse images of ‘boat’ in their minds, they start to assemble this mysterious thing in which they will entrust their hopes and their lives. Gradually separate pieces are linked together and the boat’s outline emerges. Their tap-tap-tapping is sometimes interrupted by the low throb of a military plane scouring the dunes; they hide under camouflaged tarpaulins, or lie flat on the sand to try to make themselves invisible, just more fragments of unremarkable desert flotsam. When the boat is finished, they stand around it with a mixture of astonishment and trepidation. In silence they wait huddled against the cold night until dawn, unable to sleep, then at first light they drag the boat through the sand towards the sea. We go looking for our lives, they say.

On these journeys, there is time but not a thing by which to tell it, save the passage of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the patient pulse of the sea’s pull and give. Soo, siessr, ssrh, oosees … seesoo, hrss, rsseis, oos …

(1) James Joyce, Ulysses, London: Penguin, 1992, p. 62.
(2) See, for example, Jonathan Clayton, ‘Somalia’s secret dumps of toxic waste washed ashore by tsunami’, The Times, 4 March 2005.
(3) See, for example, Sanjib Kumar Roy, ‘Bottled chemical on beach kills tribe members’, The Guardian, 12 December 2008.

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