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Salt gets in your eyes. (Seeing California).

Looking out from high on a bluff north of Fort Ross on the Sonoma County coast or from southbound Interstate 5 over the sand and beyond the Marine Corps training grounds at Camp Pendleton near Oceanside, we see the sea. We see nothing but the sea. It envelops our attention. It fills our consciousness. It transports us to an altered state ... and then, it takes our breath away.

Contemplating our coast from favorite site lines -- those or any of ten-thousand others -- can indeed carry us to an altered state: though still planted on California's terra firma, we are left suspended, transfixed, by its size, by its color, by its depth; and by trying to put names on those unfathomable qualities we see. Inexpert but interested, we gape at the expanse of the Pacific, at its multitudes of blues and greenish hues, and at the unknowable complexities of forms that we reckon intuitively to be beneath the surface. Gazing at the sea is no walk in the park; it is a profound experience.

Looking at the deep and contemplating the idea of its secrets, marveling at the enormity of its importance while comprehending so little, creates dumbstruck pleasure. There is joy in recognizing ignorance -- limits of knowledge-- about a huge body of water. In this way, with face in the ocean spray, and thoughts floating on the sea breeze, salt gets in your eyes. It stings a bit, like tears of joy.

Drying off, and continuing our addled meditation on California's relationship to its adjacent Pacific, we find that unassailed lack of knowledge of the sea in no way detracts from its allure; in no way disrespects its appeal. In fact, it is wondrous and marvelous to revel in the incalculable quantity and diversity of the mass of salt water, sand, algae, echinoderms and crustaceans; the fishes and sea slugs and corals; and also humankind's detritus, flotsam, and jetsam; sub-surface petroleum; pelagic birds and marine mammals; and all the ships at sea and the legions of sport, pleasure, commercial, and military craft in and over and upon the Pacific Ocean.

Indulgently calculating our limitlessness ignorance about the abyss is joyful but incomplete. Such celebration scarcely accounts for activities on the coast -- or the hundred-thousand coasts -- for the coast is every place where the sea meets the land. The crashing waves, the boiling surf, the rip currents -- all the violence contained in the impact of the liquid giant against the monstrous solid -- suggest a rivalry in nature. Where there is power, danger also dwells, but the ocean's beauty invites indulgence; people want to take a dip. Mostly, they wade in without any thought of danger, or of the mysteries and beauties of the transcendent ocean. They are just going to the beach, in another kind of enjoyment. It's about invigoration, refreshment, relaxation; it's about the pleasures of the moment and the promise of the day, and it's about the benefits of exercise and the out-of-doors. Whereas, contemplating the ocean and its curved horizon is a geography lesson that tips a hint of the earth's extent, and ser ves up a mere teaspoon of eternity.

But beware. There is also cognitive danger in the joys of going to the beach, which have compounded to form one of California's strongest images worldwide. In an imitation of life, the entertainment industry has mimicked and mocked tanned youth behaviors of the Bay Watch--Beach Blanket Bingo-- Surfin' Safari variety. As both cause and effect, the television--celluloid--vinyl beach culture of the last half-century has given very long and powerful legs to manufacturing, service, and tourist industries. Everywhere, it is the beaches, the surf, the shoreline cliffs and rocks -- or the tides, piers, foggy docks, and harbors -- that fill people's mental images of our California shores.

When aloft, viewing the ocean and beaches from an airplane just after taking off, the sea looks flatter than it appears ashore. And California's landmass shows more complicated crenelation and topographic variation than are visible from ground-level viewing. Manmade contraptions and buildings and features on the land look small -- tiny, really -- and flat. Perceptual illusions aside, still the ocean abides as round and swelled, defining the earth's shape, connecting California with the world: to Asia, so far to the west; north to Alaska and Siberia; down under to Australia; and southeast around to South America. We imagine the great Pacific joining with other oceans and seas to complete the circle, to curve around past ours to other worlds, and encompassing all courses steered toward eternity.


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Author:Fireman, Janet R.
Publication:California History
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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