Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The ocean at the center of the world

I think the first time I saw the ocean was when we took a vacation to Southern California to visit my aunt and uncle and go to Disneyland when I was six years old. All I remember about it was standing on a pier at sunset - at least I think I remember it, I might only be remembering the pictures from our visit. I don't even think we went down onto the sand or to the water's edge. The next time I visited the ocean was when I was about 24 when Jamie and I were still dating - and mostly I remember large piles of smelly kelp swarming with little black sand flies. But I really gained a love of the beach about 10 years ago or so when we started spending a week every fall at Carpinteria. I was amazed at the waves that never stopped coming, at the way the tide would rise and fall throughout the day, the seashells to be found and the amazing world in the tide pools.

And now that I think about it, I've seen the Atlantic, too. It was February of 1987 and I was 19 and on my way to Brazil. Our plane was landing in New York City and had to circle for hours because of heavy air traffic. We would circle over the city, which was all brown and gray in winter, and then out over the water, which was choppy and turbulent. Each time we'd drop a little closer to those frigid whitecaps until finally it got too dark to see much of anything and the turbulence made everyone sick. Two years later while I was on my way home we had a few hours in Rio de Janeiro and a friend's parents took us to see Copacabana Beach. Unfortunately it was already dark so I had no idea how far the water was, but I remember volleyball nets on the sand and tram cables ascending behind us into the low-hanging clouds over Sugarloaf mountain with its Christ statue. I think I still have a little plastic film canister filled with sand from that beach.

Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million StoriesSo I'm not much of a traveler, but between my love of the ocean and my love of history, I was excited to see Simon Winchester's new book Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, which I got from Amazon Vine.

The Atlantic Ocean has been at the center of Western history even before mankind realized it was an ocean. And Winchester has done a fabulous job of writing an eminently readable history of it, from its beginnings some 190 million years ago to its predicted demise in another 180 million years. In between is everything from the early seafarers - Irish, Vikings, and Romans down to Columbus and Vespucci and beyond - to the current highways of commerce and the threats to the organisms that call it home. It has inspired visions of grandeur in the brave and profit in the merchants and art and literature in the painters and poets.

This is not a dry history that tediously delineates every fact and date known. The full history of the Atlantic - as far as it is known - is contained in piles of books that would take a lifetime of reading, but Winchester has written an enjoyable overview of the ocean's existence and mankind's doings above and below the waves. It is part history, part science, and part memoir as he writes frequently of his own experiences in his globe-trotting career. And for me, I felt that the science portion of the book was his greatest strength. Whether he's discussing the effects of unprecedented levels of ocean traffic or over-fishing, he brings the situation to light in an easily understood way and without taking sides in the many heated debates over climate change. When it comes to history he occasionally rambles somewhat, even slightly belittling the commercial strivings of his adopted America while praising the more noble pursuits of discovery from his native Europe (and his mystification at why Columbus remains honored in America was slightly annoying). But this is minor complaining on my part, and his depictions of the slave trade and the effects of pollution in particular were incredibly poignant. I truly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

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