This year, the Human Ecology, Histories, and Literature Departments have collaborated on a series ongoing assignments. Each week students are asked to write a reflective essay that demonstrates their understanding of the themes from their coursework and effectively links these themes to their unique thoughts and experiences. Enjoy reading how our students have deeply and personally engage with essential questions, important to their course of study at The Island School… This Weeks Prompt: How does culture affect one's relationship with the ocean?
"The Glue that Holds Us Together" by Helen Russell
My first memory is at the beach. I was four years old at Bethany Beach, Maryland with my dad’s side of the family and I was playing in the waves with my grandpa. It was the first year that my brother was with us, having been born the previous winter and everyone was obsessed with the baby. Like a typical four-year-old with a new baby in the family, I was feeling pretty neglected. But that day my grandpa had said that he wanted to go to the beach just me and him, to have “grandpa, granddaughter” time. So we make our way to the beach, me with my floaties around my arms and my towel dragging behind me. The only way that I remember all these details is because of pictures I have of myself that summer. So we played in the waves and for the first time in my life, I wondered when the ocean ended. So I asked my grandpa how the blue went on forever and he said that it was like glue that held all the continents together. He said that they were so far apart that the glue had to stretch over the sides of the Earth and that if I could swim all the way out to the horizon, then I could see the next continent. So that was my first definition of the Ocean: the glue that held the continents together. And throughout my life, though my definition and views of the ocean have changed, I still consider it something that connects everyone in the world. It is still the glue that holds us all together. And before now, I have never been asked to think about it anymore than that. The ocean is not something people at home talk about. You might here in school how it’s polluted and how we should protect it, but no one talks about what the ocean means to them. The most I’ve probably ever said about the ocean to anyone is, “Look how pretty the water looks.” But at The Island School, the ocean is suddenly a huge part of my life. It surrounds the island on which I am living and is one of the main sources of economic wealth on Eleuthera. Now I am living in a world of fisherman. At home, I live in a world of doctors and lawyers, people who look to the ocean as an escape from the stresses of everyday life. I was raised in this world of people who work in offices, and growing up that way, I was exposed to a different ocean than the people of The Bahamaswere exposed to. But now that I’m here, I am already sensing my understanding of the ocean shift. It’s not just a vacation spot anymore. For people like Achille in Omeros by Derek Walcott and Nehemiah, a local Bahamian fisherman, the ocean is a source of wealth and of happiness. For most people raised here in Eleuthera, life isn’t complete without the ocean. And I never understood a life dependant on the ocean before coming here. The ocean was always a luxury for me because that was what my parents and my culture raised me to think. In just a month here, those views are being challenged. I can now see how the ocean is a source of wealth, happiness, security and escape, and how it is also a precious resource, which must be sustained.
Nehemiah said that he was raised to be a fisherman, introduced to the practice when he was 10 years old. He said that even when he expressed an interest in being in the air force, his father told him that he would be a fisherman, following in the family tradition. And growing up with these ideas forced upon you, I guess it would be difficult to see the ocean as anything other than a source of wealth. The more fish you catch, the more money you get, and the more ocean you have to fish, the more fish you catch. While most adults where I live work in an office, he works in the ocean. For this reason, I respect Nehemiah when he says that he knows that conchs are endangered, but that he will continue fishing. He has been raised to think that, and I’m sure that if I were raised to look onto the ocean and see potential wealth, I would feel the same way. This belief was further supported when we watched the video of fisherman’s views on government enforced MPAs. The fishermen in the video didn’t view the laws as protection from overfishing, but as loss of potential wealth, threatening their livelihood. In my opinion, the natural human impulse to make money now and save the problems of the future for those in the future is very powerful. Fishermen know about overfishing, but fish are their only source of income. If the fish continue to appear in their nets, they will continue fishing. That is how they were trained and what their culture taught them to think. When Brady pretended to be Tino she said, “I go where the fish go.” And that’s the life of a fisherman. No fish means no money and in the modern world, it’s very hard to survive without money. Achille also searches the depths of the ocean for money in Omeros by Derek Walcott. As Achille begins to run out of money, he decides to dive for money in the only place he knows he can find it – the ocean. Walcott writes, “Wedged in boulders down there was salvation and change” (Walcott 44). In this sentence, you sense Achille looking to the ocean as a powerful source, capable of healing him. He respects the ocean and draws from it a happiness that only someone who has been forced to live off the resources of the ocean can truly have. It is the force their life is centered around.
When Nehemiah was asked if he would ever consider getting a different job now, he responded that you couldn’t keep him away from the salt water. He said that when he had tried to find a different job, the ocean kept drawing him back. I think that fisherman have a deeper respect for the ocean because their life depends upon it. Nehemiah said that the ocean is what makes him happy. He can’t live without it, as proven by his attempts to find other work. If not reliant on it for financial reasons, he is reliant on it for happiness. He was raised to believe that the ocean is, in a sense, a security blanket. He needs it to feel protected, and when he is away from it, the ocean draws him back. This relationship is also present with Achille. When Achille runs out of money and is forced to work on the Plunkett’s farm, he seems to lose a part of himself. Walcott writes, “His canoe was a concrete trough in Plunkett’s pig-farm…In the dirty gusts he missed the sea’s smell” (Walcott 47). When he is removed from the sea, you sense that he becomes uncomfortable. He wasn’t raised to work on a farm, he was raised to be in the water. I feel like anyone raised near the ocean has a hard time leaving it. When I talked to my grandmother for my interview, she said that sailing has been a part of her life since she was young and she used to go with her father. She said that if sailing were removed from her life, she wouldn’t know what to do. It’s what makes her happy and she loves to be disconnected from the rest of the world, with just her, her husband and the water around them. She says how she was raised to sail and if that were taken away from her, she would feel uncomfortable. She talked about how she wasn’t born to be attached to the land, but free to be carried by the currents of the ocean. Nehemiah said that without the ocean he wouldn’t know what to do with his life and I believe that that is true for almost anyone who was raised in a culture that is heavily reliant on the sea, for wealth, security and happiness.
When I first came to The Island School, I saw how my culture had clearly raised me to believe that the sea was a bottomless resource, with an unlimited supply of fish. It was a vacation spot, where you go to forget your problems. I could lie out on the beach all day, swimming when I got too warm and not think once about overfishing or pollution. When I went snorkeling, the fish were beautiful, but just something else to see. At home, one of my favorite dinners is Chilean sea bass. We would get it from our local fish market on a near weekly basis. While looking up recipes one night, I discovered that Chilean sea bass were endangered. Had I not expressed an interest in eating the fish, I would not have discovered how bad it was that I was eating it. I was supporting the possible extinction of an animal and I didn’t even know it. And realistically, how was I supposed to know that the fish was endangered? I was not involved in the fishing process and able to see its numbers decreasing. The fish market certainly didn’t advertise the rarity of the fish, or it would not have sold. I grew up in a culture oblivious to the fragility of the ocean. Before I came to this school, I viewed the ocean as a truly uncontrollable force. I thought, “How could humans possibly affect the ocean, when it is so vast and full of life?” Well I never though about how we are taking more of that life than we can possibly replace, at a rate where it cannot replenish itself. I was also not entirely aware of the pollution we put into the ocean. I had heard of terrestrial garbage dumps but had never heard of the Pacific Garbage Patch. Raised in the small town ofIrvington, NY, I doubt that I would have ever heard of it, because where I live, conservation is more of a fad. People aren’t nearly as concerned as they should be. Seeing all the trash in the ocean in the video disturbed me. Looking out at the oceans surrounding The Island School, you don’t see trash floating around. But that’s because it’s being hidden from us. Knowing about how we are destroying the ocean does not make me discouraged, but empowered. By coming to this school, 47 more students know about how we are affecting the ocean. And I know that I have been inspired to work to change things. Even if I just stop eating Chilean sea bass, it’s a step. In my culture, I was uneducated about the ocean. But living here has changed me already. I now know that the ocean is in danger, but we can help it.
I look at the ocean with a deeper understanding and appreciation now. I once looked at the sea as an escape, where you could go to be thoughtless. But I now realize that, for some people, the sea is not a place of relaxation. It is a workplace, a security blanket and an ever-present entity for those who spend there lives near it. I had always thought the ocean was out of humans’ control, but I now realize that by looking at it with such a cavalier attitude, I have contributed to its demise. And that realization has inspired me to work to fix it. Because the ocean, in a sense, is part of all of us. It is a universal connection that exists between people. It is hard to go through life and never once be exposed to the ocean. And though ones culture may influence that exposure, it can draw from the viewer a mixture of views and emotions. In Omeros, Walcott writes, “He told Hector that they were men, that he bore his own wound as patiently as God allowed him, that the bad blood between them was worse, that they had a common bond between them: the sea” (Walcott 47). Just like my grandpa said that day on the beach, the ocean is the glue keeping us all together.