The Ocean as Desert: the Styrofoaming of the Sea


In heavy fog on the night of October 7, 1936, the SS Ohioan ran aground three miles south and west of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and by noon on October 8th, I was among a crowd of spectators come to pay its respects to the no small terror of the sea. I was two years old, hoisted on the shoulders of my father, for whom the view to windward was neither openly nor latently sublime. The stranded vessel, an 8,046-ton freighter laden with a cargo valued at $450,000, was owned by the family steamship company of which my father one day was to become the president, and he would have been counting costs instead of looking to the consolations of philosophy. No lives had been lost — Coast Guard boats had rescued the captain and the crew — but the first assessments of the damaged hull pegged the hopes of salvage in the vicinity of few and none.

Happily aloft in the vicinity of my father’s hat, and the weather having cleared since the Ohioan missed its compass heading, I was free to form my earliest impression of the sea at a safe and sunny distance, lulled by the sound of waves breaking on the beach, delighting in the drift of gulls in a bright blue sky.

The injured ship never regained consciousness. All attempts at righting it were to no avail, and in the summer of 1937, the removable planking and machinery having been sold for scrap, the Ohioan was declared a total loss, the hull abandoned to the drumming of the surf and the shifting of the sand. The prolonged and unhappy ending of the story my father regarded as a useful lesson, and over the course of the next three years as I was moving up in age from two to five, he often walked me by the hand along the cliff above the wreck to behold the work of its destruction.

To foster my acquaintance with the family’s history and changing fortunes, he spoke of distant ancestors sailing from the port of Boston and the Gulf of Maine in the early-nineteenth-century China trade, of my great-grandfather’s organizing the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company in 1899 not because of the money in the business but because of the romance. My father’s turn of mind was literary, and he was fond of strengthening his narratives with lengthy quotations from William Shakespeare’s plays and extensive recitations from Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Setting Sail

Floor-to-ceiling windows in my parents’ house on Fillmore Street faced the broad expanse of San Francisco Bay, as instructive a sight in sun or fog as any that exists in nature, but it was in the room without a view, in my father’s library among the stories told in books, that I learned to look upon the enchantment of the sea. By the time the Ohioan had been reduced to a fragment of the bow in the summer of 1938, it had become a fading memory, and I was on the lookout for pirates on the Spanish Main, for typhoons in the Sunda Strait.

Almost as soon as I could read I began with Ishmael’s setting foot aboard the Pequod and with the searching in an atlas for the track of the great white whale. My father patiently untied the knots of metaphor in Melville’s prose, discussed the virtues of Queequeg and Tashtego, appended footnotes about ill-fated ancestors lost in their attempts to round Cape Horn, steered my further reading toward Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, to the voyages of Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. Meanwhile, at grammar school in grades five, six, and seven, I was moving up from the Greek gods and heroes, among them Odysseus and his wide-wandering on the wine-dark sea, to the various discoveries of America by Viking seafarers, Christopher Columbus, and the Mayflower, in eighth grade to the battles of Actium and Trafalgar.

Conrad says the love of the sea is in fact the love of ships, the thought coming to him in 1905 as an affectionate memory of the New South Dock as it was to be seen in the 1880s, “fifty hulls, at least, molded on lines of beauty and speed,” square-rigged and metal-plated, “moored all in a row, stem to quay, as if assembled there for an exhibition not of a great industry but of a great art,” such a sight as “no man’s eye shall behold again.” So, too, the sight of the United States Navy in San Francisco Bay between 1942 and 1945, its fleets assembled for war in the sublime and treacherous Pacific.

Seventy years have come and gone, but I still can see ships of every then-known tonnage, armament, and design — aircraft carriers, destroyers, oil tankers, submarines, light and heavy cruisers, trawlers, minesweepers, PT boats — lying at anchor or getting underway on the turn of a morning’s tide. I didn’t know how to step a mast, or tell the difference between a sandbar and a reef, but I knew that the Battle of Midway was fought somewhere in the same degree of longitude that had seen the end of Captain Ahab, and I contrived to picture myself as somehow engaged in mankind’s age-old struggle with the mystery and power of the sea.

The conceit was not that far-fetched. At the beginning of the war in 1939, the U.S. government requisitioned the American-Hawaiian’s fleet of 38 cargo vessels, most of them eventually pressed into service with the North Atlantic convoys bringing food and munitions to Britain and to Russia; 11 of them were torpedoed by German U-boats, another three scuttled to make the Mulberry harbors supplying the invasion of France; my father (an executive of a shipping line no longer possessed of ships) had been put in charge of the military port of embarkation forwarding the freight of men and weapons to every theater of operations south and west of the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1944, my grandfather was elected mayor of San Francisco, and when he was called upon to convey the city’s compliments to a victorious admiral returning from the Coral or the Philippine sea, he sometimes took me with him in the captain’s barge to be piped aboard the deck of a flagship dressed with men in uniform.

My teenage hopes of joining the Navy fell afoul of the physical examination administered by the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps program to applicants in the freshman class at Yale College in the autumn of 1952. I proved to be blind to the distinction between the colors red and green, willing to steer for the Guerrière and glory but unable to read the signal flags. To correct the course of my disappointment my father called in a favor from the National Maritime Union in New York that allowed my temporary rating as an ordinary seaman aboard one of the family’s last surviving freighters during the summer between my sophomore and junior years at college.

The SS Mount Whitney sailed from Mobile, Alabama, to load iron ore from a mine on the Orinoco River in Venezuela, and when it slipped loose of tugboats and dropped the harbor pilot at the entrance to the bay, I was astonished by a sense of complete and boundless freedom, a casting off of all the troubles lurking in the hearts and onshore schemes of men. The poet Langston Hughes evidently felt similarly.  At the age of 21, he quit the island of Manhattan to “find a vessel that was moving” and to escape “the feeling of always being controlled by others — by parents, by employers, by some outer necessity not your own.”

Among the miseries to be left behind, Hughes mentions “the stupidities of color prejudice”; my own miseries were self-inflicted and of a lesser magnitude. I joined the ship on the night before it sailed, and several members of the crew, amused by the arrival in their midst of an Ivy League college kid from somewhere in an uptight, fancy neighborhood, undertook to acquaint me with the conduct becoming in a sailor. On learning that I’d never yet kept carnal company with a woman, they insisted on arranging the rite of passage in a waterfront brothel where they bet shots of bourbon and rounds of beer against the chances of my making the change from boy to man with each of the five girls on offer. To everybody’s surprise, not least my own, I did so.

Having been imprisoned for four years within the walls of a puritanical boarding school, another two years in a New England college not yet molested by the 1960s sexual revolution, I rejoiced in the discovery of a new and far, far better world. The next morning I was burdened with a heaviness of spirit and the fear of divine retribution in the form of a venereal disease, but as soon as the ship was moving, I knew that I would be making good my escape from the stain of sin, outward-bound to the state of grace that is the freedom of the open sea.

The Restless Sea

Which is the age-old promise that the sea is by no means bound to keep. Life at sea is of necessity the being controlled by others, by the captain of the ship or the regulation of the watch, by the motion of the waves and the direction of the wind. The point had not been lost on Conrad, who in his youth had served 20 years fore and aft the mast before going ashore to London in 1894 to become an author. He knew the sea to be “impenetrable and heartless,” giving “nothing of itself to the suitors for its precarious favors… its fickleness is to be held true to men’s purposes only by an undaunted resolution, and by a sleepless, armed, jealous vigilance, in which, perhaps, there has always been more hate than love.” The philosopher Immanuel Kant had reached much the same conclusion in 1790 without having gone to sea: “To call the ocean sublime we must regard it as poets do, merely by what strikes the eye; if it is at rest, as a clear mirror of water only bounded by the heaven; if it is restless, as an abyss threatening to overwhelm everything.”

As seen from the deck of the Mount Whitney in the summer of 1954, the sea was poetically at rest, as it was for Lafcadio Hearn in 1856, “sometimes smooth and gray yet flickering with the morning gold,” the horizon tinted with “opaline colors of milk and fire,” flying fish glimmering in “the liquid eternity” of infinite blue; the romance of that first voyage into the Caribbean didn’t stow aboard the second, nine years later under contract to the Saturday Evening Post, as a wide-wandering journalist.

The sea was in a restless mood, the control by others incompetent and violent. The editorial direction of the Post in 1963 had fallen into the hands of a publisher fond of staging publicity stunts, and in the summer of that year, the magazine was intent upon salvaging the wreck of a Spanish treasure fleet believed to have been lost somewhere off the coast of Honduras in 1605. Seven galleons in transit from Cartagena, Colombia, to Havana, all of them burdened with shipments of silver coin and gold plate.

Three hours out of Key West, on a heading for the Yucatán Channel, the Sea Hunter, a chartered shrimp boat 65-feet long with a round bottom and a shallow draft, rolled uncomfortably in a moderate sea while I listened to Robert F. Marx explain that upon our arrival at the Serranilla Bank we would be bringing up “the heavy stuff” in potato sacks. Listed on the Post’s masthead as its “Adventure Editor,” Marx was a handsome man in his late twenties, tall and deeply tanned, his gestures brave and bold, his eyes shaded by a wary, far-off squint. He cleaned his fingernails with a fish knife while discussing the venture that he had conceived, organized, and funded as a picture striking to the eye of a poetic magazine publisher. “I’ve been on lots of treasure hunts,” he said, “and this is the most scientific treasure hunt ever seen… the best equipment, and guys who really know what they’re doing.”

The on-board accumulation of diving gear together with state-of-the-art electronic devices and aerial photographs of the Serranilla Bank prompted a temporary willing suspension of disbelief; so did the credits of the other gentlemen on the manifest, among them a soon-to-be-retired commander in the U.S. Navy; from Bermuda, the “foremost treasure diver in the world”; from Annapolis, a champion waterskier and proud owner of a pet shark named Horace.

West of Grand Cayman, the Sea Hunter encountered heavy seas and winds gusting up to 50 miles an hour in a storm not unlike the one in which Columbus found himself “dreadfully buffeted” in 1502. For three days the boat was near foundering, monstrous seas breaking over the stern, the hull rolling through angles of between 30 and 40 degrees. All the navigational systems failed; the Navy commander, not knowing what else to do, turned to drink, and for three days I held fast to the cabin table, unable to think or speak. Columbus in his letter to Ferdinand and Isabella describes his crew as “weak and humbled in spirit” by the tempest, “many of them promising to lead a religious life.” I gladly would have done the same, had I known the prayers.

The storm passed on the afternoon of the fourth day, and according to our course setting from Grand Cayman we should have been at the southwest end of the Serranilla Bank by dawn. We arrived at noon, well off to the northeast. There was no evidence or sign of any wreck, Jamaican turtle schooner, or Spanish galleon — nothing but a few seabirds in a forlorn and empty sky. We remained in the anchorage for the better part of a week; sporadic plunges into the perils and the secrets of the deep resulted in the recovery of three iron spikes, six nails, eighteen ballast stones, 235 seashells of assorted sizes and colors, two empty gin bottles both of British manufacture, one shapeless metal object identified by Marx as pewter, by the Bermudan as pig iron.

The Ocean as Desert

The voyage of discovery aboard the Sea Hunter brought with it recognition of the sea as a murderous abyss, also a reminder of the last days of the Ohioan, but it didn’t lead me to abandon the idea of the sea as apostrophized by Lord Byron as the “deep and dark blue ocean” unmarked by the ruin that mortal men visit upon the green but shallow earth. By the mid-1970s, married and with children, I was an editor in New York City who vacationed in the summer at Newport, Rhode Island, where metaphors for the sublime were not hard to come by. As the days of sail gave way to the age of steam, Newport had become one of the first points on the American map at which oceanfront property was seen to be desirable, the value added by the nineteenth century’s fishing out from the mighty ocean the existence of seaside resorts like the one described by Charles Dickens in 1851 as a quiet beach that “becomes indeed a blessed spot” with fancy shops, bric-a-brac, picturesque fishermen. “We have a fine sea, wholesome for all people; profitable for the body, profitable for the mind.”

Certainly so it seemed during the years when I was content to watch children build sandcastles on the shore of Narragansett Bay, to make the hard choices between the smoked salmon and the broiled lobster, to wonder whether the pretty sailboats in the offing were setting course for Martha’s Vineyard or Kennebunkport. During those same years, in my capacity as a magazine editor in search of intrepid investigations, I sent writers on voyages that I was no longer at liberty to undertake — to the Galapagos Islands and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, to the Gulf of Alaska, the northwest Mediterranean. In place of storybook romance, they returned with reports of missing whales and seabirds soaked in oil, of corals dead as stone, and shorelines blanketed in algal slime, but I was reluctant to draw apocalyptic conclusions.

Surely the sea was eternal, going on forever, its vast prodigious bulk 71% of the earth’s surface, not to be contained within the frame of history or chained to the oars of death and time. So it had been in the creation myths constructed in the languages of both art and science — the Sumerian goddess Nammu giving birth to heaven and earth, Homer’s “Ocean, who is the source of all,” Christendom emerging with Noah from the Flood, evolutionary theory evolving from the primordial, undifferentiated flux. So I thought it still was, T. S. Eliot’s “groundswell, that is and was from the beginning,” right there where it was supposed to be every summer, in sun or fog, 20 yards over the horizon of the beach club’s beach umbrellas.

Except it wasn’t, and it isn’t. The poetics stand corrected by the science. Contrary to the belief that man cannot mark the sea with ruin, it turns out that he has been doing so for the last two thousand years. If I had been slow to acknowledge the unwelcome fact, I was in distinguished company. Henry David Thoreau in the 1850s did not “associate the idea of antiquity with the ocean, nor wonder how it looked a thousand years ago, as we do of the land, for it was equally wild and unfathomable always.”

Rachel Carson, the perceptive and far-seeing naturalist, in 1951 assured the readers of The Sea Around Us that mankind “cannot control or change the ocean as, in his brief tenancy on earth, he has subdued and plundered the continents.” She subsequently revised the opinion, remarking in one of her later notebooks, “Even in the vast and mysterious reaches of the sea we are brought back to the fundamental truth that nothing lives to itself.”

By the turn of the millennium, I understood that the melting of the Arctic ice was warming the temperatures in the sea, that fish stocks were declining, that large sectors of the ocean were awash in nonbiodegradable refuse — cathode-ray tubes, traffic cones, and polypropylene fishing nets — but I didn’t fully grasp the connection between marine ecosystem and human settlement until January 2013, when I came across W. Jeffrey Bolster’s book The Mortal Sea.

Bolster derives the title and its assertion from an extended history of the fisheries in the North American Atlantic between Cape Cod and Newfoundland. To the by-now-familiar story of the various depletions of species over the last 500 years (the haddock by 1930, the cod by 1992), Bolster, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, adds the dimension of events taking place on land — political and economic, cultural and demographic. Drawing together in the same net the two sets of datapoints (from the human maritime community and the marine-biological community), Bolster shows the ocean to be subject not only to the changes occurring over the course of evolutionary and geological time, but also, and ever more rapidly, to those imposed on it by the hand and mind of man.

We needn’t call upon an angry god to make the sea an object of no small terror. Every year we withdraw from it 160 million tons of fish, deposit in it 7 million tons of garbage. Poisonous chemicals in the Gulf of Mexico have formed a pool of dead water equivalent in size to the state of New Jersey; among the several hundred dead zones elsewhere in the world, one encircles the Chinese coastline.

If the sea levels continue to rise at their current rate, the day is not far off when Miami and Atlantic City become beds for oysters. The fishing in the sea that was once near the surface now is done by trawls the length of locomotives dropped to the depth of a mile and dragged across the bottom, reducing many thousands of square miles of the ocean floor to barren deserts no longer giving birth to the tiny organisms from which emerge the great chains of being that sustain the life of the planet.

Nothing in the sea lives by itself, nothing either on the earth or in the air or in the minds of men. To know the sea is mortal is to know that we are not apart from it. Man is nature creatively refashioning itself. The abyss is human, not divine, a work in progress, whether made with a poet’s metaphor or with a vast prodigious bulk of Styrofoam.

[This essay will appear in “The Sea,” the Summer 2013 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at with the kind permission of that magazine.]

Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne.