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Location: Stevens Point, Wisconsin, United States

Sunday, October 07, 2007

SMELLS OF YOUTH

Wednesday, October 3, 2007
USS Cole -- Portsmouth, England

The odors of fish and fuel oil. Ports smell the same the world over. It’s the first thing I notice as the tugs work the ship up to "the hard," as the British call a mooring. That smell recalls for me my first seventeen years, growing up in San Pedro--the Port of Los Angeles--and reminds me why I so enjoy the sea. Despite the indignities we’ve visited upon it and regardless of the criticisms that can be rightly leveled at human carelessness, the messy, constantly changing interfaces between humans and the oceans that we call ports are among the places in the world most charged with history and possibility.

Ever notice that the Jews never mention the sea? There they were, living right on the Mediterranean and speaking the language of the Phoenicians--legendary maritime traders from such cities as Sidon and Tyre on the coast of what is now Lebanon—and there’s not a word about it in their treasured histories. Even their creation myth mentions the ocean only as what has to be separated from the sky to make space for land. Evidently their desert heritage was too enshrined in their thinking to allow "the waters" a place, other than as a metaphor for some sort of primordial disorder: "...and darkness was upon the face of the waters," as the panel, convened by James I of England to translate Genesis, decided to phrase it.

Now those others with a heritage as desert dwellers--the adherents of Muhammad and Islam--are some of them threatened by the vast civilization that was spawned by sea-going migration and trade and intent upon threatening it in return. Despite their formidable and efficient use, a thousand years ago, of the oceans of the "center"--the Mediterranean, the Red, the Persian, the Indian--the Arab peoples have completely abandoned the seas. Standing on the bridge wing, overlooking the traffic in Portsmouth harbor, I can’t help but think the way the oceans connect us all will prevail.
...jb

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