Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Neither Out Far nor In Deep

When I first visited my village in November 2010, the complaint that came to mind immediately was that my village is set up on cliffs, and I wanted a beach! Well, it took me all of three days to find the beach once I moved to my village in December. The beach is down a hill, obviously, and maybe 5 minutes away at most. It also took me a few more months to figure out that I am one of maybe 4 or 5 volunteers on Upolu who does have a beach at their village. Most people have ocean that comes right up to rocks with no sandy interruption. No, I don’t have an ocean-front view from my fale, but I’ve decided that I like my ocean-near property much better than ocean-front property. I still live close enough to hear the waves at night, I find plenty of crabs and other sea life in my fale, and, by being set up on cliffs, I am relatively safe from tsunamis. In lieu of ocean-front property, I have my favorite look-out spots where I can just sit and watch the waves forever. I was doing that the other day when I thought about a Robert Frost poem I read and analyzed in school:

Neither Out Far nor In Deep
The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be---
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

When I analyzed the poem, I said that people watch the waves and ignore land because they want what they can’t have. It is impossible for people to live forever on the ocean, and as a result of wanting what we can’t have, people stare at the waves as a way of trying to come close to the thing they want. After living in Samoa for almost 9 months, I have changed my view a little bit, and there are parts of the poem that I agree with more and also parts that I disagree with more.

I love looking at the water. Every time I can see even the tiniest spot of ocean, it is all I want to look at. When I take walks and come to a strip of road where I can see a big chunk of ocean, I become fixated on it at the detriment of my walking (not watching your step can lead to a lot of near misses and missteps). Every bus ride home, I invariably pull out my book, but put it away again once we reach the coast. The longer I stay here, the more I believe the water has some magnetic pull that drags everybody in. I haven’t found anybody completely immune to this yet.

I would argue with the last two stanzas, though. While the land has more obvious variation – hills, plants, buildings, a rainbow of colors instead of infinite shades of blue and green – I do not think the land varies more than the ocean. The ocean is constantly, continuously changing because of the movement of the water. It is never the same thing, and it never repeats itself. Also, I do not think the distance of view has any implication on what makes for a good sight. At any given time, the farthest a person can possibly see is to the horizon. If anything, the ocean is less hindered by perspective because there are no hills, buildings, or other obstructions to get in the way. Sometimes there is a boat that can mar the perfection of looking at the water (the harbor in Apia may not be the prettiest harbor I have ever seen, but I always say the view is ruined whenever a ginormous cruise ship is in for the day), but people can see farther when looking at the ocean than looking at the land.

While on the surface the ocean can pass for a large, unchanging, solid mass of water, it contains much more depth in every sense of the word. Sometimes the ocean really is just a bland sheet of blue-gray water, but usually it is much more captivating. It is mysterious, unknown, and enchanting. The calm, steady rhythm of the waves ensnares all the senses. I still find myself unable to answer the question of why I always look at the water every time I come across it. I do think people are captivated by the idea of things they can’t have, but I don’t think that is the only reason, or even the main reason, why people love looking out to the water. So why do I always look at the water? Because I have to. I have thought about this for quite a while now and I have no other explanation for it. Yes, the ocean is beautiful, yes, the nuances are beyond words, and yes, the waves are calming, but how do you explain the pull of the water? I’m tempted to say it’s stronger than gravity. So Robert Frost, in answer to your observations, all I can say is that the ocean is captivating in a way that the land is not. That’s not to say that land views can’t be just as spectacular as ocean views (the wording doesn’t even work – ocean view makes perfect sense, but land view sounds awkward), but they are different, and where water meets land, water generally wins.

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