There is pleasure in the pathless wood, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes by the deep sea, and music in its roar; . . . Lord Byron
The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever. Jacques Yves Cousteau
I want to tell you about the sea. And though I have shared my sea stories with you before, this feels different to me. In the past, it always has begun with a cove in Maine, the place of my childhood summers and my many adult visits to my mother who lived there until her death five years ago. It is easy to write about a cove, a specific one in Casco Bay called Fish House Cove, a cove you can conjure up in your mind in this moment, with its daily turns of the tide and its green shadowy waters that transform to sparkly blue when the breeze blows off the shore, a cove that is a haven for the schools of mackerel and the lobsters who crawl on the sandy bottom by the haul-off rock, and the great blue heron who roosts each night in the tallest of pines. I have done my best to squeeze this cove into poems and short stories and tidy essays with titles like “Fog” and “First Swim” and “On My Mother’s Deck”, have done my best to wring the salt right out of its essence — some of it, at least — to sprinkle across the page. I’ve tried my hardest to bring to life the smell of the balsam trees, the rotting seaweed, the faint whiff of fish mingling with the freshness of ocean, to encapsulate this smell in a string of words with borders and boundaries and grammatical rules. It is not a big cove. Its beach is a Size Small, its rocks, a Medium, and it has been my reliable partner, providing me with decades of material to feast upon. And it has been enough.
So, what do I do now? What do I do with all this sea, all this wide open ocean? I don’t know how to contain it — because how do you contain it, the whole of the Atlantic at your left shoulder? Maybe you could put something down on the page if you were staying put in one place, getting to know a stretch of shoreline, its sandpipers and tide pools and rocky outcrops. But that’s not what we did, my friend Mary and I, last October. There was no staying put on this northbound trek along the coast of northern Portugal. For the first seven days of a three hundred-plus kilometer pilgrimage on foot from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostilo, Spain, we clung to the coast. After receiving our initial stamp in our pilgrim passports at Porto’s magnificent cathedral, we spent our first hours walking along the banks of the wide Duoro River on cobblestone paths. The tide was low, the river quiet, the estuary filled with gulls and herons and shorebirds, and the air tinged with the scent of seaweed and mudflats. This was all familiar to me, a gal raised at the mouth of a tidal river in Maine. It wasn’t until we rounded the corner to a wide cobblestone promenade that it happened, that Mary and I were blasted with the thunder of the north Atlantic. We heard its thunderous waves for days. Sure there were the fishing villages, the protective break walls, the occasional river town, but mostly it was the sea, the raw and wild sea, that was our constant companion.
As Mary and I walked northward — sometimes barefoot in clean squeaky sand, sometimes on piles and piles of smooth tumbled stones, sometimes high above the beach in grassy dunes or on boardwalk paths, in morning fog, in noon-day sparkle, at dusk as sunsets stretched the wide panoramic length of the horizon, there it was — the sea at our left shoulder. The blue water, the salty air, the gentlest of breezes, the waves rolling into shore. It didn’t even have to work at seduction. It had me — and Mary, too — from that first moment, when we rounded the corner and set our eyes upon it, that first thunderous wave, that first glorious sunset, the one that seemed to stretch on for hours. It was healing balm, a powerful elixir, and there was nothing to do but let go and allow it to work its magic, nothing to do but melt into the wonder of it, to forget about words, about tidy poems, a single sandcastle story, an essay about a lone gull, maybe one called Bop Bop who was your friend for years. This was something new, this ten hours a day of sheer ocean pleasure.
Sometimes the beach grass glistened and we were sun-soaked. Sometimes we were sure there was a song in the air, something Irish and ballad-like. And, if we stood still for a moment and focused on the horizon, we were pretty sure we could almost see it, a Portuguese sailing vessel of old, a mermaid’s tail sparkling in the sun, a whole of the history of humankind rolling in on the waves. And that’s what I want to tell you, that the sea softened us, to everything, to the people we met, to the villages we walked through, to the multitude of magical-seeming synchronicities waiting for us along our pilgrim path. We allowed ourselves to be tumbled, soft and smooth like those incredible stones piled high on the beaches. And it has stayed with me, and with Mary too, this tumbled-open feeling, this allowing of something grand and unspeakable. And it is easy to conjure it up, to close my eyes and put myself in that place once again, that sea-soaked happy heart space that cannot be contained within the boundaries of a cove, that overflows over the borders of a bay, that knows no borders and no boundaries and is limitless in its welcoming power and is available to us all.
Along the northern Portuguese coast: October 2016