For the past few days I’ve thought repeatedly about the discovery of the fossil skeleton of a walking whale that could live both on land and in water but whose species took to the water at last. They say it moved very clumsily on land–probably good enough reason to take to the water. This fascinates me from an evolutionary perspective, of course, since it is thought that our ancestral species moved from water to land. The science fiction side of me wonders what creatures now–or even humans–have something about them that could adapt to some present or future condition that would leave the rest of us lost. I imagine, for example, whole communities of people with secret gills and the ability to breathe underwater–but I think that’s an old image from an Outer Limits show combined with my old zoology professor’s lecture about evolution. (I recall earning his outright and relentless disdain when I asked what happened to our energy when we died.)
The other reason the land/water whale fascinates me, though this took a day or two to appear as a product of the fascination, hinges on the detail “walked clumsily on land.” What an apt metaphor this split-scene creature seems for the adaptability of our minds, personalities. We’re capable of moving in more than one environment, but most of us are clumsy in one place while graceful in another. I think of all the places, stretches of my life, and even individual activities through which I’ve moved gracelessly just because I had to move even though what I was doing or where I was was not conducive to the way I “move” (act, think, be) best. If I adopt the imaginary point of view of that whale, it’s as if being on land presents itself as the place to be and I keep trying to be there but the very structure of me is simply not made for grace or speed there. Why not just take to the water altogether? Why not find my element?
Yesterday, we watched the harbor seals at the mouth of the Russian River. Laid up on the beach, they looked like a mass of flat ovoid stones. Some of them (the young ones, B. says) were swimming in the river or playing in the surf. “Playing” sounds anthropomorphic here, but it’s hard to say what else they were doing–they weren’t feeding, as far as we could tell. The tide was going out–really swiftly right at river’s end–and some of them just swam in place against the current. Others were out swimming against breakers or–I swear it looked like it–body surfing. Occasionally, away from the group still, they’d simply loll in the surf on the beach. I watched them with a kind of envy, though according to the “how to survive this beach” signs, I should have been watching instead for “sleeper” waves.
I must get a photograph of the “sleeper wave” warnings sometime. Some copy writer in the park service waxed poetic and referred to the people who are pulled out to sea never to be seen again as “luckless” (or “hapless,” I can’t remember now), as if the sleeper wave were a particularly horrific agent of fate, which I guess it is. “Watch that wave!” the signs warn excitedly. The warnings–and their explanations–are a fretful person’s nightmare (or dream-come-true) evoking as they do an unpredictable world full of unpredictable, overpowering forces that can, literally, wipe you from the face of the earth at any minute. In regard to seeing others so wiped out, the signs say: “Do not try to rescue this person. This person needs professional rescue.” However, professional rescue doesn’t seem to be enough: “Many people have died on this beach.” (That’s not technically true, of course, if the beach stops where the water begins, but true enough from the point of view of land animals.) The signs also carry warnings about falling from the cliffs. And all these various warnings are illustrated by an emblematic figure in the moment between being on land and being crushed on rocks or washed out to sea. (Suddenly, I wonder if the word “luckless” was the outcome of a thesaurus search rather than a moment of inspiration.) Moreover, if it’s a matter of “hap” or “luck,” why warn someone about what cannot be averted or foreseen?
While not as dramatic or deliciously threatening as the fall-from-the-cliff signs, the figures on road signs on narrow, windy-twisty roads are just as intriguing, particularly the one that warns you to slow down by presenting the silhouette of a boxy little car taking a curve with a wheel up in the air. The perverse part of me wonders if it’s not an instruction to have a little fun by making one side of your car go up in the air like that. But of course it’s like those emblems of “luckless” people–it shows the car in between being on the road and flipping over (and over and over). Since it doesn’t say “sharp curves, slow down,” I can imagine some people–the kind of people who don’t trouble themselves with attention to context–construing it as an emblem of admirable recklessness. True recklessness, as opposed to mere sloppiness, is always deliberately, though unconsciously so, near-death. Why is it that at certain stages of life, and, for some, always, we have an overwhelming urge to do dangerous things so we can feel “lucky,” as if we’ve gotten away with something, tricked the inevitable?
The flip side, of course, is the unshakable conviction that one can ward off or thwart disaster in its many, many forms by worrying about it in advance. Thus, seeing the sign of the partially upturned car on a dangerous road, I push and push my foot on an imaginary brake while my husband lays on the gas. We have very different feelings about winding roads and roller coasters.
I am writing this in a rustic house on Austin Creek, which runs off into the Russian River, which runs into the Pacific Ocean, which goes on and on in its cold, beautiful way. The redwoods around the house are so thick that now, at noon, only long slivers of light come through, giving the ambience of what plant instructions must mean by “thrives in indirect light.” I am trying very hard to think of where I am not as an in-between, but where I am now: breathing crisp air, driving out to the coast, the stunning bright sea, and views of miles and unfathomable miles of an element in which only creatures who can swim far better than we, can live.