Drawn to the Ocean

What is this irresistible pull we feel for the sea? Where does it come from?

evening swim
Going for an evening swim – Makemo atoll, Tuamotus, French Polynesia

Half a lifetime ago, I lived for a while in Bali. My Balinese family was fascinated by the attraction of the coastline for all the tourists. For Balinese, it’s the realm of fishermen… who usually don’t even know how to swim. Not really a local pastime. We had much discussion over why it was appealing for all these people to hang out on the beach and splash in the sea.

Here’s how they explained it. First, you need the context that rivers in Bali wash waste into the sea. Until plastic became widespread 30ish years ago, that wasn’t much of a problem… you just hucked your plant-based garbage over the walls of the family compound to a ravine below. Those ravines- they’re everywhere on this big cone-shaped volcanic island. Water runs through them from the peak to the shoreline, sweeping refuse out to the ocean and away.

In Balinese culture, when a baby is born, the placenta and umbilical cord are buried in a sacred place at the entrance to the family compound. It’s done to ensure that children will always find their way home again. In modern western countries, babies are usually born in hospitals, not homes. And what do hospitals do with their waste? Incinerate it, of course, but my Balinese family didn’t know about that. They applied their frame of reference and assumed that the hospital waste (and thus, the placentas and umbilical cords for all those babies) were washed down a ravine, and into the sea.

My family’s theory, then: all these visitors from outside… they are irresistibly drawn to the sea by the syren call of their collective placentas and umbilical cords… drawing them back to the place where these precious parts of life have been swept. Their reaction? Between amusement and pity. All those poor souls, unable to find their way home.

I love that explanation, but I love this quote from JFK even more.

I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it is because in addition to the fact that the sea changes and the light changes, and ships change, it is because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.

At the end of the day, they aren’t terribly far apart.

4 Responses

  1. Beautiful! Bali is such a gorgeous place and culture isn’t it? This is the first time in a long time I am reading without a nursing babe in my arms and so I am able to leave a comment 🙂
    My grandmother who is Inca also doesn’t “get” the draw to the sea. When she left Peru for the first time when Zach was born and came and saw how we lived she kept shaking her head as if we were out of our minds.

  2. This is very cool, thank you. Windy gave birth to our girls at home. We stuck the placentas in the freezer for a while and then eventually buried each under a newly planted tree in the backyard. Each grew up calling the respective tree, their tree. And then we sold the house and went cruising…

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