The Ocean Within: Myths and Memories

I begin with a confession. I am not here because I know anything about the oceans that would justify my presence on the platform with these experienced and knowledgeable scientists. I am here because my friend Bill Crook, your president, asked me to come. Over the course of our forty-year friendship I have never been able to say no to Bill. So blame him for having a landlubber as the moderator for a weekend of discussions about the oceans.

I take my cue for this assignment from the humorist, Robert Benchley. He arrived to take his final exam in international law at Harvard to discover that it consisted of just one question: "Discuss the abstract of the international fisheries problem in respect to hatcheries protocol and dragnet and procedure as it affects (a) the point of view of the United States, and (b) the point of view of Great Britain." Benchley was desperate but he was also honest. So he wrote: "I know nothing of the point of view of Great Britain in the arbitration of the international fisheries problem and nothing about the point of view of the United States. I shall therefore discuss the question from the point of view of the fish."

That is my point of view this weekend. When I interviewed him on PBS, the literary critic George Steiner compared the role of the literary critic to that of a pilot fish. The pilot fish points the way to the giant creative specimen coming along behind it. It is an exciting role but a distinctly minor one. Journalism is like that. The important work this weekend belongs to the giant creative specimen whom it will be my pleasure to introduce. I've said on other occasions that we journalists are beachcombers on the shores of other people's experience and knowledge. I expect to go home with a treasure trove after listening to the experts Bill Crook and this Society have assembled this weekend.

Speaking of treasure troves, the New York Times reported this week that the Navy has begun to release a rich collection of data about the oceans that was clandestinely gathered during the long decades of the Cold War.

For almost half a century our government deployed thousands of ships, airplanes, submarines, and satellites to collect readings on ice depth, ice shape, ocean depth, sediment composition, sea-surface height, salinity, bioluminescence and the transmissibility of light. It was all done in secrecy because the information gathered was vital to the quiet war against the Soviet Union by vessels gliding stealthily through the sea hunting out the hidden assets of our adversaries.

Some of the most recently released data, for example, came from a Navy satellite that in the 1980s made gravity measures over all the world's oceans in an effort to increase the accuracy of long-range missiles fired from submarines. Some came from the frigid arctic where to improve our side's ability in the deadly serious hide-and-seek games of nuclear-armed submarines the Navy amassed huge amounts of information about that coldest theater of the Cold War, where the Soviets tried to hide their missile-carrying subs under the icecaps while the American attack subs tried to track them, ready to destroy them if the war turned hot.

Now the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union belongs in Davy Jones' locker and this classified information is being gradually released. Scientists are ecstatic at how all this might add to our understanding of the environment, geology, climatology, weather forecasting, pollution, marine engineering, and mineral exploration.

Incidentally, a summary of what may be revealed in this long-hidden treasure can be found in the report this summer of the Medea Group, a team of some sixty scientists from the academy and industry who advise the nation's intelligence agencies on how secret data can be used to study the environment. You can get a copy of the Medea Report by voice request at (703) 883-5265, or by fax (703) 883-6190.

I got those numbers from the New York Times, where I have always gotten much of my top secret information--even when I was White House press secretary. No kidding. In the mid-sixties I once asked the Pentagon press office to send over clippings from newspapers around the country reporting on a certain defense policy. A few days later I received several cartons of clippings and every carton--all containing only published clippings--was marked TOP SECRET!

But as I said, this is a subject I leave to our specialists. The hidden secrets of the sea are not my expertise. President Crook asked me, rather, to reflect in these minutes of prelude not on the mysteries that lie in the ocean's depth, but on the mysteries the sea has left in all of us. He said, "Talk about The Ocean Within." And I will.

Perhaps you saw at the museum last evening that exhibit marked "Secrets in Concretions." A concretion is a crust of shells, coral, and minerals formed around metal objects in the sea. They look like a rocky mass. But the shape of the concretion doesn't always betray what it contains. Only x-rays can do that, and if you pushed the button on the exhibit, as I did, a rear panel lighted up to reveal an x-ray which clearly showed the iron objects embedded in the concretion. I understood at that moment precisely what Bill had in mind when he said, "Talk about The Ocean Within."

Our lives are concretions. And deep within us are metaphors and images, memories and visions, deposited there through the millennia by the power of the sea acting on the human imagination. They have shaped our personal and collective responsiveness to the world as surely as the seismic shifts of tectonic plates rebound on distant shores.

I was a landlubber. The insular world that nurtured me was bound north and east by the Red River, and to the south was the Sabine. The only ocean I knew for twenty-one years was the sea of blue horizon that opened above Highway 80 as we left the piney woods of East Texas and headed west toward the skyline of Dallas which soon appeared in the distance like the mast of a mighty-sheeted schooner.

A landlubber--no question about it. And yet even in landlocked East Texas we understood that "they that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep." Now, my only exposure to watery depths was the baptismal pool of the Central Baptist Church, but I knew from Job that "God maketh the deep to boil like a pot." And Isaiah laid upon us the "burden of the desert of the sea." And with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes we pondered how "all the rivers run into the sea, and the sea is not full." And no one who heard our own Newman McLarry preach doubted that upon the arrival of "the new heaven and the new earth" the sea would "give up the dead which were in it."

Miss Selma and Mrs. Hughes made it possible for even high school seniors to see with Byron "the tender azure of the unruffled deep" and with Walt Whitman to imagine no stranger miracles than "the fishes that swim . . . the motion of the waves . . . and ships with men in them." When Inez Hughes read "Thanatopsis" I swear we shivered at those "eternal whisperings around desolate shores." And such ancient echoes reverberated from Childe Harold:
Dark-heaving--boundless, endless and sublime--
The image of eternity--the throne of the invisible;
Even from out of thy slime the monsters of the deep are made . . .
So quietly and unseen, as the oyster spins the pearl, the imagination formed. In my mind's eye I can still see the melancholy but charismatic woman who took Milton from her parlor shelf and introduced innocents from Tulia, Dripping Springs, and Nacogdoches to the "wild and wounded waters" of Paradise Lost:
Before their eyes in sudden view appear
the secrets of the hoary deep, a dark
Illimitable Ocean, without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, and height,
And time and place are lost . . .
She had come home one afternoon, then a much younger woman, to find her husband, the father of their twins, dead at the bottom of the well. And turning to Edwin Markham she recognized in herself what he saw in the sea:
She knows all sights and she knows all sinning,
And they whisper out in her breaking wave;
She has known it all since the far beginning,
Since the grief of that first grave.
She shakes the heart with her stars and thunder
And her soft low word when the winds are late.
For the Sea is Woman, the Sea is Wonder --
Her other name is Fate.
How is it that in the dust of Denton County, in the crustaceous insularity of a life far from the rising and falling tides, the gifts of the sea find hospitality?
How is it we own the sea which in turns owns us?

Perhaps it is that in the unconscious, embedded like the oxidizing iron within the ocean's own concretion, are primal memories of that phantasmagorical Deluge spun by storytellers of many cultures through time. For it is true that deep calls to deep, and the sound of the sea resonates in you and me. After all,
The hollow sea shell, which for years hath stood
On dusty shelves,
When held against the ear
Proclaims its stormy parent, and we hear
The faint, far murmur of the breaking flood.
We hear the sea. The sea? It is the blood
In our own veins, impetuous and near.

Now to our first specimen. She comes from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It was founded in 1902, somewhat before Mary got there. But since her arrival in 1992, she has added so richly to its honored and venerable reputation. If you read the summary of her remarkable accomplishments in your program, you will understand why I am so honored to introduce Mary Altalo.