three desultory notes and the eidetic sail


1) The tides on Swan’s Island, like the famous tides of the Bay of Fundy, can be characterized by the great extremes between high and low tide.  In addition to this, however, there are also tidal extremes where the high tide is especially high and the low tide rides out lower than low.  The other day I went down to Toothacher Cove, where I do most of my afternoon beach walking, only to find the tide so low that a whole new extra beach, one that I had never seen before, was revealed before me.  For about twenty feet below the usual low-tide water line a muddy beach full of mussel beds, accidental tide pools, and clam flats was suddenly available for walking on.  I took off my shoes and wandered through the mud.  Tiny crabs scuttled for shelter when they saw me coming, and here and there a clam spout would erupt into the air.  I saw the first live sand dollar that I think I’ve ever seen, busy burying itself in the sand in order to escape the encroaching dryness.  Unlike the denuded sand dollars we normally find in the surf, this one was covered with a short, fine, hairy coat.  The most exciting thing that I found, however, were a few enormous clamshells, perhaps six inches across or more.  Unlike the soft-shelled clams that I normally dig for in Back Cove, which are usually three or four inches across at most, these clamshells were pure white and extremely hard.  I wondered if these were the famed New England quahogs, a mollusk that I’d wanted to meet since first encountering it in the sequence from Moby-Dick where Captain Peleg mistakenly refers to Queequeg as ‘Quohog’:

“I say, tell Quohog there — what’s that you call him? tell Quohog to step along.  By the great anchor, what a harpoon he’s got there! looks like good stuff that; and he handles it about right.  I say, Quohog, or whatever your name is, did you ever stand in the head of a whale-boat? did you ever strike a fish?”

2) The other night I had a dream that involved Hakuho, Cher, and a bunch of baby boa constrictors that looked as they had been created for a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.  Thankfully, they all made their appearances in completely unrelated sequences.

3) While trying to pick out a toothbrush at the supermarket the other day, it suddenly struck me how hideous toothbrush design has become.  There wasn’t a single toothbrush available that didn’t engage in some biomorphic sleight of hand — an attempt to insure that the bristle angles and unsightly bulbousness have a properly medico-scientific look about them — and color schemes that make the famous Dutch guilder notes (which I am secretly in love with) look positively anemic.  The colors used in contemporary toothbrushes seem to be exactly those colors that parents tolerate in children’s toys while the kids are young, but move out of the living room as soon as humanly possible once the children get older.  It’s as if all of the ‘playful’ design associated with the tech boom of the 90s has somehow been injected into the toothbrush aisle, while history has moved on everywhere around it.  Standing in front of the toothbrush aisle and trying to pick out the least hideous toothbrush, I even began to wonder if there wasn’t a great conspiracy afoot amongst toothbrush makers, a secret contest to design toothbrushes so hideous that people would simply stop brushing their teeth rather than put something so ugly in their mouths.  Where’s William Morris when you need him?

4) Sitting on the back deck, I’m reading about Franz Brentano and looking out across Toothacher Cove.  It’s a beautiful day and the sun is shining down at just the right angle to make the entire surface of the sea glitter like fish scales.  Off in the distance, a lobster boat moves from trap to trap as it checks for lobsters and restocks empty bait bags.  I turn back to my book and read this:

Brentano uses the term ‘presentation’ much as Locke and Hume used the term ‘idea’.  There are as many kinds of presentations as there are mental contents.  I can have a presentation of a ‘triangle’ or of a ‘colour’, or even ‘the thinking of a general concept’.  The term ‘presentation’ refers to that part of any mental process which brings something before the mind: “We speak of a presentation whenever something appears to us.”

Just at this moment I look up from my book and there, just beyond the point where Toothacher Cove becomes Toothacher Bay, is a beautiful two-masted schooner, sailing across the sparkling horizon like a dream.  The sails of the schooner form two perfect triangles, lit up by the sun.  The image is a beautiful abstraction on the one hand — a scene of geometric purity and simplicity — while on the other it references all of the cultural clutter associated with ‘the age of the sail.’  As the schooner sails across the bay, I can’t help but think of the sequence in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, where Douglass gazes out at the sailboats gliding across Chesapeake Bay and contrasts the freedom of the boats with his own condition under slavery.

 Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every corner of the habitable globe.  Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.  I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean.  The sight of these always affected me powerfully.  My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships: —

“You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains and am a slave!  You move merrily before a gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!  You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly around the world; I am confined in bands of iron!  O that I were free!”


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