Saltwater in My Hair

Sea Stories

My grandfather had the deepest blue eyes, the colors of the sea, and he taught me the blessings of a life with the sea. His Irish smile reflected stories of a lifetime with the ocean. His seascape paintings were hung in his apartment in downtown Long Beach. His self-portrait, with his blue eyes, represented a different type of geography to my childhood eyes. I thought of his deep blue loneliness, alone in the city, with the paintings of the sea surrounding him as he slept.

During the war, my grandfather was a captain of an all black American crew in the South Pacific fleet. Taking us on a journey across the Pacific Ocean, he told stories of his relationships with the sea and with the crew at war, encounters, battles, an ocean caught in war’s net. Floating soldiers in the midst of ocean creatures; mixing forms of life lost after the sinking of a vessel.

Michael McGinnis

Now, I think about the dreams he must have had of an abundant ocean, swarms of marine life, whirlpools of oceanic gyre. He was on a small boat lying in his bed, surrounded by an ocean of a city’s lights, with his loose change on the wood floor. After he died, I remember crawling on all fours to collect the dusty change that he left behind.

When I was seven, he told me a story of a great black sea bass that he hooked off Long Beach. My father as a child wrapped his arms around his father, as the huge fish took the bait. Grabbing hold of my grandfather, my father was his anchor, holding him down against the pull of the great fish, as my grandfather’s fishing pole bent over the boat’s rail. But the big eyes of the sea bass did not appear. The great fish could not be landed.

Now my brown-gray hair is dripping in the rain. My grandfather’s portrait I have become. On a boat offshore the Channel Islands, I am looking at Pine Mountain. A river meets the sea in colors: mountains, rivers, and sea, one ocean. In winter, the kissing rain covers me. The morning chorus of sea birds wakes me. The rhythm of my heart is reflected in the pulse of a winter’s swell, the explosion of finger reefs and the waves finishing their long journey to shore. The song of the sea is sound of running water along a creek’s bank as the rain falls. Salt water breath of each day with the sea I am happy. Blue ring on my finger, shadow I am. Blue ring lost at sea, sea in a rain dance.

We are blessed.

Breath of the sea dispels my fear. Break into a new dawn, golden rising sun, a new pattern of life. My pockets are full of shells found on a beach; I smile. I remember my childhood playground on the beach, childhood fingers in the sand. Peace in me, come be in me. Saltwater her, Pacific her. Comfort me, tumble and work me. Roll me over, saltwater spray, show me. Eyes are clouds. Ice, fire, sun in a Sanctuary.

How can I repay my debt to the sea? This debt is based on a memory of fishing from shore or on a boat, drifting along a shore’s current. Some fishers of our region are angry because I stood up for protecting the marine areas off our shore, and supported marine protected areas. They feel as if they have been robbed of their catch. But a good hunter knows when to stop fishing. When the big fish are gone, a good hunter knows that the few big fish remaining are worth protecting no less than the stories of our grandfathers are worth telling. A fish is not a fishery. A big fish embodies the life of a fisher’s story. Without these big fish, our stories along the waterfront are less meaningful and less significant.

So, I ask those who fish the sea to remember our stories. If you have lived along this coast as long as I have, and can remember your great-grandfather’s story of a line in the water, the type of bait used, the playfulness of otters and dolphins, the wonder of a child’s first sight of a school of fish, then we have a common history. No ocean of life is a mere commodity. A hunter’s story embraces what is held in common.

As the poet Gary Snyder notes, “We all live in accordance to an oceanic commons. [W]e need to make a world-scale ‘Natural Contract’ with the oceans, the air, the birds in the sky. The challenge is to bring the whole victimized world of the ‘common pool resource’ into the Mind of the Commons … [T]here is no choice but to call for the recovery of the commons, and this in a modern world which doesn’t quite realize what it has lost.”

The quest for a “recovery of the commons” requires a fundamental shift in values to primarily supporting the life-giving qualities of a living ocean planet, rather than the short-term values of maximizing financial return and resource use from the sea. Marine biodiversity protection is about not only protecting enough quality marine habitats, it’s about reducing the economic scale of resource use.

As I turn to the sea each day, I wish I could embrace her many fingered reefs. The cluster of life in pockets of swirling pools far offshore, the cobalt blue. There is a limestone graveyard for birds near the sea. For thousands of years, a whirlpool of bones. The sea is full of reckless kisses. Ash mind, volcanic verse. Sunflower speaks to bee pollen. Soul and thunder I am. I hung out in the shadows under Bishop pine forests of Santa Cruz Island, with the wind blowing the seeds of the pioneer, coyote brush, to escape the fennel of the canyon and to change a flat tire on the ridgeline road; felt the cold down into my bones; thought of 20 warbler species, 10 oak brothers, 4 manzanita; and the notions of endemism, Noah’s ark, and oceanic moat, became clear …

I am in the midst of an old row of father eucalyptus. Cutting them down. I followed a well-traveled path. In the smell of animals found my way home. Between the folds, a mountain moves. A bird drops, falls with the light, like the water’s fall from Mission Creek. Flowers weave colors, trees unfold, change. Butterflies are flying to rest in trees this time of year. They resemble the paths of whales, the crossing sun, a melody of a star. Footsteps in a canoe, we swim in a magic sea-spell. A hawk cries and flies, shaking rain drops.

What is it doing? It is doing happiness.


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