Salubrious Triviality

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The world is indeed too much with us, late and soon. We have too many contracts and iPods and too little time or calm for looking about. One readily forgets this amid blatting buses and blowing exhaust and sprinting for the subway, amid bills and commercials and forms to fill. Yet still there are things other than elections and recessions, maybe things even more important, certainly things that have been around longer than we have or will be.

Some years back I was on a scuba trip to the Caribbean with Capital Divers, my then dive club out of Washington. I forget just where we were. We made these trips annually for several years and they blur together. The club usually chartered one of those 125-foot or so specialized dive boats and spent most of our time underwater. Dive, burgers, beer, sleep, dive. Bright sun, blue water, explosion of bubbles as you stepped off the dive deck and finned at ten feet to the anchor line. Cool water leaking into wetsuits and running down your spine. More bursts of bubbles with a diver magically materializing from within.

One day we swam along a deep wall at 120 feet, maybe fifteen of us, the sea dropping below us to blue-black night and the wall colorless in the crepuscular dimness of depth. It was deeper than a basic instructor would recommend, but Cap Divers was a bit of a cowboy outfit, and everyone was experienced. Curling misshapen growths of deep water projected from the rock like tangled ropes and distorted cups in some nightmarish basement. The only sounds were the slow ssssssss-wubbawubba of breath and exhaust and the locationless clicking of arthropods.

A curious relaxation comes over you at such times, a sense of not mattering at all to the sea, of the world as an older and bigger place than Washington or even New York, of detachment from fizzing little wars of columnists and from pols and polls. Call it a salubrious triviality. If I could bottle the feeling, drug markets would wither overnight.

In a hundred thousand years, if we do not manage to poison the seas, the deep walls will not have changed. That is a long time, longer even than the life span of the most august of brokerage houses. Permanent we are not, and will not be noticed in the long span of time. A soothing thought, that.

Those droning nature shows on television say that the ocean is hostile to man. I think it is not, though it is a bad place to make mistakes. The ocean is a huge, huge world that doesn’t care about us, isn’t interested, has other things to do. You see documentaries that try to make sharks sound dreadful. In fact they do not seem to regard as food a weird humpbacked creature with one big eye and emitting bubbles. In murky water they will sometimes make a run at a diver and then veer off when they see what it is they were attacking. Few creatures underwater are hostile to people. Yes, odd things swim or flap or drift by, but usually pay no attention. They have their agendas, and we have ours.

You can wonder what God or Darwin had in mind. Whatever goes on at corporate, it is well above our pay grade.

I forget who I was buddied up with, but she stopped and hung, fascinated, with her mask over a big barrel sponge. A small diver could crawl into some of these things. She motioned me over. In the glow of dive lights I saw a bright red arrow crab sheltering. At that depth a dive light makes everything it touches burst into color as if you were throwing paint at it. Color gets filtered out rapidly as you descend, leaving only a wan lifeless blue. It turns the growth on walls to ugly and dark grays and browns.

The beastie was built like an aspirin tablet with great long jointed legs, a daddy longlegs of the ocean. It stalked slowly about, puzzled by our lights I suppose. I wondered what it thought it was doing, or we were doing. Seeing these odd confections at home is not like seeing them on television, with some tedious voice-major reading fourth-grade platitudes about mysteries he doesn’t begin to understand. He doesn’t even know that they are mysteries. Maybe we spend too much time in the suburbs.

The sea is a dead world, though living. In a forest you can imagine communing with the deer or squirrels or having a pet bird sit on your shoulder. The land is our world. The sea isn’t. Fish swim slowly by, eyes cold and devoid of thought, of anything we would grasp. Few things can be as dull and empty, as stupid, as the eyes of fish, though news anchors come close. For untold millions of years they — the fish — have done this, and will. I do not think that even a renegotiation of NAFTA can change it.

Below a hundred feet you don’t have much time before your computer squeaks warnings about going into decompression tables. With single tanks we didn’t have air enough for deco stops and anyway it is tedious spending half an hour hanging on a down-line. We were starting to drift our way upward when they came by, three of them: Big dark rays, flying in formation. Their wingspan may have been four feet. It is hard to tell with the magnifying effect of water. People describe rays as oceanic bats, as flying bathmats, but these don’t catch the smooth rippling flexing flap of soft chilly flesh. A marine biologist would class them as elasmobranches, in-laws of sharks, the clinical jargon giving an impression of infinite understanding. The marine biologist would be wrong. Rays are…God knows what, but nothing Greco-latinate.

We had all seen rays before, but this was prettier, a privilege, and we knew it. I cannot explain how anything so ugly as a ray can be so lovely, but they manage it. I have heard them called devil fish by people of the surface, but they are as ominous as potatoes. They passed us, graceful, fast, as if going somewhere with a purpose in mind. And disappeared. We chased them a bit, knowing the futility but doing it anyway. A garden slug might as profitably chase a whippet. I felt like a mouse in a computer room: Something was going on, but it wasn’t my business.

We stared — programmers, GS-14s, journalists, graduate students, all the detritus of Washington — and resumed our ascent. Our computers were becoming importunate. Underwater, one does not ignore computers.

This column first appeared in shorter form in The American Conservative.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.

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