Sunday, September 4, 2016
On the Shore
Almost exactly one hundred years ago the photographer Edward S. Curtis recorded with his camera an elderly Chinook woman gathering clams on the Pacific shore. The woman, we believe, was the daughter of the great Seattle, and was known as Princess Angelina. Now a century later, just a little farther south of where that photograph was taken, I stand on that same shore gazing out over that same ocean.
That photograph which Curtis made has inspired and informed so much of my life and my own writing and poetry. It is the archetypal image of a lone woman standing on the shore. Even a short while ago and half a world away I could not have imagined that I would be standing here, but a dear friend has made it possible, and the wished-for unthinkable has happened. The pathways of our life’s journeyings, whether they are those which happen on a map or which take place inside ourselves, are in the end always unpredictable. We know this so well through experience. We make our plans and the gods smile at our naivety and send us off in another direction entirely. At times that other direction is something other than we would have wished for, and yet on other occasions – as has happened to me now – it can bring rewards the more remarkable exactly because they were unexpected.
How many other footprints have been left on this same Pacific shore where I now stand? Princess Angelina’s certainly, but also those of Sacagawea, the courageous young Shoshone woman who was the invaluable guide on the William Clark and Merriweather Lewis expeditions of exploration. It was the wish of Sacagawea to see the ocean, and – just once – she did. And what of the many 19th-century settlers who with their wagons followed the Oregon Trail west? Finally to have reached this same shore where I now stand must have seemed like a blessing indeed after facing and persevering with the many dangers and hardships of their long journey. But to those settlers the ocean also clearly defined the limits of that journey: unlike the frontiers of the land it was a frontier that was absolute. Thus far, said the Oregon shore, and no farther.
The distant waves which even now I hear from my window as I write this have rolled in from another east: from Japan, from China, from Indonesia. The ocean as well has its journeys, and the patterns of its travelling currents are more predictable than the patterns of human travels. And what of my own footprints which I leave here on this shore? They will have been washed away by those journeying waves even before today’s sun has set, and certainly long before I myself travel back home to the Netherlands. And yet I have peace and take strength from knowing that, even though our timing might be different, they at last have joined those of Princess Angelina and Sacagawea. What the waves erase so easily finds a more enduring place in the memory, and it is there that my fragile footprints in the Oregon sand will remain.