A perch in the sand on a pristine beach invites a summer afternoon’s reflections, and here where North Carolina’s Outer Banks meet the Atlantic we’re all sea-watchers, looking and listening for changes in color and texture in the ocean, diving for shells, wondering how far from the distant Gulf of Mexico the tar balls will travel. The seas have always offered a mix of possibilities, opportunity and threat, exploration and discovery, recreation and exploitation. But this is the summer of our discontent. We’re all humbled with respect for the sea, and man’s place in it and by it.
Life was once dangerous here, when pirates prowled the Outer Banks, seizing booty and having a high old time terrifying everyone. The Folger Shakespeare Library’s current exhibition called “Lost At Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination” couldn’t be more timely, taking us fathoms deep into the experiences of mariners, scientists, inventors, explorers, poets and preachers. The exhibition begins with a 1709 illustration of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” showing the storm-tossed ship where Ariel and his fellow spirits shoot fire and lightning into the rigging. The wizard Prospero stands on the shore, attempting to impose both order and chaos, as apt as any metaphor for BP’s now-tamed runaway oil well off the coast of Louisiana.
Steve Mentz, one of the two exhibition curators, studies ocean imagery and concludes that 21st century culture has frayed the human connection to the sea. “The end of the age of commercial sail and the advent of airline travel, airborne warfare, containerization, the automation of ports, and even the romance of outer space, have displaced the sea from the center of our cultural imagination,” he writes in “At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean.” Even the southern tip of Manhattan, “where sailors and longshoreman once walked, bankers and lawyers now stride in isolation.”
The terror, unfortunately, hasn’t gone away, but merely changed delivery systems from sea to air. The misadventures of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a general and half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh, reverberates throughout the Folger exhibit. Sir Humphrey was eager for Elizabethan England’s expansion into the New World but recognized the hazards as well. As his ship Squirrel was swallowed by the sea, taking him and his entire crew with it, the captain of a neighboring ship claimed to have heard his last words: “We are as near to heaven by sea as by land.”
The menace of the sea, as Shakespeare’s contemporaries understood and as we are re-learning today, can be as much man-made as the work of nature. Virginia Lunsford, a professor of history at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, tells a rapt Folger audience how Blackbeard, the notorious buccaneer of the 18th century, like the Somali pirates of today conducted a reign of terror that relied on small and brutal crews armed with cutlass, sword and ferocious ambition. She flashes a huge photograph of Johnny Depp on a screen, observing that pirates were never as charming and swashbuckling as the dashing Mr. Depp makes them out to be as Captain Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” But Blackbeard was a genius at marketing. He put tiny fuses in his locks under his hat and exploded them, blowing smoke, attempting to terrify onlookers. The ruse worked. He snipped off the ears of captives and forced them to eat them. The horror stories grew in proportion to his success.
Coastal merchants, like the owners of the oil tankers now prey of pirates off the Somali coast, were quick to surrender booty and themselves, hoping to receive mercy, not wrath. When Blackbeard was finally killed in a bloody battle near Ocracoke Inlet, only a few miles from my vacation beach, delighted children shiver to the scary tale of how a soldier wielding a sword beheaded him and Blackbeard swam around his ship without a head, to remind everyone of his continuing power.
Less fantastic, but more inspiring, is the story of “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe. The Folger exhibit reminds us that the story was based on a man in real life who was marooned on an island. Defoe changed the narrative to be read as an allegory of how human ingenuity can triumph over hardship. Yet, for all Western civilization’s triumphs over the sea, the briny blue remains a fathomless mystery. Man, with his ships both big and small, can imagine himself omnipotent, or at least pretty grand, but the sea gets the last word. We remain in awe of its power, and sometimes feel more than a little “lost at sea.”
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.