Reverence for Water (Halifax)

One woman stood in front of the others, central. 24 women lined up behind her. They were all dressed the same, simply, elegantly. Many, if not most, of them were First Nations or descendants.

Blue shimmering cloths were strewn about the floor, representing water. The women moved among the cloths as they sang and danced. They stepped in the imaginary water, spread it on their hands, splashed it on each other, looked upon it in wonder.

The woman in front told a long story, mixed with song. She spoke in a childlike voice of wonder, with kindness and curiosity, rage and pain in her voice. She spoke of revering water, of feeling like it was her mother and that she belonged in it. She cried as she spoke of the pain of the ocean, its limited resources, its pollutions, the endangered sea creatures. She screamed in rage as she addressed the apathy of men. The women’s choir moved in unison behind her, reacting to her emotions, feeling everything she was feeling.

The performance took place in the middle of the Maritime Museum. The backdrops were literal sailboats and blue paint, wooden masts and wave patterns. It was haunting. In the right company, it could have been silly. But here, with these people in this place, it arrested me. I was deeply moved.

The next morning, I got up early to see the sunrise. I walked down the hill to the shoreline and walked along the docks. There were a few dog walkers, a couple holding hands in Adirondack chairs, a few scattered joggers. I found a seat at the edge of the water and looked to the horizon. The breeze hit my skin and a shiver passed through me.

My eyes moved to the water’s surface. It rippled and billowed. It was dark black and blue, with white cascades across the top. The sun peaked over the hill and reflected on its surface. I took a moment to consider the landscape I’d been walking across the last few days, with rolling hills, long flat stretches, higher peaks, and different types of soil and plants growing out of each area. All of that diversity, in soil and terrain and plants, extended out there, under the water. It was shallow and deep, hilly and flat, with different patches of sediment and plant life everywhere. The water could extend up over the land or recede farther. It was sheer power, sheer beauty.

The angry, compassionate, pained, joyful chorus of women from the night before passed through my head, and I breathed in deeply.

A head bobbed out of the water and I gasped aloud. “Oh my God,” I whispered in awe. I gestured to the couple in the Adirondacks. “Look!” A large dark brown head, a black nose, extending whiskers, dark black eyes. The creature was breathing. I could hear it breathing. If I laid down on the dock and reached out, I could touch it. The harbor seal was on its back, its face and flippers poking out of the water. My sons would have screamed with joy. They love seals. I watched the creature, lazily floating, diving back under, floating more, for about fifteen minutes, before it descended and didn’t rise again.

A few hours later, I climbed on board the Kawartha Spirit. It was windy and raining as the captain called out, “All right, guys, let’s do ‘er!”, and the boat pulled away from dock. An elderly man, a local, talked for nearly two hours about the history of the port as we moved out into the bay, toward the deeper ocean. He cracked Dad jokes every few minutes, and I groaned at everyone of them. “If anyone yells man overboard, we’ll save ya! Never had to yell woman overboard yet, women are much too sensible to jump in, less’n a man pushed ’em, then they prob’ly deserved it!” and “You might see snowshoe hares on the horizon but don’t get too close or they’ll run away! In Canada, we call that a receding hare-line!” and “You may see men drinking while fishing over on the shoals. Their wives want them to come home, but they prefer their whiskey on the rocks!”

The boat moved with the waves, sloshing side to side, as the man recounted the different kinds of marine life that could be seen here in the harbor. “The farther you go out, the bigger the animals get!” Mackerel, herring, bluefin tuna, Atlantic sunfish. Lobsters and crabs. Lots of seals, but mostly the harbor kind. Fin whales, minke whales, harbor porpoises, white whales that are critically endangered (less than 400 left in the world), pilot whales, humpback whales. Cormorants, gulls, and thresher birds. On the shore, beavers, brown bears, raccoons, coyotes, caribou, lynx. At one point, the boat stopped to pull in a lobster cage. He showed us three large lobsters (and one frightened rock crab) talked about their reproductive cycles, their life spans, how they can regrow limbs, how they never stop growing until they die, then he let them go.

The boat pulled out farther as he discussed the impact of Hurricane Juan, the military bases on various islands in the 1700s, and during World Wars 1 and 2. He talked about U-Boat fights and sunken ships. He spoke with reverence about the Native Americans who’d lived in this region for thousands of years.

I gazed at the dark grey water with wonder before I spotted the white bird with the golden cap. Later, after asking, I learned it was a gannet, but some call it a dive-bomber. It has water-proof feathers, I was told, and special membranes that close over its eyes so it can be protected in the water. I watched the impressive bird fly high into the sky, then dramatically arc down to the water, plunging in at full speed with a loud splash. It was under for nearly thirty seconds before emerging with a fish in its talons. It sat atop the water a moment, spread its wings, and flew away. Then I saw a porpoise fin and three more harbor seal heads bob up. There was life. Everywhere.

The wind shifted and the boat twisted horribly from side to side, like a massive teeter totter. It rolled heavily in the waves and I felt myself go green for the next 20 minutes. I put my head down on the table and breathed evenly until we were back on land.

Later, I watched the sun set. The water turned black again. The gulls went quiet. And I turned my back to the ocean, thinking of plastics, and oil spills, and hurricanes, and how I, we, all of us are very, very fragile, and very, very temporary, while the ocean remains.

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