More than a quarter century later I found myself in Brittany’s historic St. Malo again sitting on a rock away from the tourists, sipping beer (no cigarettes these days), and staring out over the sea where the crocodile jaw of the English Channel opens widest and devours the Atlantic. The sun was high in a near cloudless sky. It was cool and windy, a welcome respite from the crushing heat in Paris, and the air tasted like salt and fish. The tide was out, way out, exposing broad stretches of seaweed clad ocean floor, slippery jagged avenues mined with tidal pools that led to old stone forts harking back to the days of French corsairs and peg-legged pirates. Soon the tide would be coming in at the speed of a person walking quickly and, in a couple of hours, they would become craggy island clusters and I would be under several meters of thrashing water.
How apropos seeing as I was daydreaming about pirates and the horror of drowning at sea. Specifically, my imagination, warped at the best of times and depraved at the worst, had activated an image of pirates forcing a wretched captive to walk the plank over the Mariana Trench (You don’t? It’s a hook-shaped slice of the western Pacific between Papua New Guinea and Japan which is so deep, if you dropped Mount Everest in there its peak would still be two kilometers under water). Hands bound to prevent swimming and a light cannonball tethered to the ankle to ensure delivery all the way to the very bottom, what blinding terror goes through the mind of such a condemned man bobbing at the end of the plank as large impassive waves roll by far beneath his feet?
In those last few seconds before being nudged off the end by a leering gang of rum-logged sadists, could you even contemplate the steep fall through the air, sharply filling your lungs with your last breath as the water races towards your feet, the biting cold of the terrible splash, the instant tug downwards from the cannonball, the violent futile struggle craning your neck upwards as the liquid sky overhead fades and the water gets darker and darker, the pressure that crushes that last breath from your exploding lungs, resignedly breathing water as indifferent fish flit by effortlessly, and then the limp 10-kilometer descent to rest alone forever in an impenetrable blackness occupied only by a handful of undiscovered microorganisms. Not even this ghastly prehistoric deep-sea motherfucker can make it far enough down to visit your lonely bones:
Still, I thought to myself, it would at least be a pretty quick death and once you’re dead you don’t care if your final resting place is in literally the most remote, dark, and empty place on the planet, right? Right?!* I think I would prefer it to being trapped beneath the deck of a slowly sinking ship. After a couple of agonizing hours of gradual listing, the bow sinks awkwardly lower. You and your doomed companions instinctively pick your way as far aft as possible where a bulkhead blocks any further retreat. Bone-white panicked faces pressed against the portholes now mostly underwater, you listen to the rivets in the hull groaning louder under the increasing strain. The bow finally slips under the waves shorting out the lights and the slow, steady descent begins. Anguished wailing fills the compartment as the rivets pop out like champagne corks and geysers of seawater, stronger than firehoses, flood the compartment. The ship is almost vertical and, as you furiously tread water, there are only a few centimeters of air left between your gasping mouth and the bulkhead. Pounding your fists against the pitiless reinforced steel, you’ve almost exhausted the adrenalin coursing through your egg-beating legs and you cough up your first briny mouthful. You –
“What’s going on up there?” asked my let’s-sneak-up-from-behind-and-startle-the-shit-out-of-him wife, tapping my temple with her forefinger.
“Gaaaaaa!” I shouted almost falling off my rock. “Who are you? Where did you come from? And why are you impersonating my aunt?”
“I’m done shopping and came to find you! It’s almost time to get on the ferry.”
“The fe-fe-fe-ferry. Right. The ferry. Looks pretty rough out there. Let’s wait until tomorrow.”
“What are talking about? It’s perfect weather!”
“As soon as we get on board, I’m dropping my pants, bending over, and getting a shot in the ass. With any luck, I’ll never wake up.”
“You’re making less and less sense every day!” she cried, throwing her arms skyward. “Come on, let’s go!”
“Oh alright,” I grumbled, hopping down gingerly with my busted knee. Picking my way across the moraine-like seabed I stumbled across a sodden old running shoe, so battered only a faded outline remained of its Nike Swoosh. This instantly reminded me of the single running shoes, with feet still inside them, that have been mysteriously washing ashore in British Colombia and Washington State since 2007. Conspiracy theories abound but the most likely explanation is that the feet belong to suicides who ended it by hurling themselves into the complex waterways of the Salish Sea. As it happens, human bodies that don’t succumb to predation (i.e. get eaten by some giant honking sea beast) first will naturally “disarticulate”, or come apart at the joints, hands and feet first. Because a running shoe encases the foot in a flotation device, it’s little wonder they occasionally wash up on the shore (while the feet of suicides in stilettoes, for example, are never heard from again).
“What are you doing now?!” called my wife who had marched on ahead.
“Checking for feet!” I called back as I flipped over the shoe with a stick and sighed in disappointment to see it was empty. Tossing away the stick, I trudged after my wife who was walking away fast and, for some reason, holding the front of her head in her hands as if something was imminently going to burst forth from both temples.
Having finally been wrestled onto the ferry, we were underway and bound for Jersey, a Channel Island 65 kilometers straight north off the coast of Normandy, to commiserate with a friend also sentenced to turn 50 this year. The boozy Brits were in a carnival mood, swilling cheap lager and biting into heavily battered wedges of slippery battleship-gray matter with devastated pre-orthodontics era British teeth. When Whitney Houston drifted through the pipes, my ears started bleeding and I fled to the upper aft deck. Thanks to a taut wind and dark incensed clouds, I was mostly alone and (guess what?) my mind drifted out over the waves.
And waves are what I started thinking about. Rogue waves. Unlike tsunamis which have an identifiable cause (earthquake, volcanic eruption, glacier calving, meteorite impact, etc.,) and can be tracked, rogue waves do not have a single distinct cause, are unexpected, appear out of nowhere and, with heights towering up to 30 meters (100 feet), are the suspected culprits in the sudden and mysterious sinking of countless vessels, some as large as ocean liners. In 1995, the cruise liner RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 encountered and survived a 28-meter rogue wave in the stormy dark heart of the North Atlantic. Sometime later, from the psychiatrist’s couch, her Master recounted that it abruptly “came out of the darkness” and “looked like the White Cliffs of Dover”. To stave off capsizing, the ship had to literally “surf” the near-vertical monster wave…
Alone now on the ferry’s deck (probably because I had been unconsciously talking aloud to myself about killer rogue waves) in the dwindling light, I squinted out towards the distant gloom on the horizon and could have sworn I saw a Dover-cliff-sized wave frothily materializing there. I slowly clawed at my face in dread until I realized it was just the coast of France. That terrified me even more so I fled back below decks, ordered a double from an aging bar wench whose bony structure protruding from loose clothing and splintered teeth reminded me of a praying mantis, and hid in a broom closet until we slipped past stony Elizabeth Castle’s runway of a breakwater and mercifully docked in St. Helier.
After a merry couple of days romping around Jersey, with its windswept near-empty swathes of sandy beach still wistfully guarded over by old German bunkers, we returned to St. Malo where my rock was now invisible beneath a strong hightide breaking its back against the city’s fortress walls. We rented a car and spent the next few days zipping around upper Brittany and lower Normandy.** I delighted in getting lost in the narrow country lanes (i.e. after Google Maps lost its signal, which it frequently did) lined by dense cornfields with stalks as high as those that doomed characters get chased through in the movies. We were never truly lost though because, inevitably, the rolling patchwork of chlorophyll green, bark brown, and lemon yellow would disintegrate into a yawning blue vista where the boundless sea met the boundless sky and invited us down to yet another dazzling beach.
Although the sandy sections of these beaches were littered with bloated tourists half-drowned in suntan lotion and melted ice cream, it was easy to find seclusion along the rockier bits where the ocean had excavated shady hollows at the base of monolithic striated cliffs. One clear sunny afternoon, I discarded my sandals and abandoned my wife in one of these spots to wade in the gentle surf. After much splashing around like a toddler stomping in puddles, I came upon a small spiral shell, intricately painted in deep mauves and oranges. Examining the twisting pattern, which was somehow like a murmuration of starlings, I was once again struck by nature’s artistry, the magnificence of which, in my opinion, has never been matched by any human hand.
I was also reminded of the Fibonacci sequence. You don’t? This 13th Century Italian mathematician stumbled upon it by accident when tinkering around with rabbit populations of all things:
0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233…
Each number in the sequence is the sum of the previous two numbers. Almost childlike in its simplicity, right? But there’s something else. If you divide any number by the previous number, you will get approximately 1.618 every single time all the way down the sequence to infinity. This banal enough looking number is actually much sexier than its famous relative, pi, and has been dubbed phi, or “The Golden Ratio”. Why? Because it is ubiquitous throughout nature from the microscopic to the cosmic. It describes, amongst countless other examples, the:
- Ratio of anionic to cationic radii of all atoms;
- 3-dimensional geometric helix shape that exactly mirrors the known ratios of our DNA molecules;
- Ratio of females to males in any honeybee colony in the world;
- Configuration of branches and leaves on trees and petals on flowers;
- Proportions of human beings including height, eyes, ears, and even the relative dimensions of a woman’s uterus;
- Relationship between the eye, fins, and tail of marine mammals;
- Dimensions of the earth and moon and distances between the planets;
- Structure of Saturn’s rings; and
- Quantum mechanics of black holes.
As I stood transfixed by the shell, I remembered that the Golden Ratio of its spiral is synced with those of our fingerprints, hurricanes, and our very own Milky Way. Not to mention when a rare and unpredictable rogue wave rises up from the sea, ultimate symbol of the random dangerousness of nature, crests and breaks over a mighty container ship containing all variety of human endeavor and snaps it in half like a matchstick consigning everyone and everything on board to the lonesome deep (except for those containers with some buoyancy, perhaps stuffed with Nike shoes, that scatter and drift half-submerged along the temperamental currents of the open seas as spectral hazards to other vessels), it does so in compliance with the Golden Ratio.
There is an underlying pattern to everything.
The cliffs behind me suddenly caught on fire as the sun slung further into the west. I saw that the shade my wife was sheltering in was retreating so I plodded back to her.
“Don’t!” she snapped, straight-arming me the palm of her hand, her eyes unreadable behind bug sunglasses.
“I don’t want to hear anything about walking the plank, drowning on sinking ships, rogue waves, or washed up feet in running shoes, THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!”
“Here,” I said, pressing the shell into her hand and folding her fingers around it.
“A shell?” she asked, perching her sunglasses on top of her forehead.
“A gift from God,” I said.
* Near death out-of-body experiences hint at something else but that is a subject for another blog.
** Advertising pitch! When you go, you must go for dinner at L’Abri des Grèves (http://www.labridesgreves.fr/) in coastal village Cherrueix in Brittany (https://bit.ly/2PIE2jg). There you can sit on the terrasse beside the sea, spectacular Le Mont-Saint-Michel (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mont-Saint-Michel) looming prominently in the background, and have a huge plate of the freshest, tastiest mussels you have ever eaten washed down with a pint of the local cider for about 17.00€. Go for it!
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