Thursday, April 27, 2017

Water I Have Known

Over the last few days I've been gobbling up a remarkable biographical novel called Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère. In one passage toward the end of the book Carrère, who drifts in and out of the narrative, inventories all the bodies of water he's been in, on, next to or traveled over. This morning, still horizontal and under the mosquito net, Ruth and Muki passed out next to me, I thought: "Hey, I'd much rather start the day by remembering the bodies of water I've known and loved than by doing my tax return."

In the beginning it was creeks. We always lived near one and me and my young pals would spend endless hours damming them, tormenting frogs, pollywogs and salamanders, and generally disrupting nature as much as possible. That is the job of little boys. There was also a noisy community pool that filled several of my summers as a youngster. And I was lucky to live near the ocean, so regular family trips there were common during warm weather. Unfortunately, it was the frigid Pacific Ocean on the California coast so swimming was not an option, given that I'm not a masochist (I never surfed), but wading and tidepooling were a pleasure to be sure. Tidepools, with their spectacular micro-worlds, are still one of my favorite bodies of water.

I grew up around the San Francisco Bay and sailed on it once or twice, but the most transcendental (verging on psychedelic) bay experience came to me on Marin County's Tomales Bay while kayaking -- at night. During the bioluminescence. Bioluminescence occurs when tiny glow-in-the-dark beasts -- think underwater fireflies, but much smaller -- convene in the bay. You paddle your kayak out to the darkest water then look straight down, and there's the Aurora Borealis! It's a thrill, gloriously beautiful.

Other bays I've loved: Honaunau Bay on Hawaii, every morning a pod of gymnastic spinner dolphins shows up to feed and swim in circles. Back in the day, I'd go down, swim out among them, sometimes they'd rub right against me as they swam past or went rocketing and rotating ten feet above the surface; Kealakekua Bay, also on the Big Island, another great dolphin sighting spot, and the place where Captain Cook first stepped onto the Sandwich Islands, ushering in centuries of darkness in that sunwashed land. Mark Twain extolled the beauty of both these bays, which he reached on horseback, in his Sacramento Union newspaper pieces -- the life-change turning point that took him from being a literary lightweight to world fame.

Honaunau is where I first snorkeled, one of my true loves. Later I snorkeled along the Great Barrier Reef off Heron Island (20 foot manta-rays, 8 foot groupers), and the Indian Ocean off Zanzibar (best coral ever, giant clams, shipwrecks). I've flown over the Arctic Ocean, staring down from 30,000 feet at its dreamscape of turquoise water and blinding white icebergs, and walked on the powdery hot snow of the Caribbean beaches of the Yucatan. Also in Yucatan I gazed down into the jewel clear waters of the cenotes, the bottomless sinkholes where humans were sacrificed in the days when Kukulcan ruled heaven and earth.

Uganda is a treasure for water lovers. Not only do great buckets of h20 come dramatically splashing out of the sky most days, but the country is filled with freshwater and salt lakes (including Victoria, the second largest lake in the world), also crater lakes, ponds, streams, rivers and, of course, the Mama River --the Nile, literally a river of life-- which flows northward, more than 4000 miles, over Africa. But my favorite body of water in Uganda may be the Kazinga Channel, a natural 40km ribbon of water that connects Lake Edward and Lake George. Cruising its placid waters one virtually rubs shoulders with hippopotamus, elephants, crocodiles, giant Nile Perch, Cape buffalo, lions (we watched a cub chasing birds) and all manner of extraordinary looking birds.

On the other side of the world -- Big Sur, California to be precise -- and a half century earlier, I spent many a late, sensual night in the hot springs at Esalen Institute. The baths the springs flowed into were perched in a three-sided building on the cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean. I'd lie in the shallow tub with a collection of fellow hippies and gaze out at the moonlit water far below, dozing, dreaming and conversing interchangeably until sunrise.

I've known many other bodies of water, and there are countless others I'd like to know, have the opportunity to fall in love with -- such as the oases of the Sahara and Australia's outback, myriad rivers: the Volga, the Congo, the Semliki (and its hot springs), the Thames, the Seine, the Ganges, the Mississippi, the Colorado and the Rogue, the list goes on. Also the great man-made water bodies: the canals of Venice, the Panama and Erie Canals. I'd like to swim the backstroke in the pool at Hearst Castle. And just one more time I want to slide across the broad, flat, caramel waters of the Mekong at sunset.

Once I've done all that, I'd turn back time more than a half-century, find the nameless creek that ran behind our house through a canyon of eucalyptus and bay trees, poison oak and wild berries, and walk along it looking for pollywogs and salamanders.

But now it's time to do my taxes...

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