38. Under the Surface, Spring, 2015

There is a rhythm to our Bay. Tides rise and fall, seasons come and go, the salt water flows from green to dark grey to sky blue. One of the rhythms, most apparent to sailors, is that of the winds. Typically, they are calm in the early morning; pick up with the rising/warming sun; become gusty in the heat of the afternoon and then settle down again in the evening as the sun fades and temperatures retreat.

So it is that I am usually greeted by a calm, sometimes glassy Bay in the early morning.

This morning, with the sun not yet up above the eastern trees, is typical. The Bay is so calm that brightening Cadillac Mountain is reflected on the pale blue surface. Small birds, like Grebes, or Guillemots are readily seen now but will be invisible when the surface is rippled in an hour or so. The Bay is so quiet that it seems almost asleep. No ripples, let alone waves reach our shore. Instead the Bay is calm, its breath gently rising and falling.

Having done my early morning Tai Chi. I am at breakfast looking out on our bird feeders, (still too early for the hummingbirds, but not for the Pine Siskin, Juncos, Purple Finches and Gold Finches), and the Bay beyond.

Suddenly/abruptly the placid surface explodes about 800 yards off shore. Water sprays into the air, rounded forms curve up from the water and back down again. What are they? I do not know — though this is not the first time I have witnessed such eruptions.

Could they be male seals battling for mates? Possible, but it is too late in the season for that — unless, of course, they are just adolescents pretending. Could it be a contest between porpoise and seal? Perhaps. The rounded shapes might fit either. Could it be predators having rounded up a small school of fish and having breakfast? I do not know. It is hard to focus the binoculars on them because they are above the surface so briefly: up for a second or two; down for 30; up again in another place. The battle (or feast) continues for about five minutes; and then, quiet. The surface returns to polished mirror. The ripples caused by the explosion roll out toward flatness. Soon it is as if nothing had happened.

But, of course, something did happen, something that reminds us of how false the quiet is; that beneath the mirror, life and death struggle on. The world is not what it appears to be.

With this surprisingly insistent early morning thought I am reminded of how surfaces lie. It has been cold and gray the last few days. My flats of Nocotiana and Snap Dragons, Salvia, and Petunia seem to have been in hibernation; no growth is apparent. But when I pop them out of their containers for planting I see that they have been busily at work growing roots. Up the road the Peterson house sits quietly, undistinguishable from fifty similar houses scattered around the Point. But our weekly paper, the Ellsworth American, tells me that police were summoned for a “domestic dispute”; charges of abuse are to be filed. Once again, the surface lies.

If you want to understand our Bay you have to look beneath the surface to the drama unfolding there. If you want to understand our garden you have to look past the carefully arranged mulch to the roots, worms, and microbes laboring there. If you want to understand families….

I first came to recognize the duplicity of surfaces when I learned that our word “understand” is actually made up of “under” and “stand”; to understand is to recognize what “stands under”. Without that penetration one lives only on the surface. A richer world lies beneath. It was only this weekend, on NPR that I learned our word “disease” derives from “dis” and “ease”. To be diseased is to suffer from a “lack of ease”. I will never use that word again without it connoting a deeper sense than my prior surface-bound definition afforded me.

If we look only at the surface we are likely to miss much that life has to offer.

As a junior faculty member my department chair asked me to attend monthly meetings of the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences and to sit with him. Afterward, perhaps over a cup of coffee in his office he would patiently explain what was happening “beneath the surface”. What the Chair of Political Science was actually trying to accomplish; why the chemists were resisting.

We are surrounded by surfaces everywhere, but if we will look carefully, be patient, be inquisitive, the surfaces will dissolve and open on to worlds of wonder.

This was the insight of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus: the bow seems quiet and still, but beneath its curves hide forces in tension.

And so it is, even on a quiet spring day in Maine.

I am a retired academic, educated as a philosopher, who now lives at the end of a dirt road in Maine.