- Marine Air: Thinking about Fish, Weather, and Coastal Stories
“The kelp in amorous coils appear to pin down the Pacific”
In early summer, I spent an evening with my friend and my daughter, drifting on Oyster Bay in an old fiberglass canoe. Oyster Bay is a long body of water, part of Pender Harbour on the Sechelt Peninsula, which is dotted with small rocky islands. At low tide, almost the entire bay is a length of mud, the channels of the various creeks that empty into the bay articulating the bottom with rivulets of fresh water. Walking the bay at very low tide, you can see weather-worn stakes of cedar, indicating the location of a weir, driven in the last century or before by a Sechelt man or woman wielding a heavy pile driver, perhaps carved with the head of a dogfish looking away from the striking side.
But we were drifting at high tide, letting the currents take us to the head of the bay, where we planned to ease the canoe through the eelgrass and long strands of kelp, up to the cabin where Elizabeth Smart wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. My friend’s family owns much of the property on the northwest side of the bay, and the cabin belongs to them, along with various other outbuildings: another log cabin, an old net-shed, two cabins facing one another over a breezeway where a Japanese family lived until displacement in World War ii. Occasionally, the cabin Elizabeth Smart lived in is rented out but not this summer. We headed in that direction to look at it and see if the inscription, the cut worm forgives the plough, is still legible above the door. We glided past herons and dunlins on the muddy shore and past a pair of mergansers guarding their nesting site. We kept the canoe on course by pushing the paddles against the sides of the creek, where a Virginia rail kick-kick-kick-acked in the bullrushes and a blue-eyed snake swam strongly through the eelgrass. The surface of the creek was broken by the flipping of tiny salmon: coming down the creek from the gravel spawning beds further up, they were about to enter the ocean for the next part of their lives.
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is not a quintessentially [End Page 203]
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West Coast book. Intense and passionate, it owes something of its cadences to the Bible and to Shakespeare, and its images of the natural world are subservient to the fierce emotional drama of the narrative. But the passages set in Monterey, where “the Pacific in blue spasms reaches all its superlatives” and “where the sea otters leave their playing under the cliff [and] the kelp in amorous coils appear to pin down the Pacific,” are as keenly rendered as much of what we consider to be regional or specific to the Coast. The cabin by Oyster Bay crouches under several enormous broad-leafed maples, cool and green in summer, and Naples yellow, edged in burnt sienna, in fall. I like to think this was what Elizabeth Smart had in mind when she wrote of “the old gold of the October trees, the stunted cedars, the horizons, the chilly gullies with their red willow whips.” I’ve imagined living in this cabin by myself, with the generous life of the estuary at my doorstep. Mornings, I’d drink my coffee and watch the eagles in the stand of firs on the other side of the bay, blackbirds loud in the reeds along the creek. Almost as good, I’ve begun a novel in which an Irish schoolmaster ends up in a cabin very like this one, on a bay very like Oyster; he scrawls a name for the cabin, “World’s End,” on a cedar shake with a piece of charcoal from his fire and rows a battered skiff out to...