Seven Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds
by James Hamilton-Patterson
Europa Editions, New York, 2009
Borrowed from the library.
I first read James Hamilton-Patterson in Granta, one of my few literary indulgences. It was years ago, an article about the sea and it stayed with me. When I saw this book on the “New Book” shelf at the library I had to grab it. Since reading it I have purchased my own copy.
First published in 1992, Seven Tenths is a survey of the ocean world written by someone who treasures it and who has spent years exploring its depths. Beautifully written, it is a mix of poetry and science, fact and myth, filled with superb imagery.
It was whale song which mariners heard filtering through their vessels’ resonant wooden hulls and which they took for Sirens’ voices, beckoning them to disaster.. To have lain in one’s bunk at night and heard on the other side of a few inches of oak and copper sheathing those directionless, distanceless cries must have been to feel the chill of utter melancholy and dissolution–also to have felt one’s nakedness. This is the effect of listening to reef sounds at night, too. It is more that just the nakedness of wearing next to nothing, and it is more than vulnerability. It is the sensation of animal messages passing through one as if, being seven-tenths water, one’s body were transparent. From page 138.
Broken into sections, it speaks of measurement and control, mysterious islands, unknown boundaries and the deep. Each section contains stories of our misconceptions about the oceans, about our fears and our need to understand the unknowable. It is filled with unusual facts and the interesting people who work on and under the sea. Hamilton-Patterson writes with joyous excitement and great love.
That night I go to bed with my head full of marvels. In the course of the evening I also learned that the sea levels at either end of the Panama Canal are different by nearly half a meter, and the same went for the sea on either side of the Florida Peninsula. This was caused by such things as the heaping effect of the wind and the Coriolis force. But I am most captivated by the idea of the earth’s crust vibrating at an ascertainable frequency since it could theoretically be possible to calculate the precise note. True, it probably would not be a pure tone because there would be all sorts of harmonic interference from irregularities such as mountain ranges. Yet, it ought to be possible to determine the fundamental note of the planet, the music of our spheroid. From page 33.
I have never seen phosphorescence as bright as on that night. Leaning over the edge of the bangka I could follow every move of the searchers below. Only, the whirligigs of sparks, the flashings and showers of cold fire were at depths which could not be determined. Just as the glints and refractions in the best opals can appear deeper than the thickness of the stone itself or else closer than its surface, so the divers movements excited discharges of light which were either a few feet away or in a universe beyond. It was vertiginous to gaze down because the view was more what one normally expected to see overhead. On nights as dark as that, it is always hard to define the horizon, to separate black sky from black sea. From page 325.
All of these sections are bound together by the description of a swimmer lost at sea. This description expresses the feelings of fear, loss, loneliness and wonder felt by a person floating in the middle of the ocean.
I found myself awestruck reading about our historic misunderstanding of the sea’s great depths, and our desire to make sense of it. The very human need to mark and measure, to claim some mastery, and if we couldn’t master it to at least have some semblance of control. I could go on quoting passages of fine text for pages and pages.
Hamilton-Patterson has written a meditation on the sea, and a warning to all those who seek economic and political gain from these waters. There are descriptions of the mapping of Economic Enterprise Zones around islands and continents, the destruction of a small Indonesian island for the enjoyment of wealthy tourists and the rampant overfishing by factory trawlers. This is a study of human effects and, in this time of oil spills and acidification, I am glad that Europa has chosen to republish it.