In the span of a few weeks, I’ve been blessed to dip my toes into both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. While I’m not really a “lay out on the beach” kind of girl, I love the smell of salt water, seafood of all kinds, marine birds, boats and harbors, playing in tide pools, and just staring out to sea, listening to the song of the waves crashing against the shore. I’d never quite realized before how different the songs of the Pacific are from the songs of the Atlantic, but it hit me quite forcibly this last trip, as I stood on the beach in California, trying to hum something in my head to go with the ambiance. When I’m on the Atlantic, I can always hear, or imagine hearing, something. Carribbean music. An Irish whistle. A sea shanty or sailors’ hymn. Stories pop into my mind and I see faces in the rocks. I’m filled with nostalgia for things I’ve never experienced and feel loss for people I never knew.
The view from L’anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland:
But standing on the beach at Asilomar, looking out over the open Pacific, the waves crashing against the rocks in the cool, misty evening, I couldn’t drum up a song that felt right. Everything I tried felt too specific, too particular. I tried to catch a whisper of a digiridoo or a gamelan or a koto, but I couldn’t hold onto any of them. They were too far away, and the sounds of the ocean washed them away.
Instead of feeling connected to stories and people, as I usually do at the Atlantic, I felt something else. Everything seems bigger on the west coast; the cliffs, the waves, the trees, the mountains seem to work in concert to make you feel like you’re at the end of the earth, rather than on the open precipice of the world. At first, I blamed it on the orientation of most world maps, which has arbitrarily fixed in my mind an understanding of the East as something we approach from the West, rendering me incapable of connecting to what I know of that region when facing West.
But what I felt instead was a connection to the earth as a giant planet, hurtling through space. I can’t quite explain it, but I thought I could feel the utter vastness between North America and Asia. I felt like I could understand the turning of the earth in space, like the Ninth Doctor:
Because really, I was at the end of the earth, or rather, at the edge of Pangaea the original supercontinent which contained all of the continents we know now in one connected unit. When they split, the Atlantic grew up in between the East and the West like a gash down the middle, rendering the Atlantic an rift. The Pacific, however, is the original ocean, and it’s edges seem somehow truer because of it. I felt cut off from the countries across the water, as if they bordered the other end of the world (some parts did, some parts didn’t – also, watch here for an animated rendering of the split – it really shows the impact of the formation of the Himalayas). While the Atlantic evokes images of shipwrecks and human tragedy, the Pacific seems to engulf those same images in its sheer geological dominance.
Monterey Bay, California:
But the real story is more human than that. Perhaps it feels like the edge of the earth to me because that’s how we treat it. As the California State Parks and Recreation Site puts it, while the better known Ellis Island was designed to welcome immigrants into the United States, the West Coast’s US Immigration Station on Angel Island was a detention facility designed to exclude Chinese immigrants, interning them for indefinite periods of time like prisoners, subjecting them to impossible identification tests and unsanitary conditions which bred sometimes fatal diseases, and often sending them back to their starting point.
Walking through the detention center on a visit there in 2011, I felt that same sense of insignificance and displacement I described above, but it had nothing to do with geology. It was written into the walls of the dormitories and hallways. Under layers of paint and etched into the wood were poems, stories, warnings, simple records, and even jokes written by detainees to vent frustration, mark the passing of time, or entertain themselves. While Ellis Island teems with geneological history churned out of the Atlantic Ocean, Angel Island feels quiet and forgotten, the stories of the people who passed through trapped and held there anonymously instead of rushing out and proliferating into the land.
Angel Island Immigration Station:
One of the poems, as printed in an article about Angel Island at the San Francisco Chronicle’s website, captures that disconnection thus:
“I wish I could travel on a cloud far away, reunite with my wife and son,” says a poem composed of Chinese characters and carved into the barracks’ wall. “When the moonlight shines on me alone, the night seems even longer.”
Another sample from the collection above:
In the quiet of night, I heard, faintly, the whistling of wind.
The forms and shadows saddened me; upon
seeing the landscape, I composed a poem.
The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.
It’s likely that my memory of the uneasy quiet of Angel Island came to mind, stealing away the whispers of human music and connection so that all I could hear was the geological song of the sea.