Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Children of the Grey Coast

We are all children of the sea up here, George Gunn said that in one of his poems or his conversations. The import has stuck although the words tend these days to jump around a bit more chaotically in my mind. It is one of those things that I will rattle around in the back of my head for some time because it can mean so many different things. Poetry is like that.

Today I am thinking that it refers to the pull the ocean has to us all. A new favourite eating place overlooks the ocean as it comes tumbling into Thurso bay. On either side of the bay, somewhat like outstretched arms, are Dunnet Head--about 5 miles away, and Holborn Head, about a mile from the restaurant. Earlier this week, surfers were out catching the rolling grey green waves. Fishing boats are often seen, the ferry moves across twice a day--except in bad weather, and there is an occasional ocean liner.

But Sunday there was a helicopter making its way slowly back and forth across the harbour. "They do exercises sometimes on a Sunday," my husband says. I nod. I am glad they practice for the times when they are needed. As children of the sea, we need to study her ways and know how to live with her.

The helicopter kept its slow flying in a regular pattern long after needed for a drill. Doubts began to grow stronger as we drove past the Coast Guard station and saw cars and people, including a police car.

Today came the sad news that a woman's body had been recovered from the sea. I do not know the woman or her family, so I will not intrude on their grief.

From the moment I saw the helicopter in the air, this piece that I wrote some time ago to describe Peter Brueghel's painting of Daedlaus and Icarus came to my mind. People anywhere can too easily fall out of the frame, so I want to take just a moment to mark the passing of one of the daughters of the Grey Coast.

A Tale Within a Tale: Pieter Brueghel's Fall of Icarus

The story that we know lies almost entirely outside the frame of the picture just as Daedalus and Icarus in defying the conventions put themselves outside the reach of the everyday.
The farmer at his plough, the shepherd in the field, the fisherman on the shore all fail to notice the fall of Icarus or even to suspect the grief of the father still in the sky searching in vain for his lost son. Daedalus made their wings and taught Icarus how to use them to escape the tower where they were held captive. More importantly, Daedalus taught Icarus how not to use them. “Fly neither too high, lest the sun melt the wax, nor too low lest the sea make the wings too heavy for flight.”

The surge of his wings heavenward was too much for young Icarus. Too late he felt the warm sun on his back. As he plummeted downward spiralling into an unforgiving sea only then did he recall his father's words.

Beyond the land and the safety of the ship at sea, beyond his father's arts, Icarus slips unnoticed into the sea. His father searches in vain, beyond the help of the farmer, the shepherd, the fishermen, and all the men at sea. An ancient Humpty Dumpty whose intemperance led to his own downfall, Icarus has given us his name as a parable of the sin of hubris, of overreaching.

And Daedalus is forever the grieving parent: clever enough to free his son but not clever enough to protect him from his own foolishness. Does he regret his wings? Would he return to the labyrinth if in so doing he could reclaim his son? Has Daedalus brought this pain upon himself because he dared to defy the simple life of land or sea? The ploughman and his horse, both with heads bowed, move along the familiar curves of the earth. It is a companionable relationship of man and plough and horse and earth. Likewise the shepherd and his flock hug the shore and face inwards, away from the perils of sea or sky. The fisherman and the sailors are all secure in a familiar relationship with the elements and their place in the world.

Daedalus challenged these familiar patterns. In so doing he put himself and Icarus out of reach not only of the Minotaur and King Minos but also of the safety of human patterns. Because he tempered his use of the wings, Daedalus was able to get himself safely back to Earth but at a price he was loath to pay. Daedalus and Icarus slipped out of the frame of any of these safer relationships and so out of the frame of the artist's and our vision. The artist tells a tale of loss, of absence, of hubris.

Outside the frame forever circling just beyond the clouds in the sky, Daedalus is a parable of the limits of parental affection, the tragic impossibility of keeping those we love safe from the consequences of the choices that we set in motion for them. Both Daedalus and Icarus are reminders of the hubris the Greeks feared—daring to tempt the boundaries and outwit the Gods brings fearful consequences.

It is a reminder too of the limits of our individual lives. Icarus falls unnoticed into the ocean and is lost without a glance from any of the others in the picture.


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