Learning to Give

In the midst of this pandemic and our own inner turmoil, we sought the sea and its shores for respite this summer.

As I watched the rain fall into the ocean surface, I wondered about this human desire to seek solace on the seashore. I felt that we personally were drawn to the sea this summer so we could vacate what our ‘normal’ lives had become.

But the researcher in me went looking online anyways. I found an interesting Smithsonian article that tracked the history of the beach as a source of fear and monsters during classical times as documented in the Bible, Homer and Dante.

This struck me as true but also somewhat one sided as the above stories come solely from Western history. The article touched briefly on the intersection of the seashore and humanity for thousands of years elsewhere as one of seasonal food sources, exploration and, speaking of Western impact, that of colonization and pandemics. Indeed my husband (who learned about the indigenous peoples of Alaska as an elementary student) told me that the Tlinget as a coastal people, contrasted deeply in food surpluses with the Athabaskans, who tended to follow in the tracks of migrating herds inland, often battling famine.

Returning to the evolving Western viewpoint of the beach, the Romantic artists and poets (along with doctors of the era) who slowly began lauding nature as a transformative experience made perhaps the most human of all flaws. They immersed themselves in the seaside sensations and found a better, deeper version of themselves. From their perch of Western dominance and condescension, they praised themselves, rather than their surroundings. Obviously, these Western romantics did not set out for narcissism; it seems they were instead set up to perceive the world from that narrow field of view. The outcome of viewing the beach as a place of human consumption meant that its value was in its emptiness, its sense of new beginnings.

“the beach was popularized as a non-place. It was denatured even as it was reconstructed as the purest expression of nature.”

Perhaps this happened because of our different types of economies, my husband and I ruminated. As Dr. Kimmerer explains in a book I am still swimming in, most tribes used gift economies rather than the Western version of commodity economies. In gift economies valuables are given without an exchange. They function well because the whole community operates under the assumption that they can give willingly because help will be willingly given when they are in need. Objects remain plentiful because they are received and given in gratitude.

“A gift is something for nothing, except that certain obligations are attached.” Braiding Sweetgrass

There is a stark difference in these opposing views of an oceanscape. On one hand is the transformation of a place from chaotic wildness into a blank slate on which those vacating their lives can fill with themselves. While on the other hand exists an indigenous connectivity to place—a feeling of seasonal nostalgia, the excitement of work, gratitude and hope for bountiful sustenance.

The beach has always been a place I love for its mysteries and familiarity. As a young girl, when we stayed overnight at the ocean, my mother would walk out early every morning to go tide pooling and we kids would often join her. It was a place of joy–sand to draw and build with, waves to swim in after you were properly numbed up (I grew up in Oregon), and sand dollars, sea stars, washed up jellyfish and more to look for as we followed the high tide line. As I grew, some of the excitement settled into nostalgia and I sought the seashore for solace, sometimes driving ten hours from college in Montana on long weekends, just to spend a day with the ocean. Being landlocked was a feeling I slowly grew accustomed to, but initially found me claustrophobic.

But, I wondered (in the present day), do I find this vista soothing and calm because really I view the beach as a clean canvas on which I can find myself, calm the franticness of my daily life? If so, am I then giving anything back?

The danger of viewing the seashore as empty is that it is then not viewed as its own environment, in need of care and preserving. I definitely shrunk from that idea, but it was a valid question to ask myself. Was I, as a visitor, valuing this vacation spot separate from its place in the larger environ, arrogantly, a void meant solely for my enjoyment and self reflection? An answer unrolled for us as answers tend to do, over the next couple of days.

The first morning, a few of my children and I startled a young bear as we trekked out towards the tide pools while the waters receded. Although it acted appropriately and ran off, we noted it had been eating something and so we decided to take the boat out instead, in case it returned, putting itself between us and the house. We were able to access the opposite side of the beach and have a better exit strategy this way. From the boat, we saw a mom and cubs across the bay.

Within fifteen minutes, we heard gunshots from the end we were now on. I knew the shots were very close, but couldn’t see anyone so feared they couldn’t see the children, dog and I. Sure enough, firing from within fifty yards of us, beyond some trees, the fleeing young bear had been shot and wounded. An uncertain hour passed while the young teenagers responsible waited for it to bleed out before delivering the killing shot, in which time it charged them and some of their firing got out of hand. We slowly pieced together that they had left a bear hide out on the beach that had attracted this young black bear. Angry it had been baited, they pursued as it clambered up a cliff, frightened by us, wounding it on the hill with occupied houses above, which complicated the situation.

Although we had already lost too many lives dear to us this year, we were still stunned that a life we had seen whole and clever minutes before was suddenly bleeding slowly out. Death hasn’t failed to shock us this year, every time.

After some franticness, a few confrontations, and saddened gratitude that we were able to watch a coyote couple feast on the carcass, we attempted to rally the next morning by distracting ourselves with the never ending thrill of scouring tide pools for something wondrous.

It slowly worked. We found more and more strange and marvelous things. Like a curtain thrown open, low tide in the intertidal zone is a bizarre feeling of slow, methodical examination with the rushed thrill niggling that the show begins to end after slack tide. The most exciting finds were out the furthest.

My question had been partially answered and we have been given much to think about. Yes, I had come to vacate my not-so-normal life of 2020, but not to fill the shore with myself. That my family was so disturbed when the bear, who we felt grateful to interact safely with, was considered an oversized, dangerous nuisance and thus killed, told me we are on the right track.

We will continue to hunt and fish for our subsistence, but we won’t take recklessly just because there is an abundance. And when we aren’t in need, we will begin to find ways to give, beyond the wonder and gratitude we already feel.

Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
” Braiding Sweetgrass

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