Metaphor

Author Neal Stephenson, inspired by fellow author George B. Dyson, built a baidarka a few years back. The baidarka, an Aleutian version of the sea kayak, was such a necessity of life among the Aleut that it was treated as a living being. Whenever I find myself at the same latitude and longitude as the baidarka Neal built, I like to take it out for a relatively safe lake voyage. I’m not much of a swimmer, and taking boats out on the big water always chills me before the water actually touches my skin, but this is a kind of ritual that I feel compelled to observe. It is a participation in the mythic world of the Aleut. As spiritual beings, kayaks were a necessary part of life for island dwellers. In their own way, I suppose, they are saviors.

Author and partner in the baidarka

Traveling by water, I find, is a spiritual experience that eschews scientific quantification. It is a feeling, not a measurable commodity. To quote the great sage Rat in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” We are born of water, mostly made of water, and ineluctably drawn to the water. Rachel Carson suggested in her classic, The Sea Around Us (always one of my favorite books), that having evolved from the sea we are forever yearning to get back to the sea. Water is life as much as blood is.

broken water

When water breaks by being forced into an unyielding shore or by being thrown over a cliff to become a waterfall, flinging refreshing spray into the air, its great energy is released. Although its flow may be interrupted it will break apart granite and basalt, literally moving mountains and carving coastlines. Water that is placid in the morning may be raging by the end of the day. Water is life, and if life is anything more than a metaphor no one has yet convinced me of it.

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