Up on the rugged western shore of Lake Superior the lamp atop Split Rock Lighthouse will be illuminated for the only time this year tonight. Immensities and superlatives fail at some sites, and as the cold waves lap eternally at the shore, this is one of them. Split Rock illumines its beacon in commemoration of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on the far end of that great lake on this date many years ago. While not as large as the Titanic, the Edmund Fitzgerald outstretched two football fields and carried more than fifty million pounds of cargo, immeasurables we are forced to recalibrate into yardage and tonnage. When the Fitzgerald sank during an unnamed November storm in 1975 only twenty-nine people died, but the tragedy soon became part of American legend. The image of immensities battling for the souls of twenty-nine human lives possesses an eerie, epic quality. When faced with the raw rage of nature, we are helpless indeed.
Shipwrecks may be the ultimate metaphor, for like ships we are consciousness in a protective vessel. Of course some deny that a soul exists, but in November it is difficult to doubt. A century ago the Titanic sank, and we still wonder in fascination. Human life is fragile when confronting the north Atlantic, or Lake Superior, or even the great waves that wash ashore and sweep some away. Great bodies of water, some psychologists say, represent forces larger than ourselves in the human psyche. Some suggest the ocean in dreams represents sex, but others would say it’s God. In the realm of metaphor anything is possible. It is no accident that many Christian sects begin the rite of membership with total immersion in water. When the Fitzgerald was baptized, twenty-nine men died.
Standing on the vast shoreline of a gray Lake Superior has a way of making you feel insignificant. Enormity was easily related to divinity in the primitive mind, but standing next to something truly vast still sends me into a protective crouch as I ponder just how little I really am. In this year of destructive storms, as we’ve taken to naming the winter squalls that whip across the continent with noble names such as Athena and Brutus, we are still at the mercy of something unspeakably large. The weather is the ocean above us, and it bears children named Andrew, Irene, Katrina, and Sandy. Each reminds us that we are constantly at the mercy of something far larger than human comprehension. Every year as the tenth of November rolls around I think of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the overwhelming forces that surround us. There is indeed a metaphor hidden here, for those willing to plunge into the frigid depths to find it.