Liberty Hyde Bailey: The background spaces.—The ancestral sea

[More from The Holy Earth by L. H. Bailey.  Keep in mind that in 1914, when Bailey wrote these words, man’s wherewithal to despoil the sea was nonexistent.  Of course, this is no longer the case.  A recent, and excellent, book on this topic is Kimberley C. Patton’s The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils : Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean.]

The planet is not all land, and the sea is as holy as the soil.  We speak of the “waste of waters,” and we still offer prayers for those who go down to the sea in ships.

Superstition yet clings about the sea.  The landsman thinks of the sea as barren, and he regrets that it is not solid land on which he may grow grass and cattle.  And as one looks over the surface of the waters, with no visible object on the vast expanse and even the clouds lying apparently dead and sterile, and when one considers that three-fourths of the earth’s surface is similarly covered, one has the impression of utter waste and desolation, with no good thing abiding there for the comfort and cheer of man.

The real inhabitants of the sea are beneath the surface and every part is tenanted, so completely tenanted that the ocean produces greater bulk of life, area for area, than does the solid land; and every atom of this life is as keen to live and follows as completely the law of its existence as does the life of the interiors of the continents.  The vast meadows of plankton and nekton, albeit largely of organisms microscopic, form a layer for hundreds of feet beneath the surface and on which the great herbivora feed; and on these animals the legions of the carnivora subsist.  Every vertical region has its life, peculiar to it, extending
even to the bottoms of the depths in the world-slimes and the darkness; and in these deeps the falling remains of the upper realms, like gentle primeval rains, afford a never-failing, never-ending source of food and maintain the slow life in the bottoms.  We think of the huge animals of the sea when we think of mass, and it is true that the great whales are
the bulkiest creatures we know to have lived; yet it is the bacteria, the desmids, the minute crustaceans, and many other diminutive forms that everywhere populate the sea from the equator to the poles and provide the vast background of the ocean life.  In these gulfs of moving unseen forms nitrification proceeds, and the rounds of life go on unceasingly.  The leviathan whale strains out these minute organisms from the volumes of waters, and so full of them may be his maw that his captors remove the accumulation with spades.  The rivers bring down their freight of mud and organic matter, and supply food for the denizens of the sea.  The last remains of all these multitudes are laid down on the
ocean floors as organic oozes; and nobody knows what part the abysmal soil may play in the economy of the plant in some future epoch.

The rains of the land come from the sea; the clouds come ultimately from the sea; the trade-winds flow regularly from the sea; the temperatures of the land surface are controlled largely from the sea; the high lands are washed into the sea as into a basin; if all the continents were levelled into the sea still would the sea envelop the planet about two
miles deep.  Impurities find their way into the sea and are there digested into the universal beneficence.  We must reckon with the sea.  It is supposed that the first life on the earth came forth where the land and the waters join, from that eternal interplay of cosmic forces
where the solid and the fluid, the mobile and the immobile, meet and marry.

Verily, the ancestral sea is the background of the planet.  Its very vastness makes it significant.  It shows no age.  Its deeps have no doubt existed from the solidification of the earth and they will probably remain when all works of man perish utterly.

The sea is the bosom of the earth’s mysteries.  Because man cannot set foot on it, the sea remains beyond his power to modify, to handle, and to control.  No breach that man may make but will immediately fill; no fleets of mighty ships go down but that the sea covers them in silence and knows them not; man may not hold converse with the monsters in the
deeps.  The sea is beyond him, surpassing, elemental, and yet blessing him with abundant benedictions.

So vast is the sea and so self-recuperating that man cannot sterilize it.  He despoils none of its surface when he sails his ships.  He does not annihilate the realms of plankton, lying layer on layer in its deluging, consuming soil.  It controls him mightily.

The seas and the shores have provided the trading ways of the peoples.  The ocean connects all lands, surrounds all lands.  Until recent times the great marts have been mostly on coasts or within easy water access of them.  The polity of early settlements was largely the polity of the sea and the strand.  The daring of the navigator was one of the first of the heroic human qualities.  Probably all dry land was once under the sea, and therefrom has it drawn much of its power.

From earliest times the sea has yielded property common to all and free to whomever would take it,—the fish, the wrack, the drift, the salvage of ships.  Pirates have roamed the sea for spoil and booty.  When government appropriates the wreckage of ships and the stranded derelict of the sea, the people may think it justifiable protection of their rights to secrete it.  Smuggling is an old sea license.  Laws and customs and old restraints lose their force and vanish on the sea; and freedom rises out of the sea.

And so the ocean has contributed to the making of the outlook of the human family.  The race would be a very different race had there been no sea stretching to the unknown, conjuring vague fears and stimulating hopes, bringing its freight, bearing tidings of far lands, sundering traditions, rolling the waves of its elemental music, driving its rank
smells into the nostrils, putting its salt into the soul.

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