Found Art, Jellyfish and Sea Stars – A Meditation on the Pacific Ocean

I have always felt an affinity for the sea. Perhaps it coincides with early days of scouring the dark surf of Vancouver Island searching for seashells, a collection that to this day I loyally amass, or perhaps it is something much more primal like that oceanic womb of being from which we enter the world.   Whatever it is: the smell and taste of brine on the skin, the allure and meditative crash of the waves, or the way one’s footsteps appear then disappear in an imprint of sand, I am happiest closest to the sea.

Sandy Footprints
Sandy Footprints

The seafront of Southern California is more frequently a carnivalesque parade of citizenry than a respite from the urban sprawl. In this playful collision between human and surf it is difficult to separate mother nature’s watery caress from the tentacles of human design:  music, vendors, street people, street art, clairvoyants, clam diggers, exhibitionists and voyeurs, garbage, breakaway into breakwaters, all washed in and out with the tide.  The ocean more the backdrop to a giant pool party than its mysterious uncharted divide.

Venice Beach Seafront

You can follow the path of the Pacific from top to bottom though time slows down to accommodate the bends of this winding byway.

In crossing the invisible border where San Francisco surrender’s her power to California’s northern clime, the Pacific Ocean reclaims her majestic authority.  The freeway twists into forgotten forests and California’s millions of inhabitants dwindle into reminders of civilization.  The ocean once again appears on the horizon like the wily enchantress that she is, moody and demanding.  Monolithic rock formations burst out of the tide like tossed aside debris from the cliff sides above.

Rock formations Pacific Ocean CA OR border

I remember a newer version of me, many years ago, my brother by my side looking out at this very same expanse.  I remember the same sensation of breath, breathing in the ocean, air, life. The tide is out, sea, sand, the sun low in the sky, I run, sprint with the spray of frothing sea, shout into the sky. . . there is the speck of a person further away, too far to hear, I yell some more and the air swallows my cries like those of the gulls dipping in and out of the gusts above.

Found art outside of Orofino, CA

Further along the coast, further away from the cities, here speed is all in the currents of air meeting water.  Here, human design is more an impression like the footmarks in the sand, now then gone.  A sculpture appears amongst the dunes, a cluster of driftwood, a caged jaw or a sand-dial’s sundial, speared into the sand, time misplaced.  Not far from this marker, a pile of driftwood has tumbled up against a hillside, one happenstance, the other planned, it’s difficult to decide if one is and not the other, here today, gone tomorrow. 

Camille Solyagua, STARFISH STUDY 3, 2006

The movement of the ocean inspires such fleeting ephemerality, always in motion.  Perhaps this is why the subject also lends itself so well to the medium of the photograph, time and its transient façade captured in a frame.  I am intrigued by such images, in which this arresting of time comes to a standstill—our worldly creatures taking on otherworldly proportions.

Camille Solyagua Jellyfish #10, 2001

Portland-based artist Camille Solyagua photographs subjects within the natural world to create visual narratives that reflect upon ideas of fragility, interconnectedness and duality. While she sees her work as compositions or ‘visual narratives’ they can also be understood as ‘photographic investigations’. Her jellyfish series were photographed at the Monterey Aquarium.

A jellyfish like some space-age creature crossing through the fifth dimension. It is befitting that 95% of our oceans remain unexplored and that though whimsical in appearance jellyfish blooms thrive under man’s encouragement—rising sea levels, toxic overflow and industrial fishing practices all pointed to as factors in their increase.  Pretty, but their sting can be deadly.  Man’s impression not so fleeting.

A constellation of starfish huddle together under a rock face, traversing the two worlds of air and water as if fallen from the sky. 

Starfish constellation, Pacific coast

They have been here for milleniums, their impressions fossilized into land where once oceans lay. 

Ancient starfish, fossil slab from the Sahara,
Creative Commons Attribution, Cobalt 123, Flickr

Time does not seem so transient when considered in these terms and yet man’s reach is without boundaries. A sea star wasting disease affecting invertebrates along the Pacific Coast has these beautiful creatures dissolving away into mounds of goo within days of contraction. Though similar outbreaks have occurred in the past, recent numbers incorporate a larger geographical area in grievous numbers that often see entire colonies wiped out overnight.

While the cause of the syndrome is under debate—environmental change, disease (most likely viral) and even possible radiation contamination from the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster-the effects on the greater ecosystem are only beginning to be understood.  Starfish in turn consume dominant sea urchin species (now at a potential to explode in numbers) with the disease moving into the food chains of other sea-life as well as commercially fished species for human consumption.

Sea Star, Pacific coast, OR

In Oregon, a torrid rain shower thrashes down from the sky, blurring the already vague distinction between water and air.  I pay a measly five dollars to park in the grounds of a designated national park.  The Pacific here is wild: pushing the sand into dunes, tearing through composites of broken shells, churning the bottom of the ocean for deposits of rocks and scraping them up onto the land in a grating, amassing of foam. There is not a soul in sight though perhaps if my eyes do not deceive me, a lone seal, braves the crashing surf, disappearing from view.  I walk into and through the rain.  The ocean is so loud I can no longer hear myself think.  Every cell in my body feels alive.

Pacific coast, OR, shell deposits

This is no pool party or at least not the kind where you can float leisurely about on an inflatable lounge chair, cocktail in hand.  This is the ocean that fights back. That takes our plastics and eats them away into microscopic bacteria* and sends them back into our food chain; and taunts our world populations, 40% of them amassed along her shores, with the threat of rising sea levels and dire predictions of flooding, tsunamis, and all sorts of fun-loving ‘natural’ disasters.

I walk back the way I have come, some of my footprints have already disappeared. I search the surf for intact shells but they are all broken into shards by the unforgiving surf.  I look out across the water, the horizon somewhere far away, for a moment I feel like I have found here, whatever it is, I was not looking for, and then the moment too is gone, and I turn, and walk back to my car.

*Note: In preparing for this story I attempted to locate a radio story I heard several years ago about a mysterious toxic, organic, goolike substance amassing in the Atlantic Ocean that was thought to be feeding off of accumulating plastics.  I wasn’t able to source the original story (perhaps time has played with my recollections) but Becca Murray of Southern California Public Radio was very helpful in pinpointing several articles on marine microbes feeding off of plastics as well as persistent toxic pollutants including oil spills such as 2010’s Gulf of Mexico disaster.  This said, Mother Nature’s resilience is uncharted in respect to the far-reaching effects of introducing these toxins back into our multi-layered food chain as well as unforeseen damages to intricate eco-systems.

Originally appearing 2014

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