Seas of our minds
FOR a people living in an archipelago, we seem to have a curiously detached attitude toward the sea. Few of us seem to love it. We may plunder it, viewing it as an irresistible treasury, a cornucopia which we can loot with impunity. The leisured class among us may view it with a hunter’s affection, that curious mingling of bloodlust and aesthetic sensibility that moves the wealthy to tears when they recount their struggle to land a swordfish. The rest of us think of the sea as either a place to bring the family to for an afternoon or a weekend, where children can build sand castles while the menfolk guzzle beer, and women can bathe in the sea, as long as they are clad in our Catholic version of the purdah: large, loose T-shirt slipped over an equally modest bathing suit.
Our fellow citizens who make their living from the sea, do they, at least, love the sea from which they derive their livelihood? It seems they don’t; it would be a curious love indeed that manifests itself in soft-drink bottles packed with dynamite, or slightly more sophisticated grenades that detonate on beds of coral, pulverizing the coral and providing a temporary bounty of stunned fishes. And yet one cannot be too outraged at fishermen who do this, for in the eyes of society, our supposedly egalitarian society which proclaims the virtue of hard work, fisherfolk are like peasants: essential beings, but not honored for it, and, indeed, despised for the darkness of their skin and their hard work which serves as a reproach to those who make millions through the manipulation of figures.
Can they, who are neglected by a government impotent to prevent the looting of our fishing waters by foreign trawlers, who are given little financial assistance and then viewed as subversives when they try to organize in defense of their rights, be expected to love the sea whose bounty seems reserved for foreigners and sportsmen? Hardly.
Still, the fact remains that between those who fish to provide our dinner tables with seafood and those who fish with cyanide to stock the aquariums of the world, the result is the irreversible destruction of our aquatic resources. Understanding why fishermen club dolphins to death, when all the dolphins want to do is frolic with them or merely feed themselves, and condoning the brutal liquidation of those most popular of marine mammals are two separate things. We must understand–but we must resist brutality, too. Then again emptied seas sometimes only yield up dolphins, the meat of which can be sold, but cheaply.
My memories of the sea seem so colorless compared to the memories of our elders. I have seen, from the deck of a liner heading out to sea from Manila Bay, the silhouette of Fort Drum, that island cocooned in concrete with its long-silenced naval guns, in the evening twilight. I have seen the sandy beaches of Sicogon, the whale sharks of Donsol, and enjoyed the sight of deadly lion fish in the beaches of Davao. The dark, oily waters of Manila Bay and the Cavite beaches we’d visit when I was a child. But everywhere, man’s injuries to the sea have been evident. Soft-drink bottles, slippers, broken glass and rusting cans. And everywhere, plastic. Plastic in all shapes, sizes and for countless uses, mingled with fish, poisoned by the effluvia of freighters and noxious leaks from tankers. Sea life, where one can still see it, is accompanied everywhere by death or dying. The death of sea creatures at the hands of the more sadistic sort who fish for sport and harpoon for fun, the dying of scarred coral reefs and entire ecosystems.
My father remembers seeing giant clams. He had memories of steaming from island to island, and of their ship at anchor in the evenings, of watching sea snakes trying to slither up the sides of the ship, attracted by the light from the portholes. He can remember the sea when it was relatively clean, and flying fish were abundant. At home we have pictures of him, not even a teenager yet, on the deck of one of these ships, proudly displaying fish caught while at sea and beaming with innocent pride.
These photos today send shudders through friends who love the sea. They are a reminder of how things were, and the mentality which seemed harmless once upon a time, but which helped bring the alarming state of affairs of our country’s seas.
An uncle remembers the (now) Aurora and Quezon Provinces of his youth, when people would set out in small boats to haul in tuna in such enormous quantities that boats were often in danger of being swamped. His memories are joyful ones: of abundance and community spirit.
The laughter of that generation will not be heard again, for those straits have long become ghostly expanses of emptiness. The tuna have long been fished out of the waters of his youth, and now only the merchant marines of more efficient states can catch tuna in abundance. But there is, too, the grisly, residual memory of the residents of Baler, Aurora, itself founded after the first settlement was destroyed by a tsunami in the 18th century.
The oceans of our memories are a catalogue of humanity’s sins. Not only against the sea and its defenseless denizens, but against ourselves. I thought of this as I read articles remarking on how the tsunami’s effects were worsened by the rampant destruction of coastal mangrove forests.