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Adapted for land: a lungfish writes the sea

by Brook Emery

Perhaps we write about the sea to exert dominion.

According to the book of “Genesis” in the Christian Bible, on the third day God “called the dry land earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good” (1,10). On the fifth day God created great whales and “every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly” (1, 21). On the sixth day God created man and woman, commanded them, “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” (1,28) and gave them dominion over all living creatures including the fish of the sea. God also brought all living creatures before Adam “to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature that was the name thereof” (2, 19).

Perhaps we exert this dominion not by commanding the tide as Canute was supposed to have done or scourging the waves as Xerxes reportedly did – both stories serving to illustrate the hubris of humans and the indifference of the sea – but by naming it and writing about it, acculturating it.

In Landscape and Memory Simon Schama notes the promise of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir that “in wilderness is the preservation of the world” (7), but goes on to argue that “the healing wilderness was as much a product of culture’s craving and culture’s framing as any other imagined garden” (7), and that “even the landscapes we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product” (9). This is not just in the way human society seeks to shape, conquer, tame or preserve wilderness as it exists in the raw, material world but in the way in which we conceive it, perceive it, and write about it. Perhaps to write about the sea, to name it, is to exert control even if, explicitly, the writer is trying to assert the subject’s non-human qualities, its existence as distinct from the human. For Gaston Bachelard, writing in Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, “imagination is not … the faculty for forming images of reality; it is the faculty for forming images which go beyond reality, which sing the world around us” (16), and “favourite images thought to be derived from things seen in the world around us … are nothing but projections of a hidden soul” (17). It is for this reason that Bachelard, though interested in material imagination (1) and in “images that stem directly from matter” limits himself to studying “the different branches of materializing imagination above the graft after culture has put its mark on nature” (10). Through our imaginations, our “prereflexive attitudes” in Bachelard’s terms (17), we make the sea over in our own image and likeness.

Perhaps writing about the sea is all sex and theory.

I’m writing this on a Sunday afternoon in June. I was swimming this morning just after dawn, swimming because there were no waves to speak of and surfing was not possible. Later, as I was driving to the shops, I heard a snippet of an interview on the radio. A philosopher was speaking about her research into the impulse to make art, that “useless, pleasurable activity”. She spoke of the creative act as sexual. Too Freudian, I thought, too easy, too clever by half, too reductive and ready to see any act or utterance as the projection or sublimation of something else, too ready to theorise rather than experience. Is this what we do when we write about the sea? Theorise it: the sea as female, as mother, lover, animal, muse, imagination, mirror, origin, infinity, myth and dream. What of how the sea is experienced as distinct from how it is imagined and written about? I take physical pleasure from the sea: the sea, unknowingly, gives me pleasure. I could construct a crude, sustained, sexual metaphor for the trajectory of catching a large wave: anticipation, nervousness, excitement, control, loss of control, orgasm, fulfilment, withdrawal. But it wouldn’t be true. It would be art or theory. Of course, being in the sea is bodily, even intimate – in contact with, within, held – but once translated to the page this sensation is only sex in the head. Even the word “intimate” is wrong, a misapplication, an anthropomorphism: how can one be intimate with something as vast and indivisible as the sea? I’ve heard it said that boardriders are inarticulate about their experiences of the surf, unable or unwilling to describe what it is like, limiting their talk to excited, conventionalised exclamations: “Fuck, did you see that wave?”, “awesome”, “filthy”, “I got air”. I don’t know how true this is but there is a tendency, once machismo has been extracted from the conversation, for good surfers to be modest, to prefer understatement, to prefer to keep one’s thoughts private rather than to intellectualise and broadcast them. If surfing is a taking of pleasure, writing is more about giving pleasure, sharing an experience in the hope that your work will be understood and liked by the reader: your pleasure, at least to some extent, dependent on a reader’s approval.

Perhaps, though, both surfing and writing are about ego.

Surfing and writing as contests, tests of skill, will and courage. Writing as a struggle with words against the impossibility of meaning. Surfing as a struggle against the natural, the other, against the self and fear. Bachelard claims that “more than anyone else, the swimmer can say: the world is my will; the world is my provocation. It is I who stir up the sea” (168). This strikes me as nonsense, something asserted by one whose watery element is the fresh water of lakes and streams. Bachelard has a name for the muscular action of swimming and the dynamic imagination he considers necessary to construct images of the activity. He calls it the Swinburne complex (167) after the late nineteenth century poet whom he quotes as saying to a friend, “I remember being afraid of other things, but never of the sea” (165). Bachelard quotes both Swinburne (“My lips will feast on the foam of thy lips / … Thy sweet hard kisses are strong like wine / thy large embraces are keen like pain”)(169) and Byron (“Cloven with arm still lustier, breast more daring / the wave all roughen’d; with a swimmer’s stroke / Flinging the billows back from my drench’d hair, / And laughing from my lip the audacious brine”)(170) to illustrate both the sexuality and intimacy of swimming and the ambivalence of the complex which he sees as both masochistic and sadistic. Perhaps I am irredeemably superficial but Bachelard’s interpretation, and Swinburne’s and Byron’s poetry, annoy me. The poetic images seem too rhetorical, conventional and self-dramatising; Bachelard’s interpretation, indeed the thesis of his whole essay, seems to rely too much on assertion and assumption of hidden psychological motivations for the action of both swimming and writing. Such an aesthetic is unnecessary and I would argue that an empirical and phenomenological approach which respects the integrity of both the body and matter is just as capable of elucidating deep “truths” about the meaning of an experience, or the experience of an experience, as is one based on dream, myth and psychoanalysis.

Someone who writes and thinks beautifully about surfing and writing is Fiona Capp. In that oceanic feeling Capp reveals she wrote her first novel, Night Surfing, in the belief that surfing could “symbolise something much larger than the act itself”(51) and out of the hope that she could turn her failure to master surfing into a work of art. But this act of sublimation is incapable of satisfying her because it fails to elicit the sheer bodily joy of surfing. Later in life Capp returns to the sea and documents her renewed attempts to master the art of surfboard riding in that oceanic feeling which evolves into a history of and meditation on surfing. I love the book and, though I am a bodysurfer rather than a boardrider (and therefore very much at the bottom of the surfing pecking order), I identify with much of what she says. But I want to take issue with one of the central themes she raises, which is also a central theme of much writing, especially Romantic writing, about the sea. (As an aside I should admit here that I have surfed almost every day of my life for over fifty years and that my own poetry is saturated by writing about the sea and I may well commit, time and again, the sins I here castigate and abjure.)

Nature, according to Edmund Burke and the Romantics, is a source of both beauty and the sublime. Beauty is associated with society and with a power less than our own; the sublime with individualism and solitude and with a power greater than our own. Faced with the vastness of the sublime we experience fear, perhaps the fear of death, and astonishment. Identification with the beautiful and sublime in nature produces feelings of awe, transcendence and, in special moments of heightened sensitivity and receptiveness, a feeling of oneness with nature and the interconnectedness of all things. Capp quotes lines 93–102 of William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey” to illustrate this sense of the sublime:

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is in the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky and the mind of man;

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things (106)

Capp thinks of a surfer “crouched inside the crystal, womb-like tube of a breaking wave” (11) as an oceanic image of this oneness. In earlier lines from “Tintern Abbey” – Wordsworth’s description of himself running in the landscape, “more like a man / Flying from something he dreads than one / Who sought the thing he loved” (II 70–72) – Capp identifies her own feelings in the surf. I see myself there too. Fear is a strong emotion when I am out in a big, grey surf. I don’t want it to be, I don’t want to have to confront myself, nature or (the more or less remote possibility of) death. I want the pleasure, the joy, the excitement, without the dread. At times of fear there is no Swinburnian pride, no sense of the oneness of all things, no sense of identification with nature, no time or thought for any sense of awe. What there is when I think about it later, on dry land, is a sense of my alienation from the sea, my difference from it, my weakness compared to it, my sense that I don’t belong. Even on blue, beautiful days when the waves are perfectly formed and there is no sense of danger, even inside that “crystal cylinder” (and doesn’t the repetition of that cliché – a surf brand – “de-activate” the experience?), when there is nothing but the sheer physical elation of surfing, I am aware that, to quote myself, “We are in but never of the sea” (62). At the end of the same poem, “Narcissus: self-portrait with sea”, I write:

To be an intersection, to feel abundance

in this swell and heave, the observer of yourself

as self and as a figure clutching here, falling

and hanging on, fearful and in love.

I see all this. It happens around and to me,

seconds welling in the lungs, weight and weightlessness,

a relentless pressure down. You can’t sink deep enough

to salvage calm, here no flowers bloom, stones don’t speak,

neither Echo nor my twin stares back at me. Sand explodes,

water pummels and I am like a clump of weed.

Here we are material and evanescent, body

against and through the bodily. And on the surface

nothing’s reflected in the foam. It would drag me down again (63).

Though this posits a sense of difference rather than oneness it in no sense diminishes feelings of beauty, wonder and amazement. It may even heighten them, sharpen them. I have a feeling that for all Wordsworth’s undeniable love of nature there is a sense in which he is subsuming nature under the minds of both God and Man, and in this way presuming to claim it, to understand it, and to tame it by theorising it. I prefer to think of myself and the sea as both matter, but matter of different orders which happen to co-exist, and occasionally intersect, as a result of natural processes. (Wordsworth remains, I think, a touchstone despite more recent eco-critical theorising about the Romantic relationship between human society and nature.)

A second objection to the comparison between Wordsworth and surfing resides simply in the comparison between the land and the sea, in the difference (and superficial similarity) between mountain peaks and abysses, thought to inspire the sublime, and waves. One is “on” land, passes “through” countryside and is “in” landscape in a different way to that in which one is “in” the surf. The response to landscape, to mountains, forests, vistas, is primarily through the eye; the response to sea is through the body. To the eye landscape is more various, the sea more unvarying. With the exception of things like avalanches and volcanoes the landscape is less obviously moving, less an agent; the sea moves, sometimes violently, it acts on you; the interaction between you and the sea is greater though, paradoxically, we have a greater presence and effect on the land, we leave our mark on it; we displace the sea but pass through it without trace. Evolution has privileged the human eye. As has literature. Imagery, I’d guess, is overwhelmingly visual and this suits landscape and, to an extent, seascape, but it makes writing about the “experience” of the surf difficult.

There is no escaping ego. To write about the sea (or landscape, or anything else) is to write about the self (and this holds, I think, no matter what randomised or predetermined procedures are used to disguise, efface or distance the authorial self from the subject, or how ecologically conscious or politically or psychologically self-aware we are), and to this extent I agree with Bachelard. I don’t think this is something to be apologised for – we are as we are – just something to be recognised. When we write of the sea we use it for our own purposes. We measure ourselves against it, make of it a scene, a location, a means of transport, an explanation, an analogy, a symbol, a metaphor, a cliché; we personify and anthropomorphise it; we ask it to mirror our moods and thoughts. Writing, we do not harm it in the way our commerce harms it, the creatures in it and, in the long term, ourselves; we may even write to save the sea from the human but I doubt, given the gap between words and things, description and experience, we ever go much beyond writing about ourselves, beyond using the natural to describe the human. And here I acknowledge that “we”, as I have been using it in this essay, is a generalisation, a reflection of my reading, and an admission of my complicity in the process. It excludes Indigenous cultures which may have a totally different relationship to the sea from the more or less Anglo-centric writers I am thinking about and citing here.

Three of the first four poems in a section called “description” in the high school text mainly modern are poems about the sea by Australian poets: “Boys Asleep on the Beach” by Douglas Stewart, “Skin Diver” by Thomas Shapcott, and the much anthologised “The Surfer” by Judith Wright (21–22). For each the sea threatens the human: Stewart implores the sea, “Go back, black sea, go home”; Shapcott warns, “Fisherman beware, the ocean cool / as morning music and as light as stars / hides other things than day and flatteries”; and Wright implores, “Turn home, the sun goes down; swimmer turn home.” All three adopt the position of observer, they write what they see and think rather than what they experience, other than from empathy and memory. Judith Wright’s poem comes closest to catching the experience of being in the sea – “How his brown strength drove through the hollow and coil / of green-through weirs of water! / Muscle of arm thrust down long muscle of water” – but, considered as a whole, the poem doesn’t convince me. I’m uneasy with the anthropomorphism of “muscle of water”; I cringe a little at the use of “joy”, “delight”, “mortal, masterful, frail” which feel like imposed abstractions rather than experiences which grow from the poem; I can’t believe her comparison of a wave to a hawthorn hedge – it is too static, too strained, too landed; and the personification at the end of the poem of the sea as a grey wolf is too literary – there might be a visual correspondence between grey fur and a ragged grey sea but the real correspondence here is emotional; it is meant to evoke fear but it does not evoke an experience which is commensurate with the surf – the threats posed by a wolf and the sea are qualitatively different. The poem, beloved as it is (and, despite these comments, I like it too, and all Wright’s work, and wish I could write like her), feels, to my taste, to bear the signs of “poem-making” and of making of the sea something which it is not; to produce culture’s image of the sea.

Similar tropes may be readily found. Here are the opening lines to the also much anthologised poem “The Sea” by the English poet James Reeves:

The sea is a hungry dog,

Giant and grey.

He rolls on the beach all day.

With his clashing teeth and shaggy jaws

Hour upon hour he gnaws …

And here is the first stanza of “Sailor’s Yarn” by Nobel Prize winning Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer in a translation by Robin Fulton:

There are bare winter days when the sea is kin

to mountain country, crouching in gray plumage,

a brief minute blue, long hours with waves like pale

lynxes vainly seeking hold in the beach gravel.  (8)

As with the poems quoted earlier, here the approach to the sea is mainly visual, at a distance, and heavily reliant on metaphor and personification. Thom Gunn, like Judith Wright, attempts to render the experience of surfing in the description of surfboard riders in these three stanzas from “From the Wave” which are reproduced in The Oxford Book of the Sea:

Their pale feet curl, they poise their weight

With a learned skill.

It is the wave they imitate

Keeps them so still.

Their marbling bodies have become

Half wave, half men,

Grafted it seems by feet of foam

Some seconds, then,

Late as they can, they slice the face

In timed procession:

Balance is triumph in this place,

Triumph possession.  (487)

Again this is primarily observational rather than experiential, again there is the Wordsworthian identification; here also is the naked triumph of the ego, and images, rhythm and rhyme which seem incongruent with the experience of surfing: “timed procession” being the most inapposite example.

Though it is not about the sea the following lines from Chase Twichell’s poem “The Pools” come closer to my experience of the sea:

It was the thing outside the human

that I loved, and the way

I could enter it,

the muscle ache of diving

down into the cold, green-brown spangles,

myself a part of the glimmering blur,

the falling coins of light     (9).

I think it is the spare simplicity of the saying that attracts me to these lines. They are not made over into anything beyond themselves; the only figurative language (“coins of light”) touches gently and is visually accurate. Clearly I also like the lines because I share the sentiments. It might be argued that these sentiments are nothing other than Wordsworth’s sublime and his oneness with nature (“myself a part”) that I objected to earlier and, indeed, the poem begins:

I used to look into the green-brown

pools of the Ausable, the places

where the pouring cold slowed,

and see a mystery there.

I called it God for the way

it made my heart feel crushed

with love for the world outside myself    (7).

But it seems to me that, despite the echo of the beginning of “Tintern Abbey”, the poem doesn’t buy into the whole elevated Wordsworthian thing or Bachelard’s idea that “the true idea of the earth is water” and that “in nature it is water that sees and water that dreams” (31). Modestly the poem admits to the attempt to find something meaningful beyond the apparent but, at the same time, recognises the gap between the human and the non-human even as it tries to leap it. Right at the beginning that “used to” signals a more steely apprehension. Even as the poem asserts the primacy and importance of beauty and the sublime as wonder and consolation, it makes the melancholy admission that now only “scraps of that beauty survive / in the world here and there” (9). Perhaps it is just that we/I have become too sceptical, or too embarrassed, to be able to say with Wordsworth:

Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create,

And what perceive; well pleased to recognise

In nature and the language of the sense,

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.   (106)

For Wordsworth nature is, in part, a consolation and an escape from the “din” and “fever of the world”, “the dreary intercourse of daily life”, as is the sea for John Blight who says “… and so the ocean lulls / me into a sense of ease, and I write thus in my books” (56), and goes on writing sonnet after sonnet about the sea. It is not quite so for Fiona Capp:

As I contemplated my return to the water, it wasn’t sober pleasure I was after. Why couldn’t the more mature understanding of nature as something we all “half-create” – through the meanings and desires we bring to it – co-exist with the immediacy of youthful rapture? I had to believe it could. Otherwise I might as well sit back in my armchair and replay my surfing memories and save myself the trouble of getting wet (13–14).

And it is not quite so for me either. We have evolved away from nature. Language and culture are between us and the sea. Our human need to describe and make sense of our experiences, to “mean” them rather than experience them, leads us into convergence and generality: we expect the expected literary experiences, see the sea through literary eyes. Few now accept the Adamic theory of language with which I began this essay and, though it serves us well in the everyday, not many more would accept without qualification a referential theory of language. Recent linguistic theory recognises that the word itself is material and exists in a cultural code independent of nature. So be it. Humans are lungfish adapted for life on land and within culture. We can go back to the sea only momentarily. We have evolved to think and wonder, tell stories, speculate and explain. Writing and reading about the sea will never be the same as being in the sea, will never reproduce that feeling – this is my frustration – as they are pleasures of a different order. They are both pleasures, sometimes difficult pleasures, nonetheless.

“Adapted for Land: A Lungfish Writes the Sea” first appeared in Five Bells: The Journal of the Poets Union 12, no.3 (Winter 2005). This is a revised and updated version of that essay.


Bachelard, Gaston. Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter. Dallas: The Pegasus Foundation, 1983.

Blight, John. A Beachcomber’s Diary. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1963.

Capp, Fiona. that oceanic feeling. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2003.

Colmer, John and Dorothy (eds). mainly modern. Adelaide: Rigby, 1971.

Emery, Brook. Uncommon Light. Wollongong: Five Islands Press, 2007.

Raban, Jonathan (ed.). The Oxford Book of the Sea. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992

Reeves, James. Collected Poems 1929–1974. London: Faber and Faber, 1974

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. London: Fontana Press, 1996.

Tranströmer, Tomas. Selected Poems (ed. Robert Hass). Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco, 1987.

Twichell, Chase. The Ghost of Eden. London: faber and faber, 1995.

Wordsworth, William. Selected Poetry. New York, Random House, 1950.

Published: February 2016
Brook Emery

Brook Emery’s most recent book, Collusion (John Leonard Press, 2012), was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards. His previous three books were all short-listed for the Kenneth Slessor Prize.  and dug my fingers in the sand won the Judith Wright Calanthe Prize.

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