My husband and I spent the last few days up in New England, where I was doing research for my new book. It begins with the terrifying tale of a malevolent stowaway at sea, and as we traveled up the Atlantic coast, I seemed to be reminded of the world’s waterways over and over again.
First we were joined by our daring friend, world-famous sailor, and educator par excellence Rich Wilson, who’s getting up-to-speed for his second nonstop single-handed sailboat race all the way around the world. Then we were wowed by a dramatic museum exhibit called The Fiery Pool, which was a name the ancient Mayans used to describe the sea whenever their Sun God rose in the east and whenever it set into its own watery underworld in the west. (They also imagined that the Yucatan Peninsula floated atop a gigantic sea turtle.) I had just seen a new book about the enormous sea of plastic debris that's currently wreaking havoc in a large part of the Pacific Ocean. And all day long every single day, we were blasted by news about the heartbreaking blowout disaster that’s flooding our beloved Gulf of Mexico with oil.
I must have had water on the brain this weekend, because I was stunned to realize what an enormous role our waterways have played in all of my books about history. So I'm blown away when I consider how much these waters have changed from those times until today.
Take the time of Charles Darwin, for example. I've written that he discovered great masses of colorful, amazingly varied animals at sea, found fish fossils high atop mountains that had once lain beneath the ocean, and figured out that coral reefs were built by millions upon millions of delicate coral animals whose rocky ocean homes fringed the bases of volcanic mountains—mountains that had erupted at sea and had then worn away over millions and millions of years.
I've also said that it was Benjamin Franklin who charted the Gulf Stream by taking its temperature so that sailors could travel along this fast, warm “river in the ocean” between Europe and America in a shorter time than ever before. And when Captain John Smith made his wonderfully accurate maps of the Chesapeake Bay and New England, he was so amazed by the bounty of their waterways that he spent the rest of his life writing books to extol America’s natural riches.
During the Revolutionary War, George Rodgers Clark led 170 men on an 18-day march through a flooded river of icy water up to their necks to capture a British fort in Indian country.
And Captain John Paul Jones refused to give up his flaming merchant ship, Bonhomme Richard, to the British when he cried “I have not yet begun to fight” and went on to defeat the great new British warship Serapis.
Lewis and Clark opened the west by traveling upriver, commonly reaching spots boiling with fish so numerous that the explorers caught as many as 700 enormous specimens in a single afternoon.
When gold fever struck in 1849, thousands of frenzied adventurers from 70 countries raced toward California in sailing ships of every description, surrounded by endless numbers of flying fish and dolphins. Crossing Panama by boat, someone said that “the air was filled with the music of birds, the chattering of monkeys, parrots in any quantity, and alligators lying on the banks too lazy to move.”
This has always been a water planet. What would we do without the deep blue sea and our mighty rivers and our lakes and bays and marshes? Since time immemorial, they have sustained us with their bounty. They have been our pathways to unseen lands, our trade routes, our battlegrounds, and our playgrounds. They have fired our imaginations and terrified us with their power and lured us with their beauty and led us away on great adventures. Can we ever restore them to their former glory? Or will they go the way of that old quote from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink.