“Goddamn, what a righteous stench…” the nose, olfactory observer of the world, had picked up on a shift in the breeze and brought 20 years’ memories of life at the shore flooding back into my consciousness. After more than 2 years away, the longest absence of my life by far, I was once again in sight of the ocean. I’ll share a secret with you – despite what maps and textbooks and cartographers are desperate to convince you, there is only one ocean. It spans the world over, setting out from one edge can take the determined voyager to any other, and its mud flats at low tide have a deliriously powerful stink.
Brine, rotting sealife, and natural gas from organic decomposition in the layers upon layers of silt all combine to create a wonderfully powerful malodor. Driving the 1,250 miles home from Virginia to Florida during my college years, the highlight of the trip was always that first nostril-quivering blast of salty decay as I neared the marshlands of eastern Georgia. It was then that I knew I was getting close, and despite another 500 miles ahead of me, the rest of the trip would always fly by.
Last weekend found me in Beihai – literally “north sea” – a small fishing community several hours SSE of Shenyang, and I was walking out to the rough spit of breakwater the locals proudly called a wharf to inspect the village fishing fleet.
There are two kinds of fisherman, those who fish for sport and those who fish for life. We are not the same. These old dogs were the latter. I and my wife, led by our hosts – distant relatives many of whom she was meeting for the first time – carefully picked our way past rude brick huts, impromptu garbage dumps, and derelict vessels towards a small but vibrant scene: it was late afternoon and the fishermen were returning with their catch.
Continue reading Of Oceans and Ancient Burial Grounds