I am reading Two Years Before the Mast, an account of life aboard a U.S. merchantman in the 1830s. The author was nineteen when he left Harvard and shipped out, and the book was published when he was twenty-five. If I were to cite only the most memorable passages from the fifty pages I have read, I would need ten pages. I could not have approached such poetic insight or descriptive powers when I was so young, and I seriously question whether I could do so now. I might, after all, mistake my talent for writing just as I mistake my talent for singing, for my every note is as soothing from within as it is grating from without. Some people have even doubted that I am capable of forming a note—or at least more than one of them.
On Monday, November 19, 1834, a young Englishman on Dana’s ship fell from the rigging into the sea. He was so weighed down by ropes and tools that he never surfaced.
“Death is at all times solemn, but never so much as at sea. A man dies on shore; his body remains with his friends, and ‘the mourners go about in the streets;’ but when a man falls overboard at sea and is lost, there is a suddenness to the event, and a difficulty in realizing it, which gives to it an air of awful mystery. A man dies on shore—you follow his body to the grave, and a stone marks the spot. You are often prepared for the event. There is always something that helps you to realize it when it happens, and to recall it when it has passed…but at sea the man is near you—at your side—you hear his voice, and in an instant he is gone, and nothing but a vacancy shows his loss. Then too, at sea, to use a homely but expressive phrase—you miss a man so much. A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark, upon the wide, wide sea, and, for months and months, see no forms and hear no voices but their own, and one is suddenly taken from among them, and they miss him at every turn…. There are no new faces or new scenes to fill up the gap. There is always an empty berth in the forecastle, and one man wanting when the small night watch is mustered. There is one less to take the wheel, and one less to lay out with you upon the yard. You miss his form, and the sound of his voice, for habit has made them seem almost necessary to you, and each of your senses feels the loss.
“All these things make a death peculiarly solemn, and the effect of it remains upon the crew for some time…. There is more quietness and seriousness. The oath and the loud laugh are gone. The officers are more watchful, and the crew goes more carefully aloft. The lost man is seldom mentioned…”
How much more beautifully poignant is this description of grief because of the last sentence. I suppose it is true at all times and in all places that there is much that men do not share with other men.
“Whatever your feelings may be, you must make a joke of everything at sea; and if you were to fall from aloft and be caught in the belly of a sail, and thus saved from instant death, it would not do to look at all disturbed…”
Yet, I cannot say that there is no good in this prohibition. I have read many accounts of men who were trapped on mountains or in Polar Regions, and I have learned from them that the Stoicism, if not the outright cheerfulness, of some made the survival of others possible. Indeed, Earnest Shackleton’s men were so elevated by his bravery that they reported having been ashamed to voice their own discontent during the long months of cold, hunger, and mortal danger. Yet, how often have men like Shackleton survived unimaginable hardships with a cheerful countenance only to become despondent when those hardships were past. The ability to flourish in times of peril does not insure the ability to so much as exist on ordinary days.
When I consider my own state, I cannot see that I have a genius for either times that are good or times that are bad. While it is true that I have never been tested by the worst that man or nature offers, it is also true that I have never sought to be tested. The men who I read about went looking for the worst time after time. I’ve read of men whose fingers and toes were lost to frostbite, yet still climbed mountains. I do not know what to make of them, and so I continue to read. Especially when the long months of winter are upon me, and I can barely muster the will to get out of bed each day, I seek the literary companionship of those who were determined to keep going no matter what.
Books entitled Angels in the Wilderness, In the Land of White Death, and Ice, helped me survive December. Now that the daffodils are tall, the willows are swollen with buds, and each day is longer than its predecessor; I know I will last until better times. I am tempted to say that a forlorn day in summer is more agreeable than a happy day in winter, but this would make no sense, so I will not say it.
In her regard for the seasons, as in many things, Peggy is my opposite. The only good she can say about sunshine is that it makes the snow to sparkle most agreeably.
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