Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Walt Whitman writes on ferries:


Living in Brooklyn or New York city from this time forward, my life, then, and still more the following years, was curiously identified with Fulton ferry, already becoming the greatest of its sort in the world for general importance, volume, variety, rapidity, and picturesqueness. Almost daily, later, ('50 to '60,) I cross'd on the boats, often up in the pilot-houses where I could get a full sweep, absorbing shows, accompaniments, surroundings. What oceanic currents, eddies, underneath -- the great tides of humanity also, with ever-shifting movements. Indeed, I have always had a passion for ferries; to me they afford inimitable, streaming, never-failing, living poems. The river and bay scenery, all about New York island, any time of a fine day -- the hurrying, splashing sea-tides -- the changing panorama of steamers, all sizes, often a string of big ones outward bound to distant ports -- the myriads of white-sail'd schooners, sloops, skiffs, and the marvelously beautiful yachts -- the majestic sound boats as they rounded the Battery and came along towards 5, afternoon, eastward bound -- the prospect off towards Staten island, or down the Narrows, or the other way up the Hudson -- what refreshment of spirit such sights and experiences gave me years ago (and many a time since.)

When people move here, there are a few little tests they have to pass in their first year before they decide to stick out life on the island. The first is the winter, the long dark wet and windy nights when the Pineapple Express sweeps up the Gulf of Georgia from the southeast or when the bitter Squamish winds lash the north side of the island, bringing the cracking brace of Arctic air off the Pemberton ice fields at the head of the Sound.

Survive that and then you have to make it through the sicknesses that circulate around the island in the winter and spring. Everyone seems to spend their first year being sick, and in the process achieving a natural immunity from the island's own crucible of disease. Flus, colds and coughs all plague the populace in the cold months, and it doubles the effort required to stick it out.

In the second year, full of antibodies, the sickness is more tolerable and instead you have to confront the final test, the one that lasts forever: the ferries.

I am convinced that one must develop a love, not unlike the one that Whitman speaks of, for the ferry to take it every day and stay sane. And that is perhaps the hardest test of all, for the Ferry Corporation often throws up challenges to keep you devoted. Schedule changes, impromptu equipment refits, threats of price hikes and the odd unexpected overload all bubble up to keep you asking whether living here is worth the hassle.

And the truth of the matter is I am happy I don't have to do it every day. If I had to commute on a daily basis, it would make me very tired and jade my view of the trip. But as it is, I am more than happy to rise at 5:30 in the morning to cue for the 6:35 ferry and ride with friends through some of the most spectacular scenery on earth. Every day is a different picture, in sun and rain, wind and fog, sleet or still warm air. The shades of green, grey and blue that I have laid eyes on over the past two years are myriad.

And like Whitman it is this endless variety of movement and light that continues to draw my attention. It matches well with my poetics, to find form in the whimsy of the moment, to find a voice in the sound that fills my ears, to see with eyes filled by shades of colour. It feeds diversity in my thinking and dreams, the currents going one way and then another, like a river that runs in two directions at once, like thoughts that bounce between speech and silence.

The love of ferries, and deeper, the love of the constantly changing view and sense of place, arises out of the living poem that is Howe Sound, inspiring like a storm cloud or an agate.

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