To paint the sea: is it a process or is it a state? Maybe one leads to the other?Anna Iltnere, discussing Philip Hoare’s Risingtidefallingstar
Back at the start of March I uncovered this cookbook in our overstuffed kitchen shelf. It’s incredibly upsetting, even for something designed in the 60s.
NOBODY WANTS THAT ON A BOOK ABOUT FOOD.
But the original text, I should mention, is from 1939. And when I cracked it open I was surprised to find that the illustrations were incredibly cool.
Look at those lines! So stylized! So energetic! And the compositions!
Turns out the interior artist is one Mathurin Méheut (1882-1958), a French painter I’d never heard of before. When I went searching for more of his work, I found a treasure trove. Méheut had spent two years before WWI working with naturalists at the Roscoff marine biology station—a collaboration that resulted in two enormous volumes of gorgeously-depicted marine life.
I love stumbling on illustrative work like this. It feels so modern! There’s a level of stylization that really reminds me of Jemma Salume’s animal studies.
I also can’t help thinking about the work of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, the father-son team known for creating the most exquisite glass models in human history. Their success lay in capturing the shapes and colors of marine invertebrates at a time when methods of preservation typically left specimens looking like so much indistinguishable mucus.
This octopus? GLASS.
This cactus? ALSO GLASS.
Unreal. (And well worth a visit if you ever find yourself near the Harvard Museum of Natural History.)
In the process of writing this post, I learned that Leopold fell in love with marine invertebrates in 1853, when the ship carrying him to America was becalmed for two weeks near the Azores. His wife and his father had just died within a few years of each other. The trip was something of an escape.
I think about him, adrift and grieving in the middle of the ocean, with nothing to do but stand on deck in the night and pay attention.
Hopeful, we look out over the darkness of the sea, which is as smooth as a mirror; there emerges all around in various places a flashlike bundle of light beams, as if it is surrounded by thousands of sparks, that form true bundles of fire and of other bright lighting spots, and the seemingly mirrored stars.
Little wonders all around.
Sometimes, when I haven’t been on Twitter in a while, I go look at my friends’ Likes instead of drinking from the timeline firehose. It feels slightly creepy (sorry, Robin), but often yields real gems outside the wind tunnel of my own circles. Sometimes it’s a whole new person to follow, sometimes it’s just a phrase. Today it was this:
our ever-present mutual responsibilities are more visible when we’re at sea […] seafaring makes obvious something that is always true.(Charlie Loyd)
Hear that? It’s the exhaust-spitting, bolt-rattling din of my brain firing up and gnawing on a new idea.
If you’ve been here for the last couple years, you might remember that I’m an authorized representative of an intergalactic entity known as The Boat Gnome.
If you haven’t been here for a couple years, here’s a visual introduction:
This spacefaring nautical merchant, operating in association with known Space Gnome representative Shing Yin Khor, accepts trinkets and trades via post in exchange for a special Trusted Trader pin. (You can also trade with the Space Gnome for pins by becoming a Patreon supporter of Shing’s, but you didn’t hear it from me.)
I’m delighted to announce that the Boat Gnome has now updated her ledgers and is open for the 2020-2021 trading season!
Desired items for this season are as follows:
- A favorite passage describing the ocean (from an artistic work of your choosing)
- A (mailably small) piece of driftwood
- A design for a flag
- A sea creature in any condition (illustrated, bottled, described with words—ideally not live because the ship has no aquarium in which to keep them)
To participate, print this intake form, fill it out, and pack it up with your trade item of choice AND a self-addressed-and-stamped box or bubble envelope (5×7” or larger) with at least $3.50 in regular postage (for US residents), or the equivalent for a 4oz package (for international residents). This envelope will be used to mail back your Trusted Trader pin. The Boat Gnome regretfully cannot accept thin paper or cardboard envelopes—padded is best!
Mail your trade item and SASE to the following address:
Boat Gnome Mercantile
c/o Lucy Bellwood
PO Box 734
Ojai, CA 93024
In exchange, and under no specific timeline, you’ll receive one of these shiny Trusted Trader pins in the post:
That’s it! The Boat Gnome is very much looking forward to pawing over all your mailed offerings and I, as her Representative, can’t wait to file all the necessary paperwork.
Yours in aquatic shenanigans,
Boat Gnome Representative
April has 58 days after which it can’t go on. And so on.
There’s a Pandemic sentiment if ever I heard one.
This essay was the first thing I ever read by Mary Ruefle. It led me to fall instantly and completely in love with her writing. I looked it up today for the umpteenth time because today was a crying day and I needed the comfort of looking at her April Cryalog from 1998.
I think about these pages constantly. They’re perfect. Absurd and reassuring and daunting and mundane all at once. A record of the the lunar cycles of emotion that govern how we intersect with friends, lovers, parents, strangers. I gave up trying to blog every time I got in the sea or the river and now I just make a little notation on my calendar—a tiny wave. Maybe that’s a Cryalog too.
Happy old age is coming on bare feet, bringing with it grace and gentle words, and ways which grim youth have never known.
I’m pulling into Santa Barbara, 940 miles of highway behind me, as the sun dips low to the west. On my right: occasional glimpses of the sea, tantalizing and unreal, but ahead there’s only bumper-to-bumper traffic.
I’m racing the clock as I inch through Montecito, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel. The sun’s fully below the horizon by the time the cars thin out, but there’s still time. I’m navigating by instinct across overpasses and down twisty back roads. I’m ignoring the sign that says “Park Closes at 5:30” (it is after 6) and flinging my car across two spaces in my haste to get out. I’m scrambling toward this place I’ve been coming to since I was 3 because I am giddy with disbelief and this is where I need to go to know it’s real.
James calls right as I reach the edge of the sandstone cliff. The sea is mirror-bright and full of sunset. I show him my view (an inadequate FaceTime mockery) and babble about the impossibility of it all. The prickly scrub is catching at my ankles as I stare out at this thing I’ve been unable to feel like I deserve to be near for so long. I realize there’s no time for talking, make my apologies, hang up, and start running down the slanted track to the sand.
There’s barely anyone on the beach as I kick off my shoes. The light’s failing. Everything smells of salt and woodsmoke.
Up close, the colors in the sky and the immensity of the water make me dizzy. I feel simultaneously tiny and expansive. Opening. Unfolding.
What’s the rule?
If I am near a body of water and I can feasibly get into it, I must get into it.
I didn’t think to grab my towel—or my bathing suit, for that matter—but I don’t really care. There isn’t time. I strip to my underwear as the dark closes in and stride toward the water. The sand is gleaming blue with light. The waves are gentle at first, waist high and cold, but I’ve braved worse. I can’t believe I’m here. I shuffle my feet, wary of stingrays, and move deeper, chattering to myself. To the water. To the sunset.
“Hello. Wow. Hi, hello. Oh my god. Hello. I missed you. Okay. Woof. Okay. Okay okay okay here we go. Here we FUCKING GO—“
And then I am under the onrushing breakers and nothing matters anymore. I am not cold. I am not alone. I am not uncertain.
I come up laughing, and I am home.
Not every night, but most nights, the English writer Philip Hoare gets into the sea.
I know this because he tweets about it. Not every night, but most nights. A brief, poetic, timestamped dispatch from the waves.
I read Hoare’s book Risingtidefallingstar toward the end of 2018 and fell hopelessly in love. It’s a sweeping voyage through various coastal regions, literary lives, and strange creatures of the sea. It defies categorization—feels tidal rather than textual. (Just describing the book makes me realize that it shares many qualities with Always Coming Home, which should hardly come as a surprise at this point.)
When I followed Hoare on Twitter, I started seeing these fleeting messages in my feed. The nature of the platform meant that it took me a while to realize how consistently they cropped up, but when I noticed, it shifted something.
In 2019, I made a pact with myself after a week by a lake on an island in Canada: if I find myself near a body of water and it is even remotely possible for me to get into it, I must get into it.1 I’ve since plunged into frigid waves on the Oregon coast, silky river waters of the Columbia Gorge, and the hidden shock of a creek in my hometown of Ojai, California.
Often, as I’m sprinting, screaming across the wide expanse of sand toward the breakers, or furtively scrambling out of my clothes in the underbrush, I think of Hoare’s constant devotion to being where he feels most alive. Most held.
It’s not even about whether or not he swims every night, or what time he goes (does the man ever sleep? Unclear), or what the sky is doing on that particular Tuesday. It’s just a reminder that there is a person who embodies his affection for the sea so fully and faithfully that he’s out there, in the water, baptized night after night.
Whatever Hoare writes next, I’ll probably love it. But my primary interest isn’t his creative output. The thing I want to know is whether he is still himself, and as far as I can tell plunging bodily into the ocean on a near-nightly basis is the backbone of his existence.
I’ve chewed on the idea of object permanence a lot this year—dug into my mistrust of fleeting social media feedback, questioned how online creators can feel secure in taking leaves of absence, and wondered at what it is about our work that truly endures. Hoare makes me consider relocating the idea of permanence from deliverables like books and art and films to the substrates of our creative practices; these undercurrents of selfhood.
That is the thing I want to celebrate and support.1. Even having trod on a stingray and endured unimaginable agony two months after taking said vow, I still believe it to be sound. ↩
Fittingly, I’m writing this blog post from the deck of the Oliver Hazard Perry, a new tall ship in Rhode Island that I’m currently working aboard as a visiting artist. But that’s secondary to the following exciting news of the day: I’ve got a new comic up on The Nib!
For the last few months I’ve been researching and illustrating this brief introduction to the modern world of sail cargo—a movement driven by environmentalism, optimism, and countless volunteer hours. There are a surprising number of operations around the world working to convert tall ships into viable cargo-carrying vessels—or build new ones from the ground up.
It’s a trend I find deeply fascinating, and my only regret was not being able to fit more of my research into this introduction. The sailors working on these vessels are the embodiment of enthusiasm and dedication, and I really enjoyed talking with them during my research.
Of particular interest right now: Sailcargo Inc. are launching their Kickstarter to build a dedicated cargo vessel (Ceiba) from scratch in Costa Rica! Keep an eye on their website for details on the launch.
Fairtransport are also making great strides in building a coalition of sail cargo vessels around the world. Their website has a wealth of information, including vessel tracking and more. View all the ships in their network here.
Of course there are also efforts being made to implement modern sailing technology on existing container ships at a grander scale. To learn more about the DynaRig technology behind parts of that movement, check out this article. There’s some fascinating stuff afoot, and even though it’s moving slowly, progress is being made.
I’ll have more news after my week aboard the Perry, but until then, enjoy the comic!
Ahoy, friends! I am so, so excited to announce that Baggywrinkles: A Lubber’s Guide to Life at Sea will be hitting Kickstarter July 20th.
What is Baggywrinkles, you ask? Why, it’s my educational, autobiographical comic series about living aboard an 18th century tall ship! You can read the first five issues online for free, and check out new content from the series every week on Patreon. I’ve been working on these short stories intermittently since 2010, and I’m finally ready to bring the whole bundle together under one cover.
So next Monday (July 20th) I’m launching a campaign to fund the printing of a 100-page, 6×9″ softcover collection featuring Issues 1-5, the never-before-seen-in-print Issue 6 (all about the history of scurvy), and a host of other exclusive goodies. Take a look at the finished cover design!
I’ve been hard at work with a team of stellar professionals to make this collection something you’ll all be proud to own—we’re talking French Flaps, patterned endpapers, high-quality matte paper stock, and deliciously thick covers.
I’ve also got some really neat extra rewards. Like remember this giant guide to sailors’ tattoos I drew for the Vancouver Maritime Museum?
Well, I’m gonna turn it into a super fancy two-color, limited edition letterpress print in collaboration with the fine folks at Twin Ravens Press in Eugene, OR! And there’s more extra rewards to come.
This post is your official warning to watch this space (or follow me on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Instagram) for the campaign launch next week, and to keep your eyes peeled because I’ve got a very special stretch goal that I’ll be announcing once the book goes live.
I can’t wait to share more with you—stay tuned!