High on the cliffs of Rosario Point above Puget Sound, Ko-Kwal-alwoot stretches out strong arms to hold a salmon against the sky. Her story pole, carved from a hulking 30’ X 5’ cedar log, tells the Samish Indian myth of a maiden who agrees to marry The Sea to save her people from starvation. Despite her father’s objections, she walks wholeheartedly into the cold salt water, and The Sea–honoring his promise–releases salmon the Samish so desperately depend on.
You don’t need to search far to find them: myths of the eternal calling to the temporal, divine spirits falling in love with the mortal, and the mortal responding with abandon. I thought of this as I read Lindsay’s last Consider, as she described the way her spirit swelled and leapt out into the wild waters of the Atlantic. All ancient cultures bear witness to this longing.
In Cornwall the rugged coastal trail winds into the tiny village of Zennor, where 6th Century Christians established the St. Senara church. Past needlepoint kneelers an ancient wooden chair depicts a mermaid lifting her bare arms. Legend has it that she wandered from the wild turquoise sea in search of chorister Matthew Trewhellen, whose voice had been borne to her by the wind. Trewhellen left the familiar–friends and hearth and garden–and dove beneath the waves forever. The call: Come. The response: I abandon myself completely.
Who among us have not felt this keening? Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls. All your waves and breakers have swept over me. This Psalm has captured me since I was a child. The eternal calls my name and I long to throw myself off the edge into something greater.
It’s not a call to comfort and easy solace. Summers at the Atlantic, I remember being caught by a wave, rolled into a swirl of green, pulled by the current, pounded by the surf. The ocean spat me onto the sand; I gasped for breath. Then I wiped the salt from my eyes and went back in.
This is a dangerous summons. Jump in knowing there’s no guarantee you won’t be destroyed. But you will be remade.
Ko-Kwal-alwoot walks out over smooth stones. Above her head, osprey call, scanning the water for their next meal. Behind her, cedars, hemlocks, madrones rise; at her feet, spreading out cold and grey, the waters of Puget Sound. As she reaches to draw out a shellfish, a hand grasps hers. “Don’t be afraid,” a voice says. She must join the Spirit, for her people are starving. She must plunge into the freezing depths, for there is no other way. When she visits her family again, she will be changed–damp air will linger in her wake, her hair will wave like kelp. She will miss the sea; back to the sea she will return; her home will never again be what it once was.
With all our great poetry, music, art, we are no nearer to adequately finding the words to domesticate this longing. Perhaps few writers have done so well as Rilke: “God speaks to each of us as he makes us,” he writes, “then walks silently out of the night./These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
Ko-Kwal-alwoot extends her hand, sinks into the slate-grey waters. The young chorister scrambles through thrift and foxgloves, his back to the dark sleeping village, throws himself from the cliffs. From the wild depths, a summons. Go to the limits of your longing. Nearby is the country they call life. Give me your hand.
-Please check out the beautiful story of the Samish Maiden for yourself, as told by Charlie Edwards to Martin Sampson in 1938. And if you ever find yourself at Deception Pass near Whidby Island, WA, don’t miss the story pole at Rosario Point.
-Keep stopping by The Back Page for more behind-the-scenes. Thank you!
Photo Credits: Martin Cockroft