I’ve spent my adult life in the shadow of the Banks Schooners. Growing up looking out across one of their greatest harbors as the dwindling number and growing decrepitude of their bastard descendants, the Diesel powered draggers followed by the ungainly modern trawlers, left the sea as bare above as they had the waters below.
The following is an excerpt from Something for Nothing. A reluctant rum-runner contemplates the schooner he loves and feels he’s betrayed.
He felt his schooner a burden. He was ashamed by his infatuation. How could he have put so much stock in a thing? Thinking this way made him more angry at himself. It wasn’t the schooner’s fault. She was a beauty. She was more than a simple thing, more than a tool or a toy. Most of these schooners, especially this one, embodied something. They were mere man-made things, sure; but they came from such a lineage. They were so well fitted to their environment, to what they’d been built to do. They carried a spirit beyond their humble, physical natures. They were more than rough amalgams of hewn lumber, rope and canvas.
He’d never been to Europe, never saw one in person; but he imagined standing in front of a great cathedral might give you a similar feeling. Being in the presence of something so well made, that so captured the spirit, the striving, and the effort of all those who’d been involved in its making. Something that put you face-to-face with a presence. The comparison made him think even more highly of the schooners. Cathedrals were built as important civic and spiritual centers. They had ongoing and significant effort lavished on them by an entire culture deeply invested in their creation. They were stone and glass, monumental and permanent.
The fishing schooners had a long development, three hundred years or more of building vessels to wrest a living from the banks off the Northeast coast of North America; but they had been marginal in the grander scheme. No Pope or King had ever given their form any thought. They’d been ignored for the most part, just another tool built by humble craftsmen for an industry that took place well out of the sight of most people. They’d been used hard, worn out, wrecked and abandoned or burned for their iron. Fisherman had a homey affection for them at best.
With all these points against their achieving any consequence, they were something special. He knew it. He could see it. He felt it in his body as Actæon moved under him. She moved, something no cathedral could do. Not only an object imbued with spirit; but one that moved, that lived. As much as he wanted to simplify his life, ignore the truth of the schooner’s worth; as much as he felt a fool giving it any thought at all in his desperate state, when no one else seemed to give a damn, no one else shared his reverence; he couldn’t deny its truth.
The fishermen didn’t care. The crew he’d taken her from had been excited at the prospect of getting onto a dragger, leaving the hassles of sailing and tending trawl from a dory behind them. A warm focs’le and nets full of fish, the steady drone of a Diesel engine below the wheelhouse pushing them along effortlessly in any direction at any time at a constant speed without concern for calms or squalls; that’s what they wanted. Back coves all up and down the coast held derelict schooners rotting away with the tide running up and down inside their pierced carcasses twice a day. No one cared. Why should he?
Phillips had cared, seemed to anyway, but he’d been relieved to pass Actæon along to him for all his fine appreciation. He had his model and his mythology, maybe that was enough for him. Why did MacFarlane insist on all this hassle and danger to keep the real thing going when the result might take his life? Even if he didn’t die doing this, he was wasting his life. Caught in this racket, seduced by something-for-nothing. He was keeping the schooner alive; but he was doing it by giving up on the slow accumulation of effort-for-value that had lead to its creation, its very reason for being. He was looking for the “angle,” the “scheme,” a “quick and easy path.” That attitude was contaminating everything around him he saw as the more he thought about it. He was embracing an absence of the qualities he most valued in Actæon, qualities he saw were missing from the rest of life around him.
He’d get to this point in his thinking and then flip again into anger and resentment, first at the schooner for touching him so, helping to lead him deeper into this mess of a life; then at himself again.
He found his only respite in danger, when trouble stared him in the face and self-preservation rose up so he couldn’t ignore it. At such times, adrenaline, the focus and clarity of action within a limited tactical sphere was a blessing. Anger, fear, frustration all had a legitimate outlet. He was like a baboon sighting a leopard. Was the leopard the cause of all the baboon’s suffering? No, but it was impossible to ignore and just the sight of it brought all it’s primate and deeper instincts for self-preservation into play. There was a fundamental satisfaction in embracing the immediate situation, jumping into the flow of instinct, action and release. This combination of a heightened state with the loss of any need to deliberate, modulate, adjust, to take responsibility; predominated in the rush of the will-to-survive the next instant, and then, the next.
He found himself courting danger. He’d always been careful. Not shy or fearful, but confident in his ability to stay within the boredom of tragedy-averted, having taken prophylactic steps to diffuse situations before they got out of hand. Now he felt a secret thrill letting the warning signs build up inside him, playing with how long he could let it go, let them build to ever more critical levels before taking steps. He found that often he was still able to diffuse things and, as far as anyone else watching might think, nothing of any note had happened. This only made him bolder. It raised the stakes in this game he played with himself.
This new painting, “An Old Swell from the East,” isn’t an “illustration” for this story, though it does attempt to convey something about that moment in the 1920′s when the old schooners were beginning to fade away from the scene. This is the McManus Indian Header Elizabeth Howard, on a long-board to the Southeast against a light Sou’wester on a Spring day on Stellwagen in the mid-twenties. She was still fishing, unlike MacFarlane’s fictional Actæon. A hand stands on the weather fore-spreader, on the look-out for signs of mackerel schooling on the surface. Astern, a freighter heads East out of Boston.