Under the Wave Off Kanagawa – Katsushika Hokusai (1830/1)
image credit: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
“We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy: Remarks at the Dinner for the America’s Cup Crews, September 14 1962
Sometimes things come together for a blog post in a round-about sort of way. Blue Wave, Blue Mind, ocean pollution, tattoos – go figure. I’ve just been to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to see the Hokusai Exhibition, and very much enjoyed seeing up close and personal his most famous and much-beloved print, Under the Wave Off Kanazawa. It’s an iconic image, as it has been oft-parodied (my favorite is with Cookie Monster), used in ad campaigns, and, if you can believe it, is now actually an emoji, which you can order up on your iPhone. Really. Oh, and did I mention that it’s a very popular tattoo choice? Seeing it before me on the wall, I was intrigued to find that the print is surprisingly small — considering its giant popularity, one might expect a much larger image, but its diminutive size captures the the beauty and power of the sea perfectly. Sort of like a visual soundbite. I guess one could say that it was the original emoji? If you’re in Boston, you must check it out. The exhibit runs from April 5 – August 9, 2015.
As I was looking at the Hokusai prints, I found myself thinking about a book I’d read recently — Blue Mind, which was written by marine biologist, Wallace J. Nichols, a man who has long been fascinated by our emotional connection to water. Nichols invented the name “blue mind,” for this emotional connection, and describes it as “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment. It is inspired by water and the sensations associated with water, from the color blue to the words we use to describe the sensations associated with immersion.” The enduring popularity of Hokusai’s print speaks volumes to this emotional connection, and, in fact, Nichols’s research shows us that there are actually neurological and biological reasons that we all feel it. For me, this explains a lot. I had the great good luck to grow up beside the ocean; it has always been a part of my daily life, and on an inexplicably deep level, a very central part of who I am. Now I know why.
Since my own family has had a long and meaningful connection to the sea (generations of shipwrights and sea captains, lobster-men and -women, oyster farmers, and sailors), I’ve been eager to support the good work that’s being done to raise awareness about ocean trash and pollution. I’ve recently become involved with Sailors for the Sea, an organization founded by a singer/sailor acquaintance of mine, David Rockefeller. Their website explains: “Sailors for the Sea was founded as a collective rallying cry for a community that loves and is passionate about protecting the ocean. Together we are one voice. One legacy. And the momentum behind a sea change.” Among the many other great things they’re doing, Sailors for the Sea has been promoting an international campaign to help produce environmentally friendly sailing events – in fact our very own H Class Championship regatta this year will be a “Clean Regatta,” guided every step of the way by Sailors for the Sea. Check out their website if you want to learn how to organize such a regatta, or to donate or find ways that you can help in cleaning up and protecting our oceans.
As you might guess, coordinating a Clean Regatta takes mindful work and planning. And with so many organizations all over the world committing to working with Sailors for the Sea in making their events more earth- and ocean-friendly, who can help but be appalled at the news regarding the excessive water pollution and floating trash at the future olympic sailing venue? The pollution in Guanabara Bay, the venue for sailing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, is so excessive that many of those who hope to participate are concerned for their health and safety. As sailors, especially, shouldn’t we all be talking about what it means to expect that the world’s best sailors will sail in some of the world’s most polluted waters? It seems to me that this could (and should) provide a powerful and very visible tipping point in getting the world to focus on the burgeoning problem of ocean pollution. I worry that we’re missing an important opportunity to affect real change, and that by continuing with the plan to hold the Olympic sailing events in such a badly polluted area, we are, by our very inaction, condoning the continuing use of the ocean as a trash dump and sewer pit. Guanabara Bay is a harbinger of what’s to come all over the world — even in our own back yards — unless we all join together and try to do something about it. Otherwise, I suppose we’ll discover all too late that brown water will not have quite the same curative effect as blue, and that Hokusai’s beautiful print will slowly lose its meaning for future generations.
And, finally — that leads me back to tattoos. My teenaged daughters are threatening to get one. Maybe I’ll suggest that we all go to the tattoo parlor together, and each get a miniature version of Hokusai’s emoji, indelibly etched in Prussian blue, as a celebration of our family’s deep connection and long history with the sea?
I’ll keep you posted on that.