I n the deep blue off Diamond Head, running downwind before the howling trades, kayak all too eager to pitchpole, to broach. The waves, also wind-inspired, giving chase. A following sea.
These three sentences form an entire chapter in "On Water," Thomas Farber's collection of ruminations on his chosen element. It is a book to read instead of actually being in the water, not to gain information about the ocean or about Farber's life. To read it on the beach would be redundant.
"Reading water . . , " Farber writes, and then drifts off, just like that. Then he quotes Italo Calvino, then Pablo Neruda, then a fellow surfer. "Eh?" you yell back across your board, bobbing in the surf off the coast of Hawaii, the South Pacific or California. He needn't finish that thought, he's moved on to another: "It may be necessary," he yells back, quoting Lyall Watson, "to think of water as an organism in its own right. . . ." A riot of parentheses, Walt Whitman comes to mind and leaves . . . "Out so long," writes Farber, "one (almost) forgets to come in." You feel a little chilly.
The waves have taken him over completely. Farber writes in a cycle of lulls and sets, and thinks in a tidal pattern. This collection of ruminations on water is only the second time I have read an author who seems to have become the natural element he writes about. (The first time was reading Charles Bowden's "The Sonoran Desert," in which he seems to fold himself into the desert, embodying all its space and bitterness.)
Decades ago, the Sierra Club published a series of books on wilderness that made their way into backpacks and onto coffee tables and bookshelves across the country. They were often a combination of quotations and photographs and some text by the author. One in particular--"On the Loose," by Terry and Renny Russell--became a sort of bible, not so much read as incorporated, not so much memorized as inhaled. If you were trapped in the city, this book could re-create the experience of camping in the Western wilderness, subtly, subliminally capturing those things that would catch in the corner of one's eye: the veins in an outcropping of rock over a river, dusty boots, the flash of a red truck. All juxtaposed with quotes from Ecclesiastes, Homer, Whitman and Aldo Leopold.
In "On Water," Farber's language and meaning are so densely intertwined that he re-creates the experience of being in the water without the help of photographs. If there were photographs, they would be the kind in which you see the edges of the fisheye lens and feel yourself trapped inside the camera as the water splashes on the glass.
Only a graceful (fluid!) writer can pull this off--to write about whatever you want, to wander all over the map, to present information in no other perceptible way than how your own mind works, to pull readers through that labyrinth and keep their eyes on the horizon.
There is some raw information here (although it must be said again that one reads this book for the feeling of the water). We learn, for example, that we are two-thirds water, "ten to fifteen gallons in most of us (human brains are three-quarters liquid, bones more than 20 percent liquid, the just-formed fetus nearly entirely water)"; how to drown properly; why seawater is so mysterious, and the role cowries have played in human history.
There's also a little bit of autobiography here--memories of the waters of Farber's childhood in Boston, something about a family and saying something that hurts someone--but Farber is probably three-quarters water and only one-quarter human flesh where memory is stored, so ruminations on his own life are kept to a fairly obscure minimum.
"Thank you, God," Farber writes. "For what? Oh, for this pulsing undulating, shimmering, sighing, breathing plasma of an ocean. For the miracle of warm water. For rideable waves and no wind." It may be a marketing trick, but I swear the book smells like seaweed.