Suzanne Fields

COROLLA, N.C. -- A perch in the sand on a pristine beach invites a summer afternoon's reflections, and here where North Carolina's Outer Banks meet the Atlantic we're all sea-watchers, looking and listening for changes in the color and texture of the ocean, diving for shells, wondering how far from the distant Gulf of Mexico the tar balls will travel. The seas have always offered a mix of possibilities -- opportunity and threat, exploration and discovery, recreation and exploitation. But this is the summer of our discontent. We're all humbled with respect for the sea and man's place in it and by it.

Life was once dangerous here, when pirates prowled the Outer Banks, seizing booty and having a high old time terrifying everyone. The Folger Shakespeare Library's current exhibition called "Lost At Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination" couldn't be more timely, taking us fathoms deep into the experiences of mariners, scientists, inventors, explorers, poets and preachers. The exhibition begins with a 1709 illustration of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," showing the storm-tossed ship where Ariel and his fellow spirits shoot fire and lightning into the rigging. The wizard Prospero stands on the shore, attempting to impose both order and chaos, as apt as any metaphor for BP's now-tamed runaway oil well off the coast of Louisiana.

Steve Mentz, one of the two exhibition curators, studies ocean imagery and concludes that 21st century culture has frayed the human connection to the sea. "The end of the age of commercial sail and the advent of airline travel, airborne warfare, containerization, the automation of ports, and even the romance of outer space, have displaced the sea from the center of our cultural imagination," he writes in "At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean." Even the southern tip of Manhattan, "where sailors and longshoreman once walked, bankers and lawyers now stride in isolation."

The terror, unfortunately, hasn't gone away, but merely changed delivery systems from sea to air. The misadventures of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a general and half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh, reverberates throughout the Folger exhibit. Sir Humphrey was eager for Elizabethan England's expansion into the New World but recognized the hazards, as well. As his ship Squirrel was swallowed by the sea, taking him and his entire crew with it, the captain of a neighboring ship claimed to have heard his last words: "We are as near to heaven by sea as by land."

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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