Wendy Walters Lecture: A Quickly Approaching Horizon

Wwaltersendy Walters’ writing is a gift to multiple communities all at once: hopeful writers and students, literature fans, environmental activists, and anyone attentive to the state of human rights in our world.  By this measure, this is writing that should concern just about everyone on Earth.  She is widely published as a poet, but her selections at this lecture leaned towards prosody.  Her style remained unmistakably poetic, however.  This literary design allows her to blend scientific facts with metaphor and storytelling, which brings a beauty and relatable quality to what would normally be dry historic data.  She begins with an ear-catching specific, then moves towards more general truths.  By giving a melodic energy to factual evidence, she manages to convey vital messages without ever being dull.  This is not only admirable but essential in this age of short attention spans, self-interest, and instant gratification, where capturing the attention of the upcoming generations seems to be simultaneously more difficult and more crucially needed.

Her first reading came from her essay “When the Sea Comes for Us” and focused on the delicate balance of coastal communities and the surrounding ocean levels.  Specifically, it centered around her home in New York City not far from the famous New York Harbor.  She explored marine areas geographically, listing particular areas by name and then detailing their historical role in the human-ocean relationship.  This highlighted how dependent the human race has always been on the sea, and how we have always come for it, usually to use it to our advantage.  She spoke of our building upward as an “impulse to climb” that had a clear double-meaning, representing our physical topography of taller and taller buildings that was designed by an “economy of space,” but also of our apparently inextinguishable desire to accumulate wealth and prestige both individually and collectively (Walters).  She compared skyscrapers to masts, something I have personally never considered, and this could be argued to exemplify the enduring nature of humanity’s false idea that we can claim or tame anything by merely building upon it, raising ourselves above it.  A sentiment from this piece that effectively introduced her next reading was that “true sea change” will leave no territory unaffected (Walters).  It’s not just about New York, it’s not just about America; this is an issue that concerns the entire planet.  All of the major civilizations in our history have depended on the various benefits of the ocean.  We have come for the sea, unwilling to admit to ourselves that the sea could, in turn, come for us.

walters 3     The next piece she read from was “You Are Pip.”  This was a much longer essay, which she hesitated to call an essay as it seems to bridge the spaces between poem, essay, and monologue.  Several in the audience said that they felt it was a performance piece after the reading, and I believe this came from the repetition of several lines such as the ever-present reminder that “you are Pip” as well as the subtle urgency of the writing.  This piece still deals with the unbreakable yet dangerous bond human beings have with the sea, but it is more deeply focused on human-to-human interaction, specifically interaction modified by racism.  Pip is a seemingly minor character of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a young African-American boy who works under the notorious Captain Ahab.  However, Walters shows that he holds an importance far greater than it first appears.  His character’s initial purpose seems to be comic relief, but that is cut short by his untimely drowning later in the novel.  This indicates a purposeful earnestness expressed by Melville when penning his unexpected demise.  Pip can, and perhaps should, be totally removed from the context of his tale and represent a bigger issue in our society, past and present.  Walters seems to think this is necessary, that we are all Pip: nervous yet in awe, humorous yet serious, corporeal yet fleeting.  Regardless of skin color, the work demonstrates that the tumultuous range of human emotion and the unpredictability of human experience are universal factors in our lives.

As the reading began to wind down, it became clear that another interpretation could be drawn: Pip could also be the sea.  Some lines that triggered this association were “you have died, not we have killed you”, “fears born from uncertainty”, and “may you never sacrifice yourself to progress (Walters).”  These thoughts can all be easily related to our relationship with the ocean.  Many people refuse to admit their part in the destruction of the marine ecosystem, certainly much of the population has fears of the ocean based on a lack of knowledge or uncertainty, and those who care about the sea of course wish that it walters 2would not become sacrificed to progress.  Now, if we are Pip, and Pip is the ocean, WE are the ocean.  Our tie to water is scientific, unavoidable, and unique.  The ocean sustains us, heals us, transports us, and amuses us.  Therefore, why should we not protect it as one of our own?  We are not just saving a remarkable, ancient world, but ourselves as well.  As Walters so eloquently put, the world will end just as it always was going to; what changes and what matters is the speed of that demise.