In early morning fog, all I can see is a skim of silver on the water – no trees, no island, no boats. I climb down wet rocks to the edge of the bay and haul on the rope. Pulleys squeak and boats thump on rocks. In time, the bow of the little rowboat noses through the fog, glistening with dew. I pull it to shore, unhook the line, lower myself into the inevitable puddle on the seat, paddle softly and disappear into the fog. The people I love will be lying in warm sleeping bags in their tents on the island, listening for the lap of my oars on the water. But all they will hear are red-throated loons yipping like coyotes somewhere off in the whiteness, and a raven, muttering to himself. I love this.
I’ve come out to watch fog rises over the islands and to think about what it means to love a place. At the university, my son studies ecology. He wants to know how islands change the sea and how sea-life shapes the wooded shore – trees fallen into the bay to shelter broken-back shrimp, the living nutrients in a dead salmon carried by a bear to the base of a tree – all the beautiful, complicated connections that make life flourish over time. This is what I want to understand too: the beautiful, complicated ways that love for people and love for places nourish each other and sustain us all. The ecology, one might say, of caring.
I’m trying to be quiet so I don’t startle the loons, but I brought the wrong boat – the rowboat with its loose and clanky oars. I ship the oars and let the tide tangle me in a pile of kelp. My boots are jammed between the gas can and the anchor, my notebook is on my lap, and little pains are fluttering like moths up and down the muscles of my back. The island is a place of lifting and pulling; hosting anchors and crab pots and buckets of stream water.
I open my notebook. Let’s put the gathered evidence in front of us and let it speak.
Love has as its object: daughter, son, sudden quiet, a certain combination of smells – hemlock and salt water, mist swimming with light, purple kayak, fog-bound island, hidden cove, and my husband, the man who can drive a boat through any squall. The list is, of course, incomplete. Add silver salmon. Add unexpected sun.
I stretch my back and start two lists. What does it mean to love a person? What does it mean to love a place? Before long, I discover I’ve made two copies of the same list. To love – a person and a place – means at least this:
Number One: To want to be near it, physically.
Number Two: To want to know everything about it – its story, its moods, what it looks like by moonlight.
Number Three: To rejoice in the fact of it.
Number Four: To fear its loss, and grieve for its injuries.
Number Five: To protect it – fiercely, mindlessly, futilely, and maybe tragically, but to be helpless to do otherwise.
Six: To be transformed in its presence – lifted, lighter on your feet, transparent, open to everything beautiful and new.
Seven: To want to be joined with it, taken in by it, lost in it.
Number Eight: To want the best for it.
Number Nine: Desperately.
Love is an anchor line, a rope on a pulley, a spruce root, a route on a map, a father teaching his daughter to tie a bowline knot, and all of these – a complicated, changing web of relationships, taken together. It’s not a choice, or a dream, or a romantic novel. It’s a fact: an empirical fact about our biological existence. We are born into relationships with people and with places. We are born with the ability to create new relationships and tend to them. And we are born with a powerful longing for these relations. That complex connectedness nourishes and shapes us and gives us joy and purpose.
I know there’s something important missing from my list, number ten, but I’m struggling to put it into words. Loving isn’t just a state of being, it’s a way of acting in the world. Love isn’t a sort of bliss, it’s a kind of work, sometimes hard, spirit-testing work.
To love a person is to act lovingly toward him, to make his needs my own needs. To love a place is to care for it, to keep it healthy, to regret every bootprint, to attend to its needs. Responsibility grows from love. It is the natural shape of caring.
Number Ten, I write in my notebook: To love a person or a place is to accept moral responsibility for its thriving.
I turn the rowboat toward camp, tugging on the clanking oars, scattering the reflections, picturing my family gathering one by one to explore the bay as the tide falls. They will be stumbling over rocks and calling out to each other. “Look, here, under the kelp.”