In ninth grade, I first studied poetry. My imagination was stirred by the images and words contained in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. I was required to read and memorize portions of this poem first published in 1798 by the English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The poem relates the experiences of a sailor referred to as the Mariner who has returned from a long sea voyage with a tale to tell. He tells his story to a man who is on his way to a wedding ceremony. The wedding guest’s reaction starts with amusement but quickly moves through fear and fascination as the story progresses.
The Mariner’s tale begins with his ship departing on a journey to the south. Although the trip begins well, the ship is driven off course by storm eventually reaching Antarctica. An albatross appears and leads the troubled ship away from the ice but as the albatross is being praised by the ship’s crew, the Mariner shoots the bird. The crew is angry believing the bird had brought the South wind which gently blew their ship out of the icy Antarctic.
The sailors change their minds, however, as the weather warms and the mist disappears “Twas right, said they, such bird to slay/that bring the fog and mist”. However, shooting the bird was a grave mistake. The unnecessary killing arouses the wrath of spirits who pursued the ship “from the land of mist and snow”. The South wind which had initially led them from the land of ice sends the ship into uncharted waters where the wind dies and the water falls deathly still. The poet writes:
Day after day, day after day
We stopped, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
nor any drop to drink.
The sailors blame the Mariner for the torment of their thirst. As a result, the crew forces the Mariner to wear the dead albatross about his neck to illustrate the burden he must suffer for killing it. Eventually, after encountering a ship of death, all the crewmembers die. The Mariner lives on but he is cursed. For seven days and seven nights the Mariner sees the last expression on the face of each dead crew member. The curse is partially lifted only as he begins to appreciate the sea creatures swimming in the water. Despite his cursing them as “slimy things” earlier in the poem, “Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / upon the slimy sea”, he suddenly sees their true beauty and blesses them. As he manages to pray, the albatross falls from his neck and his guilt is partially forgiven. The bodies of the crew possessed by good spirits rise again and steer the ship back home, where it sinks in a whirlpool, leaving only the Mariner behind. The Mariner is saved by a hermit but as penance for his killing of the Albatross, he is forced to wander the earth telling his story to each individual he meets.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Pondering those words, I can only conclude that God loves water. Water is necessary for human beings to live and for fish to swim. As a fundamental requirement of being a human being living in this marvelous world each of us should recognize and take responsibility for protecting as best we can the essential elements of life. The water we consume and in which the bonefish swim is such an element.
As I began this series of blog notes concerning the plight of the Florida Keys bonefish, I raised the question of what an individual angler could do to make a difference. The words “water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink” have run through my mind like a broken record. Without habitat, including seawater, of appropriate quality, the bonefish will disappear. That bonefish and other species thrive in healthy saltwater and provide anglers with unparalleled opportunities to catch remarkable fish and make memories that last for a lifetime, can be seen in the pictures below which tell the story about the need for life giving salt water in which bonefish can thrive.
The parallels with the tale of the Ancient Mariner are clear. Our Albatross is water itself. If the actions of human beings kill the quality of water, there will not only be no water to drink, there will be no life. And so the question of caring for the resource extends far beyond an anglers hope that bonefish will have water habitat in which they will swim, spawn, and thrive.
And the bonuses anglers will receive from sustaining the quality of saltwater are profound. When we fish, we experience the uncanny beauty of nature and stories of great friends and fish.
A double on permit with a great friend, Bob Hamilton.
Tranquility as calm sea meets gray sky creating an infinitely distant horizon.
Mangrove islands caressed with bright rays of sun reflect off life-giving seawater.
Vistas from singular highways and bridges within sight of schools of daisy chaining Tarpon.
Mirrors of sand in shallow water reflecting the beauty of a sharply blue sky and providing avenues of travel for healthy fish.
A wild Tarpon.
So what can I do? Here is my plan and promise.
Even though I live in Ohio and have not visited the Florida Keys for two and half years, I will treat water wherever I am as if it represents the sea creatures which the Ancient Mariner begins to appreciate which appreciation causes the albatross to fall from his neck.
The salt water in which the bonefish swims is a resource. The water I use in my daily living is the same resource. I will demonstrate my commitment to the bonefish, by conserving the resource in which it swims. Regardless of where that resource is located. And here is how I have begun.
Perhaps you agree there is nothing better than a hot shower. Personally, I favor long, long hot showers. In fact, after a day fishing on the flats of the Florida Keys, there is nothing more pleasurable than a long hot shower which rinses away the speckles of salt which cling to your body as a result of boat spray, fish slime, and the perspiration of an angler standing on the bow of the skiff for eight hours in a hot benevolent tropical sun.
Despite my love of long hot showers, for the last three weeks I have been taking “Navy showers”. They are simple enough. Turn the water on. Get wet. Turn the water off. Shampoo your hair. Soap your body. Turn the water on. Rinse off. Turn the water off again. I have no idea how much water is saved by a Navy shower but the commitment to the resource is more important than the quantity. I am convinced that if we all do just a little bit better with whatever resource we care about, the resource will make exponential gains because many people care enough to do a little.
When I shave, I turn the water on and off. When I brush my teeth, I turn the water on and off. When I do dishes, I turn the water on and off. Before, I let the water run while each of those simple daily tasks were completed.
My wife and I have had our first conversation about what kind of chemicals we will put on our lawn when the snow melts and the sun angle rises high enough in the sky to grow grass. I hope we can come to an agreement that whatever chemicals we use, if any, will not do damage to the water flowing in the Olentangy River where I fish for smallmouth bass not 300 yards from my home.
The Senators and Representatives from Ohio will receive letters from me. These letters will request that they explain why the subsidies continue for Big Sugar which uses fertilizers to grow sugarcane in Florida. These fertilizers release their chemical components into the groundwater that ultimately flows through the Everglades attacking water quality in Florida Bay. Florida Bay is the astounding but besieged estuary which provides life to bonefish and an infinite variety of saltwater creatures. Of course, I confess to a high level of skepticism about whether or not a letter from an individual citizen will make any difference. On the other hand, what harm can it do? Clearly, it is not realistic to expect Congress to have the necessary political will to make changes for the better of the country unless I have sufficient political will as a citizen to stay informed and express my opinion in a constructive way to those who can make a decision and a difference.
And so I pledge to continue to take steps to conserve on the amount of water I use as a human being. I also pledge to refrain from putting chemicals in places where water will carry those contaminants to rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans.
I have also resolved to take the time to become informed about water quality issues and to ask my political representatives to make decisions based upon a fair balance between the needs of the citizens of our country and the reality that our water resources are limited and tainted.
Finally, I urge you to conserve any resource about which you deeply care. If not water, then something else. I also ask that you keep yourself informed about issues which will affect all of us now and our families and nation in the future.
The Ancient Mariner bore a curse generated by a mindless disregard for the value of the albatross. His shipmates bore a terrible price. The poet concludes that the penance of the Ancient Mariner was eternal.
Let us be mindful of the natural consequences of our choices as we care for the water we use so that neither we nor future generations will have an albatross of responsibility hanging from our neck.