Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Labyrinth and the Lagu-Cræftig

The afternoon I spent on the Coastal Trail  yesterday was notable for reasons other than the Red-tailed hawk sighting.  The Trail itself invites reflection on its interesting origins--it's a compendium of old trail and railroad bed--as well as its mix of lush foliage, barren rock cliffs and thirty mile views up past the Point Bonita lighthouse.  I've spent time on this Trail for as long as I can remember, and it is my favorite place in San Francisco to walk (or run) and think. I even rode a bike on it once with AAH when we were thirteen, which was, to say the least, a harrowing experience that I would not recommend to anyone else. 

Yesterday I saw something that I've never witnessed in my many years on this stretch of cliffs, and which surpasses the harrowing nature of my ill-advised bike ride as well as the thrilling/scary surfing at Fort Point. Right past Eagles Point, as I headed west towards Lands End, I saw four surfers fighting the swells off the rocks at the cliffs' base. How they might have arrived at that break was as dumbfounding as why they even wanted to be surfing there; the waves didn't look that great, and one would think that the risk of death by riptide or rocky dismemberment would outweigh the desire to surf marginally decent waves.
Crazy a** surfers south of Eagles Point, with a perspective shot for context
Since I'm a surfing admirer and not a practicioner, however, I will leave the "why" to the experts and instead focus on the "how".  After some fruitless hypothesizing, I decided that the only way they could have reached that stretch of surf was by scrambling down the cliffs--such a route wasn't obvious from where I was standing, but I know that there are trails down and around Eagles Point that have been closed off in the last few years, especially as winter storms have a funny way of sweeping chunks of cliff into the Pacific without a great deal of notice. Until yesterday, I used to think that the craziest trek-for-surfing I'd encountered was the scene in The Endless Summer 2 when those surfers hike past a bunch of menacingly curious grizzly bears to surf in frigid Alaskan water; actually, I still think that might be crazier, but only from a relative standpoint (it's not as though Great Whites have never been seen just outside the Golden Gate).

I kept hiking, and about ten minutes later, as I looked back towards Baker Beach, I spotted this guy:
He was trying to swim with his board from China Beach around the point to the other surfers (you can't see them from these photos, but they're at the base of the cliff on which I was standing). So now there was another possibility for how they reached their treacherous break, but in the minutes that I watched this surfer he made no progress at all; the swells kept pushing him back towards the Beach from which he'd started. Which meant, of course, that the other surfers either swam out when the tides were out, or they took my hypothesized death-scramble down the cliffs. Or a pirate friend towed them out on his zodiac. 

Because the day was so foggy and grey, and because these surfers were engaged in something almost mythical--to me, at least--in danger, I started thinking about Anglo-Saxon words for the ocean, specifically hwælweg (whale-road), fiscesethel (fish-home), and seolbæth (seal-bath). I have a soft spot for Germanic compounds, particularly when it comes to naming things; for example, I love that the first settlers in California called sea lions "sea wolves", and that when the name changed it still maintained its compound form. So then I started thinking about other compounds, and I remembered this one from Beowulf--lagu-cræftig, which means "sea-skilled". I can't remember to whom it refers in the poem, but it certainly could refer to Beowulf, who proves his oceanic mettle in the days-long swimming contest with Breca, complete with sea monster fights and an attempt to help his friend, the lesser swimmer. TDH has a theory that Beowulf and Breca must have had something like a surfboard to stay afloat for six or seven days, and I've always liked that image--the young Geatish warrior riding the North Sea with his board.  Maybe archeologists on the Danish coast will unearth such a relic at some point.

One other aspect of yesterday's hike alluded to medieval origins--the coastal labyrinth. Now, I'm hesitant to reveal its exact location, as for most of my life its existence has been known solely to locals and lost tourists. But since Weekend Sherpa has in the past written about the labyrinth, and because I rarely find myself alone when I seek it out, I don't think it's as great of a secret as it once was. That said, I will note that the coastal pilgrim must suffer through many trials to reach the destination of potential revelation, ranging from the great cypress forest to the eucalyptus mountain, to the two-dimensional gate-keeper....

Beware, intrepid pilgrim! the stairs, which will make your buttocks burn with the tentacle-like flames of hellfire...
The eschatological stairs
...and then, after climbing the barren path, much like a coastal Glastonbury Tor....

...the coastal pilgrim reaches the Labyrinth, where all meditative questions may be asked, such as, I'm cold, how far is the nearest coffee shop?, and My a** really, really hurts, how will I climb the stairs back to civilization?

One interesting thing I've noticed about labyrinths in the past is that an inevitable, unique sort of daydreaming occurs, and sometimes funny, unbidden thoughts rise in my mind.  Maybe they're engendered by the act of walking something unfamiliar yet simple, because while a labyrinth like this one is deceptively maze-like, finding the way to the center is not difficult. In any case, as I walked the labyrinth yesterday, I thought of Denise Levertov's poem "Jacob's Ladder", which I probably last read when I lived in England. Were the stairs what sparked the remembrance of this poem, or was it other things that have been on my mind these last couple of weeks? Who knows? But in "Jacob's Ladder", Levertov writes of "a stairway of sharp angles, solidly built", and then continues as follows:

One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next, giving a little
lift of the wings:

and a man climbing 
must scrape his knees, and bring
the grip of hands into play. The cut stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past him.
The poem ascends.

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