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On A Bit Of Seaweed Post by :damie Category :Essays Author :A. G. Gardiner Date :October 2011 Read :3830

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On A Bit Of Seaweed

The postman came just now, and among the letters he brought was one from North Wales. It was fat and soft and bulgy, and when it was opened we found it contained a bit of seaweed. The thought that prompted the sender was friendly, but the momentary effect was to arouse wild longings for the sea, and to add one more count to the indictment of the Kaiser, who had sent us for the holidays into the country, where we could obey the duty to economise, rather than to the seaside, where the temptations to extravagance could not be dodged. "Oh, how it smells of Sheringham," said one whose vote is always for the East Coast. "No, there is the smack of Sidmouth, and Dawlish, and Torquay in its perfume," said another, whose passion is for the red cliffs of South Devon. And so on, each finding, as he or she sniffed at the seaweed, the windows of memory opening out on to the foam of summer seas. And soon the table was enveloped in a rushing tide of recollection--memories of bathing and boating, of barefooted races on the sands, of jolly fishermen who always seemed to be looking out seaward for something that never came, of hunting for shells, and of all the careless raptures of dawn and noon and sunset by the seashore. All awakened by the smell of a bit of seaweed.

It is this magic of reminiscence that makes the world such a storehouse of intimacies and confidences. There is hardly a bird that sings, or a flower that blows, or a cloud that sails in the blue that does not bring us some hint from the past, and set us tingling with remembrance. We open a drawer by chance, and the smell of lavender issues forth, and with that lingering perfume the past is unrolled like a scroll, and places long unseen leap to the inward eye and voices long unheard are speaking to us:--

We tread the path their feet have worn.
We sit beneath their orchard trees,
We hear, like them, the hum of bees,
And rustle of the bladed corn.

Who can see the first daffodils of spring without feeling a sort of spiritual festival that the beauty of the flower alone cannot explain? The memory of all the springs of the past is in their dancing plumes, and the assurance of all the springs to come. They link us up with the pageant of nature, and with the immortals of our kind--with Wordsworth watching them in "sprightly dance" by Ullswater, with Herrick finding in them the sweet image of the beauty and transience of life, with Shakespeare greeting them "in the sweet o' the year" by Avon's banks long centuries ago.

And in this sensitiveness of memory to external suggestion there is infinite variety. It is not a collective memory that is awakened, but a personal memory. That bit of seaweed opened many windows in us, but they all looked out on different scenes and reminded us of something individual and inexplicable, of something which is a part of that ultimate loneliness that belongs to all of us. Everything speaks a private language to each of us that we can never translate to others. I do not know what the lilac says to you; but to me it talks of a garden-gate over which it grew long ago. I am a child again, standing within the gate, and I see the red-coated soldiers marching along with jolly jests and snatching the lilac sprays from the tree as they pass. The emotion of pride that these heroes should honour our lilac tree by ravishing its blossoms all comes back to me, together with a flood of memories of the old garden and the old home and the vanished faces. Why that momentary picture should have fixed itself in the mind I cannot say; but there it is, as fresh and clear at the end of nearly fifty years as if it were painted yesterday, and the lilac tree bursting into blossom always unveils it again.

It is these multitudinous associations that give life its colour and its poetry. They are the garnerings of the journey, and unlike material gains they are no burden to our backs and no anxiety to our mind. "The true harvest of my life," said Thoreau, "is something as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning and evening." It was the summary, the essence, of all his experience. We are like bees foraging in the garden of the world, and hoarding the honey in the hive of memory. And no hoard is like any other hoard that ever was or ever will be. The cuckoo calling over the valley, the blackbird fluting in the low boughs in the evening, the solemn majesty of the Abbey, the life of the streets, the ebb and flow of Father Thames--everything whispers to us some secret that it has for no other ear, and touches a chord of memory that echoes in no other brain. Those deeps within us find only a crude expression in the vehicle of words and actions, and our intercourse with men touches but the surface of ourselves. The rest is "as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning and evening." It was one of the most companionable of men, William Morris, who said:

That God has made each one of us as lone
As He Himself sits.

That is why, in moments of exaltation, our only refuge is silence, and the world of memory within answers the world of suggestion without.

"And what does the seaweed remind you of?" said one, as I looked up after smelling it. "It reminds me," I said, "of all the seas that wash our shores, and of all the brave sailors who are guarding these seas day and night, while we sit here secure. It reminds me also that I have an article to write, and that its title is 'A Bit of Seaweed.'"

(The end)
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On A Bit Of Seaweed

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