SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans
November 01, 2015
October’s wake and Armstrong’s canoe
28°30.5’S x 175°14.5’E
north of the New Zealand EEZ
Colder than Fiji ever gets. Waves east by south; winds east by north, Force 4.
One month at sea is a milestone for students (and for new faculty). SSV Robert C. Seamans departed Pago Pago Harbor in American Samoa near midday on 30 September. In the days that followed I observed our SPICE students forging bonds through common purpose. In this blog space they have written about their evolving skills as working crew on a sailing vessel, and of other bonds, forged in communities in Samoa, Wallis, and Fiji, secured through informal conversation and strengthened through shared experiences of local ceremonies, traditional sailing, and fishing. What struck me most during this month of cultural convergence was the ease with which students and hosts cultivated these relationships of shared knowledge and experience. Reciprocity: exchange of objects and ideas for mutual benefit. A key term straight out of Anthropology 101, made real by SEA students in these real places.
This exchange of ideas reminds me of discussions I had while conducting my own anthropological research in the rural Pacific years ago. As full days of fishing and gardening turned to long evenings of kava and conversation, members of my adoptive community shared with me their reflections on matters of possibility. What can people hope to achieve within the scope of their collective imagination? Do Pacific Islanders imagine what is possible for them differently than the westerners they meet through Peace Corps interactions and radio and newspaper stories? A recurring narrative shared by my hosts concerned “Armstrong’s canoe,” the tale of the American who reached the moon many decades ago by means of technological ingenuity that my Pacific friends felt was regrettably missing from their own cultural repertoire. They pondered, “What can we teach a world that has grasped and settled the night sky?”
The beauty in this sincere question lies in its vast horizon of possible answers, many of which continue to surface from lessons learned by 23 sailing students in an October’s worth of connecting with Pacific Islanders. The spirit of community. The fleeting nature of personal possession. Knowledge gained from millennia of incomparable exploration over open ocean. “Sustainability” as fluid and often tenuous negotiation, not a rigid roadmap to a certain future. New ways to reciprocate. New possibilities. Armstrong’s canoe was not the pinnacle of human achievement. But it was pretty cool.
To my wife, Melody, celebrating this night of Samhain’s Eve above city streets teeming with children dressed as assorted Avengers and Disney princesses. I promise to return to you before the yearly neglected pumpkin sitting on our downstairs neighbor’s porch rots to soupy mush.