When Nature Breaks the Rules

September 01, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace -- There's no place like home, as Dorothy observed before L. Frank Baum beamed her safely back to Kansas. And certainly it's the best place of all for thinking about where you've been and what you've seen.

Like the First Family and quite a few others, we went to the beach for a few days, some of them pretty stormy. We rented a cottage overlooking the water that, especially in an onshore wind, made me think of Dylan Thomas' ''seashaken house on a breakneck of rocks.'' There was a lighthouse nearby, and sometimes the foghorn sounded all night. We soon got used to it.

One of the bittersweet pleasures of vacationing with children is the heightened sense of milestones passing. This is especially true when the vacation is in a familiar place, and the activities those of years gone by. Each year there are new skills and increased confidence on display.


In the surf, last year's timid 9-year-old disappears beneath a wave -- and then re-emerges from the foam in the shallows like a beached seal, laughing maniacally. She's learned something about the ocean, and something about herself. It's a milestone.

The coast is also a good place to be reminded of the roundness of the globe. Nowhere else is the horizon so regular. Standing on the shore and watching a sailing vessel head seaward, it's possible to calculate how far away she'll be when her hull disappears, and how much farther when the masts, too, are gone.

In theory, for a six-foot person walking the beach with his ankles in the sea, the horizon is less than three miles away. But the top of a little sailboat's 16-foot mast should be visible at seven miles, and a clipper ship's 100-foot-high topsails at almost twice that. .. From the deck of a ship, a mile-high mountain such as Maine's Katahdin should be visible 100 nautical miles away.

All this is a mariner's basic arithmetic. But for those of us who live inland this is a strange new perspective, however scientific and logical it may be, and in a way it's comforting when nature demonstrates that when she wishes, she can break what we had presumed to be the rules.

On one clear day with the skies deep blue and the wind blowing crisply from the north, we looked from the porch of our seashaken house and were startled to see a town on the horizon where none had been visible before. We knew what town it was. But it was more than 25 miles away, and yet we could see it clearly, from the tall buildings right down to the docks along the shore.

There's a name for this eerie phenomenon, a function of reflection and refraction that does in fact reveal what lies beyond the horizon. It's called looming, and sailors have puzzled about it for centuries. It's also the title of the first chapter of ''Moby Dick.'' John R. Stilgoe, a professor of landscape history at Harvard, discusses looming at some length in a wonderful new )) book about coastal matters, aptly titled ''Alongshore.''

Two years after Herman Melville published ''Moby Dick,'' John Brocklesby's 1853 ''Elements of Meteorology'' explained looming and gave some vivid examples of it. One occurred in July of 1798 when the French coast 50 miles away was brilliantly visible -- down to vessels anchored in the harbor -- from the English village of Hastings.

And in 1822, a captain recognized his father's ship, the Fame, from 30 miles off. Not only was the image absolutely clear to the captain and his crew, but the ship appeared to be upside down, suspended in mid-air. It must have been an ominous vision, though both ships ended their voyages safely.

These peculiar peeks over the horizon don't last. The wind veers, the temperature changes, and the familiar emptiness returns. We didn't see the seaport town of our looming again until we drove through it on the way home a few days later. It looked quite ordinary, not at all like a vision.

* * Correction: Thomas B. Finan Jr. points out two significant errors a June column of mine about his father's 1966 campaign for governor of Maryland.

I wrote that The Sun endorsed Congressman Carlton Sickles in the Democratic primary that September, but Mr. Finan sent me a copy of two editorials warmly endorsing his father, then Maryland's attorney general.

I also failed to include the votes from Baltimore when giving the results of that election, in which Mr. Finan finished behind George Mahoney and Mr. Sickles. The 28,000 votes Mr. Finan received in Baltimore made the margin closer than I reported. The actual totals were Mahoney 148,446, Sickles 146,507, and ++ Finan 134,216.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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