Topophilia ~ Love of Place

Topophilia ~ Love of Place

This post is contributed by Coastal Rivers Trustee Barnaby Porter. Read the previous post here.

Early June on a warm afternoon, I found myself down on our waterfront contentedly rigging new ground tackle for the float at the end of the dock. A pleasant job, that.

Because of the peculiarities of my rigging system, the far end of the ramp is not fastened to the float. It is instead fitted with small wheels so the float is free to roll in and out with the sometimes heavy wave action created in the wakes of passing boats making their way up and downriver. Such an arrangement eliminates all the shocks to both ramp and float, which, having no fixed hardware attachment points, are free to bob up and down. The key requirement is that the horizontal alignment of ramp and float must be maintained with only just enough geometric flexibility to accommodate our 10± foot tides. And that problem is easily solved… by unbreakable triangles.

Cat strolling up the ramp of an aluminum dock

The ramp, with two lines, left and right, from the far end back to shore, forms two triangles. And the float, with two lines leading from each inner corner, one out to a mooring, the other to shore, forms two more triangles. Those float lines are made up of ¾-inch nylon rope, in each case leading out to a length of ½-inch chain shackled to either a mooring or exposed ledge on shore. The weight of the chains keeps all the lines taut, while, combined with the stretchability of nylon, the whole arrangement is very forgiving of even the most rambunctious wave action.

With boating season picking up steam, I was fixed on putting our waterfront in good order in anticipation of the launch of our 32-foot “lobster cruiser,” Old Crow, the true embodiment of why I choose to live here where I do along this coast on the Damariscotta River. Immersing myself in this beautiful marine environment is what I find myself occupied with a good deal of the time. It involves a lot of messing around with boats.

Barnaby's boat, Old Crow

And many others do the same. It’s called “love of place” or “topophilia,” which is a recognized state of mind. In reading about it, it seems it can by degrees lean toward an intense sense of belonging, with even a feeling, sometimes, of ownership. And, in the case of me and this river, I long ago succumbed.

Anyhow, there I was in the warm sun with a gentle onshore breeze, set up to rig my new dock lines. The job at hand was to splice in eight thimble eyes on the ends of the nylon lines so they wouldn’t chafe on the shackles securing them. My only tools were an electric soldering gun fitted with a rope-cutting blade to cut and seal the ends of the rope, a small roll of tape and my home-made wooden fid for holding open the lays of rope as I worked the separated strand ends through the openings created. I was sitting on an old chair with a short, fat log on end between my knees for a work surface.

As I worked, cutting and splicing, pulling each strand hard to make a good tight splice, I got thinking about this love of place business. For whom or what creatures does this elicit the strongest sense of belonging? Looking out on the river, I thought it must have to do with how much of one’s time is spent here. Is this river the entirety of all they know? Can it be their whole world? And should that engender love of this place? I decided it must depend on one’s degree of contentment and how deep the connection is.

With such ideas milling around in my mind, I began for some reason to have a subtle feeling I wasn’t alone with those thoughts. Not sure “eerie” is the right word, but the feeling began to get hold of me, as though some revelation were about to unfold. It wasn’t just my imagination at work. Or was it?

Sitting there, quietly working in a sort of daydream, my afternoon chore was progressing nicely when, unexpectedly, I felt quite sure I was not alone anymore and that I was being watched. I looked around. No one was there.

So, I went back to my splicing with a thought to pick up the pace a little. Sometimes my shenanigans down on the waterfront put me off my stride, regarding all the other chores that need doing around the place. I gazed out on the slow-swirling eddies on the incoming tide… and suddenly I saw a face… looking at me.

a harbor seal looking up from the water

It was an intelligent countenance with an intense gaze, watching me and what I was up to… a seal.

How nice! I had company. With her sleek wet head and neck, she somehow seemed feminine, with an uncommitted but curious look on her face. Just swimming by, was she? I couldn’t tell. Yet she lingered… and lingered some more.

As this visitation went on for some time, I got used to being watched, but not so used to my new companion that I’d forget to check on her every minute or so. Despite the several knot current at that stage of the tide, with no apparent effort she stayed put in one spot about 75 feet from me, watching, just watching. This lovely seal, having found something new of interest in her river world, was simply lolling around on a sunny afternoon, keeping an eye on things.

Periodically, I looked up to see her nose pointed straight up at the sky, a pose seals sometimes assume that I’ve always interpreted as snoozing. Was she bored? So much for a man busying himself in some odd activity on the river’s shore. But then she’d gaze back toward me again.

And at that point, the revelation struck me: This seal, the most sentient native denizen of this twelve-mile arm of the ocean, for whom it is her whole world, where she thrives in contentment, where by birthright she shares this place with all others under and on its surface – she is the perfect example of “love of place” here. Not just in the sense of a happily occupied man splicing rope with his wooden fid, or a painter at her easel trying to capture a seaweed-draped ledge in the fog, but rather in the sense that this is another being, with understanding and feelings, one for whom this river represents EVERYTHING… the place where she is at home… where she belongs.

I looked up again. She was still there… watching… and snoozing. Half an hour passed.

Then she was gone.

Love of place manifests itself in different ways and to different degrees. I felt the need to tell a certain close friend about this seal who had worked her way into my consciousness with this lesson on human hubris, making it clear that love of place in one’s soul is not exclusive of any others. It just exists . . . in all of us who have feelings.

My friend agreed. She is a remarkable young woman who has the spirit of the sea in her blood, whose love of this place stems from being born to a large family of fishermen, lighthouse keepers and accomplished artists. She is a skilled stone sculptor as well, who lives and strives to celebrate the elements of her world. And yet the intensity of her love of place, of belonging, goes further still. She swims with the seals.

sculpted stone seal in a mossy garden

Barnaby PorterArtist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. On October 7, 2021, Barnaby completed his tenure on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees after six years of service.