A View from the Hill: Breathing in, breathing out

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I awake deep in the night in a very dark room in a house on the edge of an island in Penobscot Bay, where I am visiting friends. 

Disoriented in the utter darkness, I hear deep, rhythmic breathing nearby – deep inhale, long sighing, rumbling exhale. I am alone in the guesthouse, so it must be coming from outside. Listening, I eventually pinpoint the source of the great breaths, perhaps 100 yards down the shore toward the point: Inhale, sigh, exhale, rumble.

Andrew MarstersThe ocean is breathing. 

These are not the dramatic crashing waves of a bold coast, but the gentlest caresses of small night swells on a pebble beach, followed by the mumbling rumble of thousands of small stones rolling out as the swells recede. If I weren’t in such a secluded place – no cars, no generators, very few other people – I might not even notice these breaths.

But here they are, and I find them deeply, profoundly comforting as I drift off to sleep. 

I am reminded of a trip I took with my 18-year-old grandson to Key West in April. Often I don’t sleep well when I’m away from home, but in our hotel room, I found myself sleeping more deeply than I had anywhere in years.

In the morning, I woke early and listened to my grandson breathing from his bed. Deep inhale, soft exhale. I hadn’t shared a room with anyone in several years, and, like the whispering waves on the island, I found the steady rhythm of his breathing deeply comforting. 

Of course, like my grandson, the ocean must also breathe, taking in oxygen, expelling carbon dioxide. We pull our oxygen from the air as we breathe. And for that life-sustaining oxygen, we can thank the ocean.

“More than half of the oxygen you breathe comes from marine photosynthesis, like phytoplankton and seaweed,” according to Smithsonian magazine. “Both use carbon dioxide, water, and energy from the sun to make food for themselves, releasing oxygen in the process.” 

In fact, the ocean supplies us with oxygen for one of every two breaths we take. The other half comes from trees, which also photosynthesize, creating and releasing oxygen. A particular species of plankton, and the smallest, is Prochlorococcus, but it’s a mighty beast that produces up to 20 percent of the oxygen in the universe, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations.

So that little guy, invisible to the naked eye, is responsible for one of every five of your breaths.

Clearly, our survival depends on the survival of these plankton, but we can and do really mess it up by adding too much nitrogen, among other things, to the mix, from farming runoff or sewage. That can result in algal blooms that eat up lots of oxygen when they die. It’s a delicate balance of life and death. 

“In great numbers,” says the Washington Post, “phytoplankton can also cause a chain reaction that uses up all of the oxygen in the water and creates … dead zones, where most can’t survive.”

Not good.

“We are water,” writes Maine poet Gary Lawless. “What happens to water, happens to us.”

Breathing in, breathing out.

I have recently become especially conscious of my breath. I use an app called Breathing that for five or 10 minutes a day guides me through a deep breathing routine. It is remarkably simple. And deeply soothing. Like listening as the sea inhales and exhales. 

Or my grandson as he sleeps.

Henry Beston spent a year alone in a small cabin on a Cape Cod beach, during which he wrote the nature classic “The Outermost House.” Day in and day out, he lived with the rhythms of the sea at his doorstep.

“The seas are the heart’s blood of the earth,” he wrote. “Plucked up and kneaded by the sun and moon, the tides are systole and diastole of the earth’s veins … The rhythm of waves beats in the sea like a pulse in living flesh.”

For those of us not living on the sea like Beston or my friends on that Penobscot Bay island, it is easy to forget how absolutely dependent we are on the oceans. But we forget it at our peril.

Cherish that next breath you take, and thank the oceans for all that they give you.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.