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  Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Oldport Wharves

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Everyone who comes to a wharf feels an impulse to follow it down, and look from the end. There is a fascination about it. It is the point of contact between land and sea. A bridge evades the water, and unites land with land, as if there were no obstacle. But a wharf seeks the water, and grasps it with a solid hand. It is the sign of a lasting friendship; once extended, there it remains; the water embraces it, takes it into its tumultuous bosom at high tide, leaves it in peace at ebb, rushes back to it eagerly again, plays with it in sunshine, surges round it in storm, almost crushing the massive thing. But the pledge once given is never withdrawn. Buildings may rise and fall, but a solid wharf is almost indestructible. Even if it seems destroyed, its materials are all there. This shore might be swept away, these piers be submerged or dashed asunder, still every brick and stone would remain. Half the wharves of Oldport were ruined in the great storm of 1815. Yet not one of them has stirred from the place where it lay; its foundations have only spread more widely and firmly; they are a part of the very pavement of the harbor, submarine mountain ranges, on one of which yonder schooner now lies aground. Thus the wild ocean only punished itself, and has been embarrassed for half a century, like many another mad profligate, by the wrecks of what it ruined.

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Yet the surges are wont to deal very tenderly with these wharves. In summer the sea decks them with floating weeds, and studs them with an armor of shells. In the winter it surrounds them with a smoother mail of ice, and the detached piles stand white and gleaming, like the out-door palace of a Russian queen. How softly and eagerly this coming tide swirls round them! All day the fishes haunt their shadows; all night the phosphorescent water glimmers by them, and washes with long, refluent waves along their sides, decking their blackness with a spray of stars.

Water seems the natural outlet and discharge for every landscape, and when we have followed down this artificial promontory, a wharf, and have seen the waves on three sides of us, we have taken the first step toward circumnavigating the globe. This is our last terra firma. One step farther, and there is no possible foothold but a deck, which tilts and totters beneath our feet. A wharf, therefore, is properly neutral ground for all. It is a silent hospitality, understood by all nations. It is in some sort a thing of universal ownership. Having once built it, you must grant its use to everyone; it is no trespass to land upon any man's wharf.

The sea, like other beautiful savage creatures, derives most of its charm from its reserves of untamed power. When a wild animal is subdued to abjectness, all its interest is gone. The ocean is never thus humiliated. So slight an advance of its waves would overwhelm us, if only the restraining power once should fail, and the water keep on rising! Even here, in these safe haunts of commerce, we deal with the same salt tide which I myself have seen ascend above these piers, and which within half a century drowned a whole family in their home upon our Long Wharf.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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