Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes that here at Bowdoin, “the sea so near [is] yet unseen.” This line is from a poem Longfellow wrote for his 50th class reunion in 1875. 147 years later, his words still hold water and a little bit of wisdom. When the pandemic entered our lives, I began visiting Longfellow’s elusive ocean on a weekly basis. I usually went to Simpson’s Point, just down the road from here, at sunset. I would mark each occasion by taking a photo of the sun’s descent over the Mere Point peninsula and the wooded islands and the sparkle of ocean catching the horizon.
During a visit last winter, I encountered something I had not seen before. The bay around Simpson’s was frozen and covered in snow, and the snow was marked by ski tracks meandering towards the islands. Skiing to the islands—now that was an idea I had to try out for myself. The next day, with Outing Club skis secured to our feet, my friend Will and I set off. We entered the icy expanse, gliding through the snow above the sea. Then it struck me: we had entered the photos on my phone. We were skiing into a frozen image; the farther we skied, the more the image thawed. The dark forest on the first island distilled into the knots and twists of individual pines and hemlocks. The straight borders of distant islands gained the clarity of curves.
At this point, we paused and turned our heads back to gaze at Simpson’s Point. It was barely a dot on the coastline, but to see it from afar was like dipping my eyes into the past. Simpson’s held many memories—mud-throwing, crab-hunting, wine-sipping, people-watching memories. I could see myself there! A piece of me was anchored to those distant rocks. I thought back to the summer I first visited Simpson’s Point. At the time, I was researching how digital photo apps create new metaphors for memory. I discovered that the photos on our phones have an uncanny influence over what we remember and when.
As I paused on the wooded island, I realized that my research had overlooked something special about photographs: not only do they remind us selectively of the past, they also inspire select futures. My sunset photos gestured toward the moment my friend and I occupied as we explored the frozen bay. Now that moment was real, vaster than any image could capture, but nonetheless rooted in an image.
Rivaling the sunset at Simpson’s is a certain vista concealed in Smith Union, the belly of Bowdoin. As a barista at the Café, when I’m not making people coffee or sharing tea with Molly, I’ll look out onto all the people circulating through Smith Union’s third floor. The sunlight blazes through the windows, mixing with mustard yellow walls, striking the students who study and the students who know they cannot study in Smith, lighting the open newspapers and the coffee conversations and the solitary minds thinking silently amidst the murmur of the College. I love witnessing Bowdoin from behind the Café counter because it reminds me how much goes on here every day. In each person, another island we can learn to love.
Each of us at Bowdoin has a different perspective on this unseen sea of life. We collect images in our minds that represent a world we furiously want to understand. We have gathered on this campus to share those images with each other, and to find the glimmer of truth that lies beneath them all. In short, we have added our voices to a timeless dialogue. My strongest friendships owe a great debt to dialogue. Friendship was planted beneath evening arguments in the hallways of first-year bricks. Friendship grew through communal epiphanies in Thorne and Moulton. And Friendship flourished among the voices that rush, entangle and rebound across the third floor of Massachusetts Hall. At Bowdoin, I have learned that through dialogue we can melt down the image of the other and glimpse the messy details of a friend.
Though this great gathering of minds storms onward, my time in the tempest is nearly up. My fellow seniors and I stand on the precipice between college and the many worlds beyond, between land and ice. It is wild to think that we are about to enter that foggy image of the future, so near and yet unseen. I feel a similar exhilaration as when Will and I stepped onto the bay of snow beyond Simpson’s Point. We had the nerves of new dancers. Would the ice hold our weight? How far could we go before sunset? What stories lay hidden on all those islands? If I have learned anything from my cacophony of English classes and book clubs, it is how to discern the lower frequencies. To step into the forest and find that each pine tree whispers its own subtle song, if we could only pause and listen.
So, to my fellow seniors: let us embark on the ice, let us enter the forest, let us see and hear each whispering tree, and in the middle of our journey when the path forward is lost, let us turn back and remember the people at Bowdoin that anchored us. Our college will soon be a distant dot in the voyage of our lives. Yet it will always be filled with the many whispers of friends dearly made and friends suddenly lost, of friends we’ll see again and friends we’ll leave behind. May all these whispers be a blessing for the next adventure.
Max Freeman is a member of the Class of 2022.