There is something about a buoy that encourages introspection in adults in the same way that a compass fascinates youngsters.

It’s not magnetism. A buoy makes no pretensions. It claims nothing of the compass’ ability to seek out the essential.

A buoy is like a tree. It just stays there, though, like some trees, it invariably tilts. Have you ever noticed that? A buoy tilts. That said, they also help. Red-Right-Returning tells a navigator heading up river to keep a red buoy to his starboard, thereby avoiding shoal water and remaining in the channel. Other buoys, green ones, focus on the left.

Some buoys have bells. Others have lights that flash in predetermined and charted sequence. We need charts, and lights, and bells and even, now and then, loud, obnoxious horns that in a fog insist on attention.

Autumn is a political season. Blue sky. Red leaves. Green evergreens. I don’t know much about politics. But as a retired marine insurance loss man, I do know a little something about buoys, bells and whistles. And lighthouses, too, though I prefer the apparent humility of buoys. And so again I mention the fact: Buoys tilt. I like that. So much so that I once attempted a poem that, when typed in italics, tilts too.

Aids to Navigation

Buoys tilt.

Unlike the pilings close inshore

that congregate about the wharf,

upright,

they seem to doubt.

Whether red or green, left or right, buoys doubt ... themselves. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it has something to do with an appreciation that the seas and the perils therein, thereon, and there under are not man’s creation. I’m not suggesting that buoys bow. No. But in their tilting they seem to be saying something important. Something beyond left and right. Something about the channel and its middle-ness. A middle-ness through which passes upstream and down all manner of ships and barges and Scuffy-the-Tugboats, none demanding absolutely a right of way, perhaps because they remember that “Going down to the sea in ships, to do business on the great waters” is a notice to mariners appearing on a chart greater than that routinely found in a pilot house.

The ships that navigate up and down the Columbia River often to do so with no more than one foot of clearance between their keel and the river’s bottom, thanks to dredging. It is enough. Buoys are anchored in that bottom. And if they doubt, perhaps it’s because they understand that doubting and the giving of benefit thereof is important to centering.

Robert White lives in Mount Hood-Parkdale.

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