Jade Cove and the Conscious Unconscious

Goat Trails

by Ryan Masters

Jan. 12, 2015

Part 1: “Whatever is rejected from the self, appears in the world as an event.”

February 2013. I am freediving in water the color of the Ring Nebula. My body slinks through a labyrinth of boulders. My mind is lost among a mosaic of algae, sponges, limpets and barnacles. It skitters like a ravenous crab, picking its way across a vast scatter of storm-tossed stones. It pokes its head down holes and peers through a swaying curtain of kelp stalk and rockweed. It is seeking, seeking, seeking jade’s smooth and lustrous wink. Except for pulsing blood and some inexplicable ticks and pings inside my skull, it is silent down here. My brain chugs oxygen from my lungs as I kick past a fat lingcod lurking beneath an overhang. Intriguing, but not jade. Just a few more seconds and I will have to return to the surface for air.

A disquieting alarm rings deep within one of the older functions of my brain. It is not responding to any discernible motion or a sound—simply to a presence. Something is behind me. Cautiously, I turn.

I am face to face with an adult bull elephant seal. Its colossal proboscis droops grotesquely—alien and phallic. Every white scar and whisker on this huge, snout seems to stand out in high definition. I could reach out and run a hand over the bulges and folds of its furrowed skin. My mind, however, is having a hard time fully processing the situation. Above the stunning nose, two wet-black eyes are fixed on me. Behind these eyes hovers a body nearly the size of a Volkswagen Bug.

To Carl Jung, consciousness is dry land. To dive into the ocean and swim away from shore is to enter the personal unconscious—a place ruled by impulsive cross currents, wishes, waves of subliminal perceptions. Memories like fish swim through this water in the shape of dreams, fantasies, chance associations, or even direct recall. Beyond that, the ocean drops away into the benthic weirdness of the collective unconscious—an undefinable abyss where our primordial archetypes lurk like leviathans.

No one will ever accuse me of neglecting my dark side. I’ve always found light brightest in the dark. And there is joy in chaos—even when celestial design degenerates into holy mess. That, of course, is the nature of chaos—to form and deform. I am having a very chaotic moment. This elephant seal has triggered my unconscious and my mind is having a very difficult time deciding whether I am dreaming or not.

Dream or no dream, I have seriously misjudged the credibility of the spearfisher who warned me about this elephant seal. This is what you get, I tell myself. Here before you is the face of your own stubborn, foolish, impulsive, addict self. And it is very unhappy with you.

I frantically swim for the surface. As I gasp air, its massive head and torso erupts from the water a few feet away. It reels back aggressively, reveals a mouthful of white daggers and vents an extraordinary roar. I thrash wildly away from the pissed off creature, desperate to escape its territory. It lowers itself back into the water and sails after me, its huge cranium cleaving the water like a surface torpedo. When I reach the shore I flop over on to my hands and knees and scrabble up the sharp stones, cutting my hands and dropping my weight belt as I go.

When I judge I’m a safe distance up the rocky beach, I turn to see if it is following. The elephant seal lurks at the water’s edge, apparently satisfied with my utter submission to its virility and power. Once again, it reels back and looses a long, victorious roar. With that settled, it swims out to the middle of the cove and suns itself on the surface, still king of all it surveys.

“Told you there was an elephant seal in there,” the spearfisher says. He’s sitting on a rock above me peeling an orange with a smile on his face.

Part 2: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

March 2004. Don Wobber and I are making the 65-mile drive south from Monterey to Big Sur’s Jade Cove in a mini-van full of dive gear. This wisecracking, youthful 76-year-old man and I have become fast friends over the past two years. A mutual love of poetry and the ocean brought us together, but a series of dive articles I’ve been writing for the Monterey County Herald has kept us on the move. Among other adventures, we’ve spearfished the Peninsula, explored a forgotten shipwreck off Pebble Beach, flirted with the void of the Carmel Trench, and blissed out on leopard sharks at Point Lobos. Jade Cove, however, is far more than just another dive spot.

In local circles, Wobber’s adventures at Jade Cove are the stuff of legend. In the old days, Don floated huge jade boulders off the sea floor using inflatable pontoon bags and nets of wire mesh. His 1975 book, Jade Beneath the Sea, recounts his odyssey to wrangle a 9,000-pound monolith from the depths and the ensuing legal fight to keep it. That stone now resides in the Oakland Museum.

Located just south of Plaskett Creek, Jade Cove is home to the only underwater concentration of quality Nephrite jade in the world. It’s actually a series of three coves that act as reservoirs for storm-washed fragments of jade torn from the veins that run through the littoral zone offshore. When Wobber was introduced to the place by Beatnik friends in the 1950s, its promise of treasures both literal and figurative immediately consumed him. To pursue his obsession full time, he abandoned a successful but entirely unsatisfying career among the “melancholy shadows” of San Francisco’s Financial District—and his first wife. Fond of quoting Jung, he once explained this decision to me by saying, “Sometimes you have to do something unforgivable just to be able to go on living.”

Wobber moved to Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula and reinvented himself. He became a marine biologist, a fearless adventurer and, according to National Geographic, one of the “best of the world’s contemporary jade sculptors.”

His work is a smooth, languid reflection of the stone itself and the sea from which it came. Each sculpture is a study in strength, patience and meditation. After wrestling the material from the sea, he painstakingly wears the stone down with diamond-impregnated metal, carborundum and six different grades of silicate carbide sandpaper. By subtracting the smooth material grain by grain, he accentuates its natural sea-worn line until it glows with astonishing depth. Wobber’s sculptures are gorgeous, tactile creations that resemble miles of cold, green ocean compressed into a few feet, or even a few inches. They are impossible to keep your hands off.

Littered with jade sculptures of all shapes and sizes, his backyard in Pacific Grove is a testament to this skill and passion. It is also, in some weird way, the realization of his personal unconscious. Of course, his obsession has not been without cost. “I’m jade rich, but cash poor,” he frequently laughs.

Today we are diving the South Cove. Both the Chinese and the Maori associate jade with longevity, toughness, and spirituality. Nephrite jade is considered the toughest stone in the world. Neolithic tools made of the stuff rest in museums around the world today, as perfect and whole and useful as the day they were formed. Wobber may be 76 years old, but he still insists on carrying 100 pounds of scuba gear down the South Cove’s 180-foot marine terrace. He is still a fairly sure-footed old goat, but I keep an eye on him just the same.

It is said that the Greek God Poseidon left the ocean in the form of a horse to fornicate with the Gorgon Medusa and sire winged Pegasus. A dubious duty to be sure. Don creaks and tilts on the hike down Jade Cove’s steep trail. Bow-legged, he clomps clumsily into the waves wearing his ancient horse collar buoyancy compensator. But once the old man slips beneath the surface, he is ageless. Underwater, decades are jettisoned from his body and there is only his weightless soul. As he gracefully kicks away from shore, I think of relieved Poseidon returning home to wash away the snake oil.

Together, we swim out to the wash rock before parting ways. Wobber disappears into the ether. Hunting jade is, by nature, a solitary pursuit, but I periodically hear the tink-tink-tink of Don’s pry bar testing stone somewhere nearby.

There is a fairly strong swell today and the surge draws me back and forth across the sea floor. Swimming with the respiration of the ocean is like breathing with God—inhale, exhale, inhale…when you feel its force you simply relax; when it abates, you kick. Sometimes hunting for jade feels like a song and on days like this, when I’m happy just to be in the water, I find the best pieces. Today, the ocean offers up a beautiful, heart-shaped chunk of botryoidal or bubble jade—its smooth clumps remind me of the back of some heavenly crocodile. Pure jade, incidentally, is white. Any other color, including green, is the result of impurities. This makes sense to me. I’ve always found pure rather boring.

Wobber is not to be outdone. He is never outdone at Jade Cove. When we reconvene on the beach, he shows me his haul. Even after all these decades of collecting jade, his eyes still shine with the thrill of the hunt. You can feel the intense spiritual connection he shares with every piece he finds. The large, gorgeous stone he has found today is just as meaningful to him as the first he found 50 years ago:

Jade, real jade! Maoris, Aztecs, Chinese, Sumerians, Babylonians: back, back into the whorls of prehistory, to the dawn of man. There did not seem to be a time when jade was not revered as a mystical, religious symbol. And now I had found a very special piece carved by centuries of sea abrasion that had taken on a very special meaning for me.

This meaning—the jade, the coast, the sea—became an invisible vortex that slowly tugged at me, pulling at me through feeling and intellect, revealing through my diving some undeniable, deeper, inevitable meaning.

(from Jade Beneath the Sea, Don Wobber)

Part 3: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

March 2007. Bad things happen in life. Sometimes in clumps. One of my best friends recently killed himself. My father has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. My ex-wife just moved to South Carolina with my four-year-old son. And I’ve recently spent 28 days addressing some bad habits that resurfaced partly as a response to these events.

So I’m diving Jade Cove.

Scuba Diving Magazine has hired me and my partner, an underwater photographer named Jeff Wildermuth, to explore the inside of a cave at the heart of Jade Cove. Wildermuth’s camera is worth more than my car. Actually it’s worth more than three of my cars. The best diver I know, Jeff has logged bottom time at many of the world’s deepest and most challenging sites, including the preposterously dangerous Andrea Doria. The man’s hard to impress.

He is currently very impressed. We are about 50 yards offshore inside a large wash rock that dominates the middle of the South Cove. We have entered this cave through a narrow gap at the inshore base of the rock. One wall of this cave is a large vein of pure, naturally polished green jade.

Jeff and I have worked together all over California. We were two of the only divers allowed to explore what remains of Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s ship, in North Carolina. When I say we work together, what I mean is he works and I pose next to whatever he is shooting and then scribble a few paragraphs to accompany his photos.

So I am posing underwater, deep inside a rock, running my hand across this hidden heart of jade. Jeff’s camera flash emits bursts of light inside the cave, blinding me and throwing my shadow against this surreal green canvas again and again and again.

Part 4: “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.”

August 2013. Don Wobber has been very sick for some time now. Five or six years ago he finally suffered a serious fall down the trail to Jade Cove. The accident very nearly scalped him. It also effectively ended the diving portion of his life. However, until fairly recently, he had continued to groom his sculptures and work on a new book. But now even those pursuits are too much for him.

I’ve brought my guitar over and I play him some songs. He nurses a glass of Sierra Nevada beer and listens. His 85-year-old body has finally given out, but his eyes are still as alive as ever. Speaking has become difficult, but when he does talk, he cracks jokes.

Don insists on walking me out to my car. He brushes off the assistance of his nurse and shuffles his rickety-looking walker out into the sun with me. He makes it as far as the end of the walkway before tiring and places a hand on a jade sculpture to support himself.

“Goodbye, Don,” I say.

“I’ll see ya around,” he rasps with a chuckle.

There is more I want to say to him; more that I wanted to say to my father; more that I wanted to tell my friend before he took his own life; more that I must find the courage to someday say to my son.

But that’s where I leave Don, surrounded by a menagerie of otherworldly jade—one hand firmly planted on his dreams.

Part 5: “The shadow is the invisible saurian tail that man still drags behind him. Carefully amputated, it becomes the healing serpent of the mysteries.”

December 2014. Don once told me it’s more important to be whole than good. He didn’t need to add that becoming whole isn’t as simple as freediving for jade. As Jung pointed out, it’s easier to go to Mars than it is to penetrate your own being.

Once again I am diving in water the color of the Ring Nebula. My body slinks through this familiar labyrinth of boulders. But today my mind is lost in shadow as I pick through recent storm debris.

As far as I can tell, the key to happiness is allowing that the human condition entails chaos and we just can’t know. Here’s another thing about chaos. It tends to humble even the most delusional of egos. My ego usually has to be drowning in the deep end before I can comprehend the true nature of love. Maybe that’s why I actively seek out chaos.

Love is one of the few concepts that baffled Jung so what reasonable chance do I have to understand it? What I perceive as love today may be jealousy or anger or fear tomorrow—all it takes is a subtle turn of the tide, a shift in the wind, a fresh angle of swell. Like most humans, I frequently confuse my ego with the universe.

Of course, true love has nothing to do with romance. It’s not my own mortal reflection in the eyes of an elephant seal or a woman. It’s not my silhouette thrown against the walls of an underwater cave. It cannot be broken like a promise or cast away into the ocean like a stone. The conscious cannot contain love because it is not the jade; it is the infinite ocean.

An eye of smooth jade winks at me from beneath a tight overhang. It is nearly hidden in a turbulent bed of storm deposit. Nearly out of breath, I reach into the shadows to claw out the stone by its long, green tail. I scratch at its edges but it will not budge.

This is only the tip of something much, much larger.

Ryan Masters is a hiker, surfer, diver, journalist, poet and musician who grew up running wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has lived all over the world at one time or another. He lives in Santa Cruz and writes a weekly column, Goat Trails, for Hilltromper.

Read Ryan's obituary for Don Wobber.