As we look out at the horizon from the shore, the offing is that point of sea that we can see in the far distance. It is a junction of a physical and imagined geography that we are unable to locate, but that we nevertheless feel compelled to seek out in one way or another. It is a boundary that marks the end of the world that we know and the beginning of the world that lies beyond our immediate knowledge; and in our minds, it acts as a meeting place for our hopes, fears, and dreams.
There is an allure in the vision of the offing. The sight of it can bring to mind a sense of freedom, as well as those infinite possibilities that we may one day encounter, (whether we wish to or not). Some of our earliest maps capture our notions of those unknown fears and wonders, but a later map of Iceland, captures this with brilliance:
The gloriously strange illustrations of sea monsters on this map serve to enliven the map space dedicated to sea, but they also pique the viewer’s imagination about the world beyond their offing. Prior to, and at the time of the map’s creation, the known world, (as experienced directly), would have varied significantly from person to person, but it is clear that the key relationships that the majority of people would have had with the wider world would have been through the goods that they or those in their immediate vicinity would have bought and consumed. Significant groups of people would have travelled periodically for the purposes of pilgrimage, learning, or trade, and others may have cultivated a knowledge of the wider world through the texts that they read or listened to; or through their social circles of family, friends and associates. The world beyond the offing would have been a patchwork of tangible detail, inconsistent fact, and notional fears and wonders, just as it can be for us now.
In our own time, the ways in which we can visualise what lies beyond our own offing are more diverse than ever, and even though our relationships with the wider world are still defined by the goods we buy and consume, we no longer connect the product in our hands wth the people and places that lie behind it as naturally as we may once have done. As we look out to sea now, we do not always think of the journeys of goods and people, but our view is instead framed by product labels, media of all kinds, and our relationships, (both real or imagined), with people from a different part of the world to our own. The world is in many ways a smaller place, but when we process what we see, and we imagine or remember what is beyond our day to day experience, there is still as much space for our hopes, fears, and dreams as there ever has been.
It is no wonder then, that the phrase in the offing has a currency that goes beyond the sight of the distant sea, to also capture our notion of something that might happen in the not too distant future. The beauty of this phrase is that it leaves a little room for mystery, luck, and chance. There is the sense that there will always be one or two aspects to any given situation that lie beyond our power, (rather like the sea itself), even if we do all we can to ensure all the factors align for us at the right place and time. In our minds, the place that is captured in the offing is a space where we can consider the depths of what we know and do not know, as well as where we can store those secret desires, hopes and fears that we may not wish to examine too closely.
I have always found it curious that sailors and fishermen, who are amongst the world’s most well travelled people, can also be counted as some of the most superstitious. Perhaps this is what happens when people’s lives are defined by the sight of the offing everyday. The prospect of encountering the known and unknown is an ever present reality that creates wonder and wariness in equal measure. This is perhaps what has nurtured the storytelling and singing traditions of fishing communities and islands to grow into the rich cultures that they are. This too may be what characterises these sea-side stories and songs by their language of loss and longing that can so easily catch at the hearts of those listening.
The bittersweet wistfulness that we so often find in these songs and stories is also the subtle quality that we find in our idea of the offing itself. Whether it is in the act of looking out to the distant sea, or in our introverted musing on what may be, the offing is a junction of the real and imagined; as well as those things that we long for, or have already lost in some way. There is joy and danger awaiting us in the offing, because in the act of looking out or looking ahead, we so often see a reflection of ourselves at that time and place. The fragility of that moment is perhaps what compels us to look out and beyond, because we know that we are looking at the unique circumstances of a moment that will change, and we can find a strange solace in the knowledge that our perspective will change too, just as soon as we shift from the position from which we stand.