Oceans breathe. They give life and sustain the earth - define it. We live on The Blue Planet.

From space, the oceans display our island in the universe as a tranquil blue light suspended in blackness. A gem on velvet.

Up close, we get different views. The deep waters of the Pacific are the bluest blue I have ever seen. The waters of the Caribbean run from pale yellow-green to avocado to turquoise, emerald, powder blue and, in the deep trenches, that blue-black that is, in truth, a swallowing up of that blackness out beyond the ozone layers.

But it is the breathing of the sea that draws me to the waters, even in the gray fury of hurricane forces. Volcanic eruptions are terrifying; earthquakes reduce the bravest among us to small creatures hiding under flimsy shelter, waiting for the power to pass.

The sea's power is always in motion. It can rock a huge vessel as gently as a grandmother rocks a child. When it feeds the vapors and sacrifices itself to the engines of the heating sun, it can go from the funhouse character of surfer's delight to a raging beast that foams at the shorelines and scours coastal man-made things with sandy wrath, and creeps up the shore in the night to submerge those places we have considered refuge and resort.

Hurricane Sandy humbled normally cheeky New Jersey and brought the financial capital of the world to its knees, ruined untold thousands of lives - some of them forever - and scared millions of humans, not just with its threat, but with its mindless, ruthless, relentless force.

With every major storm, we are left sobered with the chaos of the aftermath.

Storms like this make even the godless among us consider the forces of a greater power. Most of us around here were watching, counting our blessings, saying prayers or sending out donations or going in person to aid those who were suffering.

And learning, if we pay attention to the subtleties beyond the obvious. The vagaries displayed in the moods of the oceans are wonders of metaphor.

At rest, the ocean's surface still rises and falls like the human breast. We can ride on it and be lulled as a newborn is reassured in those first traumatic moments out of the womb.

When excited, the swelling lifts and falls with the urgency of the next breath of a straining athlete or an ardent lover, and we can be caught up in the excitement of the moment, riding the wave that rolls before the wind, rising until the bottom falls out beneath us with a gut-churning drop - then catching us and cradling us gently to rise again.

Who has not sat on the beach and listened to the surf inhale, exhale, breathing in, breathing out? Not the wind - the sound of the sea, breathing.

When the wind wails, the sea roars in unison. The combination of high winds and roiling seas is a concert of raging power, a display of energy and substance that demands respect.

While we humans are being battered, but mostly inconvenienced, relatively speaking, the very geography around us is being transformed. The beaches are no longer where they were. Not only are wooden buildings and brick seawalls reduced to rubble; the very coastlines are redrawn, with consequences to the sea bottoms for miles. Marine habitats are obliterated or moved or redefined, even as human habitat and commerce is transformed.

Tranquil dozing breath of the sea's horizons at sunrise and sunset, gentle lift and fall as the earth breathes, or the tantrum of huge storms, the sea impacts life for those of us who live miles from the coastlines. We are given periodic reminders of our place.

A few days after the storm raged through, while lights were still being restored to much of the northeast, I heard a conversation with a woman who has spent most of her 80-plus years advocating for respect for mother earth.

She was saying, in an interview recorded two years ago, that humans have treated earth as a supply house for materials we use - coal, oil, various ores that have driven modern progress. And we have used our streams and oceans as dumps for the refuse of modern living.

Ask again, how angry can an ocean be?