Hope at Low Tide

An ecologist walking on the beach wonders, worries, and dreams of a better future


| May-June 2011



hope-at-low-tide1

josh keyes / www.joshkeyes.net

We’ve had no ice on the sound this winter, and this morning portends more warmth, well above freezing. By now, late January, the days are already noticeably longer and the light has changed. It’s a little stronger, a little brighter.

Though the beach is lovely, the air remains raw, with a damp south wind. The dark shape of my dog, Kenzie, is loping along far ahead, zigzagging the beach. The tide, already low, is still ebbing. Pebbles are mounded at the upper boundary of the wave wash; above them, near the swipe of highest tides, lies a line of slipper shells. Six decades ago, my neighbor J.P. tells me—and he’s got photos—this beach was all sand, no pebbly stretches. A generation ago, the beach was windrowed with jingle shells. Kids, hippies, and young mothers (some people seemed to be all three at once) liked to string them into little driftwood mobiles to hang in windows and breezeways. Now slipper shells reign. It never occurred to anyone that counting shells on a beach could be science, so there’s no data on how jingles have nearly vanished. Only the neighbors speak of it; only the neighbors know.

A large time-blackened oyster shell, newly uncovered by the collusion of wind and water, speaks of when they grew wild in abundance, and big. Every walk is a product of the present and a relic of the past. And on a very recent clamshell I recognize the perfect, tiny borehole of the predatory snail that was its assassin. Three round, translucent pebbles that catch my eye fit snugly across my palm—not that I need more pebbles. Then again, Isaac Newton himself said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Well, exactly. So I’ll grant myself the pretty stones.

The sound reflects both the light of morning and the calls of sea ducks. I cup my ears and hear the long-tailed ducks’ ah—oh-da-leep. Their call means it’s winter—and it means I’m home. When I’m on a different coast, long-tailed ducks often make me feel at home. Among the gifts of the sea is a wonderfully portable sense of place. Portable because one ocean washes all shores. Like these migrants themselves, my sense of home goes where they go.

Scanning with binoculars, I locate those elegantly streamered long-tails. The morning light is falling across their pied heads, putting a gleam on their whites and setting their pink bill tips aglow. I swivel my gaze across the water, past several common loons in their soft-gray winter pajamas. Red-breasted mergansers, heads war-bonneted with ragged crests, sit scattered across the sound. On the shore across the cut, three harbor seals are resting with their bodies gracefully bowed, heads and rear flippers up off the sand, air-cooling themselves.

Their beauty alone is inspiring. Each kind is a private invitation posted on an unlocked door. But what in the journey of their ancient lineage led one kind to develop a black-and-white head, another a cap of ragged plumes? That opens to a room bigger than human time. Step inside, and you can easily spend a life.

steve eatenson
4/27/2011 5:01:16 PM

Excellent! Very well said! Not much more is of importance. The answers are so obvious and ignored by so many.