Sunday, October 21, 2012

Small Worlds

Hi, there!

It was good to see you the other day. It always is. I had been on the point of writing you anyway, to ask you how you are, but circumstance beat me to it and I saw you in person. So, now I know how you are, more or less. Possibly less. There are some people whom I know well enough that I can take their silence on a subject as a statement itself. My mother, for example, has not mentioned plans to go to the beach this weekend, so therefor I know she is not at the beach. I know enough about her life, and enough about what she normally tells me, that I can fill in the blanks and put her comments in context. As I said, there are a number of such people for me, but you are not one of them. You could be at the beach right now, and I wouldn't know.

I'm not complaining. I have no need to pry...and you seem to tell me more when I do not ask. Some poet (I forget which one) famously said no man is an island, but I rather think some men (and women) are--not utterly isolated, just as real islands obviously are not, but distinctly bounded, defined, in part, by distance. Their intimacy is first with their surging sea, and they touch other lands only indirectly, their shadows reaching across the straights at sunset. I think, perhaps, that all men and women are actually islands, in the sense that the first, last, and most important thing we can ever know about each other is that person is not me.

Fine, then; be an island, and I will be a bird. I'll be a gannet, I'll circle round your shores and cry warning to any unwelcome colonists, if you want me to, and my feet will never once touch land.

Anyway, our surprise visit has only been the latest in a week of meetings. You were preceded by several friends, not a few species of algae, and a very large spider, her body splotched and speckled dull orange and black in almost exactly the same way as the granite face behind her unfinished web. I've been visiting an island, Mount Desert Island, in Maine, and I have only just recently returned.

I was camping there with my husband and also with a dear friend of ours, a musician who does not like camping as much as we do, but he does like us, so he puts up with the wet and the cold for our sake. This was our second such trip as a trio--I'm kind of hoping it becomes a tradition. And oh, how it was wet, not as wet as last year, but wet enough, days of rain and nights of trying to sleep in a wet sleeping bag underneath a pair of wet dogs. But at least the day I set my alarm for tide pools dawned dry and clear enough, though still grey and drippy.

Why an alarm? Because of the two low tides that day, one was in the late afternoon, when I expected to be getting ready to go watch my friend play in Bar Harbor, and the other one was just before dawn. The alarm did not do a lot of good, for I rolled over and went back to sleep for a bit, and the sun was already well up by the time I got down to the water, the tide rushing in, but at least I was in time for some exploration.

Have you ever been to MDI? Right near Blackwoods Campground is a little path to the top of some dramatic cliffs with ledges and pools sloping away to the sea forty feet or so below. You have to go down a service road and cross a street to get there, but you come out of this spruce forest, quiet and dark as a Grimm fairy-tale, walk a little way and right there is the crashing sea.

There are a pair of rough wooden benches there at the top of the cliff, half under the shade of spruce, balsam fir, and one red maple. I hardly ever see anyone sitting on those benches, but there are often people near them, and that day as I approached I saw a man and a woman standing there, looking out at the sea together. Convinced I was interrupting something, I almost turned around and left, but they turned around first, and it turned out I knew one of them. You know him too--my thesis adviser, though I don't suppose I can call him that anymore, being done with my thesis. I had not expected to see him there, though I had known he would be in that part of the state. He was probably even more surprised than I, since I don't think I'd told him I was even going to Maine. He introduced the woman with him as a colleague--he told me her name and her research interests, and she shook my hand. Curiously, he did not introduce me to her. Even more curiously, I did not introduce me, either, and I cannot tell you why I didn't.

The three of us stood chatting for a few minutes. It turns out they were on a mission very similar to mine, having come in search of tide pools. Unfortunately, while my interest was casual and flexible, theirs was professional and therefor precise. The specific pools they wanted to look at were already under water, so they turned and walked back up the little path and vanished out of my sight. Why had they been there of all places? There are a lot of tide pools all up and down the coast of Maine, some more convenient to get to, I would think. They did not explain and I did not ask and I do not know where they went afterwards. I continued my journey down to the water, pausing only to take off my shoes. I find bare feet are really the best traction on slick rock, though no one else seems to think so. It was on the way down, from ledge to ledge, that I saw that spider. I saw a lot of webs, strung from overhanging rock ledges or a twisted and crouching red spruce, all the orbs facing in the same direction and visible because beads of clinging fog. Only in the one did I notice a spider, and only that web seemed unfinished, all the spokes complete, but the spirals that would make the web work were missing.

My own web being complete, spokes and spirals and a check sent off to the bindery, what do I call my former thesis adviser? Other than his name, I mean, which I don't want to draw public attention to here without his permission. I was thinking about this as I climbed down. I could call him my friend, since he certainly is, but I have a lot of friends and the reader would not be able to tell which one I meant. It's odd to think, but from here on out, our meetings will be much like that one chat on the top of the cliff--not necessarily surprising or brief, as that chat was, but unenclosed by any defining institution. That was the strange thing for both of us, I think, not that the meeting was unlikely, but simply that we weren't at school. Within that one context, we knew each other thoroughly, the way one knows one's own house thoroughly, the way one can find the dining room table in the dark if the power goes out. But with his signature on a form, we erased the walls of that house and from here on all our meetings will take deliberate effort or astounding chance.

I started with the tide pool closest to the sea and found it rimmed and clotted with sea weed, brown and green. A claw moved briefly in the weeds, surfaced and subsided like a dream, and I did not see it again. Above the waterline, the weeds were of two types: a brown being of flattened fronds and swollen tips; and what looked more than anything like green cellophane, almost certainly sea lettuce. Below the water there were two green species, one a threadlike tube and the other flat as grass blades, plus a brown, branched creature, its tendrils thin as roots. None of these plants are much bigger than my hand, but so thick I could not see anything else. And the tide was coming in, so I had to move.

The next pool I visited had almost no seaweed at all, except for a brown strap that may have been a detached piece of kelp, its ends whitened with the geometric crust of bryozoans. The first pool was shallow but this next one dropped straight down several feet, its walls sheer and angled, like someone had meant to install a chimney here but forgot. Besides the kelp and its cargo, there were snails and also a chiton, striped purple and gliding along so smoothly I almost could not believe it was really moving. Most striking were the dozens, or maybe hundreds, of barnacles all beating their feathery fans along the vertical face. Barnacles, as you may (or may not) know, are actually shrimplike creatures who glue themselves headfirst to a rock at maturity, grow themselves a boney case, and there spend the rest of their lives sifting the water for food with their feathery feet. I read somewhere that barnacles actually practice internal fertilization, much as mammals do, but mammals are not glued by our heads to wherever we happen to be at the onset of adulthood. I suppose barnacles must simply love their neighbors, if they are lucky enough to have neighbors at all. I am glad I am not a barnacle.

The third pool was again shallow, and hosted clumps of some branched, pinkish, boney thing, probably colonies of hydroids. A third of the pool's bottom was red and a third was pinkish white and between the two was bare, natural granite. Some kind of living crust, obviously, but I could feel no difference in texture between crust and rock when I put my hand in. Once my hand was in the water I could see waves rising from my fingers, like heat distortions above a took me about a minute to realize that of course, it rained the previous night, so this salt pool bore a layer of fresh rainwater on top. When I put my hand in, the layers mixed and swirled visibly. Did the little flealike beings I saw crawling about on the bottom feel the fresh mix burning, like pool water up the nose? I withdrew my hand.

Each of these worlds has its own residents, its own water conditions, and its own vulnerability to changing conditions. Some of them receive trickles of fresh water from rivulets moving across the rock. Before the tide comes back, they must go almost fresh. Others, I'm sure, become hypersaline from evaporation on sunny days. All these rooted plants and animals must cope with changes none of us would choose. First pounding surf, then exposure to sun and rain and the feet and fingers of the curious. Who can cope with what changes how often determines the exact composition of each pool, that and the mixture of choice and chance that brings the wanderers, baby barnacles and mobile snails, small fish and smaller plankton. Each pool is a world apart when the tide is out, bounded at the top by an unbreachable boarder of air. Each of the wanderers finds itself committed, for a time, to a community defined by water quality and size, but also by the more established creatures who live there long-term. For the established, each tide cycle brings in a new mix of creatures to deal with, to get along with and to know. And then the sea comes. I headed back up the cliff, out of the water's way.

My Chris and our friend, the musician, were there with the dogs. I sat with them on the rocks above the cliffs, near clumps of plantain and goldenrod past flowering and bearded white with seed and poison ivy bearing white china berries like toxic grapes. Together we watched the sea surge over the rocks, waves tearing themselves to green jade foam between the spires and outcrops and uneven orange ledges. Gannets flew by, mostly going in the same direction, some going the other way. My tide pools were all covered by the sea, lost in the churn, the wanderers freed to make their meetings wherever they happen to find themselves next, the walls of their islands erased, become mere dimples in the wider world, the common sea.

I like that I bumped into my adviser, and not only because I enjoy his company. I like the astounding chance of the meeting, and I like the idea that I might come down a trail and see somebody I know. I like the implication that the world is cozy, that keeping in touch may not be so hard. I liked bumping into you for the same reasons. I'm not sure if I'll see you again before I head south for the winter, for you and I are more dependent on chance than most and even the internet is not our common sea. If I do not bump into you again before I leave, then I hope to see you again when I return. If I am, indeed, a bird, then you will know how to find me.

-best, C.

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