The earth was formed from chaos, from collisions, explosions, expansions, accretions. Dust and gasses became the primeval planet which eventually developed a primitive crust, and on and on it went for some billions of years while land masses cooled and hardened and oceans sloshed into different shapes and lapped against the continents which continued to meander. And then, in a geologic flash, we humans appeared on the shores.
These essays are excerpted from Tidal Rhythms: Change and Resilience at the Edge of the Sea by Barbara Hurd and Stephen Strom, published by George F. Thompson Publishing in 2017. It is reprinted by permission of the authors.
Tidal Rhythms: Change and Resilience at the Edge of the Sea is a collaborative effort by award-winning essayist Barbara Hurd and photographer Stephen Strom. Following the rhythms of Strom’s images as they travel between intimate portraits and expansive vistas, Hurd’s lyrical and philosophical essays continue and complicate those cadences as she explores not just resonance, but also disturbance. As artist and writer move us from high tide to low tide and from the panoramic to the minuscule and back again, the reader is confronted with the larger issues of what happens as the seas rises, warms, and acidifies.
We’ve been drawn to the overlap between land and sea ever since; we built our villages on the edges and then our cities. All the while, many of us have wandered down—and still do—to wade in the shallow waters and tidepools, to consider the planet as part of a solar system with moon-pulls and ocean bulges that mean sometimes our feet are soaked by salt water, sometimes slimed by mud. We’ve learned, too, of the strange beauty that exists here in the subtle slipping shadows, in the cross hatchings of ripple and stone.
Those tidal zones are one of the first landscapes to be threatened —almost invisibly—by the intricately braided, slippery, and sometimes unknown effects of global climate change. Mussels, barnacles, even the wet sand itself and tidal pools are flung and ruffled or warmed and acidified in ways that stress the lives of those who live there. Shells begin to thin; species migrate north; habitats disappear.
Anything that lives in a tidal zone has, historically, found a way to adapt—to move a little to the north or inland or higher up, or to grow sturdier shells, longer stalks, or more efficient holdfasts. They could do it because they had decades, millennia, to adjust.
It isn’t like that anymore. In geologic terms, the pace of change now is frenetic, and the effect on tidal zones is no longer languorous. For the creatures who live here, there are fewer options. They’re not coming back, those old rhythms.
That fading order confronts us with a new and urgent question: Can these balanced systems evolve rapidly enough to enable continued sustenance and maybe even a new beauty?
Maybe, maybe not.
Meanwhile we to try to sing, as best we can, the “unbroken doublesong,” as Wallace Stegner says, “of love and lamentation.”
They might appear to be still, but a mess of mussels is restless with hunger and the urge to stay alive. Gathered in tidal zones, they form what Rachel Carson calls a “living blanket.”
Underwater, they open their bivalves, filter seawater for plankton and zoospores, close them against the intrusion of a hungry whelk’s proboscis. Over and under and among the beds, thousands of mussel larvae swarm, divide, flatten, beat their invisible velum, grow and discard early shells, until they start, finally, to fashion the foot that used to help assure their safety.
For a mussel—for us too, sometimes—staying alive means staying attached. That foot will eventually secrete a kind of glue that twines into byssal threads—a bit thicker than human hair—which grip the surface. Picture a home anchored cliff-side by short ropes.
More mussels congregate, sidle up to one another, attach themselves in protective beds to the rocks and one another.
That is the ancient story.
And this is the new one: worldwide, increasingly acidified ocean waves slosh around and under the mussel beds and eat away at those threads, changing the proteins in the silky glue, weakening the mussels’ attachments.
Meanwhile, seawater’s slowly rising, and more violent storms hammer the coasts, pound the mussels whose threads, stretched by the force, sometimes snap. The mussel is flung who-knows-where, increasing the force on those remaining, which are now more exposed. The living blanket is ripped, and on and on it goes until not just the mussels are at heightened risk but so too are the communities of crabs and snails and worms that live within the blanket and the birds that feed here, and on and on that threat, too, goes.
And here’s the next chapter: Across the planet, CO2, pumped into the atmosphere for decades by the burning of fossil fuels, sinks into the oceans and reduces the carbonate ions available for shell-building. When those mussel larvae are ready to settle down and grow a shell—as they must—they may find ingredients in short supply. Protection, then, may be thinner, more fragile. Porcelain walls instead of concrete.
Easier to peck, if you’re a gull. If you’re a whelk, easier to bore a hole into.
If you’re a thin-shelled mussel on the verge of being yanked from the safety of your bed, then what has saved you in the past might be about to undermine your chances of survival.
If only mussels could do what some other threatened species can: detach, migrate to better habitats.
There’s no escaping the acid, though, and mussels, once attached, can’t move anyway. Staying put is in their DNA. Thus they remain at the mercy of us, a species capable of mercy but often too preoccupied with ourselves to be inclined.
And so when a storm moves in, they cope by inching themselves around in their crowded beds, shifting on those ropy attachments growing brittle and stiff. Like moored boats swinging on old anchor lines, they aim their narrow ends into the storm and stay together, as if trying to hang on until the fury has passed.
Attached mussels cannot go elsewhere.
Neither, finally, can we, who should be burdened by knowing this.
This is the twilight world of seaweed forests, of waving fronds and canopies of kelp, draperies of bladdewrack, carpets of encrusting algae, all soaked or set to swaying by tide, wave, and ocean current.
Some float on the surface, their long strands dangling like untied ribbons into the watery forest below. Others rise from the ocean floor like cobras out of baskets.
Imagine a jungley village every bit as dense and green as those of tropical zones. And wetter, subject not to downpours but to tides whose rhythmic advance and withdrawal keep the canopies swaying, the food moving, the underwater forests teeming with birth and decay while who knows what more is brewing in that veiled, half-hidden world.
For millions of years, seaweeds have formed these tangled habitats. Their watery-green, dim-lit havens just under the surface form the foundation of near-shore and tidal homes. Their proliferation helps filter light from above, prevents the kind of brightness that can damage tissue, subdues the rush of incoming tides, hosts the daily drama of hide and seek as thousands of invertebrates slink among stalks, slither under a wet mat of algae.
In the quieter slosh of outgoing tides, some beached seaweeds remain stranded in the wrack line. This too is part of their function. Losing more than 80 percent of their moisture, they lie there, parched, while sand fleas emerge from their burrows to infest and feast on debris.
And then the tide returns, reclaims the banquet, swirling around and under the weeds until they’re drawn back into the sea where every clump becomes a harbor again for drifting larvae, a haven for fish, shelter for a scuttling crab.
Imagine now slipping through the cracks in under-the-surface veils of flattened blades that divide and divide again. Here, where we can pretend to be knee-high to a clump of towering rockweed, olive-green tinges to watery gold overhead. Trace the raised midribs, finger the pairs of bladders, each filled with a mixture of gasses that work like small floats, keeping the fronds upright in the water, the better to soak up sunlight. Competition for semi-lit sun space is fierce. The higher our reach, the more likely we’ll flourish.
If we were to keep going, slide our fingers down the stipes, we’d find the holdfasts, small disc-like apparatuses fastened to pebbles and small stones. No stately pleasure-domes, they’re tiny inverted cups of root and rock tangle, and the stony substrate is studded with them. They keep the seaweed attached and serve as hide-outs for millions of invertebrates scurrying out of a predator’s reach.
As oceans warm, some seaweeds thrive and others don’t. Some kelp like it hot, some don’t. There is no clear good or bad to these shifts in populations; things change; they’ll go on changing.
Already some seaweed forests have begun to drift poleward, taking with them the fish, mollusks, countless invertebrates that hide and dwell among them.
But for species unable to release their holdfasts and therefore doomed to stay in one place, it’s a different story. Imagine the approach of an underwater heat wave carried by currents beginning to slosh among the seaweed beds. Imagine the new warmth bathing delicate stalks. This is no luxurious, spa-like treatment. Rising temperatures can stress a plant and cause cellular damage, triggering a reallocation of its resources.
Forced to “choose,” some plants will try to repair their damaged cells before they grow bigger or reproduce. If the damage is severe enough, seaweeds will grow listless, less able to resist the onslaught of pathogens which act like underwater flames thinning out the forests. Diseased—bleached—, the seaweeds will grow thin and sparse, allowing more sunlight to penetrate shallow waters, illuminating the underwater jungles and their myriad shelled, gelatinous, clawed and tendrilled creatures, many of which need shadow and murk to grow.
More warmth stimulates more bacteria and on and on it goes, the increased brightness and warmth undoing what has swayed mostly out of sight, quiescent and rich for millions of years.
Among all the experiments and slow adaptations, what remains is the ruthless drive to survive. Acclimating takes energy. So do adapting and moving. The effects of ensuing rearrangements will cascade throughout the webs of communities both off-shore and inland. In-mind, too. And that reality, perhaps, will trigger real and game-changing challenges: among the shifting images and changing communities, can we see ourselves as creatures in flux too? That is, can we imagine less destructive ways of living?
Meanwhile, at some point, those heat-fleeing seaweeds, like the ones in Australia, will find themselves stranded at the southern edge of the continent, beyond which there’s no place to go.
From miles away, sand looks still, un-urgent, the essence of Zen gardens, the monk now withdrawn. Whatever rake he’d used to comb patterns in the sand is gone too. What we’re looking at here is what remains: the aftermath of the photographer’s contemplation, images which help us see what’s been composed.
“Composed,” as in arranged.
Or as in tempered, serene, the monk might say, meaning no attachments, let the thought go, let it go.
In a Zen garden, sand symbolizes emptiness.
But in spite of the barren sweeps and apparent stillness, sand is anything but empty or motionless.
Like a grainy behemoth, it even “breathes.” Incoming tides force air out of sand, replacing it with water; outgoing tides suck water out, allowing air to flow back in. The rhythmic exchange leaves evidence in the sand: pits and nail holes, tiny volcanic cones, blisters you can pop with a finger.
Can we really see the world in a grain of sand? The oneness of all creation and the absolute presence of the present might be spiritually uplifting for some, but for others Blake’s statement can be heard more literally: to see a grain of sand is to begin by asking what, actually, is this? A grain of silica, limestone, sandstone? Derived from basalt, obsidian? And how did it get here? From what outcropping was it eroded? By wind or water? How long ago? And what will become of it—will it be used for sandcastles or the manufacture of glass? Bricks or habitat for sand fleas and piss clams?
Such an inquiry into that grain of sand yields details about sandstone or wind erosion which spin into whole histories of geology, beach biology, industry, and recreation. All those worlds yield thoughts about origins, deterioration, manipulation, bonding and heat, and so all those ideas, too, are embedded in a single grain of sand.
Nothing still about that kind of contemplative mind, either.
Or about sand as an incubator, a massive swaddle of larvae and eggs, a whole squirming cradle of the newly-hatched.
Or about what goes on below:
To a mole crab, sand must seem like a three-dimensional maze, some passageways leading up toward sunlight and food, others aiming down, toward deeper, cooler sand-below-sand. The mole crab is hungry, clamorous. Searching for sustenance and mates, it scuttles through underground slivers of passageways opening and closing between and among the grains as wind and water and the footsteps of human and gull press from above.
It isn’t alone. Within those ever-shifting passageways, millions of other tiny creatures scramble to get out of the way of tiny avalanches, to form new corridors, to keep the tunnels open to food sources and mates. They scale tiny granules, swing themselves along strings of grains, glide and undulate, sink hooked mouth parts into bits of grit.
They flourish down there in their now-wet-now-dry world—those mole crabs and stumpy tardigrades, beach fleas, flapping rotifers, suction-toed creatures and the ones with moveable snouts—because sand does not cohere. Grains don’t fuse; there’s always a particle to catch, an in-between cranny through which to slip. Young sand—angular, unpolished—means more room in jagged corridors and low-ceilinged niches, but even older sand, nestling more closely, has plenty of interstitial space for the millions who flourish, invisible to human eye, below the surface.
Above, stronger storms begin to ruffle the sand. It’s unlikely that any of the ones below can foresee that their tunnels might soon be water-filled sluices that never dry out. More likely, though, that they can sense something big is about to change.
Of course it’s been happening for millennia. One force overcomes its opposite. Things adjust, find a new balance, settle down. If that monk were to return to the now-altered garden, swirl sand away from the stone, he might sit for hours in the too-accommodating silence.
But speed up the camera until that same monk’s sprinting, the rake jittering in his blurred, moving-too-fast-to-see hands. The sand sprays, furrows empty; tiny ridges erupt, sand critters race up beach and down, grow bigger gills, smaller claws, stronger byssal threads. It’s all frantic dash and lickety-split and happening in a second—geologically speaking— because the water’s rising faster than anyone predicted, hastening coastal erosion, squeezing beaches between higher sea levels and humans’ approach from inland. Storms, too, ravage not just by wave action but by increased sediment washed into rivers which dump their load as they enter the ocean, fouling the sandy edges.
The sand itself has already begun to warm. For embryonic creatures whose genders are affected by incubator temperatures, this is not good news. Inside those sand-nestled clutches of leatherback turtle eggs, females may soon wildly outnumber males.
Seventy percent of the planet’s sandy beaches are now in retreat. Whatever design might have been in place for eons is being obliterated by stampede, the present Anthropocene rushing headlong into the future, ready or not.
No time to adapt. No time to re-balance. No time to cohere.
Let it go seems increasingly obscene.
Barbara Hurd is the author of six books of nonfiction, including most recently Listening to the Savage: River Notes and Half-Heard Melodies (University of Georgia Press, 2016) and Tidal Rhythms (with photographer Stephen Strom; George F. Thompson Publishing, 2016). The recipient of a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction, winner of the Sierra Club’s National Nature Writing Award, four Pushcart Prizes, and five Maryland State Arts Council Awards, she teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.