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image, Geography, by Sue Wheeler.

by Sue Wheeler

Geography. Geo-Graphy, writing the earth, writing and the earth, writing here on Earth, the earth’s own writing. What on earth are you writing? The earth writes each of us, from its cloud of gathered stardust, clapping together a mother-speck and a father-speck that from that instant will grow on the earth’s own air and water and light. Astrololgers work with the idea that the planets’ positions tell us things. I’d look closer, at this planet, its hills and watercourses and summer nights and wind. Can I read the landscape? What does it have to say?

The Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer writes:

Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
I went to the snow-covered island.
The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions!
I come across the marks of roe-deer’s hooves in the snow.
Language but no words.

What I want to look at is not just “the earth”; it’s this piece of earth, this bay and the bluffs and forest above it, where I live. One of the best places to explore, to wander and look and wonder, is the tideflat. The bay is a long, shallow inlet off a body of water that has a large tidal range. The water is deep, it’s gone, then it’s deep again. Each day the sea pulls back and opens a place that is normally covered. We go there for no other reason than curiosity. To see what’s up on the bottom of the sea.

image, Sand dollar.

What’s up today are sand dollars. I don’t mean the white shells kids love to collect and play with, pretending they’re rich (which they are, if they can play on a healthy tideflat). Those shells are the skeletons or “tests” of an animal that when alive is covered with tiny blue-black bristles that glint as they slowly wave in the light. This morning we notice more live sand dollars than we’ve ever seen before, layered in tight colonies, each dollar deep in the sand at a steep angle with only a small part of the edge sticking up, each colony resembling a little buried radiator. As a child, I gathered the white tests on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico but never saw or imagined the live animal, which can’t stand surf and so lived way out beyond the beach. Here, in the quiet inlets off the Strait of Georgia, they can make it in the calmer intertidal zone.

The sand dollar population has been increasing steadily over the thirty years we’ve lived beside this bay. When the tide is in, they spread out and plow along the bottom, gleaning microscopic foods off the sand grains. We take the abundance of dollars to be the bay saying that the water is, indeed, rich with microscopic foods. Further, that it continues to recover from the impact of decades of logging, when runoff from cut slopes and streamsides washed debris into the bay. Logs were dragged to the shore and dumped to wait to be towed to a sawmill. They would go up and down on the tideflat, through many tide cycles, sloughing their load of bark and forest soil, which eventually cloaked the bottom of the bay and choked out much of the life there. (Today it is still legal to “water logs”, as it is called, but they are supposed to be boomed and hauled away before they go down onto the bottom.)

What can you buy with a sand dollar? My four-year-old granddaughter used one to pay for an ice cream cone at the island bakery. The sign said Chocolate, Vanilla, One Dollar. But normally, sand dollars reverse the usual take on wealth. They say, “It’s us, here, in our little unnumbered bank accounts, that make the wealth.” They can’t be spent or traded. If they go, because of some change in their environment, we don’t have them anymore, or the environment, or any worthy purchase. You can’t actually buy anything with a sand dollar, unless you are very young and cute, and then only once. If the dollars are there, the wealth is there, in the clean rich water and the columns of life it supports, and this wealth belongs to you, just as it belongs to the clam and the rockweed and the flatfish and the duck.

image, Sand dollar.

When we first came here, we thought what we saw was the way of things—muddy sand for most of the bay, eelgrass out at the mouth, exposed at a four-foot tide. Then we learned that eelgrass was another casualty of the old logging practices. Bays once laced in green, with all the life it fostered, turned to grey-brown mudflats under the load of upland debris. Fifty years’ relief has allowed the eelgrass to reach into areas where it was then non-existent, grow thick where it was thin. This, experts agree, is a sign of the bay’s recovery. Eelgrass anchors the bottom of the food chain, a primary producer of food for grazers such as geese, a sheltering place for all sorts of plants and animals, some seeking refuge from a predator, some predators lying in wait among the green blades, some who pass their entire lives there, feeding the fish who feed the birds and the seals and the whales and the bears and the humans.

Maybe you’re wondering, “The bay’s recovery to what?” Usually we mean a return to the way it’s supposed to be, which usually means the way things were at the time of contact, when white men first arrived on this coast. Eelgrass was abundant. Some groups harvested its rhizomes for food. But not that long ago, in Earth’s terms, this place was probably not even a bay, or it was, then it wasn’t, then it was again. The rise and fall of sea level with the last glacier’s retreat occurred within the time of human memory. The glacier pulled back, the released land rose. The glacier melted, the water rose. Coastal peoples report the sea dropping and rising, sometimes many feet in a period short enough that they could watch it, and villages on low flat sites disappeared. Shallow bays would be among the first places to change. This kind of impermanence means there is probably no definite benchmark, no “way it’s supposed to be.” Maybe we should call it a recovery to former richness in place of recent scarcity. Metaphors of poverty and wealth.

image, Sand dollar.

Eelgrass is not closely related to the true seaweeds, which are algae. It’s is a flowering plant that evolved on land and moved into the water. What would you call a beautiful field of green grass that shelters and feeds a web of countless creatures, including those who graze? I learned with delight that biologists call the ocean floor in front of my house a meadow.

image, Sand dollar.

It is hard to approach the wild without domesticating it. What in nature sounds more homey, more redolent of safety and welcome, than meadow? It is a truism to say that we describe the world through the lens our own experience. We are the word animal, and the Word domesticates the Wild. But then what? This can be a way of acknowledging (Hello, meadow.) or it can be a way to bend for political ends. Forest—or timber. Salmon and clams—or marine resource. I see you—therefore you are mine.

The poet Don McKay proposes that there is something before the writing and the reading. Face-to-face with a clearcut, he suggests that we stop, and be seen:

How the slash looks: not
ruin, abattoir, atrocity;
not harvest, regen, working
forest. How it looks. The way it
keeps on looking when we look away,
embarrassed. How it gawks,
with no nuance or subterfuge
or shadow. How it seems to see us now
as we see it. Not quick.
Not dead.

How would we approach nature if we believed we were being watched back? A lot more carefully, is my guess. Ya look a bit like a clearcut yrself, it might be saying. How bout we sit down for a little talk?

image, Sand dollar.

An upland example of Earth’s own writing, honoured in the human name for the thing: Graphis scripta, the tiny squiggles and dark ink heiroglyphics on the alder’s pale smooth bark. The common name for this lichen is “pencil script.” A friend wrote a poem musing on the various minute beings who might be leaving messages on the alder’s bulletin board. I’m sure it’s not just the poets who notice the earth’s writing. They would be the ones, though, to pick up on the kinship of craft. The poet’s job is to attend, and then to tell. She might wave or do something mildly outrageous to get you to look. She may just stand and point. (This is something of a conceit, because of course the pointing, for a poet, involves words, and her hope that the words will be language that will communicate.) Did you notice that I said “craft” in reference to what I am calling the earth’s writing? This anthropo-naturo-geo-morphism stuff is a Tar Baby. Poke it and you’re stuck.

Is it short-sighted to take any solace at all in the recovery of one small bay, given the collapse of natural systems all around? How do you recognize "recovery," anyway? Is this what the increase in sand dollars in fact indicates? Maybe populations of their normal predators have declined. These include seals and certain crabs and fish. A biologist I asked about this said predator/prey populations are cyclic, and it can be hard to know if the predators have declined or simply moved elsewhere, or if the abundance of the sand dollars’ food has increased. A single sand dollar may be thirteen years old. We exist in a tiny slice of time and have such a limited view.

This bounded time and view mean that the stories we look for can only be trends. If the trend is good, we’ll find hope in this bay and how we live beside it, against the wider decline. If it’s not so good (the headline: "Dollars Soar As Predators Drop"), there’s yet another confirmation of how we are fouling our nest. I don’t know. Larger systems are made of smaller parts, all the way down to the bits of dead eelgrass and the sand dollar and the specks its indigo bristles push toward the circle of its five tiny jaws. The place to start is the place itself. To pay attention, be willing to be seen, try to read what it has to say.

image, Sand dollar.

What is written on the tide flat? It doesn’t take a poet to see the flat green ribbons of eelgrass as a script, or the worm trails and bony bird prints as a story. He went here, and then he went over there, where he met another one, and then they….

Does the story include us? Our well-developed sense of self-importance would like to think so. Our stance as observers, marveling, loving but a bit removed, might see separate stories, nature’s and ours. I can come down here with my free time and binoculars and then go home to my warm house and the CBC. But when I walk out from shore, tiny purple crabs run for cover at my first step. The heron takes off, then the gulls. One boot onto the sand and a clam two yards away and several inches down will squirt water out of its hole. We’re all in this together. I don’t mean in the sense of the web of life, etc.; more the sense of the web of seeing and being seen. Participants in the great and reciprocal gossip of it all.


Sue Wheeler is the author of two collections of poetrty, Solstice on the Anacortes Ferry (Kalamalka Press, 1995) and Slow-Moving Target (Brick Books, 2000). Her poems and books have won or been shortlisted for numerous awards. Her third book, Habitat, will be published by Brick in 2005. She has taught poetry workshops at the Victoria (British Columbia) School of Writing and the Esalen Institute in California, and is on the 2004-05 faculty of the Wired Writing Studio at the Banff Centre for the Arts. She lives and works on a farm on Lasqueti Island, British Columbia.
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Tranströmer, Tomas, “From March ’79.” Selected Poems, 1954-1986. Ed. Robert Hass, trans. John F. Deane. Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1987.

McKay, Don, “How the slash looks.” Vis-à-Vis. Wolfville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2001.


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