Standing at the edge of the ocean

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Standing at the edge of the ocean, I tell my children the story of how the seas formed 3.8 billion years ago in a great rain that lasted millions of years. Before, there had been no water, only roiling clouds and molten rock. Then the deluge began, eroding the land to form the saltwater that has been ebbing and flowing, just like this, every day since. Myth and fact mingle in the misty recesses of time, where nature and culture are equally mysterious and equally true.

I watch a line of pelicans glide over the breakers as gulls cluster and cackle on the shore. On my right lies a tern, belly splayed and picked clean, near the seal carcass that has been weaving its way back into the sand for two months now, like an old burlap sack. I stopped believing in God as a child, but as I look out at this infinite vessel that seems to absorb all it encounters into its eternal cycle, it is not lost on me that I, too, believe in something. In this.

It is easy to think the mundane is distinct from the sacred. So I seek out writers and artists who stands in stubborn solidarity with every single thing: John Cage, Mary Oliver, Andy Goldsworthy. If there is only one substance and one system, of which every object and process is an evolving expression, then my relationship with the world becomes that of cell to organism, and I can, on occasion, experience life as an immanent, shimmering plane of existence. Are we humans indeed part of nature? I believe we are. So I spend time with an array of creatures, processes, and systems that shed light on the relationship between the parts of the whole.

It’s a foggy morning, low and damp. It’s easier to see clearly on days like this, without the stark shadows of right and wrong, that everything is connected, even the broken plastic bucket tangled in the kelp next to me. Should I pick it up and put it in a landfill that will also one day be an ocean? What is the half-life of my neighborhood, its tidy houses a few yards away, staring at the incoming tide?

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This day in history, 1000 years ago

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A coincidence is leading me down the research rabbit hole today.

Last night I was reading The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millenium by Robert Lacey, an enjoyable portrait of the daily lives of English serfs just before the Norman Invasion. In 1014, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the few surviving written sources, “This year, on the eve of St. Michael’s day (September 28), came the great sea-flood, which spread wide over this land, and ran so far up as it never did before, overwhelming many towns, and an innumerable multitude of people.”

I’ve never heard reference to a tidal wave in Britain before, because they are very rare; a little digging and I found that there have only been a handful going back to 6100 BCE, caused either by earthquakes offshore or unusual meteorological conditions. Yet forensic geologist Dallas Abbott, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, has found evidence that a large meteor or comet struck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean around 1014, part of the largest Taurid meteor shower display in recorded history.

The Taurids are debris left over from comet Encke and are known for slow-moving fireballs with long smoke trails; research by I. S. Astapovich and A. K. Terent’eva found that 42 fireballs were part of the 11th century Taurids. One can only imagine what people were thinking about on the night of September 28, 1014.

Except that, in the modern Gregorian calendar, this date translates to October 4, 1014. Today, one thousand years ago.

Bright shiny things

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I forgot to take my camera to the beach this morning, always a mistake. Here, instead, is a picture of plastic on the beach, taken a few months ago.

And here are two mental pictures taken this morning:

A young seagull, brown of feather and a good distance from its flock, holding a plastic sandwich bag in its beak protectively, as if it were a tasty morsel of food. As I walked along, it moved away, pecking at the bag intently while keeping one eye on me; the bag did appear to have peanut butter on it, or something. I stopped, as did the gull, and the bag shone, backlit by the rising sun, as if it were a jewel, or glass.

Another seagull, its wings splayed on the ground just above the tideline, with small ridges of sand running back toward the sea. Its head and body were gone, though; all that remained were two fine, golden, recently exposed breastbones, reflecting the sun as the wings cast a long shadow. The first word that came to mind was “crucifixion,” which was strange, since I rarely make connections with Christian imagery. It was an uncanny sight.

It has been a jellyfish beach of late, with dozens of large, whole creatures washing up, their shiny, gelatinous bodies the color of diluted apricot jam. They have stubby tendrils (I won’t call them tentacles, they’re too short) and a satisfying heft as you hurl them back into the waves to watch them float, weightless. I wonder if the seagull had mistaken the baggie for this more edible option, though I have to agree with his choice of peanut butter over jelly.