Tideline as Timeline

tideline as timeline poster

Join me for this New Year walk, marking the edge of the low tide and the rise of the full moon. We’ll think about presence and absence in Princeton-by-the-Sea, a neighborhood on the site of a former Ohlone village.

A little background. This phrase — tideline as timeline — occurred to me earlier this year while writing my Master’s thesis. I didn’t know what it meant then, except in the poetic sense of the daily pulsing of the ocean, in and out. Yet as I’ve taken a deeper dive into geology, sea levels, and climatic change, I now see the phrase as both more literal and more meaningful.

In fact, the tideline has shifted dramatically over time in response to tectonic shifts and the effect of global temperature on planetary ice levels. Over much of the last 500 million years, the planet was significantly warmer than it is now; there was no ice anywhere during much of that time, and sea levels were as much as 600 feet higher than they are now, due to the very different continental configurations of the distant past.

More recently — that is, since North America joined the South American plate 3.5 million years ago — the planet has had a consistent sea level range. When ice ages develop, as they have about every 100,000 years for at least a million years, sea levels drop about 400 feet. When the ice partially melts, as it has systematically done as part of this cycle, sea levels have risen to about where they are right now.  It’s as if the planet has been breathing in and out in a deep time, mirroring the ocean’s daily pulsing at a different scale. We are currently at the bottom of the cyclical exhale, when things are warm and wet.

Knowing this makes it even more alarming that our global temperatures and sea levels are about to spike. The planet has spent the past 20,000 years exhaling (i.e. warming) and we are about to exhale again, without any in breath to sustain us. We have never been here before.

When all the ice melts, as it likely will over the coming 500-1000 years, sea levels will be 212 feet higher than they are today. Where will our tideline be then? It’s one of the things we’ll think about on the Tideline as Timeline walk, the first in a series I’m developing with fellow artist and ocean lover, Zoe Farmer.

Let’s Get Physical

I walked into a JMW Turner painting this morning. This one:

Joseph Mallord William Turner Paintings Art 38

Or maybe this one:


It was wild outside last night — the rain woke me twice and the rainless wind once — and my morning walk was unusually warm and blustery. I rounded the corner to the Point, where I usually stop to survey the 5-mile arc of Half Moon Bay, when, in a singular moment, a long blast of warm wind hit me head on as the sun cracked the dark shell of the sky wide, and a slice of blue was revealed. It was a consuming, rapturous moment, and I leaned into the wind and let myself fly.

The Greeks called this phenomena physis, that overwhelming surge of energy and emotion we all experience from time to time, if we’re present in our lives. It’s easy to not be present — to focus on yesterday’s argument or tomorrow’s deadline — and I wonder how many such moments I miss when, for example, I’m sitting at this computer.

I’m fascinated with such moments, when something more Real seems to break through the humdrum of life. Some call this Romantic, as in the 18th and 19th century writers and painters (including Turner) who portrayed the grandeur and danger of nature (and, therefore, of God) in contrast to the tiny, quavering existence of man. But that’s not it, because that 200-year-old worldview assumes a creator and created, an I and Thou, a hierarchy of differentiated beings.

For me, these moments are rather a reminder of what I already know, but easily forget. That is, we are all aspects of one thing, one unitary substance which is unknowable and unnameable. This substance is both material (from elephants to atoms) and immaterial (from dreams to philosophies), and it is both uncreated and eternal. It’s more mystical than romantic, it has more to do with Rumi than Goethe. If you want to call this substance God, that’s fine by me, but you could equally call it Nature, and this would be a distinction without a difference.

The world is indeed physical, in the Greek sense. Which is to say, not reducible to constituent parts, but sometimes bigger than what we can know or perceive. Thank God for that.