Tideline as Timeline

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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:

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Or maybe this one:

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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.

The Tides They Are a’ Chaaaan-gin’

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Check out this map of my town. My house lies in the middle of it, just above that dark blue band indicates where the new tideline will be once seas have risen 55 inches, as they are expected to this century. Within the light blue area — the hundred-year flood line — is our local sewage treatment plant, at least 100 homes, and the entire community of Princeton, along the top edge of the map.

Over the years climate change talk has often seemed abstract and distant to me. Even as I do my bit to recycle and use less Stuff, somehow these choices still felt optional, as if I were doing a good deed for the future. But being Good can be tiresome, and what difference did it really make if I bought these pretty shoes or not, in the grand scheme of things?

The truth is it doesn’t make much difference, hardly any at all. The machine of global capitalism is vast and overwhelming, and my individual choices don’t matter more than a whisper in a storm.

But they matter to me. As I have begun researching sea level rise and learning about its causes — of course most are a result of human-caused global warming — this has all become much more personal. This will affect my home, my children, me.

And so it is time to get real about my personal carbon footprint and what impact my choices actually have.

My family is going on a Low Carbon Diet, starting now. Stay tuned for details!

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?

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.