Following are excerpts from my recent guided walk, Tideline as Timeline.
Timeline: January 4, 2015, 2:30 – 5:30 pm
Place: Princeton-by-the-Sea, California
The tideline is one of the richest biological regions on earth. It is also a fluctuating, fractal line that rises and falls each day and over thousands of years. Today, as the sea is receding, we will walk along the tideline to the westernmost point, a series of rocks called the Boneyard. Along the way we will stop at 7 stations to consider the intersection of tideline and timeline and forms of sense, presence, and absence in this particular landscape.
Today’s low tide, which is at 4:19, is one of the lowest of 2015, and the lowest this year that coincides with a full moon. These spring tides – so called because they spring up – nearly all take place in the winter months, due to the alignment of sun and moon and earth, a celestial pattern called a syzygy. In turn the lowest ebb generates the highest flow, and in 6 ½ hours the tideline will be about 6 ½ feet higher than it is right now.
A chart of sea levels over the past million years looks like a graph of breathing, a predictable rise and fall during which the water withdraws 400 feet below its present level as the climate cools and ice builds at the poles, and then rises to our current level as the ice melts. This has taken place every 100,000 years, like an EKG of the planet. However, the rise happens quickly, over just 20,000 years, while the cooling period is much slower, because ice melts more easily than it forms.
On the timeline of ice ages, we are living in the pause that occurs between the last rapid melting and the next slow cooling phase. We call this the Holocene Epoch, and it has coincided with the emergence of all human societies, though whether this is coincidental is a matter of debate.
In the past two millenia, this time of climatic stasis and security we have lived in, sea level has risen 7 feet according to soil records. In the past century, the Golden Gate Bridge tidal bridge have recorded a rise 8 inches, while scientists predict a rise of up to 55” by 2100 which would the new tideline near the line we just inscribed.
For the Ohlone people, death of one tribe member was a traumatic event for the entire community. When a person died, the family destroyed everything that belonged to them in life, breaking their bows and arrows, tearing their baskets and bear skins, throwing it all onto a funeral pyre along with the body of the deceased. The mark of success in Ohlone culture was generosity, rather than wealth, so members of the tribelet would throw their best tools and hides onto the pyre as gifts to the deceased. To ever speak the name of a dead person was to invite dangerous ghosts into the community, so as a result, family lineages were soon forgotten, and history as we understand it did not exist. The distance between Sacred Time, which was the time of the creation, and the present moment had no substance or dimension.
When the Ohlone were forcibly removed to Mission San Francisco, their culture and language were obliterated in a similar way. The last native speaker of Ramaytush, the language of the San Francisco peninsula, died in the 1950s. In the 1970s Cal Berkeley anthropologist Richard Levy trawled through mission records and early anthropological sources, to reconstruct this language. He gathered 104 words.
On an 1861 coastal map, the salt marsh behind us encompassed 10 acres of open water, and was, according to the 18th century French sea captain Jean de la Perouse, a place of ‘inexpressible fertility”. Stephen Powers, a 19th century ethnologist described the people here as “almost amphibious”, wading among deep reeds and grasses to trap birds, and digging shellfish by the ton along the shore. Hunger was absent in this place, even in the myths, which accounted for the stability of their culture over thousands of years.
Above us is a radar station that is used to track missiles fired from Vandenburg Air Force Base, 280 miles to our south, some nine missiles a year on average. These include the intercontinental ballistic missile Minuteman III and the Atlas V rocket, which launches military satellites.
To our southwest are the outer and inner breakwaters that form Half Moon Bay Harbor. The outer walls were built by the Army Corps of Engineers following World War II to create a harbor for the local fishing fleet; the inner walls and piers were built in the 1970s and 80s, as the fleet expanded. The bluffs and beaches beyond the harbor have eroded by several feet every year since then, as the wave energy has been displaced to the south. Some 35 feet of coastal bluffs have eroded in recent decades.
Behind the harbor is El Granada, a town commissioned by the Ocean Shore Railroad to be a resort destination for people from San Francisco and designed by the renowned architect Daniel Burnham. Construction on the Ocean Shore Railroad began in 1905, though its bridges and trestles were severely damaged by the 1906 earthquake.
During the speculative decade that followed, Frank Brophy, who held title to this land, and was selling it off in lots, advertised it the local newspaper as “Princeton: Future Home to a Million People”. I undertook this project in part to find out why the streets here are named Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and West Point; the answer has thus far eluded me, but I suspect Frank M. Brophy may have had something to do with it. But the people did not come, and the railroad eventually folded in 1921. The collapse of the railroad, in combination with Prohibition made Princeton a locus of bootlegging, black markets, and bordellos. And at 10 in the morning on April Fool’s Day, 1946, a tidal wave brought the sea up to the windowsills of the houses in Princeton.
We come from the sea. We are fish out of water. The sea was formed 3.8 billion years ago in a great rain that lasted millions of years; first there was only boiling rock and roiling clouds. And then waters flowed from high to low, bringing salts along, and the ocean was born. The tide has been doing just this, ebbing and flowing, every day since. This particular wave-cut platform, with all its creatures, may be submerged in a generation or two, but there will be others. In the future, these waves will be either bigger or smaller. The only constant is change.
We can see ourselves as different and separate from this ocean, these rocks, and stand at the edge of the sea with measures of fear and awe. Or we can learn from the barnacles and anemones about finding our right relationship, a fluid state of connection that sustains us as part of a larger system.