The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveler hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls…
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A child of the American Midwest, I grew up knowing nothing of tides. Mine was a world of rolling hills and wind-tossed trees where great dollops of clouds piled themselves into the summer sky and tumbling, tassled corn stretched away toward an ever-receding horizon. Less impressive than mountains, less romantic than moonlit beaches, the very modesty of our world felt stable and dependable, a well-constructed backdrop for less-than-dramatic lives.
Like the hills surrounding them, our rivers rolled along with equal modesty, sluggish and steady until snowmelt or rain transformed them into T.S. Eliot’s strong brown gods – sullen, untamed and intractable. Our lakes and ponds were stationary as bathtubs, passive as the cattle ranged around their perimeters. Filled by rain, they emptied with drought. Their rise was unpredictable and their fall intermittent, with no particular rhythm and little sense of liveliness. Taking on and releasing their water in fits and starts, they sputtered along like a rusty but still-serviceable truck. Dependable but not necessarily inspiring, they simply “were”.
Eventually, I left that placid world behind and one day found myself standing ankle-deep in the ocean, watching its unfettered waves wash along the shore. I was fascinated and amazed, less by its expansiveness than by its movement. Unlike my childhood’s passive ponds, these waters were active. Sluicing sand from beneath bare-toed feet, dissolving castles, reaching out with foam-tipped, glistening fingers to snatch away sandals or innundate books, to steal a bit of lunch or reclaim beachcombing spoils left carelessly near their edge, they were quiet as a breath, yet predictable as a heartbeat. Sparkling in their rise, pale and pensive as they fell, these inexorable tides seemed to mutter and sigh among themselves, acknowledging the moon and sun that controlled their movements with all the gravity befitting subjects before a heavenly master.
As time passed, years on the Gulf Coast taught me a new lesson: that atmosphere can trump even the pull of gravity. Driven by wind, tides become messengers from the sea, their silently rising waters whispering rumors of newborn storms still hundreds of miles from shore. As winds increase, waters creep higher and spread farther. Grasses disappear and ditches fill. Boats large and small rise up, riding higher than their docks. As waves begin to lap around half-submerged mooring cleats, water birds grow restless and pace the water’s edge.
If the wind backs into the north or west behind a winter front and gale warnings fly, the bays empty. Only the channels remain, thin, crinkled ribbons of water laced through muddy flats. If the wind grows stronger or persists over time, fish desperately seek for deeper waters and sea birds disappear. Boats fall on their mooring lines, riding far below their docks. You can board them, dropping down onto their decks, but you might want to take a sandwich and a book. You’ll need a ladder to get off, a rope step or a plank. Absent all these, you’ll wait for a rising tide.
Heidi Gallo ~ Low Tide, Rock Harbor
When you first come to the water, no one tells you these things. Perhaps they don’t think of it. Perhaps they think the facts are too obvious, that you know them already, that you’d be insulted should someone say, “Be careful. Things happen. Your world can change in a minute.”
But change they can, as they did for me one frigid January afternoon only four months after I’d begun varnishing. Not yet accustomed to the water, determined to work despite the weather, I’d ventured out on the back side of a cold front that had dropped the water level by feet. My intended project was barely floating, its aging spring lines pulled tight against the dock.
Uncertain whether I could board, I cautiously picked my way down the finger pier, evaluating the situation. Perhaps I was too cautious. Intent on the boat, the narrowness of the pier, my own balance, I didn’t see the spring line only a half-inch above the dock. It caught my toe, destroyed my balance and I was airborne before I realized what had happened. When I opened my eyes I was underwater, staring straight at a barnacle-covered piling. Instinctively looking up, I saw the light above me and kicked my way to the suface. The boat I meant to be working on was bobbing away in the next slip, utterly unconcerned with my plight.
Later, I considered that I could have died, or been badly injured. There could have been a boat in the slip I plunged into and I could have hit my head. I could have been unable to pull myself from the water or swim to shore, weighed down as I was by layer upon layer of winter clothing. Instead, I managed to pull myself onto a swim platform where, heart racing, I sat and pondered my options.
Eventually a young man carrying a bucket, a length of line and a boat hook came strolling down the dock. Far below his line of sight, I called out to attract his attention. Stopping to peer down at me, obviously confused by the sight of a sopping wet, middle-aged woman huddled on a swim platform in January, he asked, “What are you doing down there?” With all the dignity I could muster, I straightened up, looked him in the eye and said, “Waiting for you.”
In a couple of minutes he’d adjusted the lines, pulled the boat as closely as he could to the barnacle covered pilings and helped me drip my way to safety up an improvised ladder. “What happened?” he asked. I pointed to the spring line, still stretched taut across the pier. “Oh, yeh, ” he said. “Low water. It happens.”
In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, I remember my unexpected tumble into those murky, frigid waters and realize a peculiar truth: Haiti and I have something in common. Haiti did nothing wrong. Haiti didn’t “deserve” what happened to her. She wasn’t being inattentive or careless, and she certainly had no desire to bring such sorrow and grief upon herself. She simply was going about her business – buying and selling in the market, crooning babies into sleep, cooking meals, watching the last glow of sunlight dissolve into tropical dreams – when a fault line tightened and Port au Prince tripped, flying off into the chaos of history.
The horror of it all is magnified by our intuitive sense that the earth is not supposed to rise and fall like the tides, lifting and heaving all that covers its surface like so much flotsam or pulling down into itself all that is warm and beautiful and familiar. But like a great and rising shore-tide, the tide of geologic events swept through a nation and then ebbed away, drawing reality taut as any unseen line across a low-tide pier.
In my imagination, I see Haiti tripping over that line, catching her breath in anxiety and fear as she flies with her world through the air. Arms flung out to heaven, she tumbles, she falls and then – huddled, forlorn, shaken and needy – begins to ponder her options as she clambers out of the rubble. Today, she still sits, and waits for a helping hand.
The earth rises, the earth falls,
the ceilings crumble and then the walls;
through panic-stricken rage and grief
the broken-hearted seek relief,
and the earth rises, the earth falls.