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
Children of the American midwest know little of tides. Theirs is a world of rolling hills and wind-tossed trees; great, dolloped clouds piled into the summer sky; tumbling, tassled corn stretching away toward an ever-receding horizon. Less impressive than mountains, less romantic than moonlit beaches, the very modesty of the land feels stable and dependable: a well-constructed backdrop for less than dramatic lives.
Like the hills surrounding them, midwestern rivers roll with equal modesty: sluggish and steady until snowmelt or rain transform them into T.S. Eliot’s strong, brown gods: sullen, untamed, and intractable. Lakes and ponds seem stationary as bathtubs: passive as the cattle ranged around their perimeters. Filled by rain, they empty with drought. Their rise unpredictable and their fall intermittent, they show no particular rhythm and little sense of liveliness. Taking on and releasing water in fits and starts, they sputter along like rusty but still serviceable pickups. Dependable, but not necessarily inspiring, they simply are.
On the day I first stood ankle-deep in unfettered ocean waves breaking and bubbling around me, I was astonished. Unlike the passive ponds of my childhood, these waters were active: teasing and unpredictable. Sluicing sand away from bare-toed feet, dissolving castles, reaching out to snatch away sandals or inundate books, they sparkled in their rise, and grew pensive as they fell. Moving silently, inexorably beneath the influence of sun and moon, their ability to compel fascinated attention seemed infinite.
Over time, the ocean itself taught me a new lesson: that atmosphere can overcome even the pull of gravity. Driven by wind, Gulf coast tides rise, then rise again. Messengers from the sea, their waters whisper rumors of newborn storms still hundreds of miles from shore.
With increasing winds, waters creep higher, spread farther. Grasses disappear, and ditches fill to overflowing. Shrimp boats and tenders 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.
And yet, if the wind blows strongly from the north or west behind a winter frontal passage, and gale warnings fly, the bays empty. Only the channels remain: thin, crinkled ribbons of water laced through muddy flats. Fish seek deeper waters, and sea birds disappear. Boats fall on their lines, sinking far below their docks. You can board them if you must, dropping down onto their decks, but you might want to take a sandwich and a book. You’ll need a ladder to get off, or a plank. Absent all these, you’ll wait for a rising tide.
” Low Tide, Rock Harbor” ~ Heidi Gallo
When you’re new to the water, no one tells you these things. Perhaps they don’t think of it. Perhaps they think the facts are so obvious you know them already, and would be insulted should someone say, “Be careful. Things happen. Your world can change in a minute.”
But change they can. One frigid January afternoon, only four months after I’d begun varnishing, I was determined to work despite the weather. Not yet accustomed to the rhythms of the coast, 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, and my own balance, I didn’t see the taut spring line only a half-inch above the dock. When it caught my toe and destroyed my balance, I was airborne before I realized what had happened.
When I opened my eyes, I was underwater, staring 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, its stern-mounted swim platform only feet away.
Only later did I consider 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. Weighed down as I was by layer upon layer of winter clothing, I might have been unable to pull myself from the water, or swim to shore. As it was, I managed to pull myself onto the swim platform, where I sat and pondered my options.
After only five or ten minutes, 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 looked him in the eye and said, “Waiting for you.”
After he’d adjusted the lines, pulled the boat closer to the barnacle covered pilings, and helped me drip my way to safety up an improvised ladder, he said, “What happened?” I pointed to the spring line, still taut across the pier. “Oh, yeah, ” he said. “Low water. Welcome to winter.”
In the aftermath of Ecuador’s earthquake, I remembered my unexpected tumble into those murky, frigid waters and considered this peculiar truth: Ecuador and I have something in common. Ecuador did nothing wrong to bring such sorrow and grief upon herself. Ecuador didn’t deserve what happened to her. She wasn’t being inattentive or careless. 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 the coastline from Pedernales to Jama to Manta 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 Ecuador tripping over that line, breathless in anxiety and fear as she flies through a disintegrating world. Arms flung to the heavens, she tumbles, falls, and then – forlorn, shaken and needy – raises up, clambers out of the rubble, and begins to ponder her options.
Today, facing the climb ahead, it is Ecuador who waits for a helping hand.
Portoviejo, Ecuador (AFP Photo/Juan Cevallos)
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.