Fact
Dispatches

The Lowest Tide

Sara Cassidy

Many people at a certain time of life wake at 3:00 a.m. for an hour or two, to stare into the dark. It’s an odd stasis where the known world has ebbed and tossed you up like detritus. You learn to wait it out, to say there, there—use this time, do some reading, catch up on correspondence.
     Last night during those wakeful hours, an email pinged. It was from my friend Kelsey in the next neighbourhood over, where presumably she was staring into the barren dark too. Well, into a rectangle of light in the barren dark.
     She’d sent me a link to a news story. Just a link. No hello or hope you’re well. Only a code to open a window to information I am deeply interested in. She knows I am writing a collection of essays about the shoreline. Again, I count my lucky stars—my good friends.
     Kelsey and I live on a burl of land hanging off a large island in the Salish Sea. If you walk in nearly any direction, you soon bump into ocean. Our city is a sack of coastline. Bakers here do not worry about cakes over-rising. The air is dense with oxygen and nitrogen molecules.
     Kelsey’s link led to a news story titled, “Victoria will have its lowest tides in a generation this week.” The reporter offered this wishy-washy explanation: “Tides change on a few time scales based on where the moon is and how near it is to the Earth.” He quoted a research scientist of nearshore ecology who spoke of “cycles of cycles of cycles.” I sat up and started to Google.
     There would be a supermoon, meaning the moon would be both full (tide magnet #1) and as close to Earth as it gets during its orbit (tide magnet #2). And this would all happen when the sun, earth and moon were aligned (tide magnet #3). In syzygy, the astronomers call it. Pull plus pull plus pull! Wow! The triple threat happens only once every nineteen years—the “generation” of the headline.
     It would mercifully not coincide with a heat dome, as a very low tide did in the summer of 2021, an event that killed at least one billion barnacles alone in intertidal areas of the Salish Sea. The quickness with which barnacles regenerated has been called a “silver lining” by marine ecologists.

 

The other day, my thirty-two-year-old friend Georgia, who is one generation (it’s a loose term) younger than me, mentioned she often had coffee with the women in her YMCA exercise class. “You’re so cool, always hanging out with older women,” I teased. She answered: “Everyone my age talks about jobs and apartments—and that’s it. Older women are a lot more fun.”
     It could be we’re more fun because we know life comes in cycles, in spirals and waves, which Georgia’s pals envision from their vantage point as a straight line. They are in for a ride!
     An hour into the workday, after my night Googling moon cycles, I told my boss I had a dental appointment. It wasn’t entirely a lie—there is a huge hole in one of my teeth that I needed to seriously think about. I said dental appointment, not dentist.
     I had the windows down and the radio on for my drive along the coast—as I flew outside the radar, as it were, beyond the regular 9 to 5. The CBC was interviewing Tony Charlie, a Penelakut Elder and survivor of Kuper Island Residential School. His voice filled the waves with chisel-clear details of the horrible arrivals of priests after dark. Part of his story is a moment of power when he moved to an empty upper bunk, out of reach. Tony Charlie spoke with such precision and gravity, his words filling the interior space of the car, it felt like the entire world had stopped.
     The road dipped and curved in parallel to the coastline.
     Then the CBC news. The first, astonishing photos from the James Webb Space Telescope had been released, showing galaxies clashing, stars forming—stars we never even knew of, dying. We can now see twelve times farther than ever before, a scientist explained, nearly to the edge of time. What the antiquated Hubble could only show as darkness was now filled with stars and their whirling planets.

 

I’ve been swimming in the ocean most evenings. Recently I cradled a bull kelp’s gas-filled float in my hand. I whispered “I love you” to the alga—which grows as quickly as bamboo—a species in decline in a warming ocean. I feel pain these days, in my long spine, my gas-ball stomach, and a kind of dissonance, a radical disbelief, watching motorboats cruise through bull kelp beds.
     So I was feeling out of sorts, cranky, as I drove along the coast. The lowest tide in a generation. At a time when nature’s sanctity is the only portal to the future, the article had publicized the low tide, and urged people to witness it, like a midway show. It had invited thousands to trample and poke around in the tidal pools, disturbing sea stars and sponges and cucumbers that would already be in shock from a kind of birth—their first exposure to air. It went so far as to recommend sunscreen. I saw oil slicks on the tidal pools, like fingerprints on an iPhone screen. Of course, there I was, barrelling toward the beach myself.
     It was not as bad as I’d feared. Lots of people were out, yes. But nature educators should be proud: no one was crashing around in the pools. People pointed rather than poked. Children kept the distance their parents modelled. The children were excited by what they saw, calling “Look at this!”
     I crouched at the edge of a tidal pool and stared. As always when tidal pools are gazed into, the pool incrementally revealed its depths, changing from lifeless puddle to miniature sea, streaked with movement, even of struggle and desire. Tadpole-like sculpins darted, hermit crabs ventured, and limpets gathered algae with their tiny teeth—nature’s strongest material, designed for a lifetime of being scraped across stone.
     Crows turned over rocks. Once in a while, they pinned something alive and wriggling under their feet to stab at with their beaks. I could never make out what they found. I craved a backpack filled with binoculars, magnifying glasses, a microscope. I stood in a netherworld, up to my knees in rare air, and wanted to witness every revealed thing. Before gravity pulled and sloshed and covered it all up again.
     Dental appointments must come to an end. I got back into my car and returned to my desk, my mouth filled with barnacles, and the blue sky beyond the window thick with stars and their swirling planets.

Image: Sarah Anne Johnson, Pastel Sky, 2019, pigment print and holographic tape. Courtesy of the artist and the Stephen Bulger Gallery.

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Sara Cassidy

Sara Cassidy's writing has won the Atlantic Writing Competition for poetry, a National Magazine Award (Gold) for non-fiction, and a BC Book Prize for children's writing. Her 21 children's books have been nominated for many honours, including the City of Victoria Children’s Book Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award. She lives on lək̓ʷəŋən territory and works in communications for the BC Ministry of Health.

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