Alex and I are at the tide pools. According to the Surfline app, it’s almost low tide. Our assignment today is to practice awareness – one of the essential values we gain from nature, according to Sigurd Olson, the 20th century naturalist of Minnesota’s boundary waters. We are focusing on the micro, not the macro – the trees, not the forest, or rather the tide pool, not the ocean. We are trying to see beyond abstract first impressions, the concrete details beneath the surface.
It’s a bit hard to concentrate. We may be in nature, but we are definitely not away from it all. It’s a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, a day of sunny calm amid a week of winter storms, and I haven’t been around this many people for a pandemic minute. Families are swarming the rocks; the only thing ensuring social distancing is the six-foot-wide tide pool Alex and I are hunkered next to. Alex is my dog: a wiry brown terrier we adopted from the Harbor shelter, full name Alexander Hamilton (my son, Cole Hamilton – really his name – named him). “Hammy” has grown up on these rocks and is deft at getting around on them, when he’s not lying in my lap and nibbling on a piece of kelp. Who knew dogs eat kelp?
“I found a limpet! I found a limpet!” The five-year-olds are better at this than I am. They scurry across the rocks exclaiming their treasures. Alex eyes them warily then looks up at me, brown eyes big with sympathy.
I chose to hone in on a tide pool today after the sea smashed my first plan: to observe it from a paddleboard. I couldn’t get my big fiberboard Naish past the surf break; every sixth wave crashed too far out, and I almost wound up somersaulting though the surf with my board and paddle. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, so already wet, I swam around for a half hour, semi searching the ocean floor for the favorite water bottle the wave snatched. A few hours later, I’m back, awaiting low tide.
What I see in my pool:
- Pinkish purple lichen-like coral: a forest of tiny aquatic bonsai, rooted on a rock. (I look it up later: coral weed.)
- Putrid-green seaweed; tastes like chicken, Alex says.
- Vivid green sea grass, spread like mermaid hair.
- Bigger – two-foot-long – trunks of dark green kelp; the sequoia of the tide pool. (Feather boa kelp.)
- Dozens of snail shells on the opposite shore. (Periwinkle.) Most seem to be empty but a few move quickly: homes purloined by hermit crabs. Why are they called hermits when I always see them in clusters?
- Yellow foam bubbles cling to the top of the vegetation. Natural or industrial pollution?
- I see limpets!
- Some of the rocks are psychedelic in their multitude of colors: yellow, pink, green, white, painted with lichen of varying shades and textures.
- Peering deeper, I see a lavender shell – a whelk?
You have to look up sometimes too. Just 20 feet away, a bird is hunting the shore’s edge. It walks in long strides on stilt legs and dips its equally long beak into the water, pulling up a tiny shore crab, whose eight legs wave in the air. Gray with a white chest, it’s a willet, or a plover, or some kind of shore bird. It could be a Monty Python character, straight out of the department of silly walks. I look it up later; first guess was right, a willet.
I look down one last time and realize there is a fish right below me, probably there the whole time. It’s camouflaged black and green on the pond’s bottom, like a mud guppy. It’s small, maybe two inches, and darts into thin water when I bring my finger close. (A sculpin.)
Instead of getting lower, the tide is coming in, a steady stream back into my pool now, whose rocks and limpets will be underwater again in a few hours. Clouds cover the sun and it’s getting cold – winter is back. Alex is restless. He’s already gotten up once, searched for some fresher greenery, then shoved my pen aside with his nose and crawled back into my lap, as if to say, “Focus on this.” We call it a day. Back home I thumb through the pictures in my new guides and try to identify everything I wrote down in my journal. So much to see, so much to learn.