When I was first getting to know a sheltered bay near my house, I was enthralled by the scenery. The picture-perfect bay is hemmed in by rocky cliffs, making it a place apart, quiet and peaceful. The water there is fairly shallow but a deep, narrow channel just to the south brings a mix of nutrient-filled tidal waters into the bay. The ocean is almost a hundred miles away but the 15-mile wide Strait of Juan de Fuca funnels water from the Pacific all the way back to this bay. When the winds are right the waves are powerful enough to toss huge logs onto the shoreline. It’s a rich, complex habitat, much of which is hidden underwater.
On land there are crooked old Douglas firs, sinuous, orange-barked Madrone trees, and weathered, contorted logs. Herons, ducks, eagles, and kingfishers live here. There are wildflowers tucked into the cliffs and set along the trails, lichens hanging from trees and coloring the rocks, graceful drifts of dune grass, and murky wetlands hemmed with cattails. Four tides wash over the beaches each day – two high and two low – bringing countless changes: stinky blankets of sea lettuce one day, tangles of Bullwhip kelp another day, and countless stray shells and pebbles. Seals and otters make regular appearances, sticking their heads above water to look around and scope out the scene.
All this draws me back like a magnet and gradually, I’ve dug a little deeper than the postcard views that first attracted my attention. I learned that sometimes, the low tide is extra low and when that happens, two beaches that are normally separated by a rocky promontory become one as the water recedes past the base of the cliff. Among the rocks at the bottom of the cliff a careful observer can find odd, ancient creatures called chitons clinging to the dark undersides of still-damp rocks, waiting for the water to cover them up again. Low tides bring discoveries: in the height of summer, a large Lion’s mane jellyfish might wash up. And as if the beach isn’t enough, there are dramatic sunsets over the water. Even the spectacle of kayakers gently gliding away and out of sight is a treat for the eye.
As I return to this particular stretch of sand and rock, again and again, more treasures are revealed. I’ve been looking at patterns in the sand left by waves, animals, or bits of flotsam and jetsam. They’re like calligraphic messages from the world of water, traced on land for us to see, but not for long. Within hours, the tide will rise and wipe it all away. Some of these traces appear very abstract and are especially appealing. Walking here, I focus on the world at my feet, examining changes in texture and color, thinking about how this constant shifting of substances rearranges the world into new patterns, patterns that may or may not fit nicely into that familiar rectangle that my camera imposes on the world.
Then I look up and take in the wider view. Back and forth.