The shore is an ancient world, for as long as there has been an earth and sea there has been this place of the meeting of land and water. Yet it is a world that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and of the relentless drive of life.
Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea
4:30 on a cool afternoon, early September. In my second week of residency on the Schoodic Peninsula, the easternmost section of Acadia National Park, I’m paying more attention to the fog than I did last week. Schoodic Point, the tip of the peninsula, is a low, fractured, rocky slope, mostly pink granite interrupted by a few thick stripes of black diabase dike, jutting into the ocean. Most days the point appears like the clear, bright, colorful image I imagined as I flew here from the west: light stone blocks contrasting with vivid green firs on its inland edge, scruffy, light green grasses rising tenaciously from crevices, cobalt blue sea, cerulean blue sky. Down close to the shoreline the intertidal zone begins. Wet dark olive-green rockweed coats the lowest portions of the slope, the pinkish-gray rocks above the limits of high tide stay bare and dry. I stand in sun and sea breeze, studying the cracks and joints and fissures, the angles and shapes of slabs and blocks and shelf faces. I note changes in tide level, the shift from zone to zone—dense, dark green water-logged weeds, light green weeds draining sea water, damp off-white coatings of barnacles, the glistening, deceptively slick black zone. Sea and sky, those vast blue reaches immeasurable, draw my attention only to their immensity rather than to any fixed point. Each time I return to the Point in sunshine I become pleasantly detached. I’m content with the scale and scope of what I behold, and find it easy to simply engage in idle observation.
But the fog—that’s something else. It alters my sense of the world, makes me feel both isolated and involved.
Clouds that have hung above the peninsula since morning drift out to sea and the ground level fog thins in the afternoon sun. I wander out across the rocks, closer to the ocean, hoping for a better perspective on the shoreline, and stop at an abrupt drop-off, a broad break in the granite ledges. Rockweeds glisten in the refracted sunlight, thickly coating slabs and blocks ten feet below me; waves surge in from time to time to cover them, then ebb away. The fog merges with the ocean a little way out. The horizon is only a broad smear of bright blue-gray, except for a short stretch of gleaming silver just below the place where the sun, unseen, must hover. The thickness of the fog shrinks and swells like the surf, like the sea breathing in and breathing out. When it dissipates slightly, the distant silhouette of Mount Desert Island, across the broad reach of Frenchman Bay to the east, momentarily materializes out of the haze, then blurs and blends back into it again.
On the other side of this little inlet where I stand, seven gulls stand placidly near the shoreline; it’s as if they’re marking time, waiting for the tide to turn and reveal the vulnerable lifeforms of the tide pool. Further inland, upslope toward the landward end of the inlet, a raised lip at the far edge of a granite slab forms a partial dam above an area of lower rocks. The tide must rise and surge across the slab before it can fill up that inner pool and drown those rockweed-coated blocks again. I hear a thump and splash as saltwater spills over the lip. The gulls are silent, immobile. The only sounds are lapping waves, the slap of water on stone, the gurgle of water sucking itself back away from land.
The encircling fog, gradually increasing its distance from the shore, still closes in the horizon. I begin to comprehend the limits of my vision, strain to remember what is usually clear to me in sunlight. I suddenly realize that, if I wanted a place to lose myself, to momentarily step out of identity and obligation, it would be here and now. In this instant,—perhaps only for an instant,— I come wholly to my senses. Cognition ebbs away; feeling surges in. All at once my senses connect me to the most primal of elements—the soft enshrouding fog, the persistent rhythm of the waves, the implacable rock under my feet. In the distance a raft of eiders silently floats by, black shapes interrupting the gleam of sunlit waves, soundless, drifting, carried along by the tide and the waves. I feel myself drifting with them. I am no longer on the Schoodic Point I know, but some other where.
I don’t know how long the moment lasts or why I feel I need to leave—to “get about my business,” whatever that might be—but the moment haunts me, draws me back a few hours later. The sun is descending, the fog thickening, that inner pool slowly filling, other sightseers mostly gone. I am, for the moment, alone on Schoodic Point. I shiver occasionally in a brisk cold breeze. Directly above me I discern blue sky but on the ground I find my horizon still tightly circumscribed. Ahead of me, sea soon dissolves into fog; behind me, inland beyond the point, trees are merely a frontline of shadows, growing dimmer, the forest beyond it vanished. Clouds high overhead only hint at the sun’s descent. No gleam shows through the fog.
I concentrate on what encircles me; I close my eyes and listen to the surf, the slap and gurgle and s-s-s-s of waves against and across and retreating from the rocks. The air is palpable on my face, a chilly damp caress. I conjure up the image of Corregio’s painting of Io and Zeus, a naked nymph welcoming the embrace of the god in the guise of a cloud. I smile blindly into the fog, then banish the image to return to my senses. Minutes pass in the grasp of sensation, while cold seeps into me. It’s the pervading cold that makes me finally open my eyes. Blinking, I slowly take one last look around me, then I surrender the point to the fog, the surf, and the gathering dark.
ii. Crossing the Bar
The Boreal coast of the North Atlantic is known for the amplitude of its tides, the difference between high and low tide. The intertidal or littoral region is the area of shoreline between what the highest tides submerge and what the lowest tides expose; it can be divided into five distinct zones, each demarcated by degrees of submersion and exposure, each host to a variety of specially adapted organisms. Any casual idler along the coast of Acadia is likely to notice the changes that the levels of the tide make in the appearance of the shoreline.
For example, on the Schoodic Peninsula, depending on the time of day, East Pond Cove seems to be different each time I pass it. At one time, it is a broad, serene pond, a beachless basin almost surrounded by higher ground. Its grassy shoreline is close to the road; only a narrow strip of gray rock shows between the water and the pavement. This is the cove at high tide. At another time, at low tide, it is startlingly transformed. Now is revealed a broad stretch of exposed shoreline, little pools of water in between cobblestones and small boulders. A burble of flowing water can be traced to a temporary tidal stream draining the higher sections of the pool. The water’s edge is now perhaps twenty yards distant from the shoulder of the road. On the open shoreline, among small exposed rocks all high and mostly dry, are strewn the blue shells of mussels, the empty shells of snails, and billions upon billions of barnacles, the seams of their intricate interlocking plates tightly sealed. Bladder wrack, a rockweed with heart-shaped brown bladders, lies flat everywhere, as if discarded. Abundant, opportunistic gulls peck among the wrack. Across what remains of the water, on the exposed shore of Little Moose Island, a clammer cruises the coastline, probing at the sand and occasionally plucking something out to deposit in the bucket carried on a strap over his shoulder. It seems a zone of debris and detritus, everything dead—certainly the litter of mussel shells, snail shells, and an occasional dismembered crab suggest abundant death—but most of this will revive with the turn of the tide. The rockweed will rise and stand waving in the water, the barnacles and mussels will open to feed, the periwinkles and whelks will set into predatory motion. At high tide the following day, the cove is a placid pool once more, reflecting the sky and suggesting nothing of the abundant life at its bottom. The passerby who observes these changes feels he shares a secret with the landscape, and remains conscious of the tides wherever he goes in Acadia.
Bar Harbor is the name of both a harbor and a picturesque town on the eastern coast of Mt. Desert Island, where the main section of Acadia National Park is located. The harbor extends out into Frenchman Bay between two small islands and a somewhat larger island due north a quarter-mile offshore of the town. At high tide, Bar Island, the largest of the three, seems simply to be the nearest island, across a relatively calm and sheltered body of water. It’s only at low tide that it becomes apparent how harbor, town, and island all got their names.
Twice a day at high tide, for several hours at a time, Bridge Street leads down the slope from the town directly into the water of the harbor. It seems to offer only water access. It’s low tide now. As I stroll down the street a pick-up truck passes me near the bottom of the slope and continues out into the harbor, onto a firm, flat tidal bar the width of a two-lane highway. When the ebbing tide drains away the water in that part of the harbor, the flats turn into a packed gravel strand solid enough to support a van or SUV, and tourists and townies alike set out to wander across the bar.
I see ahead of me other people already walking idly on the bar. Two long vans park close to the water on the west side of the bar, one of them towing a partly empty trailer for kayaks. Off in the low pool beyond the vans floats a cluster of kayakers, facing each other and holding position with their paddles, apparently returning from an outing on the bay. Not far away a small sailboat heels over in the shallow water, more aground than afloat. Two small station wagons drive briskly across the bar; they pass an older couple ambling back toward town. Groups of people pick their way along the water’s edge, surveying the tide line. A little girl, walking several yards ahead of her mother, calls back to her that she sees a starfish; “It’s feeding,” she shouts. On either side of the bar, the tidal flats are cluttered with seaweed, blue mussels by the millions, barnacles in both their closed and their extended states, innumerable periwinkles, and various other tidal creatures.
Midway across the bar I stop and slowly survey everything around me. To the south the flats slope off gradually, and some water-filled areas separate ridges of shells; in the distance, where the harbor is still deep enough, small boats float gently at anchor or move slowly between docks and open water. To the north, where Mt. Desert Island arches toward the mainland, the slope is less pronounced, and the waters have receded less. At either end of the bar, toward the town or toward the island, small figures amble unhurriedly and small vehicles either recede in the distance or grow larger with increasing nearness. The top of the bar is as flat and worn as an old dirt road, but beyond its edges vast fields of innumerable gray-brown mussel shells fall off to the limits where water still covers them. It looks as if the retreating tide has revealed an unimaginable accumulation of lifeless debris, the discarded residue of centuries, yet I’m aware that much of what I’m seeing—and what I can’t see beneath the surface in the shallows—is alive, tightly sealed against desiccation from heat and air and exposure, waiting for full submersion before opening up to life again.
Life in the littoral, literally unlimited. Here on the bar I glimpse something of the scale of life in the intertidal zone.
I decide to step along briskly, to complete my tour of the island before the tide turns. The trail leads off the bar and winds through the woods of the island. It closes off the view of the harbor, but ends a quarter-mile later at a summit with an open view toward the south. Some prominent mountains of eastern Acadia National Park—Cadillac, Dorr, Champlain—fill the space between cloudy white sky and forested coast. Lower still I see Bar Harbor and its marina, with a couple dozen boats anchored off shore. The harbor looks calm and deep but when I lean out a little I can see off to my right the limits of exposed harbor floor and the places where people are walking and driving across the harbor.
Returning to the sandbar, I realize the tide was still ebbing when I first crossed it. The sea is even lower now, revealing the tidal life to be even more endlessly abundant. As far as I can see from sea level, the surface of the harbor bottom is now exposed. Only occasional low pools are still partly water-filled, where blue mussels poke only their tips into the air. The van with the trailer, now loaded with kayaks, stands where it did, a few of the kayakers milling around it. The second van has already left with its passengers. The shoreline has retreated further; the place where the kayakers floated together is nearly completely land. The sailboat is utterly aground, canted to one side and resting on its keel on mud and mussels, no open water anywhere around it.
The image of an exposed harbor floor dense with mussels and barnacles is a revelation to me. For the moment it looks drought-ravaged or like land drying out from a sudden torrential rain; it looks as if it has been devastated and will take years to recover. But I know the recovery begins within the hour, and within six hours it will all be submerged, the way I have most often seen it, as if it never could be drained—how do you drain the ocean? Here is life on a scale that staggers comprehension, here is resiliency of a resourcefulness that bewilders invention, here are life forms utterly unlike what we know on land, what we know of our own evolution, whose origins outdate ours by immeasurable millennia.
“Time and tide wait for no man,” it is said, but I think that expression a rather benign and banal reading of what we behold here. Instead, time and tide give us some inkling of what eternity must be like, even as, twice a day, they display for us what, ultimately, existence is like. To understand life we need a more panoramic perspective, a slower shutter speed, a more encompassing comprehension. I recross the bar slowly, still looking all about me. I know that all this will soon disappear beneath high water, a fecund existence spending half its time submerged and invisible. To recapture this sight I will need to time my return with another turning of the tide.
It’s nearly noon. I’m hiking on Isle au Haut, the remotest section of Acadia National Park. I’ve rounded Western Head, one of the peninsulas on the southern tip of the island; I’ve dawdled awhile over an energy bar and bottled water on a rounded bulge of volcanic rock, where I appreciated the good sense of the gulls to have their picnic lunches of crab on top of it—whitening shells beyond counting suggest how often they use it; I’ve sat contentedly in sea breeze and warm sun, gazing out at the vast openness of the Atlantic. To complete my circuit of Western Head, I’ve followed the Cliff Trail high above the shoreline on the east side of the peninsula. Now I’m nearing the end of the trail, at its junction with the road that will take me back north to the ranger cabin where I’m staying.
The trail descends to an open rocky beach. I try to distinguish among the stones the marker cairns that will keep me on the trail. Two prominent stone piles steer me away from the shore, back into the trees, but a glance toward the water makes me hesitate before starting inland. A dozen or more cairns have been carefully constructed upon the side of a knob of rock close to the shore. Some are stacked like a toddler’s stacking toy, decreasing in size from bottom to top; others are more haphazardly arranged and more precariously balanced. I see at once that they are not trail markers, since they would lead me back the way I came, along the bottom of the cliffs. I recall walking on Monhegan Island, further down the coast of Maine, along a trail through old growth pine forest, where hikers can discover a string of “fairy” dwellings, miniscule “houses” of twigs, bark, stones, and moss erected at the base of trees; I think that here Isle au Haut seems to counter that idle playfulness with a simpler and rather repetitious sea nymph or mermaid sculpture gallery. The cairns add only whimsical clutter to an already driftwood- and debris-strewn coast, but they prompt me to look back along the sheer cliffs toward the tip of Western Head. I realize more fully what I’ve been walking above.
Cobblestones make up the walking surface from higher up on the beach, where the forest begins, down to the shoreline, and they fill in the spaces between the higher, raised knobs of the rocky headlands. They make for noisy, off-balance walking; finally on a beach for the first time since I arrived on Isle au Haut, I clatter and lurch across a long stretch of them to get closer to the water. I can tell that the tide is coming in. Once I stop moving and stand gazing at the cliffs, I hear other noises than the clacking of the stones under my feet. I stumble toward the shore, pause, and listen more intently. In a moment or two I realize that, after an incoming wave, when the waters recede, I’m hearing the clatter of cobblestones. I step even closer to the water and stare at the foamy waves covering the lowest stones. This time I see some of them move as the waters withdraw. I continue watching and soon notice that the chattering sound of stones knocking together is louder when the waves are stronger and heavier. Taking a few steps forward onto wet stones I squat down, getting nearer eye level with the stones and the waves. I concentrate on the cobblestones even when they’re invisible under the breaking waves, camouflaged by white foam. The water recedes off the glistening stones as a wave twenty yards off shore curls above a low barrier of rock. Then the space in between fills with white turbulence. One wave rushes up almost to my feet and reminds me that this is a rising tide. I wobble backwards across the cobblestones to a stretch of sloping solid rock and perch on the edge, still focusing my hearing on the clacking sound of the stones.
The tide comes in farther onto the shore and, as it deepens, hits the stones more heavily. Now when it pulls back it draws more powerfully on the stones and the volume of the clatter increases. The racket the ebbing water and the rolling stones make together sounds like a heavy flow of rainwater gushing down a storm drain mixed with the rattle of thick chains striking against each other. The stronger waves pick up small stones and hurl them further back on the beach, and sometimes they toss up hollow stem kelp as well. The whomp and whoosh of the waves and the cracking and chittering of the cobbles grow more forceful. I’m alone on the beach, not a bird or other creature visible, and yet the rocks themselves are active.
The moment reminds me of an essay by Barbara Hurd, “Fine Distinctions,” in which she walks a shingle beach in southwest Suffolk, on the Atlantic shore of England. She tells how, on that site, the U. S. military constructed a massive listening device, “the world’s largest, most sophisticated, most powerful radar of its kind,” at a cost of a hundred million dollars, but soon found it wouldn’t work. As she explains, “Its ability to receive signals was, from the start, hampered by the presence of a mysterious noise. ‘Clutter-related noise,’ they called it. ‘Severe background noise,’ ‘excessive noise of undetermined origin.’ Months of testing failed to find the source of the problem.” Apparently none of the project’s military and technical personnel had ever sat on a cobblestone beach during an incoming tide. It’s not surprising that all that sensitive equipment couldn’t overcome the interfering rumble and clatter of wave-tossed cobblestones; but it’s discouraging to know that no one involved predicted the result.
“Shingle pebbles aren’t silent,” Barbara Hurd says; “they ping and clatter and clunk.” Just so. Days after I leave Isle au Haut, a woman will tell me that she can identify which beach she’s passing in the dark by the sounds the cobblestones make, differentiated in tone and pitch by the angle of the waves, the slope of the shore, the size of the stones. In At the Sea’s Edge William T. Fox has a handy chart distinguishing the rocks on the shore. Boulders are the largest rocks, cobbles are grapefruit sized, pebbles are the size of ping pong or golf balls, granules are pea sized. Smaller than that are the coarse, medium, and fine grains of sand, and below that silt and clay. These are handy distinctions.
For the most part the waves have been juggling peas and ping pong balls, but just now higher waves are tossing lemon and peach sized cobblestones up onto the rocky ledge a few yards from where I sit. Only a few minutes ago, when it was my route to this location from the beach, that extension of this rock was dry. I move a little higher up and watch the lower portion of the rock receive the brunt of the next wave. I’m in no danger here—my reading alerted me to folks being swept off rocks by errant waves and I’m a cautious fellow—but I’ll have to choose a different route when I leave the rocks. I watch the tide advance for a few minutes more.
When I feel spray reach this higher position where I’m sitting, I decide now might be a good time to go. I can’t go back the way I came—the waves are too vigorous across the cobblestones. Instead I scramble gingerly over the uneven surface atop the outcropping, then step carefully through that thicket of cairns—rather than topple any myself, I want to let storm tide decide their fate. Near the edge of the knob I pause to listen to the chatter of cobblestones a moment longer. I hope memory will record the sound, allow me to hear it again as I fall asleep tonight. Then I step onto the dry stones. The clatter of my crossing drowns out the sound of the cobblestones in the tide.
The trail rises again from the beach, veers easterly, and leads me around to high ground further down the coast. When I reach an open bluff I pause to look back and locate the spot where I listened to the cobblestones. Through binoculars I spot the cairn-adorned knob. It is now an island of rock; the cobblestone beach around it is completely submerged, and foaming waves are breaking on the cliff face beyond it. The sound of the cobblestones must be muted now, beneath the surf, but I know they will clatter again with the changing tide. What was simply a moment of attention for me is the timeless nature of their existence. Though few creatures hear it, the cobblestones have been making the same sounds, wearing themselves away slowly—slowly—by infinitesimal degrees, chattering, pinging and clunking all the while, eons upon eons, open to change on every ebb and surge of the tide. My clattering across the cobblestones was only an instant of static in the ever-varying, timeless transmission of sound.
An hour after sunrise, for which there is little evidence beyond the ability to see the fog better, I stand again on Schoodic Point. Last night, returning from a clear, sunny day on Mount Desert Island, I was surprised to find heavy fog cloaking the peninsula. The further I drove, the more it thickened, until I could barely locate the beaches a few yards beyond the shoulder of the road. Near the point, Arey Cove was invisible behind an impenetrable white wall. Certain that the fog would still be here in the morning, I rose early, eager to get out into it.
I step slowly onto bare rock near the center of the point and at once detect motion down near the water’s edge. Dozens of eiders waddle off the weed-smothered shore and plop into the ocean. I’ve only ever seen them floating offshore, never spotted them out of the water before. I raise the field glasses hanging around my neck and discover an immense flotilla stretching around the point, hundreds of little dark shapes imperturbably rising and settling with the waves. The further out they bob, the more difficult they are to discern in the dense haze. From somewhere deep in the fog I hear a muted chugging, a lobster boat making its rounds; I shift my binoculars but only get a closer view of fog. On shore, in the rockweed just beyond the reach of the waves a herring gull picks at a crab he’s uncovered and dragged out of hiding. Early morning work for fishermen and gull.
I make my way toward the shore over the pink ledges and across two black dikes, searching for a gull-guano-free-zone somewhere close to the water. I find a narrow spot still unspotted and sit down on a low, narrow, nearly level block of stone. My feet rest on the slick algae of the black zone between rock untouchable by high tides and the sloping edge where barnacles and green algae cling. The fog is thick and wet, the rock hard and cold; a familiar chill soon settles on me. The eiders, which were drifting east, begin drifting back west in a thin, widely spaced line; some them pop up out of the sea onto the tip of a nearby promontory and begin to probe the rockweed with their bills. The turning tide slams more vigorously against the shore. I sit with my pen poised above my daybook but the chill makes my hand shake. The rest of me quivers at times as well.
Still, it’s hard to leave. Having become one accustomed to the fog, I try to settle in. I’ve come here to be in the fog. I breathe in wet air, inhale deeply, and as I slowly exhale, I feel my senses open up to my surroundings. I gaze, I listen, I feel, I taste the fog. The waves slapping the rocks and splashing, gushing, rushing on every side, the gurgle and glug of water drawing out of the crevices around me, the silent thickening parade of eiders floating past, the ghostly shapes of a thin line of spruces against the inland fog behind me, rockweed on a low, nearly submerged ledge before me bearing the force of breakers and filtering the white foam—this turbulence and serenity together are everchanging and yet timeless. For how many millennia has it been like this? How long has this been going on? Being here, shivering in this precise moment, is like having been here at any moment in all those millennia. It’s as if I could remember what the shore was like at the dawn of time because it’s like that every minute, is like that now.
Only when I hear the occasional thrum of the lobster boat starting up again do I know for certain when the present moment is happening. Then it silences. Once more I become attuned to the rhythm of the waves, the white noise of the surf, the pulse of the tide. I can tell nothing about the world except for what I sense, what I see, hear, feel, breathe, exactly where I am, exactly now. I am simply alone—with the rocks, with the fog, with the tide—somewhere in time.