Authors: Jim Lynch
Tags: #ebook, #book
Table of Contents
LEARN ED EARLY ON
that if you tell people what you see at low tide they’ll think you’re exaggerating or lying when you’re actually just explaining strange and wonderful things as clearly as you can. Most of the time I understated what I saw because I couldn’t find words powerful enough, but that’s the nature of marine life and the inland bays I grew up on. You’d have to be a scientist, a poet and a comedian to hope to describe it all accurately, and even then you’d often fall short. The truth is I sometimes lied about where or when I saw things, but take that little misdirection away and I saw everything I said I saw and more.
Most people realize the sea covers two thirds of the planet, but few take the time to understand even a gallon of it. Watch what happens when you try to explain something as basic as the tides, that the suction of the moon and the sun creates a bulge across the ocean that turns into a slow and sneaky yet massive wave that covers our salty beaches twice a day. People look at you as if you’re making it up as you go. Plus, tides aren’t
. They don’t crash like floods or exit like rivers. They operate beyond the fringe of most attention spans. Anyone can tell you where the sun is, but ask where the tides are, and only fishermen, oystermen and deep-keeled sailors will know without looking. I grew up hearing seemingly intelligent grown-ups say “what a beautiful lake,” no matter how many times we politely educated them it was a
, a briny backwater connected to the world’s largest ocean. We’d point to charts that showed the Strait of Juan de Fuca inhaling the Pacific all the way down to our shallow, muddy bays at the southern end of Puget Sound. It still wouldn’t stick. It was the same way with beach scavengers. There was no way to make them understand they were tromping across the roofs of clam condos. Most people don’t want to invest a moment contemplating something like that unless they happen to stroll low tide alone at night with a flashlight and watch life bubble, skitter and spit in the shallows. Then they’ll have a hard time not thinking about the beginnings of life itself and of an earth without pavement, plastic or Man.
People usually take decades to sort out their view of the universe, if they bother to sort at all. I did my sorting during one freakish summer in which I was ambushed by science, fame and suggestions of the divine. You may recall hearing pieces of it, or seeing that photo of me looking like some bloodshot orphan on the mudflats. Maybe you remember the ridiculous headline
pinned on me after that crazy cult took an interest:
? You could have seen the same article recycled in the London
. Then again, you might have been among the hundreds of rubber-neckers who traveled to our bay to see things for yourself.
Part of the fuss had to be my appearance. I was a pink-skinned, four-foot-eight, seventy-eight-pound soprano. I came off as an innocent nine-year-old even though I was an increasingly horny, speed-reading thirteen-year-old insomniac. Blame Rachel Carson for the insomnia. She was long dead by the time I arrived but I couldn’t resist reading her books over and over. I even read
The Sea Around Us
aloud to make it stick.
“There is no drop of water in the ocean, not even in the deepest parts of the abyss, that does not know and respond to the mysterious forces that create the tide.”
How do you read that sentence, yawn and turn out the lights?
My family lived in a tiny, metal-roofed house on the soggy, fog-draped bottom of the Sound where the Pacific Ocean came to relax. Farther north, glassy dream homes loomed on rocky bluffs above the splash, but once you reached Olympia’s bays the rocks crumbled to gravel, the beige bluffs flattened to green fields and the shore side mansions turned into remodeled summer cabins.
The front half of our house stood on stout pilings that got soaked during the few extreme tides each year. Behind the house was a detached garage, over which I lived in a makeshift storage room with a closet toilet like you’d find in a sailboat. The best thing about my room was that its low, slanted ceilings kept the adults away, and its back stairway allowed me to step unnoticed into nights like the one that set the summer of my life into motion.
I loaded up my kayak with a short shovel, a backpack and Ziploc sacks and paddled north out of Skookumchuck Bay around Penrose Point into Chatham Cove, a shallow, cedar-ringed half-circle of gravelly flats that sprawled before me like an enormous glistening disc. It was two-fifteen
, an hour before the lowest night tide of the summer with an albino moon so close and bright it seemed to give off heat. There was no wind, no voices, nothing but the occasional whir of wings, the squirts of clams and the faint hiss of retreating water draining through gravel. Mostly there were odors—he fishy composting reek of living, dead and dying kelp, sea lettuce, clams, crabs, sand dollars and starfish.
It was my first summer collecting marine specimens for money. I sold stars, snails, hermit crabs, and other tidal creatures to public aquariums. I also sold clams to an Olympia restaurant and assorted sea life to a private aquarium dealer who made my throat tighten every time he pulled up in his baby-blue El Camino. Almost everything had a market, I was discovering, and collecting under a bright moon was when I often made my best haul, which worsened my insomnia and complicated my stories because I wasn’t allowed on the flats after dusk. The other part of it was that you see
at night. You also see things that turn out not to be real.
I walked the glimmering edge, headlamp bouncing, picking my way to avoid crushing sand dollars and clam shells facing the sky like tiny satellite dishes. I saw a purple ochre sea star, then fifteen more strewn higher on the beach, their five legs similarly cocked, pinwheeling in slow motion back toward the water. None of them were striking or unusual enough to sell to the aquariums. They wanted head-turners and exotics. Like anything else, people wanted to see beauties or freaks.
As I crossed the line where gravel yielded to sand and mud, I saw a massive moon snail, the great clam-killer himself, his undersized shell riding high on his body like the cab of a bulldozer, below which his mound of oozing flesh prowled the flats for any clam unlucky enough to be hiding in its path. Moon snails were often hard to find because they burrow deeply, feeding on clams, their tiny jagged tongues drilling peepholes right above the hinge that holds clams together. Then they inject a muscle relaxant that liquefies the clam to the point where it can be sucked out through the hole like a milkshake, which explains the sudden troves of empty shells with perfectly round holes in the exact same spot, as if someone had tried to string a necklace underground, or as if you’d stumbled onto a crime scene in which an entire clam family had been executed gangland style.
A feisty entourage of purple shore crabs scurried alongside the snail, their oversized pinchers drawn like Uzis. I thought about grabbing the moon snail, but I knew that even after it squeezed inside its shell like some contortionist stunt, it would still hog too much room in my pack. So I noted where it was and moved on until I saw the blue flash. It wasn’t truly flashing, but with moonlight bouncing off it that was the effect. I steadied my headlamp and closed in on a starfish that radiated blue, as if it had just been pulled from a kiln. But it wasn’t just the color that jarred me. Its two lower legs clung strangely together in line with its top leg and perpendicular to its two side legs, making it stand out in the black mud like a blue crucifix.
Mottled sea stars were common, but I’d examined thousands of stars and had never seen this same color or pose. I picked it up. Its underside was as pale as a black man’s palm, and its two bottom legs appeared fused. I wondered how it moved well enough to hunt, but it looked healthy, its hundreds of tiny suction-cup feet apparently fully operable. I stuck it in a sack with some water and slipped it into my backpack. I then waded up to my calves toward the mid-sized oyster farm belonging to Judge Stegner.
That was my alibi if I was caught out there, that I was tending the judge’s oysters. He paid me twenty dollars a month to help maintain them, though not at night, of course. Still, it was nice to have an answer if someone asked what I was doing out there at that hour. I had the words
on my side, and I knew how everyone felt about him. My father tucked his shirt in whenever he came around. And when the judge spoke in his deep, easy rumble, nobody interrupted.
Near the oyster farm something happened that never failed to spook me in the dark. I saw a few dozen shore crabs scrambling near the rectangular, foot-high mesh fence around the judge’s oyster beds. Crabs amused me in small crowds. It’s when they clustered at night that they unhinged me, especially when they were in water where they moved twice as fast as on land. It was obvious there were more crabs-and bigger crabs—than usual, so I tried not to expand my range of vision too fast. It was no use. I saw hundreds, maybe thousands, assembling like tank battalions. I stepped back and felt their shells crunch beneath my feet and the wind pop out of me. Once I steadied, I flashed my headlamp on the oyster fence that three red rock crabs were aggressively scaling. It looked like a jail break with the biggest ringleaders leading the escape. I suddenly heard their clicking pinchers clasping holds in the fence, jimmying their armored bodies higher. How had I missed that sound? The judge’s oysters were under siege, but I couldn’t bring myself to interfere. It felt like none of my business.
I picked my steps, knowing if I slipped and tumbled I’d feel them skittering around me as cool water filled my boots. I rounded the oyster beds, to the far side, relieved to find it relatively crab free. It was low tide by then, and I saw the water hesitating at its apex, neither leaving nor returning, patiently waiting for the gravitational gears to shift. Dozens of anxious clams started squirting in unison like they did whenever vibrating grains of sand warned them predators were approaching. I stopped and waited with them, to actually see the moment when the tide started returning with its invisible buffet of plankton for the clams, oysters, mussels and other filter feeders. It was right then, ankle deep in the Sound, feet numbing, eyes relaxed, that I saw the nudibranch.
In all my time on the flats I’d never seen one before. I’d read about them, sure. I’d handled them at aquariums but never in the wild, and I’d never even seen a photo of one this stunning.
It was just three inches long but with dozens of fluorescent, orange-tipped hornlike plumes jutting from the back of its see-through body that appeared to be lit from within.
Nudibranchs are often called the butteflies of the sea, but even that understates their dazzle. Almost everything else in the northern Pacific is dressed to blend with pale surroundings. Nudibranchs don’t bother, in part because they taste so lousy they don’t need camouflage to survive. But also, I decided right then, because their beauty is so startling it earns them a free pass, the same way everyday life brakes for peacocks, parade floats and supermodels.
I bagged that sea slug—it weighed nothing—and set it in my backpack next to the Jesus star. Then I gave the crabs a wide berth, found the moon snail, poked him in the belly until he contracted, bagged him and paddled south toward home beneath the almost-full moon.
And that’s where it happened.
The dark mudflats loomed like wet, flattened dunes stretching deep into Skookumchuck Bay in front of our house. From a distance, they looked too barren to support sea life. Up close, they still did, unless you knew where to find the hearty clams, worms and tiny creatures that flourish in mud so fine that at least two Evergreen State College gads get stuck every June during their naked graduation prance across the bay’s shallowest neck. I’m not sure why I decided to take a look. It was still an hour before sunrise, and I knew exactly what the bars looked like in the moonlight, but for some reason, I couldn’t resist.