Saturday, February 13, 2016

Salt.

"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea." - Isak Dinesen

I drove over the bridge and sped straight past Davey Jones' Locker. Instead of my usual right turn towards the lab, I continued straight - no work for me today. 

I kept driving out Cape Arago Highway, past the A-frame houses and the old elementary school. I passed the sheep farm, the RV park, and the turn-off for Bastendorf Beach. I passed Sunset Bay, where surfers were emerging from their Subarus and VW busses. A bald man with his wetsuit half-on spread wax on his board; a dark green tattoo stretched across his ribs.  

What I did this week. It is because of this...
I passed retired couples walking their dogs along the coastal trail; I passed the barking sea lions on Simpson Reef. I kept driving until the crowds grew smaller and then disappeared, and finally I pulled into the U-shaped parking lot at Cape Arago's South Cove. I was alone. 

Making my way down the gravel switch-back trail, I knew I had chosen the right destination. I could see just one other human on the beach below me, an old man with a surfboard who was probably no more eager to speak to me than I was to him. I scrambled over the piled-up driftwood, then the sandstone boulders to the beach. To my right rose a majestic cliff, dividing South Cove from its brother, Middle Cove. I turned right on the beach and finally reached my goal: the Cape Arago intertidal. 

...that I needed this.
The tide wasn't even that good today - about a foot above Mean Low Low Water - but that was good enough for me. I had been inside all week, sitting at my computer to write papers, analyze data, take my thesis from bland to great. I needed a day off to clear my head, to go outside and remind myself why I do what I do. 

I first learned the art of tidepooling during a summer internship in 2010. My grad student mentor would pick me up at 5:30 in the morning, and we'd drive out to a mudflat together. Or the technician would ask me to join him in the mussel beds, and we'd spend the afternoon cutting our hands on the sharp shells as we pried the mussels up with a screwdriver. I remember one Saturday after a particularly low tide, my faculty adviser and his wife stormed the lab like a tornado, pulling out identification keys and finger bowls and the microscope to figure out what species of nudibranch they had just found. 

The intertidal biodiversity on the west coast of North America is just astounding, and it's one of my favorite things about living here. I was only out there for an hour today, and I can rattle off to you about 30 species that I saw (I just did so in my head, and I wasn't even trying that hard). There are green anemones and orange sea stars and turban snails and owl limpets and all sorts of things most people have never seen. They live around each other and on top of each other and they eat and they compete and they do all sorts of things that make my ecologists' heart pound harder. And I love it.

Climbing over the sandstone, I made my way out to the end of the cove - the point where South becomes Middle and the waves break on the rock. I stood on a patch of blue mussels and gooseneck barnacles, silently thanking them for the traction they offered my feet. I lifted my arms and faced into the wind and felt the salt spray in my face. Because that feeling, that salt, that sandstone cliff and the biodiversity it hides, the countless beautiful organisms and the ways they relate to one another, the thrill of discovering their secrets - that, dear friends, is why I do what I do.

Salty and exhausted, I let the tide chase me in. And I went home once more in love with the world. 

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