The following is an excerpt from “More Than Meets the Eye: Exploring Nature and Loss on the Coast of Maine” by Margie Patlak, published on May 1, 2021 from Down East Books.
Instead of fighting the tides, you learn to bend to their rhythm when you’re in Maine, to follow that pull of the moon. As soon as the tide ebbs, it starts to flow again. Six hours later, the islands return or are completely submerged by water, and there is a new seascape with its own fleeting opportunities for exploration. At high tide you can easily push a kayak into the water and meander the waterways carved in nearby marshes. But you must gauge time carefully; if you return too long past high tide, you won’t be able to paddle to shore and instead will have to carry your kayak over slippery rocks.
High tide is the best time to swim in the bay because then water fills it to the brim and there’s no need to clamber over the cobbles to reach it. A swim is especially inviting when high tide occurs in the late afternoon. Then rocks and boulders bathing in the sun all day impart some warmth to the water. One friend enjoyed a high-tide swim at 4:00 p.m. the day she arrived at our Maine abode. “This was wonderfully refreshing,” she said as she wrung water from her long hair and shook it out of her ears. “Let’s swim every afternoon at this time while I’m here.” But each day, the times of high and low tide change by almost an hour because of the rotation of the moon around the earth. Her eyes widened when I told her that at 4:00 p.m. the next day we would have to hike out to the water to swim, because high tide wouldn’t come until around 5:00.
The constantly changing tides were also an eye-opener to me when I started spending summers in Maine. Back in Philadelphia, I normally divided my day according to the unvarying hours of the clock: I breakfasted and read the newspaper from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m., wrote from 9:00 to 5:00, made and ate dinner from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., and pursued various relaxing activities until I fell asleep. But once in Maine, it became necessary to observe the tidal clock.
Here you must follow the moon.
To go swimming or kayaking, I have to stop working at high tide. To collect sea glass or explore the islands, I need to close my computer at low tide. Like King Canute, I am ruled by the immense, uncontrollable power of the tides, and I try to match my rhythms of work and play with the ebb and flow of water that follows the moon. This way of marking time makes me more aware of time passing and the need to make the most of every moment.
Yet I also recognize that the tides won’t care whether I make it to the islands or to the celery-colored grasses of the marshes. They will come and go, spread out and suck in, keeping the planetary breathing rhythm, the endless time clock, for as the poet Mary Oliver noted, “In
water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.”
Nature will go on without me, which somehow is comforting.
The phone rings, and I hear the deep voice of my son, who has gone on without me to live far away on another coast. Many moons have ushered him into adulthood. But Jake hasn’t lost his childlike curiosity about the world around him and tries to make the most of his temporary stays wherever his job takes him, exploring each location like a zealous crab scurrying about the Maine shore at low tide. When he moved to California and close to deserts emptied of city lights, Jake bought a telescope and became especially attuned to the moon’s rhythms, purposely timing moon- and star-gazing trips to the lunar cycle. Now deep into his twenties, Jake follows not only our moon, but the moons of Jupiter and other nearby planets with his telescope. Although I wish he were here exploring the shore with me, I enjoy seeing other worlds through Jake’s eyes.
A friend related to me with some distress that adult children were like wandering pieces of yourself over which you have no control. As I told Jake when he was in high school, worrying about his welfare was part of my job description as a mom and explained why I couldn’t sleep well at night until after I heard his key turn in the lock of the front door. But I have learned to let go over the years we’ve spent apart, to appreciate Jake’s adventuresome nature, which led him to visit more than a dozen countries and return with tales of spinning Sufis, Egyptian pyramids, Somali pirates, and almost freezing to death in a hut in the mountains of Croatia. And I’ve come to accept the temporary nature of the years he spent living with us, recognizing his childhood was borrowed time, for as the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran pointed out in The Prophet, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.” He stressed that the souls of children “dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams,” so parents must view themselves merely as “the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.” Like the perpetual tides, my children will live on without me, will sow our lineage far into the future, which somehow is comforting.
A rabbi told me that mothers are closest to their children when they are newborns and recently separated from these beings that once were a part of them. Not used to this separation, mothers still see their babies as extensions of themselves and perhaps this explains in part their intense protectiveness. But there is also something to be gained in the ebbing of the parental pull that occurs as your child grows; the essence of a son or daughter can be seen only at a distance—when viewed too close, it becomes obscured like a pointillist painting.
“The moon was awesome the other night!” my son tells me on the phone, describing all the craters he could see with the aid of the powerful lenses of his telescope. “I know,” I said, looking out my windows at a bay emptied of water pulled by the full moon.