When I was a child, we spent one week each summer on the Gulf Coast in Alabama. It wasn't our first time seeing the ocean, my brother and me; we'd gone to the Atlantic in April 1984, stopping in St. Augustine, Florida, to camp on our way to Disneyworld in the Airstream. I remember (not least because I've seen the picture) standing knee-deep in the saltwater, my grey corduroys rolled and pushed up, purple winter jacket zipped against the still-cold spring wind. Even at eight, I spent a lot of that time on the beach just standing and staring into the waves, staring out to the horizon, thinking about how massive a force was tickling me, thinking about how I wanted, above all, to be thinking. Thinking poetically, I might now say, though I wouldn't have phrased it that way then. I also remember going down to the beach in the dark the night we arrived. We'd put the Airstream into its space and then picked our way to the wooden catwalk that led down to the sands and out to the shoreline. I'd never heard such a sound--because there is no other sound like it.
Somehow, I was born a water person. My mother tells stories about my early swimming classes at the YMCA: how, as a very small child, I was dropped off diving boards, caught by swim teachers, put on the edge of the pool and taught to hang on there. She tells stories about how much I loved baths, how I would try to put my face under the faucet. When my memory comes into its own, I remember the lessons when I actually learned to swim--when all the moves suddenly coordinated and I could keep my body moving and my head above water. I remember reaching the bottom of the ten-foot-deep diving well at the subdivision pool for the first time, when I was about five. (I've told you some of these stories before.)
When I was six, my parents enrolled me in winter swim lessons at the local Jewish Center, and so one night a week my mother and I would drive there and I would learn something new in that massive, white-tiled pool. I'm not sure what she did during my lessons. I do remember, very clearly, how we sat together in the sauna, resting on hot, dark wood, breathing that impossibly high, impossibly glorious heat, after my lessons were over.
And then we moved to a land-locked state, and to a town with no indoor pool. I swam on a team during the summers and basically lived at the swimming pool in the afternoons and on weekends. But my family had been cut off from the water in a fundamental way. My father suffered this change particularly, I think; he had sailed in Detroit and in Buffalo, and suddenly the nearest still body of water to us was a manmade lake an hour away. On the occasions when I've seen him looking at vintage Cris Craft boats, and on the occasions when I've looked at the photographs of him--at my current age and younger--grinning with his sailing freinds, I've gotten small, wordless glimpses into what left his life when we left the Great Lakes.
As I walked the beach this weekend, I realized that one effect of my not having grown up in close enough contact with the water I love is that I didn't understand tides--how often they come in and go out, what their pattern is, exactly how to be careful about them. In Gulf Shores, Alabama, there were tides--I know there were. I remember feeling them, and I remember warnings about riptides. But they didn't have a profound effect on the beach's size. At Holkham, on the other hand, tidal knowledge is all-important, because the sands are so enormous that the difference between high and low tide seems (and maybe is) a matter of miles, not feet--and England is common-sense-oriented enough that you're sort of on your own out on this expanse of sand, given just a minimal warning at beach's edge about crossing to "this side of the channel" when the tide starts flowing in, but not told precisely to which of many possible channels the sign might refer.
When I arrived on Friday, as I've said, the tide was on its way out. This much was clear: each wave left a bit more sand (and rocky, shell-filled detritus) bare. But I had no idea when the tide would turn, or how I would know when it did. How close to low tide were we? The beach is so enormous that it was hard for me to imagine that we weren't right at the turning point. The North Sea, like any sea I've ever seen, is vast enough to impress upon one a sense of her vulnerability; my superadded lack of knowledge about how said sea comes and goes only intensified this sense, leading to a wee frisson of near-panic toward the end of my first day's walk. What if I got trapped on the beach? What if I disappeared? Because let me tell you: if you were going to disappear, Holkham would be a good place to do it.
I didn't disappear--though there were further moments of perplexity and near-fear when (though I knew the path I was on would take me where I needed to go) I wondered where I actually was--and then saw strange wild animals that didn't key to any wild animals I know. (I think that they were some kind of English deer. I feel like a big dummy even writing those words--but I'm not sure who was more frightened, me or these animals, and so taking pictures was not in the question. I think they may have been Muntjac deer.)
I am being more digressive than I'd like, here, because what I really want to tell you about is what I learned about tides. When I got up on Saturday morning, I expected that we'd be back at high tide. To my surprise, the tide was (as you can see from the bottom of these Friday and Saturday pictures of the boats in the sluice outside my B&B) even lower than when I'd returned the evening before, when I'd thought it was pretty low.
Of course, the tide had--as they do--gone all the way out, come all the way back in, and gone nearly all the way out again in the time since I'd left the beach the night before. By the time I arrived on the sands in the early afternoon, the tide was already halfway back in--but I thought it was very, very low, because where I had seen water the day before, I suddenly saw only sand.
(All of those little dots are people.) When faced with so much sand, the only logical thing to do is to start walking. I couldn't even hear the waves when I arrived at the beach; the water's edge was nearly a mile away. And so I started to walk, fixing a distant, enormous green buoy (like one I'd seen in King's Lynn on my trip up) as something like a goal.
I walked north (away from a coastline that runs east-west) for a good twenty minutes before I reached the water in front of me (as opposed to the water cutting a channel, east of me). And there was my buoy:
Wisely, I chose not to venture onto the peninsula you see here in order to get a better look at said buoy. It was right about this time that I watched closely and could see that the tide was, in fact, coming in rather than going out. I turned and headed back toward shore, where I had my encounter with the boy who needed a bag. And I set out toward the west, the same way I'd walked on Friday--but, I now knew, considerably further out from shore than I'd been at that higher point in the tide's pattern. The astonishing thing, for me, was to realize just how swiftly it does come back in. I was in fact able to see exactly how quickly I would have been moored on a new island had I not turned back to shore when I did. Which is not to say that I was actually in any danger--I had too much respect for where I was and for how it all worked, and too great a sense of my own ignorance, to push my luck, and though some of these pictures make it look as though I was the only person out where I was, I wasn't. So too did I find myself in a state of radically heightened awareness of the details of what was happening to the land- and seascape around me: the way the water pushed back into the sandy ripples it had bared only hours before, the way a broad peninsula grew steadily narrower. I was off the peninsula with plenty of time to spare.
But here's the thing: within 90 minutes of my coming closer to shore, I returned to the point from which I'd embarked toward the green buoy and found that whole world underwater.
In this image, all those tiny dots (which you can barely even see, even if you click on the image and enlarge it) are the buoys; my green buoy, the one I nearly reached, is the one on the left. As I headed back to Wells along the mile-long beach road, I was able to see that all the boats that had been high and dry three hours earlier were now floating once more, water rippling in the wind where children had splashed and squelched in the low tide's mucky sand.
The things I'm showing and telling you tonight aren't the loveliest of what I observed while I was away, but they were the most powerful, the changings and observations and fears and realizations from which I learned the most. So much of life is slower than I ever knew, so much more a matter of watching quietly and patiently--in the knowledge that I will have to return and watch again, rather than in the desire for a swift, stellar mastery. So much of not disappearing is a matter of embracing and inhabiting a kind of patience that is acutely attentive, ready to sense the ripples and accretions that suggest that danger is on its way, and to walk a different path in order to avoid that danger. So much of what I want in my life--as I'm coming to figure out--relies upon some kind of slow, steady structure that hasn't been there for years and years. Instituting an early bedtime and an early arisal has been a revelation; eating dinner at the same time every weeknight has been even more of one. I now find that I want to wash my dishes, that I want to do my laundry before the last second. I find that routine might actually be something I want in my life, though not something I hope I'll ever fetishize.The other realizations and findings that seem poised to follow in the train of these basic ones are too enormous for me to consider yet. They are more than tidal.