Apparently it’s a thing now.

The sea exfoliates my spirit.

My practical, logical mind understands the illusory nature of that statement. Yet, I feel the levity of my spirit as it rises and the gravity as it falls in response to the reality of a world filled with ups and downs. And in no place am I more in tune with this oscillation than when I am near the push and pull of an ocean shore.

When I was a child, I would spend most every weekday on Surfside Beach. Each morning I would accompany my mother as she cleaned houses and by lunchtime, I’d have my toes in the sand with a snowcone in my hand; the payment for my hard work vacuuming. My favorite activity was to wait for the tide to go out, then walk up and down the beach shaking the fresh red sargassum seaweed into a small orange bucket. After a couple hours, I’d be exploring the menagerie of collected sea creatures before returning the small shrimp, crabs, fish, and seahorses back to the ocean (generally unharmed, but probably scarred for life).

This experience was just one of many that still flood my mind and inform my creative, scholarly, and vocational pursuits to this day. It is not different for author Jonathan White. At a recent science pub in Corvallis, White told the story of when his sixty-five-foot schooner ran aground during an extreme low tide in Kalinin Bay, Alaska in 1999. After almost losing his boat, he decided that the nature of the ocean’s tides demanded his attention. So began his quest to better understand how the celestial bodies exert their force on the ocean, and how that dance has captivated human culture, in their minds and their myths. His book Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean, published this year, is a culmination of that inquiry.

“The moon may move our hearts today, but her first love was the ocean, stirred billions of years ago. The attraction may have grown stronger or weaker through time, but the affair has never ended. Like any relationship, it has complexities and baggage. The moon calls out to the earth’s oceans in the form of gravity, and the oceans call back, their pulsing energy holding the moon close while also pushing it away.” – Tides

Tides covers everything from the largest tides in the Bay of Fundy, to the power of tidal bores on China’s Qiantang River. White’s conversational style makes the book easy to follow through Newton’s equilibrium theory, semidiurnal inequality,  concepts of fluid dynamics, and the nuts and bolts of tide energy as well as the meditation of monks at Mont Saint-Michel, musseling in tidal ice caves with Inuits, and hanging out with surfers at Mavericks. White also discussed how rising sea levels due to climate change have transformed the tide from a celebrated divine experience to a destroyer of native lands.

Kuna Yala village in the San Blas islands.

The Kuna Yala (Guna) are just one example of the present, and future, reality of climate refugees. Off the coast of Panama, several low-lying San Blas coral islands are predicted to disappear within fifty years, and 3 or 4 of them already have. In Tides, White speaks with the Guna about how they consider sea level rise a spiritual problem and believe that the highest tides bring visitors from other dimensions to check on the people. Among much of the older Guna generation, some believe rising sea levels are a punishment for spiritual imbalance. As a result, many of them feel that strengthening their spiritual balance, individually and collectively, will combat the flooding of their islands. Although many Guna also accept the scientific fact that ice is melting, seas are rising, and there is nothing they can do to stop that. Plans are in place to strategically relocate their communities from the San Blas’ to the mainland. But with that, of course, comes many problems, like how to maintain their history, independence, and traditional ways in the shadow of Panamanian politics.

As I study the sea here at OSU—the social, scientific, political, ecological, and philosophical ways in which we interact with it—I find stories like that of the Guna are not rare. Our physical environment is changing; our ethics need to as well. We can not continue forward with the business-as-usual use of fossil fuels that fulfill the needs of the few and destroy the future of too many. The tide comes in and the tide goes out, and each year that tide will come in further and further encroaching on life as we know it. Even if you don’t live on a coastline, this ebb and flow of the sun and the moon touches you. It touches all of us. Unfortunately some, more than others.

“The sun, moon, and earth don’t orbit in perfect circles. At times they’re closer to one another and at times farther away. They speed up and slow down. They wobble and yaw and dip and veer, and each time they do, it translates into a tidal event on earth. There are hundreds of these eccentricities, each calling out to the oceans—some loudly, some faintly, some repeating every four hours and others every twenty thousand years.” – Tides

An image of red sargassum seaweed invading Surfside beach.

The sargassum seaweed brought in by the tides on my childhood beach adventures has apparently become a problem since I left Texas. For the past ten years, the volume of sargassum has increased exponentially and started causing adverse economic and ecological effects in coastal communities. There is no consensus on why it has invaded the beaches, but it seems to be rising ocean temperatures and polluted, high nutrient runoff from the rivers that empty into the Gulf of Mexico. The Brazos River, which meets the ocean right where I grew up, is one of those rivers and is the most polluted watershed in the nation; it received over thirty million pounds of toxic waste according to a 2012 report.

Now I live in the pacific northwest, and I don’t think the ecology here could be more opposite than the one that created so many of my memories growing up. It may be a different coast I’m exploring now, but it’s the same tide I’m waiting on. It’s the same one that rushes every shore on the planet. And when the gravity of life weighs heavy on my spirit, you will find me on the Oregon coast near a tide pool, seeking the levity that only the sea can bring.

“The tide teaches us to live with mystery and complexity. It lives in the body of a mudshrimp, signaling when to swim and when to burrow. It lives in sandpipers, crabs, and whelks. It lives in the spirit of bores, in the prayers of monks. The tide is vibration, music, time.” – Jonathan White, Tides

Jonathan White has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Sierra, The Sun, Surfer’s Journal, Orion, and other publications. His first book, Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity, is a collection of interviews exploring our relationship with nature. White is an active marine conservationist, holds an MFA in creative nonfiction, and lives with his wife and son on a small island in Washington State.
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