“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of year, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”
— From “The Edge of the Sea,” by Rachel Carson
Here in Maine many of our place names are derived from Wabanaki words whose meanings are linked to unique features of the landscape or human activities that took place there hundreds and even thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s.
For example: “Pemsquodek” or “Passamaquoddy” means “bay where pollock are plentiful.” It’s also the name for the Native Americans who still live along the easternmost point of Maine’s coast. We can easily guess what placed them there. “Cobscook” means “at the waterfalls” — a reference to the dramatic tidal flows that occur in the small inlet of the much larger Bay of Fundy, which has the highest tide changes in the world. “Punamuhkatik,” or “Pembroke,” is “the place where “tomcod are caught” as well as the locale of the reversing falls created by the powerful currents of the tidal waters filling and draining in Cobscook Bay.
Looking out from our camping site at Cobscook State Park, then, on Memorial Day weekend, I can’t help but feel the presence of the indigenous people who were living here more than 10,000 years before me. The place names in this scenic corner of Downeast Maine are relics of their once-thriving coastal fishing culture. Being mindful of that teaches me to be humble, respectful of this place and the people who named it. It’s an invitation to live in what author John Hanson Mitchell termed “ceremonial time”: Remembering those who came before us and reflecting on how the landscape shaped them and how they might have shaped the landscape.
Low tide, Cobscook Bay, sunset: It sure beats watching some mindless sit-com or reality game show on a big-screen TV. At almost 20 feet of tidal change, the bay’s tidal flats are losing, or gaining, almost a foot of water height every hour. The incoming tides carry into the bay the cold and nutrient-rich ocean waters of the Gulf of Maine. The receding tides draw out nutrients and wastes deposited in the bay from feeding marine organisms and human activity. The twice daily flushing of the bay is a harsh but ideal habitat for mussels and clams, crabs, urchins, bloodworms, periwinkles and dog whelks and a whole host of other marine creatures and seaweeds that live here.
Thirty-eight years ago, in 1974 when I first came to Maine, the tidal changes occurring four times a day in the coves and bays of Maine’s 3,478-mile coastline were a revelation. I felt myself in the presence of mystery, of hidden powers I only vaguely understood to be somehow connected to the pull of the moon’s gravity. Later, I learned the sun plays a role, too, and the earth, and that it’s not just matter of gravity but also of inertia. But don’t ask me to explain it. I’m content to leave it in the realm of “mystery.”
More recently, I came across a magazine article describing what apparently is the prevailing scientific hypothesis of how our moon came into being. This explanation, too, is in the realm of mystery. A big mystery, one that for me is no less religious or meaningful than the biblical story of the six days of creation.
Here’s a brief synopsis: Some 4.5 billion years ago, not long after the proto-Earth was formed out of debris left over from the formation of the sun – a process of accretion that scientists believe might have taken up to 20 million years to complete — a Mars-sized object hit our planet in a glancing blow. Some of this object's mass merged with the Earth, other portions were ejected into space, along with fragments of the proto-Earth’s newly formed crust. These ejected fragments eventually coalesced into the moon.
Two conditions of Earth’s habitability were created in that mammoth collision: the moon with its gravitational pull creating our oceans’ tides; and the 23.5-degree tilt of our planet from what had been a vertical axis.
The pull of the orbiting moon also is what has kept our tilt stabilized at 23.5 degrees, which creates the seasons and distributes the sun’s radiation more evenly around the globe. Without seasons, the North and South poles would turn into a perpetual deep freeze, the equator would be hellishly hot and the diversity of life forms on Earth would be greatly diminished.
The regular rise and fall of sea level occurring with the tides creates an unique environment that many scientists believe played a crucial role in the evolution of life on Earth. In the intertidal zones life forms are exposed to periods of being immersed in water and other periods when they are exposed to air. Some organisms developed the ability to live outside of their aquatic habitat, their comfort zone. Over time, life moved from the sea to land. Some life forms choose to remain in the intertidal zone: Tough enough to survive in two distinct habitats that appear and disappear four times a day.
No wonder my first summer in Maine living on Southport Island I instinctively regarded the tidal flats as a primordial landscape.
Nearly four decades later, looking out over a cove of Cobscook Bay as the sun set and the bay's waters drained out into the Gulf of Maine, I felt that way still: The placid waters will soon give way to mudflats and barnacle-encrusted boulders draped in rockweed scattered here and there. A new world will emerge — one described so vividly by Rachel Carson in her 1955 book “The Edge of the Sea.” That became my bible during the summer of 1974 on Southport Island, its words enlivened and enriched by my chance discovery that Carson had made her home on Southport and no doubt had chronicled the very mudflats, tide pools and rocky beaches I was exploring on my own for the first time.
Carson’s book taught me the names of the creatures living in the tide pools and shallows of Maine’s rocky coastline. I learned to differentiate periwinkles from dog whelks, discovering to my surprise the latter are predatory carnivores that feed on mussels and barnacles. The mystery of the globular bleached shells I’d find broken apart in the upper tidal zone was solved when I saw a hovering seagull drop something to the rocks below and then watched it feast on morsels of sea urchin meat exposed when its spiny greenish shell broke apart. Those white mystery shells were simply bleached shards of unlucky urchins exposed in the low tide. Lifting up strands of rockweed in the mid-to-lower tidal zones I saw how nicely they sheltered tiny crabs and even baby lobsters.
Sounds of seepage and seagulls harking, sounds of spent waves and seawater creeping landward. All those Southport Island memories came rushing back to me faster than an advancing tide, a counterpoint to the fast-ebbing tide my wife and I watched as the sun set at Cobscook Bay State Park: Linda glancing occasionally up from the book she was reading, I standing next to my camera on a tripod waiting for the moment when heart and mind aligned themselves with all that was before me.