My rockpool monitoring done I consider what to do. The day is not conducive to walking round the head and I am feeling somewhat flat and uninspired. However there is still coffee in the flask and it seems silly to head back home having driven out here, so I decide to walk to the next bay and see what is to be seen.
I arrive and install myself on one of the smoother, dryer rocks. Halfway into a second refill of my Lilliputian flask-cup, a commotion of chough cries catches my attention.
I look up: is that them over there, mobbing a buzzard? No, they’re just crows. But there, yes, I see them now, two of them, flying over the bay. I swing the camera up and am lucky to catch them in the viewfinder and even luckier that the somewhat erratic auto-focus works.
Choughs seem incapable of flying in a straightforward manner, instead they constantly swoop, dive and play and I wonder if, being intelligent corvids, they need to distract themselves from some lurking angst that would otherwise threaten to overwhelm them.
Looking at the photographs later I notice one of the birds even appears to have been flying upside-down when I snapped them; their fingered silhouettes look like the bird-shadows we used to cast as kids on a wall using a lamp and entwined fingers – apart from the fine curved beak that is.
The choughs are a welcome distraction, but once they are gone, I feel again at a bit of a loss. I cast around for a purpose and decide to try one of my photo-mosaics, based, not on a rockpool, but on an area of the sumptuous seaweed that lies uncovered by the low tide. Maybe I can find a patch which includes some of the blue-rayed limpets, which I know can be found here when the tide is low like this.
This endeavour requires a perilous expedition to the very edge of the sea, a stagger over a rocky and rockpooly shore, hidden beneath two to three inches of extraordinarily slippery laminaria seaweed. I manage, just, to keep bones and camera intact and make it to the shore, where it doesn’t take long to find a little group of grazing limpets. They always surprise me, how small and how bright they are, and how they shine out with male-engineered exactness from the soft curves of the kelp.
I backtrack, regain terra-firma, and am draining the last coffee dregs when I realise I haven’t found any new species for the species-record of the area, which I have been keeping for a while. When I first started coming here, a year or so ago, I used to find one or two new creatures each time, but of course it gets harder. There are no obviously accessible rockpools on this part of the shore, but plenty of large rocks, the underside of which can provide a rich habitat.
I generally don’t like lifting rocks when surveying as, although it is the only way to find some species, such as crabs, it is just so intrusive. As a species, we probe and pry, by day and night, shining touches, real or metaphorical, into every nook and cranny. It makes me feel uncomfortable, as if I am part of the problem rather than part of the solution. I sometimes wonder if a bunch of carefree kids, scrambling over the rocks, making a racket and larking about with a frisbee or at football, aren’t more easily forgiven and ignored by wildlife than one well-meaning probing, prying scientist.
Of course, the standard advice is to ‘carefully put rocks back exactly as you find them’, but how can this work? For example, I lift one large flat rock and ten or more tiny, juvenile shore crabs begin to move. Some freeze and play dead, others burrow and yet more scurry for cover. It is good to see such abundant life, but how do I put the rock back without crushing at least some of their delicate bodies?
Of course, I can’t. So instead, I place another stone under the edge of the rock I have lifted to act as a prop and trust the sea to arrange things better when it visits in an hour or so, (I can almost hear it tut-tutting at my ridiculous artifice). I leave all the other stones unturned and wander bank up the beach.
As I do so, drifting towards the path that leads back to the car park, I arrive at the strand line and turn to wander along it.
In my current frame of mind it is its bleakness that strikes me. It is a trainwreck. Everything broken, dead or dying. A pale crab with a missing leg is tumbled and half buried in torn weed. Numerous holdfasts, failing to live up to their name, have been ripped from the rock and lie in a tangled mess, along with numerous shells, empty of whatever recently animated them and called them home.
It all seems, today, to eloquently express the nature of life and its end, and I feel it crystalise a nascent feeling of sadness. But then, as I notice all this, I also begin to feel something new; a strange comfort in this uncompromising spectacle.
It is not an easy comfort. The tideline is bleak. Its message, as a metaphor for the fate of all that is personal, is undeniable. But its complete matter-of-factness is also somehow beautiful.
Everything dies and is recycled. Biology to chemistry to physics and maybe, sooner or later, back to biology. The strand line writes this large and shoves it in our faces, and maybe we are affronted, but there is nothing cruel about it. Or about the sea in general for that matter. It is just the way things are. If we let go of the personal, and the angst that accompanies it, and look at the big picture, maybe we can see an austere beauty.
And there is something else. Being out here and looking on the sea, or this tide line, is a powerful antidote to self-absorption. I am reminded of a line in W.H. Auden’s, The mirror and the sea, which Adam Nicolson quotes in his book, ‘The mighty dead: why Homer matters‘, which runs;
“All you are not stares back at what you are”
This line is looking at the tide line or out to sea. What does it mean? We can, maybe, project different meanings onto it; an existential dread certainly, but also, perhaps, acknowledgement of a beautiful, refreshing otherness.
Today it is the latter. I look out from where I am standing and nothing of me stares back. I like that. I feel emptied. Re-calibrated. Healthier. The cobwebs have been blown away. A wave-gale has blown through me: an icy dollop of sea water that has scoured me of all the deadening detritus of old thoughts and feelings.
I am put in my place. A nothing in the cosmos. Thank God!
I take a last look at the grey sea and head for home.