Saturday, October 18, 2014

Charybdis: Moved by the Tides

I watched the tide come in today. It was an unplanned entertainment; one minute I'm piloting my green-and-rust pickup and trailer-load of kayaks along Ozello Trail, a narrow thread of asphalt strung through a dozen small islands off Florida's west coast, the next, I'm standing on a level, rocky plain watching the glistening edge of the Gulf of Mexico slithering around my toes.
It was late afternoon and I was in the quiet coastal region known as the Suncoast Keys. Unlike the Atlantic coast, where sloped beaches and a steady pulse of waves mask the rising water line, tides here advance quickly across the table-flat terrain. From a distance, the approaching water moves like a sliding sheet of glass. But up close, we see it’s more complicated than that—and much more interesting.

Behind a dense tussock of saw grass I spotted a line of raccoon tracks.  I stooped for a closer look. As I did, a thin veneer of sea water slipped up and quickly filled each track, one toe-print at a time. In a few minutes, these tracks along with traces of countless other life-defining moments in countless tiny lives will be washed away. Charybdis was exhaling and she holds her breath for no man.
There is something very special about myths like Charybdis, the Greek goddess of tides. Her story gives us an image of the land as a living, breathing being—an image that’s far more powerful than any telling of the science.  To the Greeks, tides were not the rising and falling of sea level, but the land itself rising and dipping into the sea. It was the slowly heaving breast of Charybdis. It’s a beautiful image that has stayed with me since I first learned it in grade school. With our culture becoming increasingly disconnected from nature, it seems a worthwhile exercise to conjure the image of Charybdis once in a while and imagine the world as a living, breathing being.

Ozello. Charybdis inhales.
A glass-smooth sea slowly transforms into a fractured, rocky plain. Networks of miniature streams form on the freshly exposed rocks. The newborn rivulets are precocious; born moving, slowly at first, but soon quickening into tiny torrents chasing the retreating sea. As the water continues dropping, the channels get narrower and faster. Finally, nothing remains but a labyrinth of cracks— tiny arroyos in a flat-rock desert, awaiting the next flash-flood of life-giving water.
Cedar Key. Charybdis exhales.
It’s an evening in springtime. Slivers of moonlight flash like tiny comets across the water. As the sea creeps landward, a male horseshoe crab becomes excited. He patrols the shallow water, swimming parallel to the shore. Charybdis is nearing the end of her exhalation. A female crab makes her way toward the beach. The alert male intercepts her and climbs onto her back. He clasps her shell with special appendages. A hundred renditions of this passion play are happening up and down the beach. Some females have as many as a half dozen males in tow. Just above the highest tide, the female burrows into the sand and lays eggs. At the same time, the males deposit their sperm onto her eggs. For 550 million years, horseshoe crabs have felt the tug of the full moon and the warmth of Charybdis breath.
Sam’s Bayou, Homosassa River. Charybdis inhales.
The freshly exposed rocks are covered with nutritious plankton—a banquet for many small species. But, time is limited. This unique landscape with all its bounty will wash away with the next tide. Denizens of this intertidal world must work fast. Fiddler crabs emerge from chimneyed burrows and scramble across the mud eagerly sucking plankton and leaving bb sized pellets of filtered sand in their wake. Their journey across the sand is marked by a series of these piles of sand pebbles—tiny cairns, marking the way for any who wish to follow.
Marineland.  Charybdis inhales
The sea recedes, revealing a low shelf of dark, loamy rocks. They are random and yet there is vague symmetry to their placement. What are they telling us? What geomancers hand cast them and what did he see in them? He finds meaning in the arrangement of the stones. Others decipher ancient glyphs in the stones themselves. The rich, dark brown humus nearly reeks of the ancient forest. It is their winnowed remains. Every frivolous bit was discarded; the water pressed from every cell. Chlorophyll of a tree compressed into a molecule. Every animal and every living thing reduced to their essence. Pressed, packaged and stored in the rock. Though the geomancer did not cast them, he reads them well.
 Fernandina Beach.  Charybdis exhales
The goddess loves her finery. She adorns herself with gifts brought by her lover Poseidon, god of the sea. When they were young, Poseidon would impress Charybdis with his craftsmanship, pounding beautiful sculptures from the only material at hand—beach stone. As he aged, the sea became more complex. Multitudes of sea creatures provided an endless selection of baubles and gifts to offer Charybdis. Sea shells, starfish, sand dollars, urchins and beautifully formed bits of bone and cartilage lay thick at her feet. Later still, as the land became inhabited, the gifts brought by the sea grew to include exotic seeds and woods from distant lands. Today, the sea is an old man. He still delivers gifts to his beloved, but they reveal his declining health. Instead of shells and bones and polished wood, he brings tacky trinkets, the cast-off of infidels, wayward buoys, discarded traps, Styrofoam, chemicals, oil and assorted plastic gimcrack from toy soldiers to oil drums. It hurts the sea to know he has little to give but costume jewelry.
Ozello. Charybdis coughs
Nutrient rich water seeps through the saw grass and laps against the rotting stumps of recently dead palms. Tiny acorn barnacles hoist their feathery legs from cone-shaped shells, seining the water for microscopic plankton. Like French girls standing on the rubble, waving flags to their liberators, the barnacles stand on the decaying remains of fallen trees and wave. They celebrate their rescue from the desiccating sun, drinking deeply the returning nutrient water. They know only the moment and think nothing of the carnage around them.
Fenholloway River.  Charybdis gasps
There is little activity on the shores of this, a river long-since sacrificed to a pulp mill. A few hardy plants cling to the upper beach while a destitute population of small animals rummage through the wreckage. They have little to fear from otters or raccoons.

Charybdis sighs