Hidden worlds revealed by the ebbing tides
Cyclic al ebbing water reveals otherwise hidden worlds. Tiffany Francis goes with the flow, telling us what she finds when the shore shares its secrets.
Last winter, we flew to the western shores of India to escape the lethargy of Britain in late February. Each day the temperature climbed to 30°C, and we spent our time slicing through the streets on a dusty moped, past stray dogs and sacred cows adorned with f lowers, our senses consumed by sunlight and spiced turmeric. It was a beautiful and chaotic place, but each evening, almost defeated by the noise and heat of the day, we would wander down to the shore and swim in the wild Arabian Sea, where the cool, salty waters washed away the dirt and ospreys circled through the sky above us in search of fish.
The air here was peaceful and still, but the waves pushed down on the shore in an endless rhythm, arriving and departing, embracing and withdrawing. We tried to stand against the force of the waves, but resistance was pointless. We were thrown into the water and carried back to the sand like driftwood. Trying to stand against the tide was like trying to stop time; better to f loat through it, uncontrolled, and embrace the rhythm of the water. We relaxed our bodies and the sea lifted us high into the air and back down to earth, ready to repeat that eternal cycle again and again and again.
Ever since the earth and moon were formed around 4.5 billion years ago they have been engaged in a cosmic waltz, where the moon orbits the earth, and the earth moves around the sun. As the moon orbits the earth, its gravitational pull causes the closest side of the ocean to rise up in a tidal bulge; at the same time, the earth spins and creates a centrifugal force – the same that pushes us away from the centre of a playground roundabout – causing a second tidal bulge on the farthest side from the moon. This is why we have two tides each day – one is pulled up by the moon, the other pushed away by the earth.
Our tides reveal the secrets of the ocean, but only for a while. They stretch back to expose the shells and stones and tiny creatures that live on the seabed and then come again to hide it all away like an emerald cloak. The tide is nature’s timekeeper, and both humans and other animals have adapted their lives to its rhythms, from calendar systems to fertility cycles. Studies of Floridian fiddler crabs show that individuals are most active when the tide is out, even when they are in a laboratory miles away from the shore. We may not all be werewolves, but research suggests lunar tides have a greater influence on our lives than we might think.
Learning to wait
Just as tides reveal new worlds, they can also keep secret places to themselves. Small coves and coastal islands can be cut off when the tide rises, and causeways that were once pleasant walkways become inaccessible to those without boats or unimogs (amphibious vehicles that can drive through water). It is good for the modern human to lose control sometimes; we are so used to having our own way, instant access to friends, places, pictures, music, words; shaping and bending the natural world to suit our own requirements. The tide forces us to wait, to turn around, change our plans and let ourselves be subject to something else’s schedule, waiting for the water to sweep back and let us share its secrets once more. Each summer we travel to Langstone Harbour on the Hampshire coast to collect seaweed and driftwood. There is an eighteenth- century mill on the sea wall that overlooks the water, and on warm evenings the sun glows across the harbour and in through the windows. At low tide the Langstone shore is a treasure trove of shells, cuttlefish bones and pebbles, driftwood seasoned by the saltwater, perfect for crafting at home; we use twine to make windchimes out of the natural f lotsam. All is lost at high tide, our hoard abandoned on the seabed; then we have no choice but to drink cider and watch the pink evening sky instead. There is no arguing with the ocean. When the tide calls time, there is nothing left to do but retreat and enjoy the view.