The moon is only first quarter, but the tide was low as my bus drove into Seattle. The cool breeze off the Sound brought in that parfum de la mer–a mixture of salt, sea, and tideflat–that sends me a half century back in time. I took a deep breath, a slow breath, and I stepped off my Seattle bus to stand in the California sunshine, grinning, soiled to the knees with mud, and wearing only one shoe.
I grew up on San Pablo Bay. When my friends and I sat quietly, we might hear a seal bark from out on the breakwater. At night, as I lay in bed, the fog rolled across my world like a feather-filled duvet and the foghorns across the water would call out, mourning the losses of ships on their shoals, warning others away with song and lamp.
Across the street from my house was a salt marsh. It was a trackless fen that shimmered in the sun, bright with the song of redwings hanging on the cattails, but at night it whispered warnings as hidden predators moved through the rushes. In my youngest days, we never ventured into the marsh. It was a place of mystery, of monsters. It was the place our cats went to die and whose bones lay baking in the mud beneath the summer sun.
Instead, we played at the shore, before it was all purchased and sold. We’d walk the pebbled strand, the bay’s gentle wavelets shushing at our exuberance. We’d upturn stones to play with the fiddler crabs, daring them to pinch our water-pruned fingers. We’d poke at anemones to make them squirt. We’d study the barnacles that studded the rocks, pluck the strings of mussels that hung on the pilings, and try to remove the chitons that clung to boulders like living shields. We whipped each other with ropes of brown kelp and dared each other to eat the green seaweed that waved in the tidepools.
Later, though, as our legs grew longer, we grew brave and brash. Dressed in cutoff jeans, white t-shirts, and hi-top PF Flyers, we’d grab a fallen branch of eucalyptus for a walking stick and walk out into the fen. The waters were warm with sunshine as they seeped toward the bay. We would crouch to study the striders that walked the surface on dimples of light, the oarsmen that swum beneath them in the clear shallows. We’d capture pollywogs amid the algae and bring them home in a jar to raise to frog-hood. We’d rush in a mad, splashing scramble to catch a garter snake that tried to escape our clumsy-footed approach.
Sometimes we even braved the pools that stood between the stands of cattail and the hummocks of saw-edged pampas. The water was only inches deep, but the fawn-colored mud was soft. We’d step in and be up to our ankles, next to our calves. Another step would find us knee-deep, our feet finding the cold, oily muck beneath the surface silt. When we pulled our feet from the sucking mire they came up covered in black and smelling of peat and salt and sea. Often enough, our foot would come up bare, our shoe left behind, lost forever. When developers drained the fen and built their houses, they must have found a thousand shoes, boys’, size 5.
The smell of the marsh, the seaweed, the flats–it’s a powerful trigger for me. Like the clean scent of sun on summer wheatgrass, the earthy aroma of rain in the redwoods, and the metallic tang of wind-whipped sand, low-tide is a time machine that transports me from wherever I am to the Bay of San Pablo, to a time when the world was quiet, and a place where my mind could lose itself in the marvel of sunlight glinting from a dragonfly’s wing.
Breathe deeply. Breathe slowly. And remember.