Growing up in the Twin Ports of Minnesota and Wisconsin, I was often exposed to the chilling brutality, and lashing beauty, of the waves of Lake Superior.
The Ojibwe called Lake Superior kitchi-gami, meaning “great sea”. With the largest surface area of any freshwater body in the world, if one looks outwards from the shores of either Wisconsin Point or Canal Park, the lake can truly appear as an ocean—vast and unbroken as the sky. On a vicious, windy day, bundled well in a thick coat and set on just the right rock, observing the lake can be a meditative, absolving experience, and it’s one I indulged in quite often. There’s no brine or scent of life in the lake; just her coldness, and clattering foams, like a land of liquid angry snow. Sitting alone on those shores are some of my most peaceful, quiet memories. Sometimes, I go there in my mind, and I can smell the crisp mist.
Waves that chop and peak when unruly. A color more resembling iron in winter. A heavy, thudding roar. The visage of the lake—if it could be described with a single word—is flinty. Hard and unyielding, like the gaze of a tiger or Cellini’s defiant Perseus. With temperatures in the region that can hit -40℉ with windchill, this stoic, saltless sea, can display a unique form of frigid savagery. An old saying rises up: “Lake Superior seldom gives up her dead”. This axiom, sounding like the stuff of grim tall tales, has a surprising basis in truth. Due to the unusually low temperature of the water, the cold functions as a sterilizer, inhibiting bacterial growth. Decaying bodies, lost in the waves, need feeding bacteria to generate gases to float. Therefore, without the bacteria feeding and thriving, the heavy lake holds down any and all souls. In Lake Superior is a graveyard of men, women, children, and ships. Kitchi-gami plays for keeps, giving little up.
I swam in those waters, I walked along those coarse and rock laden shores and picked up pieces of smoky glass and smooth small stones. One of my uncles, who ran a booth at Minnesota’s Renaissance Faire for some decades called Wizard’s Wax Works, used the driftwood tossed up along Wisconsin Point to mold his fantasy wax figures on. In the spring and summer as a family we’d all go to the point and collect these extravagant burled and gnarled wood pieces, and stack them in the back of the van and take them home. Beneath a small heating lamp in my grandparents basement my uncle would push and pull dragons and wizards, unicorns and fish and bears out the wax, and merge and coil them about the driftwood. Kitchi-gami, seemingly against her character, also grants gifts.
And sometimes the mad lake tries to kill you. It almost took me, one summer when I was a child. I was wearing little green shoes, full of tiny pink, blue, and white flowers. Playing down by the water at Canal Park, near the lighthouse, a massive wave enveloped me and nearly swept me out. In my memory, I remember the smack and crush, and the sudden roll of the world being turned upside down as I was flung inside the watery drum. My uncle saved me (a different uncle, not my uncle who forged creatures from wax to driftwood) and after it was made clear that I wasn’t dead and drowned, I was carried back up the rocks to the van in the parking lot, and I was set down in the back, drenched and dazed. My older cousin, excited by the event, gave me a once over and exclaimed, “Look! She’s lost a shoe!” The great lake that day had almost swallowed me up. I was toweled off, and sent back out to play to supposedly laugh in the face of death. Kitchi-gami, swung her fist, but missed.
The water woos me; it’s always been this way. Living in Seattle now some of my favorite things to do are to take the ferries or go to the docks and watch the Pacific waters rising in, flowing out. Always in motion (perhaps that’s why I love the water, for it resembles my mind) scientific studies say I love the water because it lowers my cortisol levels when I see it, smell it taste it touch it; that we humans always seek it, are soothed by it; that it is a reflection of our bodies and our lives. The same percentage of salt that exists in our blood exists in the ocean—but I prefer a poet’s view. I look out at the unending blue and think, Winter never rots in this sky.
So we all tend to be drawn to the waters. For me, the pull of the great blue bodies is that they change. The oceans, lakes, rivers, and seas have their own unique patterns and their own processes of time. For me, it’s all about the tides and waves—not the heart or head or belly or feet—but the lungs, that breathing, that comb and swell and yaw. Taking the hours to be witness to that slow, unwavering rhythm of up and down, ascent and descent, high and low, is a day well spent, a very good day indeed. This is what Johnathan White’s book Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean is about. You set out your front door on a wave and it circles the globe, and with prowess and gentleness and speed, it carries you back home.
“My interest in tides springs from a fascination with the ocean. I grew up on the southern California coast, surfing, diving, sailing, fishing. I built a twenty-six-foot sloop after college and sailed it for a couple of years in the Atlantic and Caribbean, making several offshore passages. In the early 1980s, at twenty-five, I bought a leaky old sixty-five-foot wooden schooner, Crusader, and founded a non-profit educational organization, Resource Institute. For eleven years we sailed Crusader off the Northwest Coast, from Seattle to Alaska, around Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. We conducted weeklong seminars afloat on topics ranging from natural history, photography, and whale research to psychology, music, poetry, and November Coast Native art, culture, and mythology. […] Six or eight participants from across the country – sometimes from around the world – would join us at a coastal town, and we’d sail off, often not seeing another human settlement until seminar’s end.
It was a wonderfully adventurous eleven years, but one of the not-so-wonderful adventures was going aground on a large tide in Alaska’s Kalinin Bay.”Johnathan White, from Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean
Following White’s example, I opened this review with my own experiences of life by the waves, one of which involved me nearly getting swept out. White, in a similarly uncomfortable vein, opens his book with an excellent tale of running aground in mud. An unexpected turn of tides left him and his crew completely stranded in the Kalinin Bay. At a loss, White went to the pilothouse and grabbed for the tide chart, hoping the news would be good—but it wasn’t. The schooner Crusader had gone aground at peak high tide; that left White and his hapless crew of passengers stuck for at least nine to ten hours, and during those hours, White knew Crusader would continue to sink deeper and deeper into the mud. “Over the hours, I watched Crusader drop like a fatally wounded animal, first to her knees, then all fours, and finally onto her side. She filled chest-high with water. When the tide reversed, all seventy tons of her were stuck in the mud and didn’t want to come back up.”
The crew was shuttled ashore via small boats, leaving only White and one other crew member aboard the floundering ship. Fruits bobbed in the watery blue, books flapped about like birds. They pumped and pumped the water to what felt like no avail, White called the Coast Guard, it seemed all was lost and that he would have to say goodbye. But then, something changed. The tide, a silent avenger, rose, and the Crusader was jogged loose and floating again in little over a minute. 24 hours stuck in the salty sludge and in under two minutes Crusader was free. White never forgot. That event changed him, and he vowed to learn more about the tides, the oceans and the seas and their rhythms and harmonies. A masterful work of ensnaring prose, illuminating discoveries, and good old journalism, Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean is Johnathan White’s journey around the world, and wherever he goes, the waves give chase.
With introduction, broken into nine chapters (there is a lovely foreword by Peter Matthiessen that I would recommend not skipping) White has undertaken a deep exploration of the tides and their many intricate dances. Perusing topics such as the first tide theories by renown figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Zakariya Qazvini, to the Ptolemy-Aristotelian astronomies of the Mediterranean world, White delves into a rich history of human fascination—and bafflement—with the tides. There is a bouquet here of information, shaped by White’s elegant pen; a reader can feel at ease sailing along the wending of history, as though in the hands of a veteran captain. White searches for the tidal secrets both scholastically and by foot, traveling to famous sites like Mont Saint-Michel in France; China’s Qiantang River; Venice, Italy; and the Eling Tide Mill in Southampton, just north of the Isle of Wight in the English Channel. In these fervent voyages of the mind and heart, White performs a series of dances of his own: with the moon and sun, with semipalmated sandpipers and mudshrimp, with tidal bores, with technologies designed to harvest tidal energies, with massive gates rising from out the sea hoping to hold them off. It is a stellar work of writing, peppered with visual treats. Helpful photographs and diagrams make Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean an immersive, decadent read.
And then there’s Johnathan White, with a childlike sense of awe that really brings animation to the journaling of his journey. White is a fine writer, expertly rendering scenes, a reader gets to really chew the senses: tactile, taste, smell, sound, sight, stream of consciousness, musings. A reader can clearly feel the tiny sandpiper in their cupped hands, can hear the roar of the upcoming bore, can know the slosh of high tide in Venice. The book is wonderfully thought through, with clean transitions and engaging topics.
When one stands with the ocean, there is often an overwhelming feeling that sweeps over, a feeling of great encapsulation and interconnectedness. John Steinbeck states it well in his story The Log from the Sea of Cortez, “It’s a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious… is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable…. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” This quote, stationed at the beginning of the first chapter of White’s Tides, encompasses what the oceans and their cycles are really about: the understanding that all things are bound together, and that all things are dependent upon this binding. From this, it is easy to see what White is really exploring throughout his voyages with the tides, is influence. How one thing shapes another thing and how that thing shapes another, and another and another, so on and so on, possibly ad infinitum. The discovery of this totality of union, of this naturalist perspective, can be an aid in understanding and coping with the events of the modern day. Johnathan White’s Tides is a welcome balm against stringent individualism—stringent individualism being the belief of existence of one inside a vacuum—and a much needed lesson of balance, connection, and patience, in time.
It has been a tough year. With the coronavirus pandemic biting at our heels, and the terrible losses for human rights, 2020 seems a year of high highs, and low lows. Here we all are, caught in the tides; some of us are run aground, lodged in mud, others of us are being swept out. This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about cycles, about the rolling circle that is life. Some might describe it as a hamster wheel—but, I struggle to have a view so nihilistic. I sense it more as a phasing, that life has us crest, grow, peak, shrink, shrivel, go dark, and retry. That my time here exists beyond my basic body, and that we will all roll onward into the future, repeating these seven fundamental forms in some manner, matter, or way. That we are always part of a shifting mold. If we view humanity as a collection of all that are human, and perhaps, even some that are little less, or little more, we can view ourselves as an ocean, and all oceans have their tides, tides both consistent and changing.
In times like these, it is helpful to remember that there have always been times like these. One day as a child, a wave pounded and almost swallowed me up.
It could have swallowed me, but it didn’t. Kitchi-gami surely didn’t let me go that day, she simply missed her mark. I toweled off, and kept on playing. Because the wave goes out, as surely as it comes back in. The wheeling ring never stops, though the complications and complexities are many and wild.
Five out of five stars for Johnathan White’s Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean.
Thank you for the voyage.
The featured image is of Le Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France. It is a tidal island and mainland commune, the fantastic abbey being of Romanesque architectural design, and is only accessible at low tide, for at high tide the waters sweep in and flood the sand strip. It is visited by more than 3 million people each year.