Barnacles

by Jim Krosschell

Photo by Christina Schmidt

        Every once in a while, say a couple of times a month, I approach the far end of my daily walk, Crockett’s Beach or Lucia Beach or the town landing at Ash Point, and instead of turning around for home, I say, “What the hell, I’m going for it.” Such a day is always sunny (I don’t tempt fate with facts like wet and slippery), and in its afterglow I never remember if the trigger had been a particular happiness, or a slight depression, but sometimes going home along the shore is just the answer. It is nearly pure pleasure.
        The terrain on this stretch of the coast of Maine presents a fine challenge. It’s basically all rock, in every size and shape and potential for acrobatics – gravel, small stones, boulders that are round and sharp, medium and large, chunks of man-laid rip-rap, huge tongues of pink-granite ledge slanting into the bay – and the rockweed is slick and slippery, and the one place for easy walking is a so-called shingle beach, revealing its sand only at low tide. I test myself by constant motion, allowing only a split second to choose a place for the next footfall, something reasonably flat, stable and dry, not dark with algae or slippery with snails. I pretend to have retained the reflexes and quick thinking and balance of a teenager.
        Rock-hopping is therapy of the highest and cheapest order. I’m focused completely on the present, the swinging gap between left foot and right foot, for example, and the piercing smell of rotting rockweed. Nothing extraneous sneaks in. Although recently, transference of weight and mood has become a little less assured. There’s now a small deductible to pay.
        One of my three shore walks, the shortest and easiest, returns home from Crocketts Beach, with its several hundred yards of shingle, and sand at low tide. The second, the longest, extends for a nearly a mile south from Ash Point, former village, now just a collection of houses and a town landing bulked up with rip-rap, to Lucia Beach, a tiny exquisite pocket of sand and big boulders, formerly public, now private and ringed with summer houses like brokers at a Bloomberg terminal.
        The third walk is the one that for a few years now I’ve been attempting only at low tide, having evolved from tempting fate to respecting it. It goes north from Ash Point, and part of that stretch, the glorious part, and the part with a little danger, runs alongside conservation land. I can sit on a ledge and see no sign of civilization but the occasional boat on the bay, as if I were indeed alone and wildly free. The bay and its islands spread wide in front, and the woods to the sides and in back hold me tight, and just below my feet, the intertidal zone rolls and roils. This place gives me an indescribable joy; I mean, I can describe the place but the words fall far short of the emotion. Or is a place you love an emotion all by its un-literate self?
        At high tide, the waves wash directly onto the ledge. The break between land and water is sharp, between the place where we live and the place whence we came. I look out, forgetting for the moment the way we’re bull-dozing the land and acidifying the ocean. I’m left with pure imagination and dream and the fierce emptiness of a god-space. Joy is ethereal. The spirit persists forever. Death is only a concept. I can, and do, look out to sea for salvation, as if I could be religious.
        At low tide, however, the rockweed and the snails and the barnacles are exposed, and then I think of what swirls and creeps within arm’s length: the hundreds of crabs and baby lobsters hiding in the fronds, the thousands of their cousins the barnacles, the millions of eggs and sperm expensed without creating anything, the billions of protozoa and plankton eating and being eaten. Here there is little distinction between heaven and earth, God and human, life and death. They wash through each other twice a day. Here, joy has little to do with the ethereal. It’s finding and understanding your place, isn’t it? It’s being tied to place – like a barnacle by glue, like a wanderer at last listening to instinct – without the burden of religion. Whether it’s love for a child or sex with a partner, a Bach recital in Christ Church or Michelangelo’s David, the joy of being in place relieves the curse of consciousness and the groans of salvation. Joy doesn’t waft around you, it grabs you. You’re between worlds and of a world. For the moment you don’t have to wander, or wonder.
        I used to be more of a high-tide person. I hoped better than I coped. But I’ve had a close encounter with barnacles. Human life looks sexier from below.
        Unlike me, barnacles get their kicks at high tide. Larva float around, looking for a suitable place to settle and cement themselves for life. Adults open the plates that cover their soft parts and wave feathery appendages to trap food. They produce egg masses numbering in the hundreds of thousands several times a year, but even though they are hermaphroditic, the eggs must be fertilized. A neighbor obliges, extending for several inches a penis that, relative to body size, is the longest in the animal world.
        At low tide, however, the barnacle closes up, as immobile and impenetrable and sharp-edged as a Christian fanatic bent on heaven. Only snails and mollusks will eat a barnacle, and I wonder how hard they try, given the strength of the shells. Indeed, I wonder if barnacles serve any distinctive purpose in the world, except as a curse to the shipping industry, and as a metaphor to unwary wanderers who scrape their knees after a slip on the rocks.
        No, it’s not true, at least for me. Barnacles played a key role in one of the great dramas of science. In the early 1850s, between The Voyage of the Beagle and On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin published a four-volume monograph on barnacles, two volumes on living species and two on fossil remains. He had studied them for eight years, to understand one species thoroughly, he said. But our modern-day therapists think he was gathering strength for the momentous changes he was about to unleash. He was terribly sick during this period, too, not surprising for a 19th-century man suspecting that the logical result of his research on evolution would be the death of God. And that’s the great purpose I want to praise. This 21st-century man owes a great debt to Darwin and the barnacle, for release from the tyranny of religion.
        Or so I’d like to think. Just the way I say “21st-century man” is a give-away. We think we’re so evolved, yet our appetites are destroying species, including our own. What kind of evolution is this? What species ignores its own destruction? And we hide away from it in screens, heads in The Cloud. The joy of living, which to me means a deep rush of pleasure from gut to brain, an awakening of the long view of Soul, now seems to depend on strangers performing tricks on Facebook and movies castrated by special effects. It’s likely we’re merely exchanging tyrannies, religion for self-gratification.
***
        I’m attempting the shore route north from Ash Point. The first part is easy: a stretch of small stones piled in waves by the tides, easy to walk on, no balancing required. But then the conservation land starts and I see the crevices cut deeply into the granite ledge and my heart quickens. I have to decide a course. Well past the days of traversing those crevices directly, I have two choices: bypass them and take the safer deer path on the bank above, or go around them at sea level, where they open up to the ocean. I’m only 64 years old. I don’t have to give up yet.
        I get around the first ledge with little problem, for several rocks poke through the seaweed, like old men going bald, and I step on their heads. The second cleft, however….slippery rockweed covers almost all footholds, and the sticky balance I used to flaunt with such ease has become friable, and it seems to take forever to creep around the projection. At last I see a place that seems safe, dry, and up-sloping, and in relief and abandon I go for it, left foot first, the foothold seems solid, so I swing the right foot around, and bam! In an instant I’m sprawled on the rock, face-down, splayed like a fossil on a tray. My chin has banged down with force. I’ve literally fallen on my face.
        No one sees me but a dead God. I could have been killed, from this mere slip on a snail. And from where in the future will death come, a gun, a drunk driver, a metastasis? The difference between life and death in this inter-tidal zone is suddenly nearly indistinguishable. There’s nothing like blood leaking from head and knees and elbows to compel enlightenment. I slowly turn over, and the sun is full on my soft parts and and I’m open to the air, the human source of oxygen and food and sensation. I could wave my appendages for help, but there is no help anywhere, human or divine, no rescuing arms, no comforting dabs of iodine, no carapace of bandages, and absence for the moment has un-evolved me. I’m shocked and embraced by rock. My shell has broken open. The wild shore comforts me. My brain and my body have come together again. I led with my chin.
***
        In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard asks in her terrifying chapter “Fecundity,” “What if God has the same affectionate disregard for us that we have for barnacles?” That would be awfully nice, she seems to say, for the kind of Pilgrim who is not quite ready to give up on his God, who needs to keep his spirits up and his eyes on the prize. In my reality, in a world that I see burning from ambition and selfishness, any divine affection is long gone. We are no longer loved from above; when love comes, it’s from across, around, below, from barnacles, for example. “Disregard” has evolved into “un-regard.” Dillard continues, “Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me. This is easy to write, easy to read, and hard to believe. The words are simple, the concept clear – but you don’t believe it, do you? Nor do I. How could I, when we are both so lovable? Are my values then so diametrically opposed to those that nature preserves? This is the key point.”
        But I do believe it. My values will not oppose my genes. I try to preserve my nature by walking on the shore, for physical therapy now as well as mental remodeling. I’m in rehab, recovering from youth. I stop a lot to stare at the fecundity of surf. I plan each step on the rocks more carefully, I practice my balance as if I’m a Buddhist in training, as if equipoise is a skill that can be honed. I hope it can be. I hope I can forgo the deer path for a few more years, but if barnacles must scrape and if rocks must wobble, if old age is a series of inevitable losses, let me at least work on balancing the soul.
        Annie Dillard once more: “I have to acknowledge that the sea is a cup of death and the land is a stained altar stone.” And that’s me in between, rejoicing and vulnerable, a pilgrim regressed.