The Portland Phoenix

A View from the Hill: Life, unbalanced

The dream: Swimming alone underwater in some murky sea, holding in my hands the middle of a strong string or line. I can breathe. How do I look with gills?

Well, not completely alone. To one end of the line is attached a largish fish who tugs ineffectually from time to time. Attached to the other end is a fully grown Labrador retriever, not the usual black or brown but iridescent green, as if dyed with algae. 

We swim under a big commercial fishing vessel and surface next to it. The green dog climbs aboard the boat and stops to stare at three salty old fishermen sitting on the boat and speaking a foreign language. 

I lose track of the fish, though it still tugs, now weakly. The dog disappears, as if atomized, no longer attached to the line. I hide from the fishermen. Dream fades, ends. 

Pretty standard weird dream streaming, at least for me, though unusually detailed. I think I know where it came from.

I’ve been reading a book about a Scotsman who goes to the shore and builds elaborate tide pools and then spends months and years studying the bizarre, beautiful creatures – green crabs, beadlet anemones, barnacles, tube worms, periwinkles – that take up residence. 

They don’t exactly live in peace, but they do coexist in an anxious but orderly balance that, when any species is experimentally removed, can collapse into chaos until the complicated little ecosystem rebalances and a sort of equilibrium returns, although it is not the same.

“I had made it, but it made itself,” says the author and pool builder, Adam Nicholson. “… A self-enriching thing, with layers of significance and connection building in it over the weeks and months, and in that way turning into a model of the growth of life itself.”

I think my subconscious had created such a tidal pool for me, the green dog, and the fish to swim in, three species kept in fragile balance, connected, getting along, then moving on when a new element, the fishermen, is introduced. 

“The soul wants to be wet,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, whom Nicholson likes to quote, wrote in 500 BC. He thought permanence is illusory, the process of change is constant.

Awake, I put on my boots and head for Mackworth Island to see what is going on in the tide pools there. Not much, at least not to my unscientific eye. Lots of periwinkles, not much else. They seem fine. 

But that may not be so.

In one of Nicholson’s experiments, green crabs were introduced to a tank of periwinkles, a favored food. The periwinkles responded by making their shells thicker by a third to protect themselves. 

But carbon dioxide emitted since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has been absorbed by the sea and is turning it acid. Shells dissolve in acid. Periwinkles suffer. Green crabs proliferate. A delicate balance is broken. There is a new and different order in the pool. A kind of uneasy peace returns.

For now.

Last week I took my 10-year-old granddaughter to Boston, where we joined a 12-year-old granddaughter and her mom for a day at the Boston Museum of Science.

At the end of the day, while the cousins played, my daughter and I chatted in the museum cafe. She told me how deeply concerned she was for what the future holds for her daughter. We talked about the epidemic of psychological challenges young Americans are experiencing. 

Although I spend a lot of time overwhelmed by the same concerns for my five grandchildren and one great-grandchild – world war, civil war, climate collapse – I hypocritically took the Dad role and tried to reassure her.

“This is nothing new,” I told her feebly. “Mankind has been here before, time after time, and yet here we sit on a lovely day spent with the people we love, with life teeming all around us.” I tell her about the tidal pools in Scotland and their constant cycles of change and rebalancing. 

She doesn’t buy it. Neither do I. “Yeah, but this is different,” she said.

I know, I know. I’m so sorry.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.

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