To See What We Could See
On Dutton Island, last week, we walked out to the little bridge that connects the causeway to the island. We visit it often to check the tide and observe the sky reflected on the intracoastal waters when it is high. But this day, it was low, so the water under the bridge amounted to little more than puddles amid oyster beds standing out from the unwalkable muddy floor of the creek. The black marsh mud seems nearer to liquid than solid, and wetested it by lobbing, in turns, limestone rocks at it. They “SPLAT” as they landed beneath the bridge, sending up a fireworks show of liquidy mud flecks with each descent. The rocks pockmarked the surface of the mud, leaving little craters behind. The children, watching the craters, noticed the mud closing around their rocks, the marsh slowly swallowing them up. Very slowly. We observed them one by one disappear into the black. That is how it all began.
At first glance, the black mud of the marsh at low tide possesses a sort of stricken look. A desiccated fish skeleton lays atop the mud. The bare oysters have a sharp bony look to them. It is an image of lack: the murky life-giving brackish of the intracoastal is missing, leaving only pathetic little puddles in its wake. If we are not careful, we might mistake this lack for a kind of deadness, like those bleak images of the surface of the moon. No life teems in those craters. The only thing that moves that dead dust are winds stirred up out of the void, and, only once, the curious tread of astronauts’ boots. A tumbleweed might not look so out of place on that silent moonscape, rolling from nowhere to nowhere else, emphasizing the yawning emptiness of the environment.
Not so in our marsh, though. We began by watching stones sink, and before we knew it, we noticed the oysters spitting! They do this at high tide too, filter-feeding all the livelong day; but, fully submerged, they hide their crass habit from amused lookers-on like us until the water level dips low enough to bare their shells to the open air. We marveled at them! We’d stare and wait, unsure which one might squirt next, hoping it was one in our line of sight, scanning the scene so we didn’t miss it. It’s a game of patience and focus, drawing us into this world apart from our own, searching for signs of life in this little universe beneath the bridge. It didn’t take long then for more to reveal itself to us now that we were on the lookout. We crossed to the other side of the bridge where more oyster beds awaited an audience. On that southern side, the sun lit up the shallow mud puddles, spotlighting dozens of tiny minnows darting beneath the surface, nibbling around in the muck for lunch. They shimmered in the sunlight. Only peels of gleeful laughter and excited directives to “Look!” broke the focused quiet of their vigil.
Finally, the closing act took the stage: a hungry blue crab skittered under the water. He took more effort to follow as his feeding strategy involved hiding in rocky shadows and stirring up clouds of silt in the water to disguise himself from choice minnows. He put on a hilarious show though, sideways-crawling here, then there, scooping whatever his pincers could grasp into his munching maw. He’d disappear for a moment and then one of the children would see him reappear a moment later.
It was like those pictures that at first appear as a strange out-of-focus pattern and only with the softening of our gaze does a complex 3D image emerge from the pattern. What seemed at first to be a quiet and still scene had transformed after a half-hour into a magnificent performance from a whole cast of characters. We were transfixed theater-goers with balcony seats by the end, watching oysters spitting, minnows darting, crabs scuttling, and even the mud, seemingly alive, swallowing up our offerings. The scene, of course, did not change merely once we started looking. The marsh buzzes with life whether we are there to witness it or not. The world is alive regardless of our awareness. Author Annie Dillard, in her Walden-esque nonfiction narrative of time spent immersed in the natural wonders of Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, observes:
“Nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair. A fish flashes then dissolves into the water before my eyes like so much salt. Deer apparently ascend bodily into heaven; the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration; they say of nature that it conceals with a grand nonchalance, and they say of vision that it is a deliberate gift, the revelation of a dancer who for my eyes only flings away her seven veils. For nature does reveal as well as conceal: now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do.”
She continues in a prolonged meditation on Seeing. “It’s all a matter of keeping your eyes open,” she decides.
When we sit and wait and watch, when we discard our expectations and open ourselves up to what else is there, we find there is always more that we didn’t know about before. And if we are like the Outside Kids, we will meet these discoveries with delight! So much happens beneath the surface, perhaps even more than happens above. “Launch into the deep,” Dillard quotes the philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul, “and you shall see.”