Sunday, October 4, 2015

High Tide at Doran Beach

Fronds of salt-encrusted kelp curl as they dry. Two seagulls sail from the headland and cut over the shoreline, so close I can hear the slice of their wings. In the quiet of the morning the music of their flight is rust-colored, and falls from beautiful sharp-edged patterns into my ears. It is summer’s end, and a friend and I have driven out to the Sonoma coast for a walk along the beach – our idea of Sunday morning worship.

Under a mantle of thick fog, everything takes on a monotone palette. Gone is the brilliant blue of sky, the jewel-like glitter of sun on waves, the sun’s creamy yellow glow. Water and sky merge into a smudge that envelops all shades of grey into one, and one shade into all.  Fog obscures distant hills as it shadows the back of waves. In the foreground the darkened silhouette of an isolated fishing boat is barely visible. 

A quiet descends over the beach, thin and paper-like. Almost brittle. My bare feet sink into the cool sand as soft white lips of waves nibble away at the shore. In the quiet I can hear the ocean breathe.

On this strip of land where sea meets sand, the water has done its work of depositing what is no longer living. When exposed to air abandoned sand dollars bleach white. Crab claws and shells crisp to salty wafers tangled amid ragged skeins of seaweed. 

 Freshly abandoned by a wave, a small silver fish glistens.

This washed-up seabird is light and dense at once, still with much of her plumage. Her white breast is dirty, black wings bedraggled. A sharp bill points seaward past the dark pockets of her sightless eye sockets.

Any expected stench from her rotting body is absent, lost to the salt and wind. The black leatherette of her legs and beak have taken on the foamy texture of worm-rotten wood. Her body is small, the size of a young seagull yet with distinct black and white markings closer in resemblance to a penguin. Further down the beach are more small bent, twisted mounds of dead bird bodies, so plentiful they look like they’ve been shaken out of a box. Some have decomposed to reveal portions of backbone and skeleton. Every few steps there is another. Within the one-mile stretch of my walk, there are at least thirty.  

Most seabirds die at sea, their weightless bones pulverized by the waves and wind, so it is unusual to find such specimens.  Was this a normal occurrence? Perhaps something seasonal? It is the end of the breeding season, and the start of the autumn migration. Were these young birds, swept off course by a storm, then washed into shore?

After a brief online investigation, a series of articles from earlier in the year point to the cause of death as most likely starvation; the type of bird - Cassin's auklet. Some researchers think the phenomenon might be linked to climate change and warming coastal waters. 

In her book What Remains, a study of the death of a body as it decomposes, photographer Sally Mann writes, “The earth doesn’t care where death occurs....It’s the artist, by coming in and writing about it or painting it or taking a photograph of it, that makes the earth powerful and creates death’s memory. Because the land will not remember by itself, but the artist will.” Today while photographing the washed-up sea birds, I am left to make something of the pieces that remain. Even in the midst of deterioration, the small, tattered bodies remind me of all that is eternal and changing: hours, weeks, months and years that paint a picture of the world and its constant risings and fallings. As I zip up my jacket, pack up my camera and prepare to return home, I leave Time to the slow work of wearing away at the parts that are left, rubbing its powerful thumb across the fingertips of its own magnificence.