It Waits for No Man

This post is the third in a series contributed by DRA Trustee Barnaby Porter. Read the previous post here.


low tide at Seal Cove

Down on the mudflats at low water, I am prone to contemplate the hugeness of the tide. The muck sucking at my boots squishes and squirms, acre upon acre of it, the primordial soup, loading the air to saturation with the black, organic smells of trillions of little lives beginning and ending in each moment.

I am actually standing on the bottom of the river. In six hours, this spot will be under ten feet of water. The black line on the rocks marks the level of high water. With little trouble, I can visualize the volume between shorelines that will soon be filled by the tidal surge . . . then emptied, then filled again, twice each day from this to eternity.

A “river” of water, half a mile or better wide, by twelve miles long, ten feet deep – that is the tidal exchange, something on the order of fifteen billion gallons of water in our river alone. And it is but one tiny finger’s worth of the heaping bulge in our ocean that is pulled and tugged at by the seemingly distant Moon.

Frank W. Benson's etching of a clam digger

Frank W. Benson, Clam Digger (1914)

But who gives it much thought? The tide whispers and eddies past, hour by hour. The activities of birds, the digging of clams, the launching of boats – these are the things affected by the tides’ rhythms. As the days of the year go by, the ebb and flow are measured merely by the little calendar on the kitchen wall . . . and not much else. Our interest is consumed by other matters. The quiet rise and fall of fifteen billion gallons of salt water elicits no more than passing, unexcited commentary, if any at all, so habituated are we to the influence and cadence of the heavenly bodies above.

But as I stand in my boots on the bottom of the river, I can’t help but be awed by the colossal dimensions of the phenomenon that occurs in this place, and not merely once in a blue moon but two times in every day. The unimaginable forces at play, the immense volume of ocean water involved, and the implications of the scale of our planet’s subjugation to the influence of near celestial bodies are what stop me in my tracks and make me think.

We have evolved with the tides’ familiar pulse. So familiar is it that we have been lulled into a complacency of casual acceptance and the coining of quaint sayings like “Time and tide wait for no man.” It occurs to me from my vantage point in the mud on the bottom of the river, if circumstances were a little different, if one or more of the planets were to be jarred into new positions and time and tide were goosed into “fast forward” somehow, say from the twelve hour cycle to twelve minutes, then I think we would see a more general appreciation for the ebb and flow we take for granted.

A six-minute flood (half of the twelve-minute cycle) would be a true tidal wave of biblical proportions. The roar it would make, the havoc it would wreak on our coastline, would probably paralyze us with fear and admiration, and the general populace would certainly come to the trembling realization that the whispering tide with its gently swirling eddies is a phenomenon that merits something more than a quaint old adage. And it’s a fair bet that philosophers like me wouldn’t linger very long on the mudflats any more.


Barnaby PorterArtist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. Barnaby currently serves on DRA’s Board of Trustees. For more about Barnaby, click here.

Photos courtesy of Darryn Kaymen and Barnaby Porter.