On the Mudflats

Written in June, 2004.

I am sitting on a log on the beach. It is a beautiful, sunny day in June. The sand is warm on my feet. I often come here in the afternoon, to gaze at the view and think.

To the north, across the bay, you can see over the flat expanse of Delta to the skyscrapers of Vancouver. Beyond them, the mountains rise out of the haze. They are blue at this distance, with a few patches of snow still clinging to their peaks.

It is low tide. The beach is sandy, then pebbly, and then the mudflats begin. At low tide, they stretch into the bay for a mile or so. A heron is standing in a tidal pool not far away, looking at me with one eye.

Let’s go out on the mudflats.

The pebbles are painful to bare feet. But then the cool mud is soothing.

This is an estuary into which several creeks deposit their loads of silt. To the north, the Fraser River sends a big curling plume of muddy water into the ocean. Some of that plume curls back and settles down here. In a thousand years, the bay will be dry land, and the river will have moved on.

The bay is home to many types of life. Mud sharks and halibut live in the deeper water. Flounders and sculpins teem closer to the shore. Many different species of ducks live here, or pass through in the fall and spring. An occasional eagle soars overhead, hunting them. Crabs scurry and hide under rocks. But on the mudflats the dominant form of life is the humble snail.

They move slowly across the mud, grazing on algae and other organic matter. With every footstep, you press at least one shell into the sand. They are not hurt, because the mud is soft and their shells are hard. I once did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of their population in this bay. Based on the count within a square meter, my estimate was 10 billion. Their population in this bay probably exceeds the entire human population, which is currently about 6.5 billion.

Unlike us, they have reached a dynamic equilibrium in which reproduction is balanced by premature death. Seagulls snatch them up, if nothing better can be found, and dash them against the rocks, trying to crack their hard shells to get at the morsels of meat inside. This assault goes on day after day, year after year, but the snail population is not affected. Enough are born to replace those that die.

We are far out now, wading across tidal pools full of baby fish: little flounders and sculpins that dart away from your shadow, or (following their instincts) hide beneath your feet.

Out here, you can be alone. It is one of the few places left near Vancouver where you can escape from the press of people scurrying about, chasing goals of money, status and sex. Sometimes there are other wanderers out on the flats: distant images shimmering in the reflected heat, carrying their sandals in one hand. But they are very few. You might be the only person in a square mile of space.

Space. Space and a little time to think. They are precious commodities in this world.

Now we are approaching the edge of the mudflats, where they suddenly drop off into deeper water. The last half-mile or so is mostly under an inch of water. Purple sand dollars are scattered about. You can pick up the disk-shaped shell of a dead one, and throw it far off into the distance. They are amazingly aerodynamic.

We wade across a channel full of eelgrass that carries the tide out to sea. The green fronds wave lazily in the current. An eagle sitting on an abandoned crab trap flaps ponderously into the air at our approach. The crab trap is covered with barnacles and a few mussels, but otherwise reveals no secrets.

Now we are at the edge. Feet sinking into mud at the beginning of the drop-off, knee deep in the sea. Two more steps would put us in over our heads. Here we stop, gaze for a while at the sea, the sky with a lonely airplane trail across it, the mountains in the distance, the puffy white clouds…

I want you to see this through my eyes. I want you to feel what I feel, and know what I know. But you can’t. You are only an idea in my head.

I walk slowly back across the mudflats.