Such a week. Between successive Sundays, I’ve traveled from the opposite side of the globe, navigated a frenzied week on campus, ascended the mountain, and then crossed the continent again to stand here in the wind.
On Tuesday, we saw Bruce Springsteen and the East Street band in Milwaukee and I am, well, speechless. I’ve been a helpless fan since I was a teenager and this experience was a gift from Carol that I’ll never match. I would say that it was a religious experience but probably I shouldn’t say that on this blog without inviting criticism, so I won’t.
On Thursday, I hosted three younger researchers for a fancy interview dinner, settling into my emerging role as the silverback with a fully exercised university P-card (and the headaches that follow). That conversation found me panting in my lane, watching fresher scientific athletes accelerating the baton on down the next leg of the race.
On Saturday, I car-pooled up to Stevens Point for a workshop on supporting women’s careers, especially young women’s, in Natural Resources professions. I drove with a Ph.D. candidate and an intern from a colleague’s lab. Both women, one with a harassment story that motivates her, the other I knew less well. But women colleagues, to a person, have hard stories. We struggle in these fields, with pick-up truck swagger and hunting-camp banter baselines that still extract a psychic cost on women professionals. My students are mostly women. It matters to them, it matters to me.
It’s been a chaos of conversation, emotion, fatigue, work, and pondering. I took it in, marinated it, and let it stew. I told my pastor in a zoom meeting last night that brooding was my superpower. Ultimately, I took it to the Gulf Coast of Florida and laid it into the breakwater waves lapping at my pale feet.
I am tired. The introverts’ sort of tired. If God can speak to Job out of the whirlwind, you will forgive me for listening for something in the gulf coast’s humid offshore blow. I watched the waves, just watched with no expectation. I saw rhythms and patterns form and then dissolve and then reform, Semper reformanda.
I stood in the wind and sun. I listened and noticed that I wasn’t annoyed with incessant hissing in my ears. It wasn’t so much that the sounds of wind and waves masked my tinnitus, although they evidently did. Moreso, the wind and wave sound was of a piece with the hissing, folding it in, sublimating it with the rhythm and roar. And despite it all, my mind felt quiet again.
Pale blue and opaque waves. Breaking themselves on riprap chunks of ancient Florida, stone created, in part, from deep time rain of tiny calcareous skeletons. Unimaginable numbers. Waves washing in and out on generations of shells abandoned by soft little animals. Shells become fragments become sand become the plumes giving the shallow warm sea its signature pale opacity.
You leave the engineered artifice of the airport and south Florida enfolds you in an immersive experience of biology. The plant life, the dark mangroves, the scratchy piney flats with their twin constants – cabbage palms and saw palmetto. The gothic cypress forests and the sawgrass horizons interrupted only by forested hammocks where a few inches of elevation make all the difference. All of it, kingdom to the birds. Great birds, indeed, magnificent birds. Creatures for whom flight is so easy, we wonder if they ever indeed need to land. Even the mineral ground you walk on, much of it, is legacy of living beings.
I watched the boats, and my imagination rode along with each one. I know the bobber-like motion of canoes and kayaks, I know the stately pitch and roll of big boats like the SS Badger which sleepily conveys me home every summer. I know the movement of boats of every interstitial type from work experience and recreation and a lifetime love of the motion of boats and watery horizons.
I wonder, because I enjoy wondering it, if some fondness for boats lives in Mom’s Frisian DNA, if ancestral memory lives somewhere. You sometimes hear that seawater has the same salt concentration as blood. That’s not really true. We make the point to wax philosophically about connection through a shared evolutionary history. More important though, is the funny chemistry of water at the earth’s surface temperatures and how our watery imaginations, our spirituality, our history and everything we experience, in addition to our physiology only function there in that universally improbable sweet spot.
On Wednesday, the limnology folks did a demonstration for my freshman class. They sampled from a tiny shoreline lead at the edge of Mendota’s cloudy and rotting ice. There, in a few ounces, a whole community of tiny animals, algae, and plants. Despite gray muddy March, despite the dark trees and snow, life hangs on. I knew this of course. I know about dormancy and hibernation and the tricks that temperate zone life uses to cheat the seasonal ice crystals. But I am also dull enough to need to be reminded in an essential part, by seeing it in the flesh.
Next Sunday, I’ll be back, hoping for open water, eager to turn the season again to temperate zone warmth. I’ll return home in the simple sense of the word. But here, where my parents are, where I can enjoy Mom’s cooking and gulf coast richness, where I’ve been often enough to recognize more and more of the birds and plants, where there’s comfort on the waves and in the ebullient ecology – where my mind turns quiet. Here I may need to expand my definition.