A Sense of Time

Room With a View

Susan Hand Shetterly, Room with a View
PEXELS | Lisa Fotios
By Susan Hand Shetterly

Ellsworth schist is an old stone. It’s a bedrock, a shield that has been heated to molten, squashed under tons of other stone and ice, furled, scraped, riven, and exposed — a witness to time. At the bay where I live, it is our ledge, the high shore where the tides reach in and from which they withdraw.

The bottom of the bay is shallow, with fine gray mud that stretches at dead low to a shifting line that is hard to pinpoint when you’re standing at the ledge. Warmed by the sun, the mud gives that warmth to incoming tides. It’s a beautiful place, if you like beauty that’s spare and simple, and if you find the sight of evening light glinting off dark mud irresistible. I used to think it’s a bit like the furniture the Shakers designed and built at Sabbathday Lake, about 125 miles southwest and inland from here. They made beauty functional, and this bay was functional — it all worked, it seemed to me, the black ducks, the terns, the periwinkles and hermit crabs, the alewife fingerlings, the mackerel, the eagles, and the spartina grasses.

Like all other bays of the world, ours leads into deep water. Here, that’s the Gulf of Maine, reaching from the tip of Cape Cod to Sable Island, 100 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. Between those two points lie the coasts of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine (our shoreline is the longest, at 3,478 miles), New Brunswick, and southern Nova Scotia. It’s a diverse, complicated place.

In this strange new heat come new species, and some of the life we know slips away.

If you live by it, you know some of its stories, and over time, those stories become a part of your own history of place. Take Provincetown, on the Cape, for instance, where early fishermen launched their boats into this vast water to catch what some were sure was an endless supply of fish. So many cod, halibut, haddock, herring. And so many whales. Sable Island, on the other hand, was where boats met their ends from sandbars and currents. Today, wild horses make a home on that narrow spit. They are small, tough. When you see them, you can’t help but replaying their 18th-century journey from a merchant ship’s hold to a shifting foothold of sand.

Our bay was always warm, an anomaly on this cold coast, a perfect place to swim in summer. Neighbors and I would walk down after work and jump in on a high tide. But it’s changed. It’s too warm. Into this strange new heat come new species, and some of the life we know slips away.

We have learned that the gulf is warming faster than 99 percent of the rest of the water bodies around the world. Instead of a place where people come to mine the fisheries — as the Wabanaki, the Basques, the French, the English, and their descendants, did for centuries — it is now a place where people are fighting for its life. They are us: coastal citizens, fish and avian biologists, botanists, water specialists, and seaweed scientists, hoping for enough time to build new ways of living and working that can shift the direction in which we seem to be headed.

I walk the bay over a scrim of ice, and the stones I walk on, wearing down slowly from rain and ice and the tides, know time in a way that I don’t. In my life, this place has changed. In the lifetime of this ledge, change — for better and for worse — is all there is.