I started going down to the Public Landing at night for two separate reasons which later turned out to be connected: To film fish and to cry alone in my car, things that are easier without a lot of people around.

Photos by Alison McKellar.

In the summer of 2018, I started the practice of stopping by the harbor to shine a flashlight near the mouth of the river to see if I could spot any fish trying to make their way up into the river. Not being a fish person, I found the activity surprisingly interesting and I soon expanded my surveys outward into the harbor, shining my light down into the waters around the dinghy dock and finger float systems.

The other thing I did was sit alone in my car and cry. After my sister died, I would do my best to keep from being completely paralyzed by grief around my children, but after they went to bed, and the house was quiet, the darkness would come over me like a heavy blanket. Not a warm blanket that comforts, but the kind that suffocates. The kind you try to kick off but just become more tangled in.

Crying at home was inconvenient. Not just because of the sorrow I feared would smother my children, but also because we rent rooms in our home and there is really no place to cry without disturbing someone. I would hold myself together just long enough to drive down to the Public Landing, park my car facing the harbor and the rose bushes, and cry. If someone walked by, I would pretend to be on the phone so they wouldn’t talk to me.

If it had been just any old parking lot, I may have cried forever, but the Public Landing is no ordinary parking lot. It is quite literally built on, and in, the ocean, perched atop the ancestral meeting place of land and sea, in a place that never stops moving. Just as the tides rise and fall, pushing and pulling on all things both living and dead, so, too, does it rise and fall on the human spirit.

Something always drew me out of my car, and often it was the tide itself, having retreated so far away from the shore the boats nearly disappeared from view. Other times, it would be bubbling up over the sea wall, rushing in to reoccupy ancient space and causing the floats and boats to rise up until they threaten to turn the parking lot back into something more useful to the ocean. No one could turn the science of the intertidal zone into such poetry as Rachel Carson.

“For no two successive days is the shoreline precisely the same,” Carson said. “Not only do the tides advance and retreat in their eternal rhythms, but the level of the sea itself is never at rest. It rises or falls as the glaciers melt or grow, as the floor of the deep ocean basins shifts under its increasing load of sediments, or as the earth’s crust along the continental margins warps up or down in adjustment to strain and tension. Today a little more land may belong to the sea, tomorrow a little less. Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary.”

The harbor itself bends and bulges as the tide forces itself in, rising against the wall as it finds the path of least resistance between the stacked granite and timber which form the underbelly of the parking lot. Carson believed the human draw to the ocean is related to our ancestral roots of many thousands of years ago; a semi-conscious awareness that all life, including our own, began in the sea. She wrote:

“The shore is an ancient world, for as long as there has been an earth and sea there has been this place of the meeting of land and water. Yet it is a world that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and of the relentless drive of life. Each time that I enter it, I gain some new awareness of its beauty and its deeper meanings, sensing that intricate fabric of life by which one creature is linked with another, and each with its surroundings.”

To sit on or near the dinghy dock for long and often enough, you yourself rise and fall with the tides has the effect of resetting some internal clock that syncs a person with the natural world around them. Just as a baby is said to be soothed by the heart beat and breath of her mother, I imagine sitting near the shoreline, rising and falling with the tides, to be a little bit the same. It works for me.

Sometimes what drew me out was not the subtle pull of the tides, but the bubbling up of life that occurs near the shoreline; a heron flying by or sometimes a splash of unknown origin, which could be many things in the harbor: The slapping of a beaver tail if one had been startled, an otter, a seal crashing down over the elver fishermen’s nets. I always wanted to capture the otters on camera, but found they’ve evaded me. Unlike the beavers, who slap their tails to warn other beavers about danger and then move on, the otters have been known to stand up straight out of the water defensively. They hiss.

My sister, Kristen, was drawn to the water at night also in a way I had never been. Her death, which came like an earthquake in our lives, happened when she was swimming on Damariscotta Lake as night descended and it felt like a loss too terrible and heavy to carry. I longed for some supernatural experience where she would appear as ghost or whisper in my ear or even scare me with some practical joke she would have delighted in. The kind you see in movies. I didn’t see any of this.

I needed some different way to think about life and death and the interconnectedness between them and the only thing that gave me any sort of a durable relief was peering into the world and beneath the surface. Shining my flashlight into the harbor at night became a spiritual practice. It reminded me of the infinite lives and stories unfolding all the time beneath the surface in a way that we can only begin to understand.

As Carson again puts it best:

“When we go down to the lowest of the low tide lines and look down into the shallow waters, there’s all the excitement of discovering a new world. Once you have entered such a world, its fascination grows and somehow you find your mind has gained a new dimension, a new perspective — and always thereafter you find yourself remember[ing] the beauty and strangeness and wonder of that world — a world that is as real, as much a part of the universe, as our own.”

Earlier this week, I was again on the dinghy floats, shining my light into the vastness of the ocean at mid tide. The striped bass are constantly lurking beneath the schools of herring and the float system at this time of year but they usually dodge the light and evade the ability of my camera to capture them. They have no eye lids, I am told. Yet the other night, after just about an hour of shining the light, they seemed to change their mind and accept my large yellow filming contraption as unthreatening. Instead of darting away from it, they worked with it, waiting for the herring to cluster around and then swimming alongside.

They danced back and forth in front of my light so close to the dinghy dock I almost might have touched them, and I stayed much later than I intended to, transfixed by the feeling we were somehow getting to know one another.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Select Board Vice-Chair. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

Photos by Alison McKellar.

Photos by Alison McKellar.

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