Photograph by Abstract Aerial Art / Getty Images

Ebbs and Flows

words by Willow Defebaugh

Tide pools are microcosms of life—unlikely, marvelous, and home to all kinds of creatures that have learned to exist amidst ephemerality.

“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides…is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”

Rachel Carson

On Monday evening, I found myself walking my dog, Max Moon, through Brooklyn. The Sun has started setting before 5pm here, but I don’t mind. The early arrival of dusk has felt like a warm welcome into the dark half of the year, and all that comes with it: candlelight, cozying up with a good book, cooking stews. I was reflecting on how at ease I have felt these past few weeks—happy, even. As Max and I crossed the street, I looked left and saw it hanging just above the horizon, full and radiant, casting a yellow glow as close as I had ever seen it: the Moon.


Throughout the ages, humankind has been fascinated by the influence of the Moon on our psychological behavior. It’s been believed to cause heightened emotions, violent tendencies, and even madness. The word lunacy itself comes from the Latin lunaticus meaning “moonstruck.” And while the science to support such claims has long been inconclusive, there have been a few links found in recent years. One study found an increase in crime with more moonlight, and another found that full moons mean less sleep—which as we know, can impact our mood


One aspect of life on Earth that we do know the Moon holds sway over is the tides. The rhythmic advance and retreat of the sea along the shore happens when the Moon’s gravity interacts with the Earth’s rotational force. The side of the Earth closest to the Moon feels its draw the strongest, resulting in a sea level surge. The farthest side also gets a high tide, where the Earth’s rotational force outweighs the Moon’s and the water’s resistance causes it to swell. Everywhere on the planet else sees a low tide—and in this dance, we see the push and pull of our cosmos at work.


The Sun’s gravitational power also influences the tide. Twice a month, the Earth, Moon, and Sun align—resulting in a new or full moon. The combined pull of these celestial bodies during these times creates exaggerated high and low tides, known as spring tides. At two other times during the lunar month, the Sun and Moon find themselves at right angles and cancel out each other’s pull, resulting in the most neutral of tides, the neap tide. Through all of it, nature reminds us that both balance and extremes exist within the cycles that conduct our ever-changing world. 


So what of the land left in the water’s wake, as the sea shifts to and fro? This is what’s known as the intertidal zone: the swaths of earth that exist between where the Ocean crawls up at high tide and slithers back at low tide. From plants that latch onto rocks to sand crabs that burrow to survive, these areas are home to a whole host of flora and fauna who have had to adapt to life in-between, neither wholly here nor there. They live both underwater and outside of it—not just in a shapeshifting environment, but one that is constantly throwing waves at them.


On some shores, the shifting sea leaves traces of itself behind in pockets of jagged rock: tide pools. Despite their size, these miniature ecosystems teem with biodiversity, creatures that have evolved to compete for resources in small, ephemeral spaces. This includes sea stars with everting stomachs, nudibranches that steal toxins from their prey for protection, harpooning worms, and seaweed that releases acid as a defense. Tide pools are microcosms of life—unlikely, marvelous, and strange—and climate change and rising sea levels leave them in jeopardy.


Perhaps we will never know for certain whether or not the Moon impacts the tides of being human. What I do know is that, like the Earth, we are more water than not. I know that we have our own ebbs and flows, that we are part of a fluid dance with highs and lows, that most of our lives are spent in the liminality that lingers between them. I know that even amidst loss, when we feel lost or left behind, we pool together and learn to thrive against all odds. Just like I know that while I may feel happy today, I know I will not always—and I’m at peace with that.

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