Review: Swimming to the Top of the Tide

Swimming to the Top of The Tide, Patricia Hanlon. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2021.

Summary: A memoir of spending a year swimming the creeks and waters of the tidal estuary near her West Gloucester home, a portion of the Great Salt Marsh, and the critical role played in the Earth’s ecosystem by these places where land and water meet.

This book was a delightful surprise–a debut environmental book that holds its own with the works of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. Like them, Hanlon brings to our attention a critical part of the Earth’s ecosystem through personal memoir. And she does this in a quiet but unusual fashion.

Hanlon and her husband Robert live north of Boston along a part of the New England coast known as the Great Salt Marsh. Beginning in July of 2008, they began swimming in the estuary and creeks near West Gloucester, where they were living at the time. What is interesting about this tidal basin is the flow of sea water in and out of the estuary and creeks with the tides, and their swims often followed these tides, floating up a creek when the tide was rising and the sea coming in, then reversing at “the top of the tide” and floating back down as the tide receded. They noticed the marsh grasses, uniquely designed to thrive when inundated by salt water, with dense, interwoven root systems that were like sponges, absorbing water and holding land. And they learned about the critical role this marsh grass plays in absorbing storm surges and providing habitat for marine and above ground species alike.

They decide to keep going, acquiring two different wet suits that enabled them to withstand the colder temperatures and they continued to swim through much of the winter, resuming in the spring, keeping a journal of their swims. The first half of the book is a kind of memoir of all these experiences, followed by reflections on this experience, including the importance of the Great Salt Marsh, environmental threats to this ecosystem, positive steps taken locally, and the longer view.

The writing at times gave this reader a sense of floating along with them, carried by the tide, taking in the meeting of sea, land, and sky.

We were floating barely forward, watching the flecks of marsh grass and air bubbles on the water’s surface slow down and finally pause. All but the top foot or so of the marsh grass was flooded. The stillness pulsed with life sounds normally too faint to hear; the beating of birds’ wings, the drowsy hum of a jet, the slight tinnitus that has been with me as long as I can remember, a mind event that skates the edge between real and unreal” (p. 43).

One of the subthemes of this text is the quotidian beauty of a marriage that has grown, weathered, and flourished through many seasons. Hanlon not only describes their swims together (having a “buddy” is crucial for safety), but also their daily routines, their work spaces, helping each other suit up for a swim, a shared meal of mussels found on a swim. One of the delights of this book was to read a narrative of two people who had learned to live so companionably with each other. I found myself pausing over this parenthesis a few lines after the passage previously cited, after their bodies grazed each other:

(A lot can be said about marriage, but fundamentally it has to do with two human bodies in close proximity over many years. From time to time as you’re borne along, you catch and hold a gaze, regarding each other from a foot away, twenty feet, an inch or less. Years ago, when we were courting, testing out the edges between friendship and romance, I could not hold the gaze for long. It was too soon. There was not enough “there” yet between us)” (p.43).

The beauty of this work is the integration of the ecology of a local household, a town, an estuary, the Great Salt Marsh, and the rest of the planet with its rising oceans and warming climate. The work gave me an appreciation for the tidal cycles that are such an ongoing part of life in this setting (and foreign to this landbound Midwesterner!). Most of all, it captures something all of us can begin doing–to become aware and attentive of our place–where our water comes from, where our sewage goes, the geology under our feet, the length of our growing season, the plants and creatures we share this space with, and where north is at any given moment. This work brings together observation, reflection, narrative, and science in a beautiful debut work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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