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.

____________________________

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.

Review: Remembering

remembering

RememberingWendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2008 (originally published 1988).

Summary: Following the loss of a hand, a grieving Andy Catlett struggles with both his loss and his anger with agribusiness, that he believes is destroying a way of life, and gropes his way toward healing.

Andy Catlett is suffering from two losses, and struggles with anger from both. While harvesting crops with a neighbor, his right hand is mangled in a machine, resulting in the loss of the hand. One of the remarkable qualities of this narrative is how Berry explores the inner struggle of a capable man who struggles to write, to dress himself, and not make a nuisance of himself while doing farm chores. He is angry with himself, and quarreling incessantly with his wife, who sees through it all and Andy’s inability to forgive himself.

He has been angry with American agribusiness for a long period of time, how it has destroyed a way of life in the name of efficiency which underwrites equipment manufacturers, fuel and fertilizer interests, and banks at the expense of the few remaining farmers in perpetual debt. He saw its effects as a journalist, and sees them in the erosion of a way of life in the town to which he returned to farm, Port William. He is not an easy person to live with.

Catlett’s twin angers reach a crisis point when he leaves home, amid alienating arguments with his wife that seem to have no resolution, to speak at an agricultural conference. He sets aside his planned speech to excoriate the assembled experts, whose mathematical models do not touch the pain experienced by all those who have left farms. He tells the stories of his ancestors and friends from Port William, and how they have suffered under the ideas of the experts and ends with damning the enterprise.

The book is framed by two dreams, one in his hotel in San Francisco after speaking, the other in the woods near his Kentucky home, a beatific vision of a transformed Port William. In between, Catlett travels a journey of remembering, as he walks the streets of San Francisco to the bay, and then on his flight home. He recalls the speech, his arguments with Flora, his wife, the accident, his sense of being unmanned, cut off from his hand, as it were.

Perhaps the most effective portion was remembering his time as a journalist, and two interviews, one planned and one not. He visits the Meikelberger farm, the symbol of modern agriculture, with its huge grain bins, monstrous equipment, and 2,000 acres planted in nothing but corn as far as the eye can see. It is an impressive operation but beneath the impressive appearance is a man with an ulcer, incessant worry over perpetual debt, all built atop old farmsteads that have disappeared. He detours, enroute to Pittsburgh, through Amish country in eastern Ohio, stops to watch a farmer plowing his field with a team of three beautiful horses. He sees a well-kept farmstead, and nearby farms.  He is offered a chance to plow with the team, bringing back childhood memories. As he questions Yoder, he learns the farm has no debt, and Yoder, who is older than Meikelberger looks ten years younger. If he needs help, there are nearby neighbors to pitch in.

It’s what led Catlett back to farming, restoring an old abandoned property he and friends had long talked about. Flora and Andy make a go of it, becoming part of the membership of Port William. And then the accident….The question remains of whether Andy will find healing and a new kind of wholeness as he journeys home.

In this work, Berry weaves his own convictions about the destruction of an agricultural way of life, of communities, and the land with an perceptive exploration of what the loss of a hand can mean, and whether Andy will suffer destruction of his self, his marriage, and his way of life. There are achingly beautiful passages and deeply troubling ones as we plumb the depths of Andy’s turmoil. Berry invites us to consider both the healing of deeply wounded people, as well as deeply wounded lands and communities.

 

The Month in Reviews: September 2015

This month’s list of books reviewed clearly is a reflection of my (odd, eclectic?) reading tastes. A good dose of biblical studies and theology with books on Mark 13 and Ephesians, universalism and substitution. Books on restoration and renaissance–topics of interest for one who hasn’t given up on the possibility of Christians having a truly redemptive influence in society. There’s historical fiction, a book by an environmental writer and the late Oliver Sacks on music and sci-fi based on Mars. In case you missed any reviews in September, they are all here, with links to the full review and publication information in the book title:

AgincourtAgincourt, Bernard Cornwell. Through the eyes of Nicholas Hook, we see the massacre of Soissons, and the English invasion of France under Henry V including the frustrating seige of Harfleur, and the miraculous victory at Agincourt.

Evangelical UniversalistThe Evangelical UniversalistGregory MacDonald. This book provides the biblical, philosophical and theological arguments for why the view that all will finally be saved is consistent with evangelical theology and also includes additional appendices responding to issues raised since the book’s first edition.

Wild IdeaWild Idea: Buffalo & Family in a Difficult Land. Dan O’Brien. Dan O’Brien continues the story begun in Buffalo for the Broken Heart, describing the growth of the Wild Idea Buffalo Company, the move to a new ranch, and the challenges of a maturing daughter, an aging friend, and the struggle to build an ethical and ecologically sound business on the ever-challenging Great Plains.

Jesus the Temple and the Coming of the Son of ManJesus, The Temple, and the Coming Son of Man, Robert H. Stein. This commentary on Mark 13 sorts through the complex interpretive issues concerning the fall of the temple, apocalyptic events, and the return of the Son of Man.

Restoring All ThingsRestoring All ThingsWarren Cole Smith and John Stonestreet. This book narrates the impact of mediating institutions and efforts by Christians in bringing restoration into some of the most challenging situations faced by our society today.

Drama of EphesiansThe Drama of Ephesians, Timothy G. Gombis. This book approaches Ephesians as a drama of the victory of God over cosmic powers in opposition to Him through Christ and through a redeemed and transformed church that acts as Divine Warrior. I also posted an interview with the author here.

MusicophiliaMusicophiliaOliver Sacks. Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks chronicles the neuroscience of music–the various ways music affects the brain, and the unusual effects of various neurological conditions on our perception, performance, and experience of music.

RenaissanceRenaissance, Os Guinness. Against the doomsayers speaking of the darkness of the times, Guinness remains hopeful for a spiritual and cultural renaissance in the west, rooted in the power of the Christian message; and he charts the tasks of faithful witness that precede this and the contours of such a renaissance.

Reading C.S. LewisReading C.S. Lewis: A CommentaryWesley Cort. This book provides an undogmatic look at C.S. Lewis, considering the influences upon his life and writing, and a commentary on Lewis’s major Christian works.

Defending SubstitutionDefending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul, Simon Gathercole. Gathercole defends the oft-maligned doctrine of substitutionary atonement, responding to the criticisms and challenges raised and demonstrating from key biblical texts that it can be argued from scripture that “Christ died in our place.”

The MartianThe MartianAndy Weir. Mark Watney, left by his crew for dead on Mars, survived a potentially fatal incident and must find a way to survive on Mars alone until he can be rescued.

Beyond AwkwardBeyond Awkward: When Talking About Jesus is Outside Your Comfort ZoneBeau Crosetto. Talking about faith with others often feels awkward and is why most of us don’t do it. This book explores how to press through that awkwardness to important and life-changing conversations.

Best Book of the Month: I rarely choose a religious book as my best book of the month but I found The Drama of Ephesians by Timothy Gombis particularly compelling for its fresh perspective on Ephesians that highlights the spiritual warfare aspect of the book. I also appreciated that Gombis combined good scholarship with clear writing that could be grasped by any thoughtful student of the Bible and applications set in the life of real congregations.

Best Quote of the Month: This is from The Drama of Ephesians:

“In the logic of Ephesians, the two groups are not the saved and the damned, the in and the out. The two groups are those whom God is transforming by his love and those to whom the first group is sent in order to embody God’s love” (p. 77).

Among the things I’m currently reading are a couple books on environmentally sustainable agriculture by an early exponent, Ohio novelist Louis Bromfield, a book seeking to reconcile the philosophy of Ayn Rand and Christianity, a thoughtful work on ways we abuse scripture, and an account of Robert Kennedy’s last campaign by David Halberstam. Last month,I mentioned the Zaleskis’ book on the Inklings. I hope to start it before the month is out. Whether I do or not, isn’t part of the fun of reading the anticipation? At any rate, happy reading!