Currents and tides and what we must do

From Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, 1989

THAT ISLAND on Haro Strait haunts me. The few people there, unconnected to the mainland—lacking ferryboat, electrical cables, and telephone cables—lived lonesome and half mad out in the wind and current like petrels. They had stuck their necks out. In summer they slept in open sleep shacks on the beach. The island lay on the northern edge of the forty-eight states, and on the western edge of the forty-eight states, and was fantastically difficult of access. Once you had gone so far, you might as well test the limits, like an artist playing the edges, and all but sleep in the waves. With my husband, I moved there every summer; we spent a winter there, too. Our cabin on the beach faced west, toward some distant Canadian islands, and Japan.

The waters there were cold and deep; fierce tides ripped in and out twice a day. The San Juan Islands aggravated tidal currents—they made narrow channels through which enormous volumes of water streamed fast. If an ordinary tide flowed up the beach and caught an oar or a life vest, it swept it northward on the island faster than you could chase it walking alongside; you had to run. The incoming tide ran north; the outgoing tide drained south.

Paul Glenn was a painter, a strong-armed, soft-faced, big blond man in his fifties; every summer he lived down the beach. He was a friend of the family. One summer morning I visited him, and asked about his painting. We sat at his kitchen table. His recent easel painting, and his study of abstract expressionist Mark Tobey’s canvases, and his new interest in certain Asian subjects, his understanding of texture in two dimensions, and possibly the mistiness of the Pacific Northwest and its fabulous, busy skies—something, I do not know what, had gotten him experimenting with dipping papers into vats of water on which pools of colored oil floated. He had such papers drying on the kitchen counters. Some of them looked like a book’s marbled endpapers, or fine wallpaper— merely decorative. Some others were complex and subtle surfaces, suggestive and powerful. Paul Glenn was learning which techniques of dripping the colors on the water, and which techniques of drawing the paper up through the colors, yielded the interesting results. He had been working at it for six months. How he was going to use the papers was another matter, and the crucial one: he could cut them into collage material, he could fold them into sculpture, he could paint over them and into them. He was following the work wherever it led.

The next summer, we returned to the island. Paul Glenn had spent the winter there. I visited him in his house on the beach in late June. He was tan of face already, and perfectly sane—witty and forceful, if a bit soft of voice.

I asked Paul how his work was going.

“You couldn’t have known Ferrar Burn,” he said. We were sitting at the round table by the kitchen window. There were white shells on the windowsill, and black beach stones. “He died twenty years ago. He was a joyful man, and a calm and determined one. He brought his family out here—June Burn, who wrote books and newspaper columns, and two little boys, you know North and Bob—out here to this island, where there’s nothing but what you can find on the beach or grow.”

Evidently Paul did not want to talk about how his work was going. Fair enough.

“Ferrar was striking: he had that same pale, thin skin his sons have, and their black eyes and hair. He and June built that cedar shack up on Fishery Point. It was her study. Their house was near the woods—nice timbers.”

Paul knew I knew all this, except what Ferrar looked like. Paul’s hair had grown long; he kept moving pale strands of it behind his ears. I was fresh from the mainland, a little too bright and quick. He laughed openly at what he could easily see was my impatience; we had been tolerant friends for a few years.

“One evening,” he went on, “Ferrar saw a log floating out in the channel. It looked yellow, like Alaska cedar; he hoped it was Alaska cedar. He rowed out to get it.”

Everyone on the island scavenged the valuable logs, for building. If the logs did not wash up on the beach, it took a motorboat to get them in; they were heavy in the water.

“It was high tide, slack. Ferrar saw the log, launched his little skiff at Fishery Point, and rowed out in the channel. Sure enough, it was that beautiful Alaska cedar, that pale yellow wood—just a short log, about eight feet, or he never would have tried it without a motor. I guess he thought he could row it in while the tide was still slack.

“He tied onto the log”—such logs often have a big iron staple hammered into one end— “and started rowing back home with it. He had about twenty feet of line on it. He started rowing home, and the tide caught him”

From Paul’s window, I could look north up the beach and see Fishery Point. One of Ferrar’s sons still used that old rowboat—a little eight-foot pram, now painted yellow and blue. Paul’s blue eyes caught mine again.

“The tide started going out, and it caught that log and dragged it south. Ferrar kept rowing back north toward his house. The tide pulled him south down the strait here”— Paul indicated the long sweep of salt water in front of his house—“from one end to the other. Ferrar kept rowing toward Fishery Point. He might as well have tied onto a whale. He was rowing to the north and moving fast to the south. He traveled stern first. He wanted to be going home, so toward home he kept pulling. When the sun set, at about nine o’clock, he’d swept south the length of this beach, rowing north all the way. When the moon rose a few hours later—he told us—he saw he’d swept south past the island altogether and out into the channel between here and Stuart Island. He had been rowing through those dark hours. He continued to row away from Stuart Island and continued to see it get closer.

“Then he felt the tide go slack, and then he felt it coming in again. The current had reversed.

“Ferrar kept rowing in the half moonlight. The tide poured in from the south. He kept rowing north for home—only now the log was with him. He and his log were both floating on the current, and the current was bearing them up and carrying them like platters. It started getting light at about three o’clock, and he rowed back past this island’s southern tip. The sun came up, and he rowed all the length of this beach. The tide brought him back on home. His wife, June, saw him coming; she’d been curious about him all night.”

“Paul had a wide, loose smile. He shifted in his chair. He raised his coffee cup, as if to say, Cheers.”

“He pulled up on his own beach. They got the log rolled beyond the tideline. I saw him a few days later. Everybody knew he’d been carried out almost to Stuart Island, trying to bring in a log. Everybody knew he just kept rowing in the same direction. I asked him about it. He said he had a little backache. I didn’t see the palms of his hands.”

“Paul looked into his empty coffee cup, pleased, and then looked through the window, still smiling. I started to carry my coffee cup to the sink, but he motioned me down. He wasn’t finished.”

“”So that’s how my work is going,” he said.”


“”You asked how my work is going,” he said. “That’s how it’s going. The current’s got me. Feels like I’m about in the middle of the channel now. I just keep at it. I just keep hoping the tide will turn and bring me in.”

One thought on “Currents and tides and what we must do

  1. But when the tide does turn, there is the question of wind. Is it an off-shore wind, or will you paddle with all your might to go nowhere? And there are boomer waves that blacken the sky above your head without notice. One minute you’re sitting, the next, you’re under cold salt water. Then you realize you can touch bottom and walk to shore, with your kayak in tow behind you. That’s when you really appreciate hot tea.

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