ESTUARIES AND POOL HALLS
Ann and I have been hanging out around estuaries and pool halls. This past weekend, we took a 12-mile hike on a trail in St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge. The trail transitions from pine forest and swamp to salt marshes and freshwater ponds. At one point, you come out on the salt marsh to your left and the freshwater ponds to your right. On the left, there's what amounts to a long canal, fringed on the far side by reeds that spread out to the horizon, interrupted only by the earthen islands of clumps of trees and the byzantine maze of the estuaries that feed into the ocean. The light, even on a cloudy day, that reflects off the tan grasses, is often remarkably luminous, like a Turner painting. It's easy to imagine you've stumbled across some primordial terrain and that you're never going to make it back to the 21st century.
As we were walking along, around mile nine, we noticed two straight lines coursing through the water some sixty feet ahead of us, waves rippling out from the lines.
Now, the brain is a strange and suggestible muscle, delicate as it is despite being housed in bone. It is much affected by context. We had been expecting the possibility of otters in the water. When we saw the two straight lines, we thought we were seeing evidence of two otters swimming toward us across the canal. But no, as the lines came closer, we saw that it was something much more peculiar for that place. In an odd, almost magic realist way, the otters morphed into the form of two dolphins, their fins cutting through the water forming the two straight lines. The canal was shallow and they were only able to submerge up to their fins. Their blowholes made surly air-expelling sounds. They roved back and forth across the brackish canal, making the alligators nervous. Some of the alligators came out of the water while others dove in, caught between the unexpected dolphins and the slightly more expected humans.
We watched the dolphins as they swam up the canal back the way we had come, until they were out of sight. It was a surreal moment for us, especially because we were in that part of the hike where you lose your bearings a little bit—not becoming disoriented, but working simply at walking, talking less, in your own thoughts, and the pristine nature of your surroundings bringing you deeply into whatever fictions the mind may deliver to you.
Later, on our way out of the refuge, we stopped at the visitor center, worried that perhaps the dolphins had gotten lost or trapped. The water we had seen them in was at least partially fresh water, and the shallowness of it bothered us too. But the ranger at the center reassured us, saying that every once in awhile a few dolphins would follow high tide into the estuary system to feed in the salt marshes, and then go out to sea again at the next high tide. We were, though, lucky to see them. In the many years I’ve been going out to St. Marks I’ve never seen dolphins while walking one of the trails—only when out at the lighthouse, in the open sea. (Although, I have seen alligators swimming out at sea, the delineation between fresh and salt water becoming blurred; sometimes fishermen become a little startled, out there at low tide in their long boots, seeing a sudden reptile, sinuous and oddly close.)
We followed up our hike with a sojourn to a local pool hall, for beer and a spirited dozen games. Ann and I are evenly matched in pool, and it’s been fun to find a sport to share. It was the prototypical smoky pool hall, with an odd mixture of college co-eds, young professionals, older couples, geeks, freaks, scantily clad waitresses, and players. Our cue ball had a chunk missing from it. The crack of billiard balls and the plastic smack of balls hitting pockets mingled with the distant crowd noises from the televisions tuned to sports events. The smell of cigarettes and beer had an oddly invigorating effect.
I thought about Lake Baikal while we played, and secret lives, and the role of a character named Sybel in my novel, Shriek. I thought about what awaited me at the day job the next day, and wondered why Ann was kicking my butt so thoroughly in some games and not in others. I wondered where Liz Williams would be taking my plastic alien baby next. I thought about the clean geometric line of cue ball to eight ball to pocket and the clean geometric line of a dolphin fin cutting through water. But mostly, for some odd reason, I thought about Lake Baikal and its freshwater seals. And about Alaska and its melting glaciers, which made me worry about St. Marks, wondering if someday, maybe when I am sixty, I’ll go out to the familiar paths, and the sea levels will have risen, and the whole refuge will be under water.