The Winter Ocean

This is a bit of an odd piece.  It’s simultaneously a highly personal piece about the experience of depression and an explanation of seasons in the temperate coastal ocean, framed by the geology of the local Del Mar and Torrey formations, which form the backbone of the described beach. 

I’m including it partly because of that and also because depression is both horrifyingly common in our society and yet still poorly understood.  It’s hard to understand from the outside (unless you’ve been there before) just how the world distorts itself for the depressed person, leading to the all-too-common idea that they’re just feeling down rather than the gray loss of all emotion that a true depressive is likely to feel. 

More recent research has found that depression itself can literally reshape the brain as well as twist one’s experience of reality, illustrating that biology is not as reductionist as we’d like to think and that it is not in fact only genes and molecules, but interactions with the environment as well.  The human brain is fortunately fairly plastic, so much of this damage can be repaired through therapy – but it is never really “fixed” so much as controlled, much like other, more obviously physical illnesses like diabetes or hypothyroid.

This piece dates back to January 2007, when I had just finished my Master’s degree and was in the middle of having the total nervous breakdown I’d been staving off for the latter half of my graduate school career.

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It’s New Year’s Day in Southern California, bright and sunny and clear and cold, and to top it off I’m standing on a beach a few miles north of San Diego, being buffeted by a remorseless ocean wind.

The beach looks different than just about any other time I’ve been; the parking lot is closed off, and it’s difficult to tell if it’s started to erode after they began trying to renovate it, or before. The beach carries the hallmarks of winter storms: shells and other debris left high on a beach made primarily of cobbles. While gentle summer waves push sand onshore, harsh winter waves drag it back offshore, leaving a jagged beach of very different character. Sand dragged offshore exposes tidal channels carved into the soft grey claystones of the Del Mar formation – longitudinal bars carved by the endless push-pull of the tidal current. The tide is currently low, and the others are heading across the slippery rocks to access the tidepools. The ocean will be coming in soon, so I follow the others out.

The Solana Beach tidepools are an interesting anomaly – not to say that tidepools are uncommon, and they do tend to form in soft sandstones and claystones such as these. However, the rocks exposed here are fossiliferous. Nut-shaped Eocene oysters stand out in contrast to the gnarled Recent specimens clinging on top of them, and burrowing mussels dig into the claystones and fossil shells. Tumbled blocks of Torrey Sandstone provide hiding places for brittle stars and octopus on their lower surface, while their upper surface is decorated with the winding burrows called Thalassinoides, standing out in smooth relief and oxidized a rusty red. Farther out both formations are covered with too much sea life and too much seaweed to really make out the fossils, as competition is fierce for hard surfaces to encrust. Were the summer beach sands to bury the rocks for more than a season, should sediments come down the rivers in sufficient quantity to bury the coast and to lithify, the eroded surface of the Del Mar and Torrey formations would create a picture-perfect disconformity: rocks that remain horizontal, but are missing approximately 33 million years’ worth of time.

The ocean is blue-grey and has been lashed by the same storms that stripped the sand from the beach. Out there there’s nothing to erode, but the falling temperatures at the surface have reduced the density differences in the water column. Where the summer ocean is layered, with warm sunlit water floating atop the cold deep water like an oil slick, the winter ocean is cold from top to bottom and much easier to stir. Deep and shallow waters mix, and dissolved nutrients from the depths replenish the depleted stocks at the surface. Spring and summer plankton lie dormant in the surface waters, and the eggs of last year’s fish and copepods drift. There’s plenty of drifting life in the ocean to feed the riot of mouths waiting at the tidepools and rocky reefs closer to shore, but it isn’t quite like spring and summer when the coastal waters explode in the green and gold of diatoms and dinoflagellates. The effect is more like a winter field lying fallow, waiting for the warmth of spring.

I point out a few fossils here and there (force of habit). I point out the cross-bedding exposed in the sandy cliffs where beach currents once pushed ripples across a shallow seafloor, oxidized a blood-red in the orange cliff wall. The blibs and blebs in the Del Mar claystones that are burrows, if you erode the sediment down to cut through them at odd angles. Things I’ve been shown before, had explained to me, was taught what to say by real geologists, real paleontologists. I don’t trust myself enough anymore to identify rocks on my own, since training in field identification and other such staples of the field were somewhat lacking in my education (there’s only so much time in the day, or in the three years alotted for a Master’s degree). Explainations about the living animals are easier, since I had a full undergraduate education in biology – but most of it was at a smaller scale, animals cut in cross section and placed on a glass slide, or soaked in ethanol until they turned pastel colors. Study of the living web of the tidepools would have mostly been the purview of a different department, the next floor up at my alma mater. Very few people in my department studied animals in the whole. Most of my education of macrobiology was the 101-type classes, the ones with over a hundred students, the ones that we had to get out of the way to gain access to the real classes. A glance at the biology research listings at UCR reveals a similar pattern: life cut down the the quick and studied at the smallest scales.

Sometimes I remember why I fled the field of biology.

Unfortunately, doing so seems to have landed me a degree in a field I’m trained pretty poorly in. I’m still not sure what to do with either skill set, as they seem to be pretty mutually exclusive: trained on the one hand for soft-rock geology (field mapping – sedimentary geology; stratigraphy; quantitative biostratigraphy) and on the other for molecular and subcellular biology (molecular and genetic lab techniques; transmission electron microscopy; light microscopy). Supposedly with a Master’s Degree I’m more employable than I would have been even with a PhD, but it doesn’t feel like it; tell the truth, I’m looking back at what I was originally taught to do over the last several years and getting the sort of feeling one gets when they graduate with a degree in Underwater Basket Weaving. Namely – the hell am I supposed to do with this?

But I suppose it doesn’t matter at the moment. All I’ve wanted to do for the last year is to hide, to give up, to let go – but I’m too stubborn for that, for starters, plus I tend to have an overdeveloped sense of obligation. So I finished, and it doesn’t feel like an accomplishment, or even like an ending. Just a sudden cessation, brittle as ice. And now that I’ve had the chance, all I’ve done is hide away from the world, curled up in shame, and wanting to forget that either the past or the future exists. Tired of worrying or caring about either.

Blank as the winter ocean.

Waiting for the sun.

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