Walking on Water.

Walking on water is one of those things that does not normally happen too often. All considerations of the divine to one side, it’s a question of optimism over physics, mass over buoyancy - and mass wins. Attempts at water-walking inevitably end with wet feet, laughter from colleagues and embarrassment. The scale of the embarrassment is directly proportional to the degree of wetness. We learn this at an early age. And yet we still try to outrun that sinking feeling associated with water walking - it’s as if we believe that you really can get your foot out of the hole you have made in the water faster than the water can get back in. Speed walking once immersed is only likely to result in tripping over - which leads to greater wetness, more laughing and increased embarrassment.

However, a compromise version of water walking is available - one with significantly reduced wetness and only slightly reduced enjoyment. You can walk along piers and jetties. You can linger in the middle of bridges. You can walk over water, rather than on it. Once you are on your pier, jetty or bridge you can indulge in the kind of reflective peering that they encourage. Neither water nor land - they exist in a kind of never never land betwixt and between the two, and they invite exploration.

The water flows in tangled currents around the legs of piers and the piers of bridges. It heaps up on the current side and slips away downstream. With luck fish will glide between the uprights. Flashing sunlight from their flanks as they turn to pick off a morsel of this, a snippet of that. Chubb in the Brue chasing flakes of bread, salmon in the Leven holding their own against the current, a pike smashing into a shoal of roach under an unnamed bridge on an unknown drain. A shower of scales, a death, gone.

The piles and blocks that push down below the surface and hold the piers firm, pass from a world of light into one of growing darkness. Light holds the key, and plants drifting past settle and grow. Vertical reefs form, and gather more life to them as each tide, each flood, passes. If the piles and blocks gather plants to their surface, then the plants gather fish and other plant lovers. It seems only natural, small plants, small fish, bigger fish.
Where fish gather, so do fishermen, drawn by the visibility of their targets. Fish haunt the structures, glide in and out of visibility. Anglers seduced by the seeming simplicity of the task gather. The fish drift, tantalising, to the bait and hover, inspecting, before they are off with a flick of the tail and visible disdain. On occasions fish gather in shoals, dance in groups and display a strange confidence. On two occasions I have seen shoals of Toad Fish - the name tells you how popular they are - drifting around the piles of piers. Was it food? Was it protection? Was it something more productive that caused them to gather? Normally a fleeing fish of the wave’s edge, here they floated in full view. They are a boxy fish with clear strips and an unfeasibly large appetite. They are unpopular with fishermen, being seen as bait stealers. Yet I have a strange fondness for their sheer unmitigated ugliness. And when they occur in large numbers they are actually fun to watch as they jink and jive around each other doing whatever they are doing.

Rods leant on painted rails nod to the rhythm of tide and current, move in harmony with the wind. The fishermen wait for a change in motion. The double tap of whiting. The violence of salmon. The misleading drag of weed. But mainly, they just wait. Greek men talking with rattling tobacco voices, discuss the day. Young men talk of future plans, of last night, of missed chances, of things to come. Time passes and the rods nod, the fish may or may not cooperate. Garfish from Swan Bay jetty, squid from Queenscliff pier, trevally from Lady Barron pier on Flinders Island where, for once the wait was short. Mystery fish, almost lost in the last seconds, from Kangaroo Island. All caught from piers, all caught whilst walking on water.

If anglers chase fish at the end of piers, then their edges and undersides offer a different place to hunt. The mobile replaced by the sessile, the still patience of fishing replaced by hunting and gathering. Peering under piers, searching under rocks, in still pools, on wave washed edges. Wading instead of waiting. The water, cool and delicious in summer, sharp and biting in winter, calls to be explored. Sea anenomes blob in the air, flower in the water. Limpets react with a panicked settling to a tap on the shell. Crabs hide in cracks, under rocks, and snap claws at the unwary. Starfish with short arms, long arms, missing arms glide on tube feet. Sometimes brightly coloured, sometimes rock like. In deeper pools fish dart. Are they trapped until the return of the tide, or have they emerged into the safety of the turned tide? The slap and hiss of waves over sharp edges, the distant call of gulls. There is neither stillness or silence, but there is richness here for the observant, for those willing to leave the beach and wade, watch and wonder.

Back on the top of the pier birds gather on the rails in loose groups. If you have plastic sleeves you could lean there too, but only once the birds have gone. Gulls hover, waiting for fishing boats to come home. Waiting for fish frames, bait scraps, pie crusts. Sometimes birds dart under the pier and emerge on the other side - they could be hunting, but they could just be enjoying themselves.

I hope they are, because it’s not really possible to wander out onto a pier without enjoying yourself.


RBenz said…
I find the same noisy solitude when I sit on rocks at the ocean's edge. It is solitude because i find myself both drifting away and shrinking to a singularity at the same time. The loud crashing of the waves covers all other sounds and as ridiculous as it seems tends to allow a strange silence to overcome. But then just as quickly, I hear the gulls and terns and see the lobstermen hauling their traps. I'm back! But the solo journey will come again.

RB on the coast of Maine

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