SWIMMING TO THE TOP OF THE TIDE:
Finding Life Where Land and Water Meet
by Patricia Hanlon
Bellevue Literary Press
reviewed by Michael McCarthy
Six Ways to Look at a Marsh
Swimming to the Top of the Tide, Patricia’s Hanlon’s delightful debut book, follows her through New England’s Great Marsh as she swims its creeks and channels every day for an entire year. It is a captivating, adroit climate dispatch from Gloucester, Mass. that views the crisis of global warming through a local lens. In grappling with the potential destruction of her beloved home ecosystem, there emerge six ways of looking at the Great Marsh.
1. As a painter
Hanlon puts pen to paper as beautifully as she puts brush to canvas. Before turning to the written word, she painted the Great Marsh in her free time, savoring its nuances of color, play of light, and dance of winds. Her paintings, available here, reveal the intricate palette of the landscape, which can be easily mistaken for a massive green blob. By bringing a painter’s eye to her prose, she deftly captures “the action of this mass, its verbs.” It is a living, breathing ecosystem, and around it dwell living, breathing humans who leave indelible impacts. Whether it’s houses overlooking the marsh or rising tides creeping up the grass, Hanlon’s eye catches all.
2. As a mother
Unlike many in Gloucester, Hanlon is a local. Most homes sit vacant in winter, waiting for humid New England summers to drive their owners to the area’s beaches. Hanlon stays year-round—indeed, swims year-round as well, even during blizzards—in a house she and her husband built when they first moved there. A new mother at twenty-five, she took her infant child on hikes through the new terrain, an image which becomes a fit metaphor for the book. She describes having felt like “a two-headed being, with two sets of eyes and ears.” The book, too, looks with two sets of eyes in two different directions.
Hanlon concerns herself as much with the future as with the past and brings an emotional sensitivity to otherwise abstract issues. Scouring the impacts of anthropogenic climate change, she ponders whether her children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same ecosystem. “We who live here,” she writes, “are privileged to have this unusually intact marsh to enjoy, to study, to restore where needed, and to plan on behalf of.” Little real planning takes place on a global scale, however, so local communities suffer. Hanlon worries that by the year 2100, when her grandchildren may visit their ancestral home, rising sea levels may have rendered her home and the Great Marsh a flooded ruin.
3. As a creature
The Great Marsh is home for Hanlon. She sees herself as a representative of the “brilliant and rapacious species Homo sapiens” amid a community of other organisms. Her neighbors range from cormorants to crabs, seagulls to snails, grass to germs, and she layers lyrical prose over each one. A staring contest with a snail demonstrates the intimate bond she develops with her fellow animals—and her near-perfect choice of words. They recognize in each other “a sober-minded acknowledgement of fellow creatureliness across a chasm of scale.” Mutual recognition leads to compassion. The snail’s loss of habitat is Hanlon’s, and vice versa.
Her daily excursions into the marsh’s waterways foster a relationship that borders on love. Throughout, she attempts to locate the titular “top of the tide” when high tide turns and subsides, a moment she calls “the height of an inhalation. A pause, a holding of breath, and then the beginning of the long six-and-a-half-hour exhalation.” She keeps a tide log after her swims to chart the zenith and nadir of the tide, its inhalations and exhalations, and trace the “human events intersecting with celestial ones.” In her meticulous note-taking and empathic prose, the Great Marsh itself becomes a living creature, a fellow organism with which she shares the earth.
4. As a scientist
The Great Marsh is “an ecosystem researcher’s Shangri-la,” so Hanlon meets local scientists who made the marsh their research subject as Hanlon made it her artistic muse. Their perspectives remind Hanlon that the marsh’s beauty is under constant threat. She guides the reader through her studies of the marsh’s carbon cycling process, which sequesters carbon dioxide and prevents it from leaking into the atmosphere. When Hanlon dives into the science of the Great Marsh, she writes with contagious vigor, recognizing it as but “one fractal bit of the worldwide system of coastal estuaries.” She wants to understand its inner mechanisms so that her reader can feel both the intimacy of her locale and the magnitude of global biomes. Placing the marsh in a scientific context expands the book from the local to the global.
She and her husband travel far from Gloucester more than once. Their plane flights to Nassau and New Orleans reveal both scientific curiosity and childlike wonder as they watch the continent’s geological history “scroll by down below like a story.” Increasingly, the story is a tragedy. From New Orleans, Hanlon travels to the southernmost point of Louisiana, the “Gateway to the Gulf,” and inspects the region’s salt marshes. Here, her scientific awareness disturbs her admiration. Due to global warming, the state loses every few years “the equivalent of one Great Marsh.”
5. As a concerned citizen
Hanlon meticulously catalogs the carbon dioxide her car trips and plane rides belch into the atmosphere. (Jet-skis receive a particularly scathing denunciation when she calls them “perhaps the most flagrantly frivolous use of the internal combustion engine.”) Her documentation comes at an important time as the rich world accounts—or tries to—for its copious carbon emissions. Hanlon offers an alternative vision to environmental preservation that emphasizes communal responsibility over the pervasive doom and gloom of climate activism.
The Sunrise Movement and the likes of Greta Thunberg have defined the language of climate change as a language of catastrophe. Of course, climate change is a catastrophe, but fear does not always compel action as much as a gentle invitation. This gentle invitation is Hanlon’s book. Her prose does not shock the reader with its bluntness. It neither shames the reader for their presumed inaction nor prods world leaders with demands for change. She emphasizes local “miniscule act[s] or stewardships” that mean little to the world but mean the world to the community. “Every place, really,” she reasons, “should be an area of critical environmental concern.” Perhaps this means everyone should be a steward of the earth.
6. As a swimmer
Swimming to the Top of the Tide moves at a relaxed pace, like a body wading through water. It meanders so leisurely that the reader may be duped into thinking they hold in their hands a book of little importance. Such a thought couldn’t be farther from the truth. Hanlon’s approach offers unique venues for environmental justice that a global perspective is too macroscopic to provide. The saying goes, “Think global, act local.” Hanlon asks what it would mean to think locally, too.
I live not too far from the channels Hanlon swam, so I drove to Gloucester to see the beauty of the Great Marsh for myself. Its undulating green hues and thick layers of mud truly do capture the eye, surpassing description and often belief. After a short walk, I ate at Farnham’s, a clam shack beside Ebben Creek, through which Hanlon swam countless times. As I ate fish and chips with a cup of clam chowder, a seagull loitered to the side, eyeing my food. I considered all I had taken from its environment through my casual wastefulness. Its environment . . . my environment. I finished my fish and chips but left the chowder unattended. The seagull feasted. I headed home.
Michael McCarthy is an aspiring writer of prose, poetry, and nonfiction from Braintree, Massachusetts who attends Haverford College, where he intends to major in English. His work has been published in Prairie Schooner.