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Waves and tides

/ 05:10 AM January 02, 2019

Our relationship with the seas has been ambivalent. We love the seas, a source of livelihood and of life itself, but often enough, the seas bring out, even incite, a wide range of emotions. I think immediately of the anxiety and trepidation of women left behind, and of their sorrow and grief when men do not return.

Every year, depending on which part of the country you live in, the seas turn from friends to foes with typhoons and, often enough, even without typhoons, simply from the monsoon, the habagat or the amihan, depending on where you live in our archipelago.

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It’s not accidental that the Chinese tie our fortunes to feng and shui, wind and water. Many of our communities know that only too well, with waves described sometimes as walo-walo, eight feet high, stretched out over eight days.

We are a country so vulnerable to maritime disasters, both “natural” and “manmade”—the distinctions almost artificial, because the casualties are not just about typhoons but about human neglect. Think of the interisland vessels, overloaded and undermanned, that sink at sea.

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We compare life (and love) to rough and calm seas and waves. But I’ve wondered why we hardly speak of tides, which are different from waves. Many literary pieces, poems in particular, have been written in English about tides, which become powerful metaphors about love and adventure, life and death, and the human spirit itself.

The tides deserve more attention in our science classes, as they demonstrate the power of gravity and the earth’s rotation in a daily orchestrated performance that extends through the day, the sun and the moon flirting with each other while the seas watch. High tide, when waves push upwards, is like the audience that stands up for a better view and louder cheering during an exciting sports event like the UAAP basketball finals. Low tide is the audience sitting, but still stirred, still excited.

We are slowly discovering the importance of monitoring the tides. Even without a typhoon, meteorologists need now to warn the public about possible rapid flooding in low-lying areas, if there is continuous rain around the time of high tide. For fishing, a better understanding of tides can help determine when and where to fish for a more bountiful harvest.

I write this in La Union among crowds of surfers, many of whom religiously keep track of tides through phone apps (“Tides” is a good one) that plot out the day for you for high and low tides, depending on your location.

The attraction of high or low tide is relative, though. New surfers, as well as senior citizens like myself, only want to swim with the surf and will prefer the low tide. Expert surfers love the high tide, but also know it has its risks, described with their own language of currents and swells.

With my background in biology, I’m intrigued by intertidal habitats, partly described in the opening lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Low Tide.” These are the life forms you find on wet rocks during low tide : “… barnacled white and weeded brown, and slimed beneath to a beautiful green.”

Millay is awed, but somewhat fearful of this hidden world. Life in intertidal habitats is indeed difficult and dangerous. But maybe because I think of us Filipinos as intertidal creatures (often not out of choice), I take a different view. We might disappear during high tide, only to reappear in full splendor—victory over precarity.

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Please, let’s not call this resilience, which politicians use to excuse themselves from doing more. We survive at great cost, in extraordinary circumstances, at home and overseas (and, for many overseas Filipinos, in the high seas).

In the year ahead, we will see more of this precarity, in a world engulfed by all kinds of crises, including the moral. The crises are all the more dangerous because they are not always obvious.

We must learn to hope for the better rather than just the good, and to cry out when our hopes, and our hard toil, are betrayed.

Future generations of Filipinos will continue to compare life to the seas and to their waves. I would like us to think more of high and low tides in the original meaning of the word: tides as times, and as seasons (as in Yuletide).

In a sense, we are all seafarers, and should find cause for rejoicing each time we return home. An old word for the end of the day is, in fact, eventide, a time to reflect on, and to be grateful for, the way we buffeted the day’s waves and tides to bring home good tidings (again, the tides) for our loved ones.

A good year, and a good life, to all of us.

mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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