Between The Tides
A film critique by Lise Goddard, May 2012
Lise Goddard is Director of Environmental Programs and Curriculum at Midland School. She studied marine biology as an undergraduate at Stanford and a graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She now focuses on how humans can better connect with and care for the world around them.
In the days before Christmas 2010, I received two virtually identical emails about 12 hours apart from two friends who didn’t know each other, and who live a thousand miles apart. “Dear Lise,” they wrote, “you’ve got to read The New Yorker article by David Owen called The Efficiency Dilemma.” Interesting, I thought. Not about the article, but about the possibility made clear to me by this convergence of minds. What IF, I thought, what if larger forces are at work here? What if the reason that Peter Coonradt and Bud Laurent sent me those emails has little to do with the article at all? What if the real reason is that Peter and Bud have to meet? And what will happen when I share this insight with them?
As it turned out, sparks flew. There was instant chemistry and a flurry of emails, all of which were fired off while we visited family, and, incidentally, before I ever even got around to reading that article. Yes, they were right, it was a thought-provoking article. But so what? My movie-making friend Peter had at last found the protagonist he needed for a nebulous but electric idea he had for a movie about marine biologists.
On the surface, there are obvious links between Bud and Peter. Similar in age, they both have ties to Midland School, where I teach and live – Peter as an alumnus in the class of ‘64, who returned home 40 years later to make two movies about his alma mater – and Bud as an esteemed member of our environmental advisory board. Bud was a life-long biologist turned political servant and activist in California then Oregon. Peter, a life-long movie maker revealed that he is actually an evolutionary ecologist in his soul, having published a letter in The New Yorker responding to a recent article on mourning. Peter asserted that mourning must have some evolutionary advantage; otherwise this paralyzing response should evolve to become more benign.
But on that December day, my bold reply to them was rooted in links that aren’t so obvious. It was about what lay beneath the surface, a twinkling prelude to the recurring theme of the movie they ultimately produced together. Immersing oneself into the liquid opens up the world on the other side of the glass – a world rich with invertebrate life forms and swirling plankton. Immersion initiates us into an “other” world of sentient beings, a world more ancient and intact than our own. Or maybe it’s as much about the nature of the shimmering surface itself. At the boundary that separates the oceanic realm from ours, something magic happens to those who look closely. The surface acts like a mirror, reflecting our nature back at us. Anyone who looks long enough embarks on a journey that holds the promise of revealing our place on the Earth as humans.
This is what I knew that Peter and Bud had in common – wanderlust for this type of journey. A quest for meaning and purpose. A quest for connection and kindred spirits. A yearning to break through. And so began the making of Between The Tides.
The movie, Between The Tides is inspired by the pioneering work of Ed Ricketts – not only as the biologist who wrote the “bible” of Pacific Coast intertidal ecology, Between Pacific Tides – but as the man whose life was the book as recorded in the pages of The Log from the Sea of Cortez, in numerous essays, and as Steinbeck’s endearing character, “Doc” of Cannery Row. Ricketts was the eloquent spokesman for old-school natural history as the means for understanding our own place on Earth on a continuous thread somewhere between the tide-pools and the stars.
But Between the Tides is not a documentary about Ricketts. Ricketts is the backdrop. The movie is a portrayal of several people and the movie’s protagonist, Bud Laurent, trying to feel, connect with, capture, and re-live Rickett’s feelings of kinship and oneness with the natural world. Bud Laurent offers, as Steinbeck might say, one “peephole” or perspective into this world. The movie opens with Bud Laurent, two decades removed from his once-underwater world as a Fish and Game biologist, on a quest to reconnect with inspiration that once sustained him. A biologist-turned-politician, Bud realizes that he misses the life he once had, and drives south along the coast from Oregon to reconnect with old friends. Ostensibly, he wants to see what has become of them, but ultimately, he is looking for a groundswell, some small signal to reassure him that disciplined curiosity about nature is still leading some biologists to the water’s edge and not just to high-tech laboratories.
Bud connects with several of the biologists who had inspired him during his own studies and underwater career: Don Wobber – jade artist and innovator of underwater time-lapse photography; Frank Donahue – fishing boat captain with an interest in sustainability; Brad Buckley – manager of the Cayucos abalone farm; Frank Wright – contemporary of Ricketts and Steinbeck; and Steve Webster – one of the founders of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Bud then connects with my family, the Goddards. What these people all have in common is a sense of spirituality and a personal connection to their subject. The movie’s youngest characters, Ziggy and Will Goddard, reveal the human potential to truly immerse, connect, and feel that sense of wonder for the natural world, learning species’ names effortlessly, as though they are hues of color or names of people. It’s all a matter of getting outside, being allowed to explore, and having a parent or guide who nurtures this curiosity. It certainly helps Ziggy and Will that they have an unusually good guide in their dad, Jeff, who lives and breathes intertidal ecology. Naturalist studies needs no external motivation; deep knowledge and connection are rewards in themselves.
In this movie, there’s something about abalone. I guess you need to have been alive half a century ago to have seen them stacked on top of one another in tide-pools to get it. Should you have lived through this golden era, scrambling legally through the intertidal zone with an ab-iron, or, better yet, a generation earlier, in the golden era of the Monterey sardine fishery, you would undoubtedly equate California’s intertidal and shallow waters with indescribable bounty. Alas, most of us don’t have this perspective. Abalone are still available in Central California, but they’re cultured, and, if shelled and processed at the abalone farm, they come to us packaged in shrink wrap. Is this what the bountiful Pacific Coast has come to? Metaphorically, is this what old-school naturalists have come to?
We live in a world of shifting base-lines. It is hard to pinpoint a time when near-shore marine ecosystems were “intact.” It is likewise hard to know when we were intact, and perhaps this grows more agonizing the older we get. Bud Laurent yearns to re-connect dots and kindred spirits from his past. He is looking for signs of hope, so he returns to his home coast on a journey.
His re-kindled connections to old friends are enriching, yet they still leave Bud on the dry side of the glass. One of my favorite moments in the movie is the poignant, yearning look on Bud’s face as he looks up and into the big kelp forest tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Reflecting blue, his face reveals an aching of separation, a connection he cannot fully make until he immerses himself again into the water. He finally gets the chance to do so, with his friend Steve Webster. This is Bud’s breaking-through moment, and for a transitory moment, he has a window into the swirling sea of life.
Between the Tides is not a movie about despair for what has been lost as much as a celebration of what remains unchanged – namely that which is hard to capture or describe – our connection to a world more ancient than our own and an instinct to connect with kindred spirits. As you watch the movie, let it wash over you and allow you to re-gain those feelings of joy you have felt in quiet observation of the world around you. Remember that Between The Tides offers one peephole into this world; it is Bud Laurent’s. Your peephole may offer quite a different perspective or cast of characters. The point is to look.