Seiche

Those of us living on the Great Lakes are accustomed to severe weather. We don’t always love it, but we do expect it. At times it snows twenty inches overnight. Other times the brisk winds from the Arctic Circle race across Canada, and if we inhale too deeply, it freezes our nostrils closed. Men come inside from snow-blowing with icicles hanging from their beards. And that’s just the winter months.

Sometimes, a summer storm rolls across the land with so much intensity, so much power, that it  changes the entire lake ecosystem…

When extreme pressure from a storm front pushes down on one side of a lake, this compression can be so tremendous, so strong, that massive amounts of water will flow to the other side, causing the opposite shoreline to flood. As this huge surge overspills the shoreline, the water climbs into the mouths of rivers, washes out low-lying roads, and rolls even the largest, gnarliest pieces of driftwood onto the beach. It causes boats of all sizes to tug desperately on their moorings.

On the compressed side of the lake, the water moves away from shore and mysterious things long buried underwater are exposed — perhaps the skeleton of a shipwreck, or a glistening strip of colored stones, or the remains of a dock that pulled free and disappeared beneath the waves. The standing docks seem to be on stilts, with dry land beneath them, their spindly legs covered in green, dripping algae. Boats on this side of the lake run aground and beaches become vast expanses of sand, littered with curious objects. Maybe even treasure.

One must be quick to discover these treasures though, for once the surge reaches its furthest point, it reverses and the water flows back to inundate this newly barren shore, creeping back with the unstoppable force of water.  After reaching its furthest point in that direction, again it retreats.

This phenomenon, called a seiche, continues for hours, with the water sloshing back and forth, each time a little less intense, until it finally reaches equilibrium. Even though oscillations  continuously move through enclosed bodies of water, they are usually so small that they are not noticeable even to boaters — only when extreme pressure acts upon the water does the phenomenon cause destruction and chaos.

We’ve all felt this tremendous amount of pressure, when the neat edges of our safe, little harbor were askew and overflowing, and all we could do was hold our heads slightly above water to keep from drowning until it was calm again. During those times, we were pushed to our extremes, with emotions overspilling their banks, losing all control, and re-learning what it meant to be vulnerable and exposed to the elements, churning in turmoil.

Even worse, those secrets that had long been hidden deep within were exposed for all to see. Ashamed, we covered them, collected them, hid them. But in doing so, maybe we found a clear piece of rounded blue glass, or a soft pink shell, or a swirling red agate. Maybe we discovered something about ourselves.

After the storm passes, and the surges have settled, the lake resumes its normal ebb and flow. Although the obvious and immediate result of a seiche is destruction, there are many benefits from the turmoil as well. The seiche-driven wave action lifts nutrient-rich sediments, such as decomposing leaves and grasses, from the deeper waters into the sun-lit, surface water where algae can create new living tissue through photosynthesis out of the otherwise stagnant, decomposing material. By whisking those nutrients to the upper levels of water, this disturbance, or upwelling, makes it available for use in the food chain, which in turn, makes the lake a healthier ecosystem.

Even the water rushing onto the shorelines carries nutrients onto land, enriching the soils. When it recedes, it pulls back more leaves and grasses to add to the churning lake, feeding it, making it more whole and resilient.

Looking back at the most difficult events in my life, I realized that like a seiche in the lake, those experiences also enriched me. At the time I only felt the swirling, overwhelming waves battering me, nearly drowning me, but once the storm quieted and I could catch a full breath I felt stronger, wiser.

I was forced to assess where the storm was most destructive, thereby admitting where I was vulnerable. I re-enforced as needed.

I faced my own shipwrecks, and accepted the treasures that had been washed ashore.

I fed upon the upwelling of lost emotions, memories and experiences that had been put to rest on the bottom of my lake bed. They burst forth into new life.

I realized that many small seiches had moved through my life, subtly redefining my shorelines, preparing me to survive, and even thrive, after a storm. And for the first time I was grateful for them.

We have no control over the weather, just like we have no control over many of the events that happen in our lives. We can only control what we take away from those experiences, how we survive them. They can enrich us, or drown us.

And I, for one, am learning how to swim.

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