Essay: Bastian Fox Phelanon rockpools

‘I Know Such A Hidden Pool’


I started going down to the rock pools one day in early August, 2020. Walking along the coast of Mulubinba Newcastle was a daily pleasure, but when the pandemic had been declared, this activity was disrupted by an intense fear of other people and the virus they might be carrying. It was unclear what was required to protect against aerosol transmission of COVID-19; being cautious by nature, I began to give a wide berth to any humans I encountered. My usual walking route was out of the question. The raised metal path from Strzelecki Lookout down to Bar Beach, a popular stretch of coast with sweeping ocean views, was almost always packed with people – even more so after the gyms shut down. Up there, I couldn’t maintain a boundary that felt safe, so I began following the coastline in the opposite direction, from Khanterin Shepherds Hill down into King Edward Park, where the horseshoe bend was wide and the Norfolk pines stood tall, and I could go cross-country if I needed to, avoiding humans altogether.

I can’t quite recall why I stepped off the path on that particular day and headed towards the rocky southern end of Newcastle Beach, where nobody goes. Perhaps I was avoiding a dangerous-looking group of people congregating on the path beneath the crumbling coal cliffs. Perhaps the exposed rock platform covered in vivid lime green algae had caught my attention. I can say for sure, though, that the decision to go down to the rock pools was influenced by a small, unusual book I had been reading, a book that described the marine life of the intertidal zone in delicate and deliberate detail: The Edge of the Sea, by American marine biologist and nature writer Rachel Carson.

I had picked up this book on a trip to the university library on the cusp of the pandemic. I’d just started a PhD in eco-memoir, and I loaded up on books the way people in supermarkets were loading up on toilet paper. A month into lockdown, when my brain had slowed enough to read a few pages, I’d started Edge and had found Carson’s scientific prose reassuring. I began learning about the rocky shores, the sandy shores, and the coral coast through her descriptions of the life cycles of barnacles, the pattern of the tides, the feeding habits of molluscs. The world of humans had been ruptured, washing my body with cascades of anxiety. Yet in the intertidal zones of the world, whole communities were following their own biological rhythms through deep time, evolving to meet the harsh conditions of their environment.

In this text, which is closer to a field guide than the lyrical works she is best known for, Carson showed me what I might find beneath the tides, if I looked. But it wasn’t until I read her descriptions of tide pools that I began to see the gentle power of her writing. Carson doesn’t often invoke herself as an embodied presence on the rocky New England shoreline, but in this passage she appears in sensual detail: her fingers exploring the ‘brown velvety coating’ at the edge of a pool, her body lying outstretched on the rocks beside a pool so small she could reach out and ‘easily touch its far shore’, her eyes seeing reflected stars in the pools at night, and ‘Other, living stars [that] come in from the sea’. Carson writes, ‘Tide pools contain mysterious worlds within their depths, where all the beauty of the sea is subtly suggested and portrayed in miniature.’

Carson began revealing her tide pool secrets to me, that ‘some of the most beautiful pools of the shore are not exposed to the view of the casual passer-by. They must be searched for.’ I saw her small form climbing over boulders and underneath overhanging rock ledges decorated with dripping seaweed, the mottling of pink and brown encrusting coralline algae, and the glistening fleshy blobs of anemones with their tentacles folded inwards. She told me: ‘I know such a hidden pool.’ I gasped at the beauty of that sentence, while sitting on the couch in my living room at midnight, nursing my insomnia.

By June, lockdown in New South Wales had ended, yet I had not been able to unlock myself. I spent time at home with my fiancé, but continued to avoid friends, and had even abandoned my favourite pastime, watching the northern humpback whale migration, because of the conversations with strangers that naturally occur when you stand on a headland together. I felt my world shrinking. Daily life had become less beautiful, and I found myself spending more time in worlds that offered beautiful simulations – the wind through digital flowers or the light playing on digital waves in the popular 2020 video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Reading Carson, I realised that I yearned to know more about the places that were just outside my door. I wanted to know hidden things too. I wanted to go down to the edge of the sea.

So I did, that day in early August. I wandered over the platform, looking for pools and the life they held within their waters. There were familiar things – oysters, pale blue periwinkles, anemones with green tentacles and dark red hearts – but as I looked closely for the first time, I began to wonder if I had ever truly seen them. The pools had formed in aesthetically pleasing shapes: rectangles, near-perfect circles, an unusual, wiggly shape that reminded me of a cartoon leg, or a Surrealist melting guitar. And there were things I’d never seen before – tiny, scuttling creatures that I thought might be the amphipods I’d read about in Carson’s book.

As I gazed into the rock pools at South Newcastle Beach, I was thinking about a friend in Melbourne, a city that had gone back into lockdown. We had been sending each other photographs of sunsets, and because I knew that she missed the sea, I’d also send her pictures of the ocean, or an audio recording of waves breaking on the shore. I think that’s why I took out my smartphone and started taking pictures, and why, later that night, I posted my first set of rock pool Stories on Instagram:

I hadn’t been a frequent user of Instagram’s Stories function but seeing my pictures overlayed with text reminded me of the cut-and-paste collage zines I’ve made for the past fifteen years. The ephemeral nature of the Stories, which disappear after 24 hours, appealed to my zinemaking sensibilities, and it seemed to suit the subject matter: the intertidal zone is a place that changes from hour to hour, day to day. Writing about her favourite sea cave, Carson says that ‘the beauty of the reflected images and of the limpid pool itself was the poignant beauty of things that are ephemeral, existing only until the sea should return to fill the little cave.’

Later that night I received a text message from my friend in Melbourne. My rock pool story had sparked a connection in her mind. Shareeka sent me a link to a video of Jade Kennedy, a Yuin man, talking about what ‘Welcome to Country’ means on a deeper level. She also sent me a recommendation for a Canadian podcast called Future Ecologies, which explores ‘the many ways we relate to our living planet.’ In their first episode, ‘Decolonise this Podcast’, a Coast Salish woman and ethnobotanist named T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss explains, ‘When I think about ecology, I think about humility and reciprocity. And I think those are two things we have to work on, in a deeper sense, with our environment.’ As I listened to the wisdom shared by these two speakers, I reflected on how I might tell stories about the land where I lived – Awabakal land. How would I embody these values?

In the week following this, I went to several other rock pools: the Cowrie Hole, a large rock platform north of the much-loved art deco Newcastle baths where my grandparents met; the rocks at the northern end of Bar Beach; and along the sandy shore of Nobbys Beach to find shells. I hadn’t studied biology since I was sixteen years old, yet I found myself poring through online field guides after each adventure, researching names and fun facts to share with my friends on Instagram.

Later, I revisited the south end of Newcastle Beach and found, to my delight, that the lime green algae pools were filled with frilly, brown slug-like creatures called sea hares. As I watched their slow but purposeful journeys through their rock pool homes, grazing on algae, I sensed a kind of contentment emanating from the sea hares, leading me to conclude that they were the ‘cute brown cows of the rock pools.’ It’s difficult to say whether my reading of sea hare emotions is accurate, or if it was a projection of the calm I felt while observing them. Carson describes sea hares in a similar way, ‘browsing peacefully among some seaweeds.’ The tenderness in her writing surprised me – I wasn’t used to scientists expressing themselves this way. It was also the reason to keep reading; with Carson, I felt a kinship in our love for the sea.

More friends started commenting on my Stories. I thought of myself as providing a nature-viewing service for people who could not get out of their suburb, but rock pool gazing was just as important for me: when I peered through the surface of a pool, looking for creatures amongst the algae, my fears about the latest COVID-19 wave dissipated. Curiosity for life outweighed the urge to refresh my news feed with its constant reminders of illness and death, and I forgot, for a minute, that we were in a pandemic. I’ve never had a lot of faith in the future. Perhaps it’s my inclination to worry, or perhaps it’s a reasonable response. COVID-19 seemed to confirm my worst fears: that the world was a dangerous place, and the only way to protect myself was to ‘shelter at home’. The rock pools felt safe though. In the open air, away from people, I could watch a sea snail tracing lines through the sand in a shallow sunlit pool beautifully mottled with green and brown and ochre-coloured algae and feel, for a moment, that the pool was the whole world.

One night while listening to Future Ecologies, I heard a speech from a conservation scientist that flipped the script of my eco-anxiety. ‘We get something out of taking care of things,’ Dan Gluesenkamp explains. ‘It is fundamental to our nature to need to take care of other humans – of other species, of systems, of things, of beliefs. It sustains us.’ In mid-July I had started to volunteer as a helpline phone responder for Hunter Wildlife Rescue and was deeply moved by the passionate commitment of the volunteers, and by the level of care shown by members of the public who called me each Tuesday to report an injured possum or an orphaned plover chick.

Working on the phones gave me a lifeline to the community during this period of isolation. I thought about Gluesenkamp’s speech and his view of a world radically transformed by people who cared enough to preserve species, and I decided to get in touch with the producers of Future Ecologies to ask for a transcript so I could cite Dan’s vision in my PhD research. When I learnt that the producers hadn’t yet created transcripts, I offered my help. I had the time, and I already knew from my work on the phones that when you give, it usually comes back multiplied.

By the end of the month, I’d been added to the Discord chat group for friends and contributors to Future Ecologies and had begun connecting with a community of artists and ecology enthusiasts from around the world. Soon afterwards, I downloaded an app that the members used – iNaturalist, which allows you to upload photos, connect with other naturalists and scientists, and identify species. After I began using iNaturalist, every plant or animal encounter was an opportunity to gain knowledge. Previously, all detritus on the beach had been either plastic, rocks, or ‘shells’. Now I saw rough turban shells, shiny dog cockles, striped-mouth conniwinks, pyramid noddiwinks, and Spengler’s trumpet snails. Their names became an incantation I recited in my mind while combing the beaches and rock platforms. I began to develop a mania for Latin binomials; like a child, I ran around asking ‘What’s that, what’s that?’ After living through such uncertainty for most of the year, it was comforting to feel that I understood things, that certain species could be known, definitively. I took photos, shared them on Discord and iNaturalist, and continued posting to my Instagram Stories.

Through these platforms, I was learning how to read the environment in a way I never had before. I carried my smartphone on rockpooling adventures the way Carson had carried her hand lens. Each time iNaturalist’s AI computer vision model suggested a species ID, and I confirmed it, I was contributing to citizen science. Each time my identification was vetted by a member of the community, I was building relationships. It was different to what I’d experienced playing Animal Crossing, although my love of collecting bugs, fossils and fish in this game felt meaningful. With iNaturalist and Discord, it wasn’t just a simulation – there was an interface between digital life and nature, and there were real people to bond with. I had entered a new world of online connection with people who were obsessed with the natural world. I was now part of their eco-community, and the community provided me with a connection to other people – something I had lost during the pandemic.

At times I wondered whether I had come too late to the party – was it worth connecting with the natural world when all signs point towards catastrophic change and loss, within my lifetime? But after Gluesenkamp’s speech about the importance of care, and T’uy’t’tanat’s wisdom about the importance of reciprocity, I decided that the only way to respond to crisis – the pandemic, the climate crisis, and my own personal crisis with anxiety – was to care more, love more, and make deeper connections. The connections were with the more-than-human world, but they were primarily with people.

Carson had someone in mind while writing Edge of the Sea – Dorothy Freeman, her summertime neighbour in Southport, Maine, with whom she shared a passionate correspondence over twelve years. Carson had written to Dorothy, ‘Maybe the easiest way for me to write a chapter would be to type “Dear Dorothy” on the first page. As a matter of fact, you and your particular kind of interest and appreciation were in my mind a great deal when I was rewriting parts of the section on rocky shores.’ Carson was not a loner: the book is dedicated to Dorothy and her husband Stanley, ‘who have gone down with me into the low-tide world and have felt its beauty and its mystery.’ Although much of Dorothy and Carson’s relationship was conducted with great physical distance between them, I imagine that it was the intimate moments of shared beauty and mystery that sustained them. Reciprocity, I realised, meant being able to share things with others. For that, I had to overcome my fear of proximity – I had to invest in trust.

One sunny morning in mid-September I ran down to the Bogey Hole, an ocean bath at the base of a cliff in King Edward Park. The waters were clear and still; from above, I could see all the way to the rocky bottom. This was what Rachel Carson had meant when she described the beauty of a tide pool’s ‘pellucid depths.’ I decided to go down. I clambered over the platform and sat on a warm, smooth rock patterned with what looked like fossilised leaves, right at the water’s edge. I stroked its surface and thought about all it had endured through deep time, with constant weathering, wave action, the rise and fall of the ocean. I’d learned though a VR production, Niiarrnumber Burrai (Our Country), that further out to sea was Yohaaba, once a gathering place for Awabakal and Worimi peoples, now covered by water. ‘Many people would gather at Yohaaba for corroboree,’ a speaker in the video says, ‘to pay respect and give thanks.’ It made me think of what Carson had said about ‘the interchangeability of land and sea in the marginal world of the shore, and of the links between the life of the two.’ To have a record of these changes, these relationships, embedded in cultural knowledge passed through generations, seemed astounding to me.

Something in the water had caught my eye. As I peered in, the pool came to life. A fish flashed from its hiding place in the seaweed and disappeared again. A large red rock crab emerged from the weeds below my toes and began nibbling something, then darted sideways. Snails just under the waterline scraped their radulas along the algae. Carson had described a similar scene: ‘The crystal water was filled with sunshine – an infusion and distillation of light that reached down and surrounded each of these small but resplendent shellfish with its glowing radiance.’ It was not just the clarity of the water that allowed her to see, I realised as I gazed into the pool. It was also the quality of her attention that let her witness what many people would never see. I had been a keen observer of the coast since I’d moved to Mulubinba Newcastle, but I had never paid attention to these small things. It had taken the ‘anthropause’ of the global pandemic for me to slow down and look more closely – to see the life that rock pools contained and appreciate how this added depth to my own life.

A swimmer entered the water and the animals disappeared as ripples from his laps spread out. When the swimmer departed and the water became still again, the animals re-emerged. They were aware of our human presence, but we were often unaware of, or uninterested in them. I crept along the edge of the pool and spied sea stars in shades of pink, yellow and blue, perfectly camouflaged against the encrusting coralline algae. Next to the access platform at the base of the stairs, I noticed something submerged on the rock face that seemed to have a different texture to the kelp and sea lettuce surrounding it. It looked fleshy, familiar – like skin. There was a round hole opening and closing rhythmically, and a large white eye with a dark slanting pupil. It was an octopus, and the octopus was watching me.

I had never thought of the Bogey Hole as a living place. This bath, carved out of the rock platform by convicts in the 1820s for the personal use of the Commandant, James Morisset, was given to the people of Newcastle, along with King Edward Park, almost 160 years ago. It has been a popular leisure spot ever since. But at night, with no humans around, who did this place really belong to? It had been built for a coloniser, but it had never been his. Since that time, it had been colonised by sea life. Seaweeds and invertebrates had made it theirs, and together, they formed the community of the Bogey Hole rock pool. Because I had sat quietly, I’d had the pleasure of meeting my neighbours.

Yet I was a stranger here, too. As a settler-colonial descendent, my ties to this place were shallow – just four or five generations, on my mother’s side. Before that, my ancestors had known green fields, farming and copper mining, the tall cliffs of Bunmahon receding and then fading from sight as they sailed to a land that was new for them, but had been known by custodians for aeons. When the Phelans arrived in the 1860s in Wagga Wagga, Wiradjuri land, they used what they knew of Ireland to farm wheat and establish a sheep station on so-called Crown land. Under the new Robertson Land Acts, new settlers were permitted to select and purchase parcels of land for £1 per acre, resulting in even greater dispossession of Aboriginal people. My ancestors stayed for a few generations, prospering and building their wealth, and when my great-great grandmother required better access to medical support in the early 1900s, they sold their property and moved to a large house in Newcastle. Back in Ballyristeen, distant relatives continued to farm their ancestral lands. Few would return to see where they had come from.

What would thousands of years of unbroken connection to Country feel like? I would never know, but I could learn to be more respectful – of the land I lived on, of the Awabakal people, and the custodians of all the places I travelled in. By spending time looking and listening, I hoped that I was becoming a humble visitor.

I began to compose a new Story:

Just then, two middle-aged women appeared on the platform, startling me. I wanted to vanish, like a fish, but something held me back. The octopus was too good to keep to myself.

‘There’s an octopus under there,’ I said, pointing to the place where it was hidden.

The women rushed to the platform’s edge, going on hands and knees to get a better look, giggling when their joints made it tricky to get up again.

‘I hope it’s not a blue-ringed’ one woman said.

‘I think it’s a common Sydney octopus,’ I said, ‘because of the rust-red underside.’ I’d looked it up – there was nothing to fear. No bogeyman at the Bogey Hole, just a peaceful place to bathe.

I stayed to chat for a while, something I hadn’t risked in a long time. And though it was hard to prevent myself from mentally measuring out a 1.5 metre safety gap, I found that what remained afterwards was the warmth of having shared a beautiful moment in the sun with two fellow humans.

When I returned home, I consulted the Minoan Tarot and drew the Sea Ten, showing a sea star motif from a painted terracotta vessel. Sea stars are known for their regenerative abilities; ‘acceptance of a new environment is key,’ the card told me. It would take time to adapt to the new environment the pandemic had created, but I’d taken a step towards acceptance, and the intertidal zone was teaching me something about resilience and sharing space with your neighbours. Carson writes that ‘Only the most hardy and adaptable can survive in a region so mutable, yet the area between the tide lines is crowded with plants and animals. In this difficult world of the shore, life displays its enormous toughness and vitality by occupying almost every conceivable niche.’ It was the growing awareness of this abundance that had created, for me, the possibility of hope.

In Nourishing Terrains, Deborah Bird Rose writes,

Around much of the coast of Australia, Aboriginal people own (according to their own law) both the land and the surrounding waters… The law of the land is also the law of the sea, and sea, like land, is country that is known, named, sung, danced, painted, loved, harvested and cared for.

She quotes Matthew Dhulumburrk of Milingimbi, in a submission to gain legal control of the coastal waters:

…the earth and the sea, the water is not empty… We got something in it, we always have it and we’ll be having it all the time… The land and the sea not empty sheds that man has built. There’s something in it.

I can’t pretend to understand the cultural knowledge behind these words. But, reading them, I feel their resonance. At the Bogey Hole my observations shifted a little, from an obsession with naming and knowing, to a quieter, deeper look into the rock pools. In my own experience, the ‘something’ that’s there can be felt, but not described, not defined, and perhaps you’d feel it in the gaze of an octopus, or a crab, or the swish of water across a sea star’s slowly moving limbs.

It is not enough to name, as Carson explains: ‘True understanding demands intuitive comprehension of the whole life of the creature.’ To know a place, you must be part of it, care for it. Awabakal people have been caring for it for millennia. At the Bogey Hole, I was an eyeblink in time. And yet I felt that this place was opening something inside of me, permeating my boundaries, expanding my idea of ‘community’ to include other people and the more-than-human world. My eyes filled with the colours and shapes of the rock pools, and the mysterious world rushed in.