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The Ear

Sample Work: Prose

Of Humilities and Horse Mussels

By Charles Hood

“To a mountaineer,” wrote John Muir, “a sea voyage is a grand, inspiring, restful change.” And one snowless January, unable to ski and too lazy to climb, I took him up on that, voyaging not over the sea but along its side, on a ramble through the tide pools of Orange County. Is there still nature south of Los Angeles? Indeed so, as was obvious even at the starting point, Corona del Mar, where in a minute (and with binoculars) you can tick a dozen species of coastal birds.

Roughly put, corona del mar means “crown of the sea” in Spanish, though in typical California fashion, the history of the name is not what it seems: it was bestowed not by Balboa or Cortez or Padre Serra, but by George Hart, a turn of the century real estate broker. There are fine pools right at it and its sister beach, Little Corona, but my interest was focused south, on a short, unnamed spine of coast between the Coronas and the state park at Crystal Cove. I was lucky: conditions were ideal—the day warm, the surf nil, and the tide at its lowest ebb of the year.

Short bluffs divide the beach from the city, and I suppose a good botanist could make much out of the weeds among them. All I saw was iceplant and prickly pear, and I picked my way out, instead, waterward, over the cobble. Doing so raised a mixed flock of gulls, including some white-headed ones, Heermann’s, in breeding plumage, followed in turn by three snowy egrets, gliding away on linen wings. Underfoot, the scree was covered with slicks of algae and seaweed. Technically, since this was an interval of minus tide, I could say that I was below sea level, even though I had yet to get my Nikes wet. Ed Ricketts (of Steinbeck fame) refers to this lowest zone of intertidal rock as Triton’s shrine because of the marine profusion. According to Ricketts, “there is no rock too small to harbor some living thing, no single cluster of algae without its inhabitants.”

True enough. Whether I was hopping rock to rock or just crouching still, it was hard not to be standing on somebody. The bedrock flowed in sheets aimed southwest, folding periodically into hurdles and stacks. Into this the Pacific Ocean had drilled out hundreds of tiny grottos, which were left exposed like glass-topped living rooms as the tide peeled west.

My shadow on the first deep pool scattered a handful of calico sculpin. No bigger than minnows, mottled like poorwills, these delicate beauties are cousins to the larger and better-known cabezon, which is a truly ugly fish, though reportedly good eating if fried with the correct herbs. Yet the symbol of Pacific littoral is an invertebrate, not a fish. Who doesn’t know the sea anemone? These animal-flowers look like squished plums when retracted, but when not threatened will open into a many-fingered blossom. The specimens at hand, giant green anemones, come as large as any in the world; a symbiotic algae causes their tentacles to glow aquamarine. Anemones always remind me of the Medusa myth. The name itself is Greek, meaning “wind flower” (anemology is the science of wind), but more obviously the tentacles just plain and simple look like a nest of vipers. And while they can’t turn people into stone, they do paralyze small fish and other prey that drift within range. I’m often struck by the similarities, in classical art, between portraits of Medusa and the profile of the sea anemone. Did those ancient artists use this sea polyp as a model?

Birds, too, are symbols, and their names reveal man’s preoccupations. A wandering tattler flushed ahead of me as I moved to another pool, crying “eet-eet” as it went, taking half a dozen turnstones with it. Turnstones do turn over stones, but tattlers do not tattle, at least not to my ears. I lost the flock as they skimmed directly into the sun, so turned my attention downwards, to the pool at my feet. This one was filled with the purple blobs of sea urchins. Some urchins these: sea fortresses might be a better name, given their layers of tall spines. Their bark, so to speak, is worse than their bite, since despite their medieval exterior, they are simple herbivores, grazing on moss with a jaw called Aristotle’s lantern. Sometimes you can find their shells, which lose both spines and color. Called “tests,” these husks from dead urchins are shaped like knobby pincushions or tiny green pumpkins. I gathered five tests before deciding I would rather observe than collect, dropping them one by one back into the pool. They sank down slowly, swirling.

Moving along, I reflected that storms bring more than they take. Over the winter the ocean had heaped a little of everything onto the shore—hawsers of kelp, twisted lobster cages, abalone shells the size of bowls, Coors cans, scallops, cowries, glass. It was better than a rummage sale. Evidently the Chumash had thought so too; coastal Indians wore and used and traded all sorts of shells. Mussels were made into fishhooks and spoons, clams provided chowder, cockles made beads, tusk shells were considered prize currency. And the shell of the giant keyhole limpet, conveniently pre-drilled, was painted and used for necklaces. But the keyhole limpet is startling when first observed alive. It looks bigger than its six inches. More than anything it looks like a huge black blob of tar on which perches a tawny, oval, punctured shell. The tar is, in fact, the critter himself, but the proportions seem bizarrely wrong: he has outgrown his shell.

Standing on a boulder fat with mussels and leaf barnacles, I took a long minute listening to the tide sounds, to the clicks, crackles, whistles, hisses. What was the gossip? What did the ticks and clacks mean? Our scale and theirs do not match. If you get down on your knees and stick your nose inches from some crack, whole villages appear—a crab, a chiton, and a bay barnacle all nestle in the space of a Susan B. Anthony dollar. I usually think of chitons as being static, like lichen. One shallow basin, filled with a few inches of water and film of sand, showed otherwise. Something had cut the sand in wandering, thimble-width trails. Following the wakes turned up the agents, Nuttall’s chitons, their slow-motion routes clearly recorded.

Half a mile from the urchin jump I came across the best prize of the day. Among the hermit crabs and snails and anemones, at pool’s bottom, crawled a perfectly resplendent nudibranch, Aplysia californica, the California sea hare. At first glance, a nudibranch seems like a drowned slug, but appearances can be deceiving. I scooped it up on an oyster shell for closer inspection. It was young, the size of my palm. In the water it had been relaxed, ambling along, looking (if you were tired enough) almost like an actual hare. Out of the water it contracted into a slug’s form, a hunched, jelly-skinned sausage, deep red flecked with olive and cobalt, gorgeous. The hide was not gooey, but instead lightly textured and pleasant to the touch. It felt like a fresh dinner roll. Was it male or female? No telling, since sea hares are hermaphroditic. Reportedly, an individual hare can emit 86 million eggs at one go. Most of these millions of planktonic larvae will be gobbled up by everything from gray whales to grunion. This fellow would grow further to become large and rank and inedible—perhaps it already was large enough to be safe from everything except amateur naturalists. It was a pleasure to have found it. It was a better pleasure to let it go.

Meandering further south brought the final tumble of rocks. Past them, eel grass beds led to an open curve of beach. Sanderlings sprinted with the breakers. The breeze had shifted, driving back salt air with the aroma of sage. A black phoebe hawked for sand fleas. Ahead, at water’s edge, I watched five willets probe for mole crabs. Plain, grey shore birds, willets on first glance look drab, yet their genus name means “mirror bearer,” a reference to the bold black-white-black chevron they show in flight. Early settlers were struck by this also, calling the birds “humilities.” In colonial cosmology, willets (quite properly) dressed plainly while on earth. But once they took to the air, and thus were closer to God’s kingdom, they unfurled their heavenly finest—their black and white flashing wings. Whether for the glory of God or merely out of instinctual caution, my willets showed their humility upon my closer approach, and sought better hunting elsewhere.

As I watched them go, I felt odd. It’s strange, but man really does intrude in the natural world—at least the birds keep trying to tell me that—yet humans have the imagination to process this landscape too, to see it, name it, study it, praise it. Like the willet’s wing, we’re an odd mix of beauty and mundane functions. Unlike them, though, we can change the ratio.

This story originally appeared in the 1990 issue of The Ear.

Former Newport Beach resident and Saddleback College instructor Charles Hood now lives and teaches in the Mojave Desert. His book Partially Excited States won the Pollak Poetry Prize and will come out in 2017 (Wisconsin UP); Mouth, a mix of art and fiction, won the 2016 Kenneth Patchen Prize. Also due out soon are two natural history projects for Heyday Books and a book on urban nature with Timber Press. He has been to 50 countries and has a bird list of over 5,000 species, but says that turnstones and willets still excite him as much as when he first wrote this essay.​

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