Illustration: Kate Hazell

"My mind was a mess"—how an afternoon spent rockpooling taught me to slow down

The world will come to life around you if you let it
March 3, 2020

Is there anything more soothing than rockpooling? I highly recommend heading to the coast whenever you are feeling overwhelmed and doing a spot of window shopping along the rocky foreshore. We’re spoiled here in Orkney for beaches, but some of my favourite seaside spots are the rockiest bits, like the causeway between the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island, and the island we call “mainland.”

The causeway, a narrow concrete path, crosses a rocky 250m expanse of flagstone, laid down in layers that splay open like a sheaf of paper. Between the leaves, at low tide, water remains in small pools beloved of limpets, hermit crabs, sea squirts, anemones and tiny fish.

Last time we visited, my mind was a mess—running fast with thoughts of deadlines and things overdue, the neverending to-do list—and at first I was underwhelmed. A slate grey sky reflected grey off a hundred shallow puddles. A few empty shells. Clumps of seaweed draped messily over everything. I tramped on looking for signs of life, slipping and sliding on the rock. Nothing. But my partner Rich said the problem was me; slow down, he called from behind, you’re missing everything.

Quite right. Because here’s the trick: you have to stop, be still, and let the pools choose to reveal themselves. So I sat quietly, and watched the breeze ruffle the surface of the water. It took five minutes, but gradually the shallows shivered into activity. Sea anemones pulled their fingers from their gloves to undulate in the current. Winkles poked their heads from their shells, and restarted their slow snail-like progress. And, most excitingly, the hermit crabs: perhaps a half dozen, just in this near pool, making their surprise appearances from an appropriated shell. So comical with their beady eyes, their mincing steps.

I broke the rule and stretched out my hand to pick one up, then saw him—and all his neighbours—shoot back indoors, like villagers escaping the clutches of an approaching giant. I inspected the mouth of the shell, saw the tips of his tiny toes pulled tight against his chest. Then I laid him to rest on the rock in front of me and waited. After a time, once he felt the danger was past, he slowly, nervily emerged. When no harm came to him, he set off, back in search of water, scuttling sideways until he hit a slope, and then, suddenly—like a parachutist leaping from a plane—he drew in his legs and the shell rolled swiftly back into the pool.

If this had been the only thing I’d seen all afternoon, it would have been worth the trip. But there was more. We each crouched, spellbound, by our respective pools, noses hovering just above the surface, watching the underwater action unfold.

Even the barnacles—those white crusted growths upon the rocks, which heretofore had only served as an occasionally sharp and painful background to my coastal activities—transpired to be fascinating when examined at close quarters. Their tiny muppet mouths opened, and between each set of lips unfurled pale, feather-like fingers which danced and withdrew, danced and withdrew, with a piston action.

Who knew so many curiosities could reside in a single pool, not even a square metre in size? When we are bored or dissatisfied, I think the answer often is thus: find the stillness at your centre and wait. The world will come to life around you if you let it.