Chasing the Endangered
When I think of an innocent time, I think of counting black abalone at dawn in 2007. It’s innocent because of the way some memories work; the way they’re a flashbulb, a collection of moments, naked of context. I remember particular smells — the sucking brine of the tide, coastal grasses drenched in sea dew, and particular sensations — the squelch of our boots through the muck of low tide, the fuzzy exhaustion of having woken up before 5 a.m. Counting endangered black abalone along the California coast was more than just a weird thing I volunteered to do with my dad. It was a way to get close during a season of estrangement.
My dad is a man ruled by lists and regimen, never spontaneity or whim. Every moment is planned. If fun happens, it’s because it was already on his list from 3:30–4:15 p.m.
So naturally, what leads us to count black abalone along Marin’s northern coast in the predawn dark is a list. In 2007 the Golden Gate National Recreation Area held a yearlong contest called The Big Year to raise awareness for endangered species and conservation efforts in the Bay Area. The contest was a race (and a list!) to complete numerous conservation-related tasks: mapping invasive species along trails for the park service, spotting snowy plovers in their natural habitat, hiking over Marin County’s rolling golden hills to spot an endemic butterfly.
Truthfully, even before the contest and the abalone, things had already gone south between my dad and I. We’d had some knock-down, drag-out fights since I’d come out at 15. Not literally, but I’m still surprised when I find the remnants of an emotional bruise on me at 29, triggered by something seemingly unrelated to a past trauma.
High school me needed to express himself, and my dad needed to control whatever he thought I was evolving into. Being the stubborn Capricorn that I am, I always engineered my way into freedom despite his efforts, like sneaking out to drink with my high school senior boyfriend and his crew who adopted me. They had cars, could get alcohol I couldn’t, would drive me through the headlands north of San Francisco through the plush fog. When we’d go on night rides, they’d turn the headlights off and drive by moonlight, by memory, trusting the curve of the road and ignoring the sheer drop into the Pacific below. In retrospect, I can appreciate why my dad was concerned, but that didn’t excuse his behavior.
After I came out, he got religious very suddenly, started reading the Bible. Those days were endless, filled with spontaneous sermons, Dad preaching at me about what is moral and right. These sermons could happen anywhere: in public, at the dinner table, on a hike, a drive. I was embarrassed, angry. But I would soon learn to tune them out. The sermons were myopic by nature; he never came up for air. This is how I knew it was never for my benefit. When someone pontificates at you, it’s a barrage of word artillery; the best you can do is get behind something. Or disassociate.
During this time he began to leave out articles on the kitchen table where I would see them. They were about sin and lust, and homosexuality being curable. I’d see the articles marked up by his black pen in his illegible scrawl, the same pen that made all his lists. Seeing the evidence of his engagement with these ideas on paper enraged me the most — the sight of literal pen on paper. It was as if I could see him metabolizing these ideas in real time before my eyes, eating them, digesting them, having them become one with his being. Evidence that he was turning into something I could no longer recognize, something poisonous to my nascent becoming.
And yet, rarely but enough to give me hope, he would seem to look past his proselytizing long enough to resemble the dad I grew up with: Smart, thoughtful, never a man of many words, but one who was kind and intentional in all he did. I wanted to get that version of him back, the dad who used to massage my ankles as a child when my legs throbbed with growing pains that would keep me up all night. In the darkness, he’d slip into my room where I lay whimpering, my aches melting under his warm hands until I fell asleep.
It was during a reconciliatory moment, nearly a decade later, when he asked me to join him on his strange venture. I didn’t care about counting the endangered black abalone or winning the Big Year contest. Ever hungering for his approval despite my rebellions (of course I still loved him, because love is many-pronged and sharp), I jumped at the opportunity to
go. Perhaps this would be the time we’d turn a corner, I’d thought. Such wishes for a quick transformation were always foolish, I see that now.
It was autumn when we drove through the dark quiet dawn to Slide Ranch, an organic farm and wildlife center perched above the ocean on a cliff — the kind of beautiful, impossible place that can only exist in California. We were to meet a biologist there at lowest tide who would teach us how to perform the count. We arrived, salt slapping our faces, the swells licking the feet of the slope below as the earth slid into gray water. We hugged our coats tight, pulled our beanies lower over our ears, stuffed crumbly granola bars into our mouths, choking. We met the biologist, a white man in his forties with a grisly beard and yellow waders, the literal stereotype of who you think would meet you to count marine snails in the dark. We must have exchanged words, but in memory, we silently put on matching yellow rubber waders that he handed us, like a weird choreographed trance. The boots were attached to the rubber pants like the bottom of onesies and the bottoms were soled with wool to prevent slipping on kelp. Donning our gear, we clicked on headlamps and made our way down the long slope to the shore.
What I remember is how the wan light of dawn filtered through the fog, slowly revealing the alien landscape of low tide around us. Boulders and towers of rock split up from the sand, wreathed in kelp, and sheathed with legions of mussels. Thick purple starfish clung to rocks, their coarse arms slick with brine. If you have ever been to the ocean, you will know that it doesn’t smell fishy. It smells alive, brisk, and sharp, undulating with unseen currents and eons of power.
Vital, ancient. We split up, armed with small notebooks and pencils, to scour exposed rocks for black abalone.
This is how I like my dad best, I think to myself. We’re together, united in purpose: spotting marine snails (I’ll take what I can get). We don’t speak. Instead, we walk hundreds of feet down to an ocean floor that would soon be covered again and examine crevices for the endangered mollusks. We put a tick mark in our notebooks each time we see one, working on individual parts of the beach so no specimens are double-counted. In this capsule of time, stroked by tides and held by the dawn, I feel a lightness that makes the strain of our relationship feel unreal, like something we left behind in another life, an exoskeleton, a shell we outgrew and discarded.
The sun comes up, as does the tide. It’s shocking how fast the shore reverts to its normal state. The abalone are once again buried beneath the waves, and we make our way back up the slope, wool soles crunching softly over the rocky shore. It’s like the portal to the eerie liminal world we were permitted to explore briefly, had shut. Those ethereal dawn hours almost didn’t feel real. We thank the snail man and get back in our car to drive home. When we close the car doors, stillness rushes in. For the first time in hours, serrated breezes don’t gnaw on our faces. We flush, the silence closing in as the crash of the waves is left outside. Dad speaks: “That was cool.” He’s looking at me, smiling.
The sermons don’t immediately end. In fact, they go on for years in various forms. We drift further apart, before eventually coming back together. In the last few years, his fervor has chilled and he’s become more gentle, less binary in his thinking, less strident in his views.
People do change, and the change is slow, painful, and spasmodic. But sometimes you see a glimmer of something warm, familiar. Sometimes you see an endangered abalone at dawn and you make a tick mark in your notebook, counting it, recording its presence, that this special, rare thing existed, exists. No matter what happens next, it was here, at least for a moment.
“Yeah, I say,” daring to smile back, “That was really cool.”
Note: This essay is part of a longer collection about queer joy and childhood.