The winds had been strong for days; maybe that was why there was so much debris on our beach. A small section of the shoreline was littered with dozens of weathered boards and driftwood. Up ahead I spied what looked like a seal pup; as I got closer I realized it was a huge ball of tangled boat lines. The ebb and flow of tides is so predictable, yet so fickle in what they choose to steal from us and spit out later, leaving the naked refuse shivering on the sand. It was about two feet by two feet, and, I quickly figured out, too heavy for me to move. I went home empty handed, but that snarled mess haunted me.
The next day, intent on scavenging but wise to my limitations, I persuaded my son to fetch it for me. He wrestled the creature into his truck then deposited it in the driveway. I had no idea what I was going to do with the seaweedy snarl. At the very least, we’d removed it from the beach and kept it from entangling some unfortunate animal. That should have been enough.
I’d had a rough weekend, having had a tiff with a friend, my husband being ill and gouging my new quartz countertop with a 25 pound anchor – don’t even ask! I went out for a walk and passed by my ocean salvage. Next thing I knew, I had pulled up a chair, and in the bravest bit of weak sun that a late December afternoon can muster, I determined to untangle the monster.
I started searching for loose ends and began following their intricate paths through the knotty clump. It went OK at first but soon I’d inevitably run out of available ends I could easily snake through. I came to the conclusion early on that yanking only tightened the strands into denser knots. My fingers worked into blisters and my back into a bent ache as I shifted and hefted the mass every so often. I wondered if my Swedish and Nova Scotia seafaring ancestors had untangled ropes like this, not for folly but necessity. Cold crept into my bones as I pondered ropes.
What is a rope, anyway, but a group of strands fashioned together to make a bigger, stronger form. But mankind’s relationship with them goes back 28,000 years. If Tarzan, Jane and Cheetah realized how useful vines were to swing around the jungle, prehistoric man must have figured out how to fabricate one. Ropes and pulleys were the rock stars of the pyramid building era, as well as the Sistine Chapel and every bit of architecture ever erected since. If rope walks (long buildings where stands of material were twisted together to create 300 yard lines) had not been built, explorers could never have hoisted their sails and we’d still believe the world was flat.
Ropes, like anything made or used by humans, can be used for good or bad. The rope concept is well used in language. “I’m at the end of my rope,” “Give them enough rope and they’ll hang themselves,” rope-a-dope strategies in boxing, and “Watch out, or they’ll rope you in.” A rope can help someone climb out of deep pit or be knotted into a noose for a hanging. Ropes can restrain an opponent and imprison an enemy. Acrobats terrify and dazzle their audiences with death-defying antics on suspended ropes.
As I grew more tired and frustrated, I almost gave up, and then a kink would slip through and free a new length of line. I had managed to completely separate seven or eight shorter sections of synthetic line, and stepping back, I saw the size of the ball had diminished considerably, but it wasn’t getting any easier.
What was I doing wasting time on this (other than an obvious OCD issue)? But something made me soldier on. The salt-encrusted nautical knot was speaking to me. I have a friend who walks the labyrinth. It’s like a maze where you can’t get lost, and if you enter, seeking the center while contemplating a problem, you may solve it. This rope was my labyrinth. Here is what working its kinks and twists taught me about life: Brute force can make a problem worse; sometimes a well-placed tug does help; if you run out of options on one side, turn the darn thing over for a fresh perspective; sometimes you just need a bit of patience, hang in there and keep working, at some point you will reach the end. There is always an end.
After I’d finished, there was, all told, about 200 feet of rope, with one continuous 100-foot unspliced line I neatly coiled. What was the destiny of this humble run of line that had traveled the oceans and gone head to head with creatures I’ve never seen up close? Had it saved someone who’d gone overboard, had it spoken Russian, French, Chinese, or was it just a local who only knew the waters of our narrow land? I’m not sure what I’ll do with it, maybe just hang it on a peg in the shed to remind me of our long and tangled journey that afternoon, leaving my body beat, but my spirit soothed.