High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never

High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never

High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never

High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never


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"There is no one quite like Barbara Kingsolver in contemporary literature," raves the Washington Post Book World, and it is right. She has been nominated three times for the ABBY award, and her critically acclaimed writings consistently enjoy spectacular commercial success as they entertain and touch her legions of loyal fans.

In High Tide in Tucson, she returnsto her familiar themes of family, community, the common good and the natural world. The title essay considers Buster, a hermit crab that accidentally stows away on Kingsolver's return trip from the Bahamas to her desert home, and turns out to have manic-depressive tendencies. Buster is running around for all he's worth — one can only presume it's high tide in Tucson. Kingsolver brings a moral vision and refreshing sense of humor to subjects ranging from modern motherhood to the history of private property to the suspended citizenship of human beings in the Animal Kingdom.

Beautifully packaged, with original illustrations by well-known illustrator Paul Mirocha, these wise lessons on the urgent business of being alive make it a perfect gift for Kingsolver's many fans.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060927561
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 11/25/2003
Series: Harper Perennial
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 405,484
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

About The Author
Barbara Kingsolver is the author of ten bestselling works of fiction, including the novels Unsheltered, Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, The Poisonwood Bible, Animal Dreams, and The Bean Trees, as well as books of poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction. Her work of narrative nonfiction is the influential bestseller Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Kingsolver’s work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has earned literary awards and a devoted readership at home and abroad. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal, our country’s highest honor for service through the arts, as well as the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for the body of her work. She lives with her family on a farm in southern Appalachia. 

Date of Birth:

April 8, 1955

Place of Birth:

Annapolis, Maryland


B.A., DePauw University, 1977; M.S., University of Arizona, 1981

Read an Excerpt

High Tide in Tucson

A hermit crab lives in my house. Here in the desert he's hiding out from local animal ordinances, at minimum, and maybe even the international laws of native-species transport. For sure, he's an outlaw against nature. So be it.

He arrived as a stowaway two Octobers ago. I had spent a week in the Bahamas, and while I was there, wishing my daughter could see those sparkling blue bays and sandy coves, I did exactly what she would have done: I collected shells. Spiky murexes, smooth purple moon shells, ancient-looking whelks sand-blasted by the tide--I tucked them in the pockets of my shirt and shorts until my lumpy, suspect hemlines gave me away, like a refugee smuggling the family fortune. When it was time to go home, I rinsed my loot in the sink and packed it carefully into a plastic carton, then nested it deep in my suitcase for the journey to Arizona.

I got home in the middle of the night, but couldn't wait till morning to show my hand. I set the carton on the coffee table for my daughter to open. In the dark living room her face glowed, in the way of antique stories about children and treasure. With perfect delicacy she laid the shells out on the table, counting, sorting, designating scientific categories like yellow-striped pinky, Barnacle Bill's pocketbook . . . Yeek! She let loose a sudden yelp, dropped her booty, and ran to the far end of the room. The largest, knottiest whelk had begun to move around. First it extended one long red talon of a leg, tap-tap-tapping like a blind man's cane. Then came half a dozen more red legs, plus a pair of eyes on stalks, and a purple claw that snapped open and shut in a way that could not mean We Come in Friendship.

Who could blame this creature? It had fallen asleep to the sound of the Caribbean tide and awakened on a coffee table in Tucson, Arizona, where the nearest standing water source of any real account was the municipal sewage-treatment plant.

With red stiletto legs splayed in all directions, it lunged and jerked its huge shell this way and that, reminding me of the scene I make whenever I'm moved to rearrange the living-room sofa by myself. Then, while we watched in stunned reverence, the strange beast found its bearings and began to reveal a determined, crabby grace. It felt its way to the edge of the table and eased itself over, not falling bang to the floor but hanging suspended underneath within the long grasp of its ice-tong legs, lifting any two or three at a time while many others still held in place. In this remarkable fashion it scrambled around the underside of the table's rim, swift and sure and fearless like a rock climber's dream.

If you ask me, when something extraordinary shows up in your life in the middle of the night, you give it a name and make it the best home you can.

The business of naming involved a grasp of hermit-crab gender that was way out of our league. But our household had a deficit of males, so my daughter and I chose Buster, for balance. We gave him a terrarium with clean gravel and a small cactus plant dug out of the yard and a big cockleshell full of tap water. All this seemed to suit him fine. To my astonishment our local pet store carried a product called Vitaminized Hermit Crab Cakes. Tempting enough (till you read the ingredients) but we passed, since our household leans more toward the recycling ethic. We give him leftovers. Buster's rapture is the day I drag the unidentifiable things in cottage cheese containers out of the back of the fridge.

We've also learned to give him a continually changing assortment of seashells, which he tries on and casts off like Cinderella's stepsisters preening for the ball. He'll sometimes try to squeeze into ludicrous outfits too small to contain him (who can't relate?). In other moods, he will disappear into a conch the size of my two fists and sit for a day, immobilized by the weight of upward mobility. He is in every way the perfect housemate: quiet, entertaining, and willing to eat up the trash. He went to school for first-grade show-and-tell, and was such a hit the principal called up to congratulate me (I think) for being a broad-minded mother.

It was a long time, though, before we began to understand the content of Buster's character. He required more patient observation than we were in the habit of giving to a small, cold-blooded life. As months went by, we would periodically notice with great disappointment that Buster seemed to be dead. Or not entirely dead, but ill, or maybe suffering the crab equivalent of the blues. He would burrow into a gravelly corner, shrink deep into his shell, and not move, for days and days. We'd take him out to play, dunk him in water, offer him a new frock--nothing. He wanted to be still.

Life being what it is, we'd eventually quit prodding our sick friend to cheer up, and would move on to the next stage of a difficult friendship: neglect. We'd ignore him wholesale, only to realize at some point later on that he'd lapsed into hyperactivity. We'd find him ceaselessly patrolling the four corners of his world, turning over rocks, rooting out and dragging around truly disgusting pork-chop bones, digging up his cactus and replanting it on its head. At night when the household fell silent I would lie in bed listening to his methodical pebbly racket from the opposite end of the house. Buster was manic-depressive.

I wondered if he might be responding to the moon. I'm partial to lunar cycles, ever since I learned as a teenager that human females in their natural state--which is to say, sleeping outdoors--arrive at menses in synchrony and ovulate with the full moon. My imagination remains captive to that primordial village: the comradely grumpiness of new-moon days, when the entire world at once would go on PMS alert. And the compensation that would turn up two weeks later on a wild wind, under that great round headlamp, driving both men and women to distraction with the overt prospect of conception. The surface of the land literally rises and falls--as much as fifty centimeters!--as the moon passes over, and we clay-footed mortals fall like dominoes before the swell. It's no surprise at all if a full moon inspires lyricists to corny love songs, or inmates to slamming themselves against barred windows. A hermit crab hardly seems this impetuous, but animals are notoriously responsive to the full moon: wolves howl; roosters announce daybreak all night. Luna moths, Arctic loons, and lunatics have a sole inspiration in common. Buster's insomniac restlessness seemed likely to be a part of the worldwide full-moon fellowship.

But it wasn't, exactly. The full moon didn't shine on either end of his cycle, the high or the low. We tried to keep track, but it soon became clear: Buster marched to his own drum. The cyclic force that moved him remained as mysterious to us as his true gender and the workings of his crustacean soul.

Buster's aquarium occupies a spot on our kitchen counter right next to the coffeepot, and so it became my habit to begin mornings with chin in hands, pondering the oceanic mysteries while awaiting percolation. Finally, I remembered something. Years ago when I was a graduate student of animal behavior, I passed my days reading about the likes of animals' internal clocks. Temperature, photoperiod, the rise and fall of hormones--all these influences have been teased apart like so many threads from the rope that pulls every creature to its regulated destiny. But one story takes the cake. F. A. Brown, a researcher who is more or less the grandfather of the biological clock, set about in 1954 to track the cycles of intertidal oysters. He scooped his subjects from the clammy coast of Connecticut and moved them into the basement of a laboratory in landlocked Illinois. For the first fifteen days in their new aquariums, the oysters kept right up with their normal intertidal behavior: they spent time shut away in their shells, and time with their mouths wide open, siphoning their briny bath for the plankton that sustained them, as the tides ebbed and flowed on the distant Connecticut shore. In the next two weeks, they made a mystifying shift. They still carried out their cycles in unison, and were regular as the tides, but their high-tide behavior didn't coincide with high tide in Connecticut, or for that matter California, or any other tidal charts known to science. It dawned on the researchers after some calculations that the oysters were responding to high tide in Chicago. Never mind that the gentle mollusks lived in glass boxes in the basement of a steel-and-cement building. Nor that Chicago has no ocean. In the circumstances, the oysters were doing their best.

When Buster is running around for all he's worth, I can only presume it's high tide in Tucson. With or without evidence, I'm romantic enough to believe it. This is the lesson of Buster, the poetry that camps outside the halls of science: Jump for joy, hallelujah. Even a desert has tides.

Copyright © 1995 by Barbara Kingsolver.

Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary:
Be still, and the world is bound to turn herself inside out to entertain you. Everywhere you look, joyful noise is clanging to drown out quiet desperation. The choice is to draw the blinds and shut it all out, or believe.
In these twenty-five essays, Barbara Kingsolver chooses to share her beliefs and her commitments - in family, community, the common good, cultural diversity, the natural world, and the entertaining and transforming powers of art. Opening all the windows and doors - to human and animal neighbors of strikingly diverse habits, the world of children, the silbo speaking and whistling natives of La Gomera, and other marvels - she lets in or rushes out to embrace all the wonders, beauties, threats, and angers that life and Earth can offer. With a biologist's attentiveness and a poet's vision, Kingsolver writes about topics as various as possession versus territoriality, modern motherhood, atom-bomb relics, West African voodoo, and the relationship between politics and art. She pursues meaning and beauty through life's tangled, full-of-surprises undergrowth with the tenacity of Indiana Jones, the wit of Thoreau (one of her favorites), and a four-year-old's unspoiled joy. In her devotion to the urgent business of being alive and to responsibly sharing life with others, Kingsolver is joyous, defiant, funny, angry, persuasive, and - above all - courageously honest and generous. Deeply enamored of the world, she encourages us to enter with her "a conspiracy with life." Right now, this minute, time to move out into the grief and glory. High tide.

Kingsolver on High Tide in Tucson
[WritingHigh Tide in Tucson] was just about like writing a book from scratch. It took about a year. A lot of the material is brand-new, written for this book. Some reviewers have been sort of dismissive of the effort, as if I opened a drawer and found these essays and just threw them together into a book. I wouldn't do that. I have such reverence for the institution of books. I'm very daunted by the idea of writing one, even though I do it over and over. I still find it hard to believe that I'm allowed to do it. I enter the writing of a book the same way I enter a cathedral, with my eyes on heaven and hoping I'm worthy.

"Though some are more lighthearted than others, the essays are all lucid, well thought out and remarkably sensitive. At one point, she writes, "As I made my way leisurely through Thoreau's final book, I found myself turning down the corner of nearly every other page to note an arresting moment of prose." Her own name could be substituted for Thoreau's. Kingsolver doesn't write machine-tooled prose. It's Old World hand-crafted. One word fits perfectly into the next."

-Curt Schleier, Kansas City, Missouri, Star

Topics for Discussion:
1. How would you define the main theme of each essay? In what ways does each of these primary themes reappear throughout the collection? How does Kingsolver signal those themes and issues that are of the highest importance to her? Why do you think she ascribes such importance to these themes and issues?

2. Several of the essays address issues at the forefront of social and political debate today (for example: children in American culture, the environment, politics and art, and models of the family). Why does Kingsolver address these specific issues? What side of the debate does she take in relation to each, and what arguments and evidence does she present in support of her positions? Do you agree or disagree with her arguments?

3. How does Kingsolver's reverence for the past and for nature relate to her astonishment and joy in the face of life's wonders, her political involvement, and her steadfast allegiance to the powers of art? How does she view the arts in relation to the past, to nature, and to life itself? Do you agree with her pronouncements in this regard? What value does she ascribe to moral, social, political, and artistic responsibilities; and how are those responsibilities interrelated?

4. In "In Case You Ever Want to Go Home Again," Kingsolver writes, "From living in a town that listened in on party lines, I learned both the price and value of community." What are the prices and the values of community as revealed in this and other essays? Does your own experience corroborate, add to, or contradict these prices and values?

5. Do you agree with Kingsolver's contentions, in "How Mr. Dewey Decimal Saved My Life," that we live in a culture "that undervalues education . . ., undervalues breadth of experience . . ., downright discourages critical thinking . . ., and distrusts foreign ideas"? What evidence can you apply to support or refute these contentions?

6. Kingsolver begins nearly all of her essays with a personal experience or observation and then proceeds to a more universal or general truth, judgment, or conclusion. Do her judgments and conclusions always follow coherently from the personal statements that precede them? Are her generalizations - for example, "Always and forever, the ghosts of past anguish compel us to live through our children;" "Reproduction is the most invincible of all human goals" - always appropriate and defensible?

7. Do you agree with Kingsolver's statements, in "Somebody's Baby:" that "the way we treat children - all of them, not just our own, and especially those in great need - defines the shape of the world we'll wake up in tomorrow;" and that "Children deprived - of love, money, attention, or moral guidance - grow up to have large and powerful needs"? Are her statements about children relevant to recent reported events involving children in need or in trouble?

8. Why does Kingsolver ascribe so much importance to ethnic and cultural diversity and differences? What does she mean when she writes, "I want my child to be so completely familiar with differences that she'll ignore difference per se and really see what she's looking at"?

9. In addition to "Careless recreation, and a failure of love for the landi ("The Memory Place"), what kinds of environmental and other pollution and what kinds of preservation does Kingsolver single out as being of primary importance? Why is care of the land so important to what she calls "The Memory Place"? What is your "memory place," and what is required to maintain its value and integrity?

10. What are the lessons learned by traveling to such sites as the Canary Islands, Benin, Hawaii's Haleakala crater, and other distant and different landscapes? How do Kingsolver's responses to these places compare with your own responses to distant places visited or lived in?

11. "Art is entertainment but it's also celebration, condolence, exploration, duty, and communion," Kingsolver insists, in "Careful What You Let in the Door." How may the elements of this statement be applied to these essays, and to Kingsolver's novels and short stories?

The Topics for Discussion for High Tide in Tucson were prepared by Hal Hager, Hal Hager & Associates, Somerville, New Jersey

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