Getting Outside Saturday: Learning the Island

categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside



Journal Entries from my first year in the South and My Daughter’s First Year


September 28

The swallow migration is coming through.  These shield-like aerodynamic birds dip and shoot over the sea oats like hallucinogenic flecks.  Meanwhile the sanderlings work the tideline with their sewing machine bills, searching for mole crabs, while Black Skimmers get active at dusk.  The skimmers let loose a noise like the wahh-wahh-wahh.  of adults talking on Charlie Brown.

On the way in to work this morning I saw a bumper sticker on the back of a pick-up.  Other details hinted that the truck was owned by a hunter, but it was the sticker that really gave it away.  It read:

“If it Flies, It Dies.”

October 3

There is a tree, more a large bush really but let’s call it a tree for today, that stands outside our window that has begun to bloom with monarch butterflies.  Dozens of them resting here, feeding, before continuing their preposterous and fluttery migration south.  I have watched individual monarchs try to fly from our island southward over the water, have watched them dip precariously low, almost touching the sea, which would be the end of them, before carrying on apparently unperturbed by their thin brushes with mortality.

Inside the house Hadley thrashes on her changing table.  Her legs have always been strong, even when she was inside her mother I would feel her thumping against my back at night.  Now trying to change her is like attempting to subdue a landed striper with your bare hands.  She sleeps in the bed between us at night and to make sure I’m there she will occasionally administer a swift Kung Fu kick to my middle.

She also seems to have inherited my obsessiveness.  Sitting in her high chair she keeps a death grip on her little plastic spoon, refusing to unclench and let you fill it with baby food for another bite.  The only way to get it out of her hand, short of prying it open, is to trick her by using that same obsessiveness against her.  You offer another spoon from another direction and when she locks on that one, grab the first away.  And so her obsession isn’t eased as much as transferred.  As if her mind were swinging from vine to vine.


October 9

The monarch tree continues to bloom.

The joy—the relief!—of a beach town emptying.  It happens much later here than in the north, but, as we are learning, it does happen.  Fewer cars in the lots, fewer walkers on the beach.  I remember the joyous feeling on Cape Codwhen you could finally re-claim the beach after the crowded summer.   To be less cramped, to have more space, to be able to turn away from people and toward yourself and your own.


October 22

More small death to report from the neighborhood:

The other day at school a woodcock flew straight into the front door of the Creative Writing building.  The noise was like that of a baseball being struck.  A solid thwump.  The bird was dead by the time I picked it up.  Its underside was tawny and beautiful.  And to my eyes, the eyes of a shorebird-lover, it looked like an inland willet.

Today I am sitting on the dock in front of our house.  Next to me is a quaint little sailboat called “Screaming Banshee” and a powerboat called “Mello Yello.”   I feel the urge to ask the owner of the latter boat what kind of statement he is trying to make by dropping the “w”s from the ends of the words.   Docked next to it is a cabin cruiser called “Fishin’ Mortician II.”

On the next dock down there’s an old black guy fishing.  He wears a flannel short and sits on a bucket that looks much too small for his bulk.  I am on the next dock and watch him pull in a fish.  It’s too small and I wonder if he will throw it back.  I’m relishing this romantic scene–rustic, southern, pastoral–when I see him grab the fish by the tail and slam its head on the dock, then toss it back in the water before throwing his line back in.  I watch the tiny fish float by on the current.

Later, after I see him do this a couple of more times, I wander over to his dock and ask him about it.

“Don’t want to catch those little fuckers again,” he says.



October 29

The latest lesson the world has taught Hadley is that things exist when they are out of her sight.  This is called “object permanence” and, until we comprehend this notion, out of sight is out of existence.

Cause and effect is another idea that is starting to take hold.  Those spoons, gripped so tightly just weeks ago, are now being dropped to the floor as she conducts her own little science experiment.  Or as Dr. Sears puts it: “An important part of a baby’s reach-grasp technique is developing the ability to release the grasped object.  Babies become fascinated with holding something, such as a piece of paper, and then opening their hand and allowing the object to drop to the floor.”  And so go sixteen plastic spoons.

Meanwhile the Monarch tree has emptied.  But unlike most leaves, these haven’t merely fallen to the ground but decamped and begun a two thousand mile migration toMexico.

November 3

After Hadley and I make our morning pilgrimage to the coffee shop, I turn to the paper.  On the front page I read of the Iraqi man whose wife and two daughters were killed when their house was blown up “by mistake.”  This is tragedy, obviously, but we are Americans and we believe that tragedy can be rectified.  The soldier who made the mistake offers the man an apology.  And ten thousand dollars.

There are so many things that have been offensive about our media presentation of the war that it’s hard to pin point any one thing.  But perhaps most reprehensible has been our habit of listing the number of people dead, and then only listing our dead.

November 9

The magic trick of a loon.  You look over at it, look it in the dark eye, and then you look away for a second and turn back and –poof—it’s gone.  No sign of it in the air or floating on water, and in fact no sign of wake where that it has submerged, though you know that’s what it’s done.  It has tunneled down into another world, another life.  The best trick around.

Considering that I am a new father with a new job, I spend an inordinate amount of time on the beach watching birds dive.  I can’t help it.  As a sports fan and someone who enjoys contact, I love the sport and variety of it.  The pelicans, for instance, are alternately ungainly and graceful.  They dive from up to 65 feet, and they hurtle downward out of the air with a great twisting plunge.  This is just one way that their dives are different than the birds I am used to in the North.  Of course there are really two dives within the dive of any water bird.  First, there is the initial drop from the sky and then there is the entrance into the water.  Each species enters from different angles and with different styles, strategies, and goals.  A northern gannet will accelerate and hit the water like an arrow, leaving air behind, using gravity and a last thrust of the neck to spear through the surface before tunneling down underwater where they chase after fish in their own element.  Meanwhile an osprey dives head first before swinging its legs forward and–like the one I saw the other day–popping a wheelie at the last second, going in talons first.

The weather has warmed but the clouds of gannets remain.  The other day, watching them, I decided I needed to get closer.  Pelicans circled on the water in a great post-dive scrum, while the gannets dived closer than I had ever seen them before.  I stripped off my clothes and swam out in the middle of the scrum.  Numb legs were a small price to pay.  I had never seen the action so close, a front row seat.  As the birds dove just a dozen feet away I had a fish eye’s view.

 November 18

Today the temperature dips down into the low thirties and I feel relieved.  It’s as if my brain is activated, waking up from a long hibernation, and it is easier for me to work on the book, to place the characters that I have been, to this point, only sluggishly imagining.

I glass the horizon and focus in on one gannet, studying the art of its dive.  It flaps and waits, with a hundred other of it kind, searching for fish below.  A gannet doesn’t need to have the patience of an osprey, which is going after a single fish.   Instead these white birds, with their six foot wingspans, just hit a general area where fish are schooling.  What they may lack in pinpoint accuracy, however, they make up for in abandonment.  They pull their wings in and let gravity do its work, throwing throw themselves into their dive.  What does it feel like, that cold moment of contact, of immersion, entering into the dark wetness and immediately giving chase to animals who only know this one liquid realm?   What skill to both dive with Olympian grace and swim well enough to overtake fish!  To be equally at ease in both worlds.  And then, and here is where they differ from ospreys and even the more stolid pelicans, to do it again and again and again.

 November 22

Montaigne died in 1592.  Over the last three days of his life he lost the ability to speak and could only communicate by pen.  One imagines he scribbled furiously.

What is writing if not an attempt to leave our marks?

In a macabre fashion our cat Tabernash has done just that.  Despite recent rains, his blood still stains the road in front of our house from where the SUV slammed into him and didn’t stop.

Our babysitter saw it all and called Nina who ran home, cradled Tab in her arms, before rushing him the vet.   He didn’t make it, which leaves more than one stain on our new home.  I am not a cat person, and as a bird lover I know well the carnage cats are capable of, but Tabernash, an adopted stray from Boulder Colorado who spent his early years living in an abandoned motor home, had earned my grudging respect and love.   He had been with us through all our moves, from Colorado to Cape Cod to Carolina, and thought we worried that he might be jealous, or even predatory, when Hadley was born, this did not prove the case.  He would nap with her in the afternoon and press his forehead gently against hers when she woke.  (Hadley still thinks this is how you greet any animal and if we come upon a dog in our walk she will lean in her head.)

            A few weeks before Tab died, Hadley was napping in her bedroom when my wife, who was downstairs, heard a maniacal purring come over the baby monitor.  She ran upstairs and found Tabernash lying right on top of Hadley while Hadley, grinning ear to ear, waved a fistful of yellow fur.     

December 6

 School’s out forever.  School’s out for winter.

My first term is over. A month to become a writer again.  To wear my sweats all day long and drink too much coffee, to stop brushing my hair and answering the phone, and to descend every morning into my writing cave.  So different than the friendly-wave-hello, help-others work of teaching.  Fuck that for now.  Melville said of that deep writing state that it was the “strange wild work.”   That’s where I want to go.

December 12

Seven hours at my desk this morning.  Feeling like myself again.  And soon a week back on Cape Cod.

The big news from the outside world is that a Northern Right Whale is patrolling up and down the coast.  Today Hadley and I watched from the pier as water spouted out of its blowhole.  Sleek and black, its enormous dorsal fin juts from the water like the keel of a capsized schooner.  The Right Whale earned its name because it was considered the “right” whale to hunt, both easy to kill and bloated with oil.  This led to its current distinction as the most endangered of all large cetaceans with only about 300 Right Whales left in the world.   And though no one is hunting this particular whale, curious boaters keep getting too close, forcing it to dive under to avoid them.  I find myself rooting for it to breach right under one of the smaller boats.


January 25

I love our local coffee shop but there is a problem in that it doesn’t keep regular hours.  This is especially troubling when it comes to something as regularly needed as coffee.

I have been shipwrecked.  Thrown up by the waves on this strange island.   We are separated from the mainland by a drawbridge, and lately they have been doing repairs at night so that it’s impossible to get off the island after ten.  When I do drive off, early in the morning to work on the computer at school, I encounter one of the strange new customs of this place.  My fellow drivers all float along, driving under the speed limit, seemingly unconcerned with getting anywhere.  I had expected rowdy redneck drivers in this land of NASCAR, revving up their engines at the lights, but instead they drive as if stoned.  They float up to the lights, unconcerned, uncaring, untroubled.  A few mornings ago I watched a middle-aged man, his eyes blank like a goat’s, as he stared at a green light for a full ten seconds.  I was so fascinated that I didn’t even hit my horn.  “It’s as if the whole town were just learning to drive,” Nina says. 

Thinking about the traffic gets me thinking about other sorts of movement.  Place, I’ve decided, is a perfect metaphor for ambition.  The ambitious, by definition, want to be some place other than where they are.  Yes: Ambition is moving from place to place versus being content where you are.  Goals, those things that lead us to the new place, are the maps.  By this definition our local drivers are underachievers.  The man with the goat eyes that I watched at the light seemed distinctly uninterested in “getting ahead.”   Of course I bring my own regional mores down here with me.  Trained to drive in Boston, I’m a caricature, too, just the sort of outsider that the locals must loathe.   I mutter and curse because I am “stuck” at a light; I speed ahead so I can be some place other than where I am.


February 3

   One thing I can’t stand about this place.  People here use beach as a giant ashtray.   They finish their cigarettes and toss them into the sand where kids will soon be playing.  Unfucking believable.

On the bright side, this morning I saw an Eastern bluebird with orange breast cracking a nut open on top of a lightpost.  


February 20

Pelicans are not the only thing that patrol these skies.  Today my bird-watching is interrupted by a noise so loud it seems the sky will crack open.  The beach’s illusion of the carefree is broken by the sight of 6 huge black planes. FortLeJuneis eighty miles up the coast from us.  Occasionally it isn’t pelicans, but F-22s that fly over the beach in formation.  For many of these soldiers this is the last stop beforeIraq.  Looking up, you can’t help but imagine what it would be like if they were an invading force, patrolling the skies of your own country.


March 10

I am still a long way from calling this place home.  For one thing I’m not ready to fight for it yet, with its ramshackle architecture just waiting for the next hurricane to blow it down, and its miles and miles of strip malls.  Back onCape Codit was a constant fight, with many losses and much pain, watching what you loved disappear.   I’m not committed to this new place, just a visitor, though for now I like that well enough.  It’s nice to take a short break from caring.  I know that soon enough, if we stay here, this place will start to get in my blood and start to operate on me the way the Cape still does.  It will ask me to defend it, and how will I be able to say no?

But for now I am content to wander through this shabby wilderness.  Yesterday Hadley and I found a gull tangled and trapped in fishing line and we went home to get scissors to free it.  Then last night I went out on the boat with Douglas, a grad student of mine who works as a charter fisherman.  Not long ago Douglas saw a pod of 50 bottlenose dolphins, with babies swimming in and out.  Yesterday he took me out on his boat, ostensibly to fish for false albacore but actually to help me get a sense of the island from off-shore.  It was a rough afternoon and we saw petrels dip and dive into the wave and a razorback shoot low over the water.  These, like gannets, are birds I always associated with the North, looking more fit for swimming than flying though this one shot through the trough of the waves on frantic missiles.  At the very least it must have been on the far end of its southern range; it looked like a miniature penguin with a chunky body and black wings with white breast.  We also saw Ibises, buffleheads, mergansers, scaup, mallards, loons, oyster catchers.  Later he showed me a school of fish squiggling and igniting sparks of phosphorescence by the jetty wall.  There was more phosphorus in a long wave that rolled in like a train along the breakwater, roaring and glowing green, before it crashed white over the wall.

Today I watch a hundred pelicans close to shore and several hundred gannets behind them, as they dive for fish.  That is the secret of all this bird life: the wildly abundant fish life.  The air fills with a crazy, jangling energy as bird after bird dives.  The winds blow the top of the waves back over themselves, the white blown backward like smoke.  The water broils with birds.  Thousands of gulls, gannets and pelicans feasting on bait fish.


March 15

Watching Hadley’s day-to-day growth reminds me of a summer I spent watching osprey nestlings fledge.  More than we know, humans delight in the simple observance of growth.

But lately I have been plagued by dreams of losing her.  Some are of the mundanely  terrifying variety: she is lost in a vast department store, for instance.  But last night my imagination concocted something more elaborate.  I was waterskiing with her in the Baby Bjorn, the papoose-like front pouch pack that I carry her in when we walk.  I knew I had to get up on my skis on the first try and I did, but then I looked down to see that the pouch was empty.  I dove frantically into the water, searching every corner of the underwater world.  Still underwater, I yelled out in pigeon German: “Vat ist Hadley?  Vat ist Hadley?” and then, realizing my mistake, “Ver ist Hadley?  Ver ist Hadley?”  All at once I understood the absurdity of my being underwater and yelling in German—which I don’t speak–and with great deep relief also understood that I was in a dream, and so woke myself up.

     This sort of dream didn’t start with her birth, by the way.  For years I’ve had

nightmares of losing a tiny homoculous baby, of misplacement and frantic search.  I don’t think I’m along in this.

It’s so strange the way fear of loss (a euphemism) is so intertwined with raising a child.  Even in the best of times we are ready for it.

I know a woman in her seventies now, a close family friend, who after her four children had all grown and left the house, made it a habit to sleep in a separate room from her husband.  In fact, they never saw each other after saying goodnight at the end of each evening.  But then one night the husband knocked on her door and came into her room at Two O’clock in the morning.  The woman sat straight up.

“Which one is it?” she asked.

And of course she was right: one of her children had been killed.


April 5

Here is what our president said the other night:

“With the might of God on our side we will triumph over Iraq.”

Is it possible that anyone really still believes that “God is on our side”?  Or on the other side?  Hasn’t the whole movement of civilization been away from this type of thinking?  Hasn’t studying the world taught us our commonality with other peoples, other animals?  Are we still capable of believing that God blesses only our swords?  “Yes,” seems to be the correct answer.

Insisting on this sort of things seems almost a willful blocking of life’s murmured lessons.  Listen to the natural world a little and it’s not too hard to hear what the world wants to teach.  “You are not separate,” it says over and over.  “You are not unique.”

Keats wrote of negative capability, our ability to be in uncertainties.  I feel a profound disconnect between my immediate, personal world—-joyous and drunk on Hadley’s growth—-and that of my sober, pessimistic sense of the larger world.  I can’t help but feel that our response to being attacked on September 11 was exactly the wrong one.  But beyond that, beyond partisan politics, lies a deeper pessimism.  This springs from the belief that we are laboring under the illusion of control.  That whatever we do, from our most hawkish to most doveish options, it will not necessarily affect what is done to us.  And with time stretching, the way it does, forever into the future, it seems only a matter of time until we are struck by another attack.  An attack that, quite possibly, will make us look back to September 11th with nostalgia for its quaintness.

And what is my personal (narcissistic) reaction to the prospect of such at attack?

Let it be in a city where Hadley doesn’t live.

History will fell empires, cities will crumble.  But please not on my daughter.


April 9

Kayaking to Masonboro Island, my thoughts boomerang back home.  Hadley has been in her John Travolta phase for the last ten days or so, pointing her arm and index finger up and out.  Language continues to be the big news.  She is pointing to me and saying “Da Da.”  Meanwhile she sits in her crib and reads Barnyard Dance, turning the pages and gibbering away with something that sounds vaguely like English.

Emotions are heightened around her, like in a dream.  Real fear, even terror, as well as deep melancholy.  But then joy, daily, sometimes near constant joy and her smiles and her beginning of laughs.

April 28

Today on the beach I watch a laughing gull die.  I can do nothing to save it but I move it up out of the tideline so its last breathes aren’t wet and gurgling ones.  It is an everyday occurrence here on the beach, but for some reason its look reminds me of my father when he was dying, and before I can stop myself I am filled with sadness.  Its black eyes blink quickly and wind ruffs its feathers.  For most of us onlookers this sight, this moment, means nothing.  For this gull it means the end of the world.

            An hour later I walk back out and he is still there, struggling, trying to climb to its feet.  I remember my father saying he was “hard to kill.”  This gull, too.  Like a weed.

Still blinking.  Crimson bill still dug into the stand, the wind still ruffing the grey primaries…..a tragic end befitting Lear.  Night is coming on and he will definitely not last until morning.  This is the last night.  “I can’t stand to leave this place” is what the birds’ struggle says.  “This place, this world, has been my whole life.”  He merits an elegy and a requiem.

April 29

April has proven the cruelest month, at least for the troops we call ours.  A year after the war was declared over, we took our heaviest casualties.  Of course this number doesn’t compare to that we inflicted during the first month of war.  But if I find this “ours” and “theirs” business offensive, then I also understand that it is human.  We love what is closest; that is also encoded in the animals we are.  Better a stranger than a neighbor.  This too has its reasons, from a stand point of evolution and survival.  Imagine caring as much about all children as we do about our own.  Empathy would run wild.  Our minds and hearts would be overrun.

May 2

Spring is rushing forward and Hadley is keeping pace as she rounds toward her first year.  There has been a wild acceleration in growth and suddenly she seems ready to burst: on the verge of becoming is a walking, talking human being.

She loves the beach, loves the feel of sand and the show of crashing waves.  We play a little game.  I build a castle and she destroys it, laughing at her own talent for chaos.  In this way we can pass the whole morning.


May 3

I walk with my daughter down the beach to watch the birds.  But today is different: today Hadley no longer rests in a pouch on my chest, but walks beside me hand in hand.  Though the hope of the bursting season lifts my mood, I can’t easily shake the deaths I read about in the paper this morning.  Or maybe I can too easily shake them, and that is what bothers me.  Though it is not even close to true in the literal sense, I like to think that I walk, metaphorically at least, hand in hand with the Iraqi man who has lost his family.  And while I am extending outward in thought, I had better not forget the birds.  In my mind my small group of walkers now becomes a gang: I waddle along with the pelicans, who have been plying their trade in the same manner for hundreds of thousands of years.  If it is trite to say that we are all brothers and sisters, all united, then it is also simply and biologically true.  DNA puts the lie to our myth of specialness, but you don’t need a science degree to reach the same conclusion.  Montaigne, that great leveler of pomposity, said it best four hundred and fifty years ago when he wrote that even on the highest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our asses.

It’s obvious really and there for anyone with eyes to see:

We are animals, pure and simple.  And when we pretend we are something more we become something less.


 May 5

“Bird alert,” my nephew Noah yells.

Noah is seven and he loves his cousin Hadley so much that he recently told us that he wants to be reincarnated as her.

The three of us are on the beach together, building castles for Hadley to destroy when Noah suddenly yells and points to the sky.  I look up to see two dozen white Ibises flying overhead, south to north.  They are blazing white with their breeding colors, big birds with long hooked flamboyant bills the color of orange-red flame.

The other day I traveled with Walker Golder, the local Audubon guy, down to the island in the Cape Fear River where all these Ibises breed.   The island where we stood had 11,504 Ibis nests, a good ten percent of the Ibis population in North America.

And it showed.  At one point we stood in a great swirling cloud of Ibises, an explosion of color and strangeness.  The trees and marsh spilled over with birds and soon to be birds in the shape of  the hundreds of ground-laid eggs.

Ibises put their long hooked bills to good use hunting for fiddler crabs in the marsh, but for a while there had been a mystery regarding their feeding.  Why did the birds fly sixty miles away to feed when they had a perfectly fine supply of crabs on the island where their nests were?   The detective who had cracked the case was a friend of Walker’s, Keith Bildtstein.  Keith is the director of conservation science atHawk  Mountain, Pennsylvania, and his Ibis study determined that the birds fed on their home fiddlers for most of the year, but that when they were caring for their young they flew inland to find crayfish.  This was because their young had not yet developed the capacity to digest salt and so needed freshwater crabs.  In other words the parent Ibises were going the extra mile, or the extra extra sixty, for their offspring.

May 8

A cleaner tropical blue has come in and flushed out the cloudier water.  Sloughs of green and blue finger in toward the beach.  You can actually see it, the tropical really coming in now.  The locals brag about autumns down here, but they do not compare to great northern Octobers.  But spring is another matter: the season stretches out spectacular, the birds and fish abundant, the growth explosive.   School is ending and we are heading north for the summer, cobbling together places that will allow us to briefly re-inhabit our old home.  Our lease here ends in a week.  

This morning I push off from our beach while it is still dark, my coffee perched dangerously between my legs and my map of Masonboro Island in my wet bag.  Before starting to paddle I watch the green heron with its beautiful brown-white neck as it prowls the dock behind our house in the banks channel.  Despite its small size, it stretches its neck all the way down to the water.  It pokes the surface to stir things up and attract fish and then hunts without leaving the dock.  I tear myself away from the show and paddle out the Banks Channel.

The moon is full and surprisingly few lights illuminate Wrightsville.  A red ring encircles the moon, and it occurs to me that dawn, like sunset, is an every day adventure, there for you if you choose to take it.  I paddle down the Banks Channel through a world waking up, pelicans, egrets, gulls terns, skimmers, the usual gang congregating over on the sandbar as I cross toward Masonboro from the lee side, the marsh side.  The island is eight miles long and has been left preserved and undeveloped, providing a mirror image to our own primitive island.

Soon I’ve reached the sandbar near Masonboro where the birds congregate.  40 pelcians, 30 black skimmers, all sorts of terns.  Rows of them.  Pelicans in front, terns in back, gulls throughout. I should have the decency to leave the birds alone, but I paddle close.  The terns are the jumpiest, defensive as always, sending out an envoy to meet me.  What a way to go through life; they are birds with a chip on their shoulders.  An oystercatcher stands out in the crowd of laughing gulls, then another oystercatcher joins the first and the two mince along the beach, led by their prominent orange noses.  Fast motion comedians with their attractive black bands.  A willet bobs its head in front of them before flying off.  As if oystercatchers are the comedians then willets are the audience as they fly by with their high rickety crazy laughs. 

It’s a crazy great bird time of year.     Terns splashing into the water like stones all around.  Tree swallows with burnished orange bellies darting out over the water.  And now I see the skimmers.  They carve along the water, kicking up their usual wakes, and let go with defensive tern-like cry.   I listen to the lapping of my paddle in the water and think of my drunken love for my daughter.  I can’t help but feel I’ve hit the bird jackpot.  A tri-colored heron in the grasses, a beautiful white cattle egret with black bill, mergansers, kingfishers, too many birds to count.  Then behind me an osprey dives, almost tern-like in the way it plunges straight down with no hesitation.  For all the risk of that dive, it seems less headstrong and reckless than those of the terns. 

Soon I’m drifting into a small cove.  I  beach the boat on the high sand.  One of the real pleasures of coming to this island is the walk from the lee to windward side.  I hike through hollows and depressions, following a raccoon trail over the dunes.  Though its true that on weekends and holidays this place is crowded like a parking lot with party boats, you can always have the place to yourself if you’re willing to paddle during these crespucular hours, these skimmer hours.  Night and bad weather also guarantee privacy.

Walking across to the beach there is a noise that to the urban ear sounds like the steady roar of traffic, but that is in fact the surf.   I emerge and stare out at a long silver ocean stretching on and on.   Crossing over the island’s hump and hearing this roar may be my favorite thing aboutNorth Carolina.  Watching us the crescent curve of the island disappear down into the fog.  Eight miles of beach stretching out.  And I have it all to my own. You would be hard pressed to call the locals environmental minded.  But they did something great by putting Masonboro, the only undeveloped island in the southeast, aside.   I am falling hard for this island, though of course I’m only just a beginner.  What are those tall grasses?  What are the flowers below them?  What type of cactus?  I’m just a beginner still in a new world.  Just starting to know the island.

After some bodysurfing it’s time to hike back across the island and head back.   Of course there is the usual dolphin escort.   As I paddle back to Wrightsville I am struck by its utter vulnerability.  One good head-on hurricane would wipe it clean.  Part of learning this island is learning the role that uncertainty plays: to live here is to take a grave risk.  This whole place could be wiped off like a dinner table cleared of silverware by an angry guest.  Your house might not be your house tomorrow.

 May 9

One final trip to Masonboro before we head north.  An afternoon of kayaking leaves me feeling both exhilarated and exhausted.  As I paddle back toward our dock I am greeted by one of those flamboyant over-the-top sunsets with piled up pinks and purples.  Below the sun the usual overdone clouds with purple squiggly cartoon lines running upward and out as if just showing off.  The general conflagration is accentuated by a low line of violet above the darker purple.  And then this happens: the whole channel catches fire.  The surface of the waves is no longer blue, but purple, and the valleys between the waves are molten, as if I am dipping my paddle into a sea of lava.  

            There’s a greeting committee as I paddle back to our dock: five pelicans skimming low and easy.  And a loon beating hard as if into a strong wind (though it’s a still night).  Meanwhile the sky keeps heaping up with its oranges and purples and mauves, all swirling around as if the artist, caught up in both the frenzy and the comedy of the thing, were unable to stop himself, swishing and sloshing his brush about, scumbling the lower sections and swirling the higher.  Then finally, as if the sunset can’t take its own gaudiness anymore, it snuffs itself out.  I bear witness to the flamboyant nightly suicide (though, looking again, I see the sunset isn’t completely dead: a few final lava trails still burn hot orange, and specks flicker like embers in a wood stove, giving an orange blue cast to the water.)  Now the more subdued grayish purples come swooping in, erasing the flamboyant colors, ready to accept the duller shades that precede true night.  The last sight I see when before I pull the boat is a great blue heron on the dock, head pulled in in that question mark form.  As I look up from the beach I can see that the lights are on in our house.

             Exhausted, I go to bed early and sleep, as always, with Hadley barnacled to my back.  She has never slept anywhere but between Nina and me and can spend hours clinging to our backs.  This worried me at first, and still occasionally worries me, since I weigh 200 pounds and she weighs 20.  Doing a little math, I calculated that my rolling over on her would be like a 2000 pound man rolling over on me.  But somehow I remain aware of her, having begun to master the art of sleeping awake.


  1. Peter Peteet writes:

    I read your post right after reading Daniel Zalewski’s article in the 3/12 New Yorker-a profile of Christian Marclay and his work The Hours-so long is what I’m used to and outside is what I needed after that most interior and non-natural of art forms-the computer program(having spent most of the day in a loud and crowded civic center at a robotics competition probably had something to do with it too). You’ve got me studying my shore bird book and cleaning the binoculars for spring break at the beach(Cumberland Is.)Thanks and Happy coming Solstice.

  2. Peter Peteet writes:

    Thanks for this scrapbook,a Cornell box of diverse bright bits arranged to be foils of each other.The goat eyed man sitting at the traffic light,stoned or just immersed in a reality where “under the speed limit” is a perfectly normal and adequate rate and honking at someone who wasn’t ready to leap at the freshly turned light would be like pushing in the receiving line at a wedding or funeral. The glimpses of alien worldviews which include the beach as ashtray,young fish as “little fuckers I don’t want to catch again”.
    Scary monsters these,and when I feel the Baby Bjorn warm on my chest,the cat head pushing gently at my forehead I value them more correctly because of the huge panoramas painted behind.
    There’s raw beauty left in too in this “strange wild work.”Its black eyes blink quickly and wind ruffs its feathers.”brings me to feel again that drop of watching death take a living being- like gravity takes a stone down a precipice.
    Perhaps best the typo of “along”rather than “alone” takes the statement of the shared horror of all parents(actual,potential or imagined) -childloss- and blows it open to the wider statement of the horror shared with all conscious things- separation-which writing requires as a starting point and endlessly bemoans and exalts.An art of sleeping while awake ;I have scumbled in the colors of that sunset in a frenzy,imagined 11,504 Ibis nests on one island and been reminded that I share with kings an occasional awareness of my butt as well as of that murmuring voice which both reassures and accuses with it’s refrain “you are not seperate,you are not unique”. How many Heron necks have I seen yet not noticed as question marks?Glad I happened “along with this”.

    • Dave writes:

      Thank you, sir. Almost didn’t post this–seemed to long for a blog. But your response makes me happy I did. I’ll leave the typo as is!