Back to the Shore
“See that? The wave action that results from water hitting there erodes so much sand as to disrupt the major ecological processes.” Our Marine Bio teacher, Dr. S., was gesturing to the far shore. Our class was on the deck of a small fishing vessel out a little ways in Peconic Bay. “There, on the Shinnecock Res. See how there’s no breakwater? The strata is stable and algae and marsh grass can take root.” I looked out at that silent line of woods, a parallel universe to the busy marina we’d departed from, and tried to picture how the original white settlers must have found this place, sitting on their cargo of dreams and toxic ideologies.
Upon return, Dr. S. started a unit on overfishing and the critical state of the worlds’ oceans. This never came up when I was a kid, I thought, remembering flustered attempts to conquer the mysteries of the deep, or if it did, it always seemed like something people could fix.
My family and I moved from Brooklyn to Noyack when I was three. I didn’t quite get what was going on, but liked the little green beach house well enough in a vague way. Bewildered but content on a bare mattress while we waited for the van to come in the morning, I didn’t really get where I was, that I wouldn’t be seeing my friends regularly. My parents often wonder what would have happened if we’d stayed in the city, as it took me a while to make friends on my own.
I have a very specific memory, though; one that I feel is proof enough things turned out all right. It was an early, misty morning, the farthest west we’d ever explored on our local beach. We were out there in the early morning wind to catch a sight of the Osprey. I’d heard tell of this mythical beast, but didn’t really expect anything. Still, it felt significant in a way I couldn’t quite explain.
I felt the most exposed to the elements as I dare at the beach, while still possessing a comforting anchor of familiarity. At home I would pour over books describing the strange yet alluring shapes I came across there. They would explain some things, but often would leave me with more questions and curiosity than where I began. There were things once in those shells that dot the bay like dolls’ shoes? Those weird horseshoe-shaped things had legs?! That eerie jelly on the sand, red as blood congealed in ice, that was alive??!
This occupation became my major pastime. My parents didn’t know many people out there, and I found social interaction more complicated than not as I started school. Books could present a challenge, but they were on the whole simpler than that, often aiding with pictures when the words became too difficult. I’d had no inclination to read on my own before then, content to hear it read to me. The cow went “moo,” cars went fast, and everybody pooped. Now, with the power of the letter under my command, backed with stubborn curiosity, I amassed a database of favored tomes. Perfectly simple and inane would work, as long as it had some detail to it in the illustration or in the wording that could inexplicably hold my attention for hours.
My interest was cyclical; I would walk down the right-of-way to the beach, see something that caught my interest, ask my parents about it, get a not necessarily riveting explanation, attempt to look it up, get distracted by some other strange and marvelous facet of the natural world, and be drawn by that to the water again. From my liasons with the natural world came prehistoric fancies. These drew me to museums, zoos and aquariums, where my incredulity at seeming to know less when I left the damn place only compelled me to return. Meanwhile I was fed a steady trial-and-error of entertainment from my parents, which fostered an interest in fiction (albeit an interest which focused on dull, seemingly arbitrary and repetitive aspects of certain fiction that could occupy my attention deficit). From the synthesis of these came the stirrings of a creative impulse. I would style in my head a scenario, not quite cartoon or live action, wherein I was the proprietor of a living museum, where its favored residents were my closest friends and lackeys, where I didn’t have to worry about parents or school.
In elementary classes, I was astonished when the natural world intersected with my actual education, which most of the time I regarded as some kind of largely ineffective social experiment that would probably end soon enough. On rare occasions, the powers that be would invite cheerful marine biologists and aquarium workers with massive, salt-smelling coolers full of sheer wonder. As we sat around, I tried to prove I knew this stuff already. Yes, I thought smugly, of course that’s a starfish. The kid who raised his hand first just got lucky. On rare occasions, they bused us to beaches in order to pick up cigarette filters or plant counter-erosive seagrass. Once, to my tiny heart’s astonishment and to the rest of my class’ ambivalence, we took what seemed like an eternity’s bus ride into Riverhead, to visit the sacred aquarium as a class.
Although only bits and pieces remain, they are as clear and cool as the water in the touch-tank. I can see clownfish that the other kids would point at while shouting “Nemo, Nemo!” I still can hear the tour guide’s facts and figures about the spider crab dangling from her hand. She screamed them over the sound pollution issuing from a vessel that took us from the aquarium for a walk on a pristine, untouched beach in what seemed like our own version of a desert island. I can still smell the dry seaweed that I was astonished to learn was edible. I can feel the vibrations in my throat that they guide told us would cause little black sea snails to come half way out of the shell, flailing in the air like overzealous grey tongue.s Walking there with marine expert felt like I was being escorted through my own backyard beach, being shown the secrets of the ecosystem that had so long remained just outside of the realm of understanding.
Fast forward to another field trip, as I’m listening to Dr. S explain the breakwater. By then, school had eclipsed much of my ability to actual hobbies, and distractions like the TV and internet were all I had the energy for in my precious little free time. Up until the point of the boat trip, 11th grade Marine Bio had been a reminder of my first sense of home.
So when the teacher announced our one major field assignment, I quite was excited for the week leading up to it. It continued on the drive to school that morning, and on the bus to one of several destinations along Peconic Bay, where I ate dehydrating snacks and tried to tune out the chatter. The day was far cloudier than the one I remembered at the aquarium. That thought crossed my mind, but I dismissed it. After all, wasn’t the beach sort of a safe haven for me?
When we reeled in our samples, the windy grey gloom in the air seemed to solidify, growing viscous. We were told we had caught only a tenth of the samples collected last time the class had come here, which had been in turn half the samples caught at the previous trip, due to drainage problems and overfishing. Dr S. tried to inject his signature dry humor into the situation, but it only seemed to darken the mood. Where once there had been veritable heaps of crab and fish, there were now only tangles of seaweed and wriggling skeleton shrimp. We did manage to catch a single seahorse and watch it die in a jar.
Now it seems like whenever we touch salt water it turns to blood. I thought of my favorite scenes from marine documentaries: a marlin dashing through a school of bright fish, a whelk devouring a smaller snail, a whale carcass made by scavenging hagfish into a lovely museum piece. I thought of the horseshoe crabs that used to be regulars on our beach, but which grew increasingly rare every summer. I wondered how much I would have been receptive to these warnings of environmental collapse if I hadn’t first seen the maritime desertification of our bay, my bay.
I don’t think I had an epiphany in that moment over how vital these waters have been to my identity an even basic humanity. The realization came slow, waves on the Long Island sound, carrying the ferry to who knows where. As with everything around here, it came caked in salt, and hung up to dry, toughened by the sea air.