It was the summer of ’73, and the Hamptons still felt exotic, exciting and new. I was a twenty-three year old teacher from Queens with an eight week summer vacation – perfect to take advantage of the new family getaway. For $34,000, my parents had moved on from the Catskill vacations of my childhood and purchased a fully furnished two bedroom cottage on the South Fork, sitting at the head of a boaters’ lagoon off pristine Shinnecock Bay. The house itself was tiny, but a small boat came with the house, and access to the water was waiting at the dock, with a shining bay full of flounder and fluke ours to explore.
It took an hour and fifteen minutes to drive my 1971 Datsun 510 on the Long Island Expressway summer commute, from my apartment in Queens to the new adventure at the end of the road. Even then, I avoided the overloaded, frenetic weekends, preferring the relative quiet of weekday traffic and sparse crowds. If I were especially lucky to be driving out on a weekday morning, I might find myself alone in the fast lane – no other cars visible for miles around me on the long, lightly trafficked road. To use Paul Simon’s words, those were the “times of miracles and wonder,” and I traveled in a haze of good luck and happy circumstance. Nothing stopped me from getting to the Hamptons – even a broken fan belt was quickly replaced by two good Samaritans who stopped to help a pretty girl heading East, standing vulnerable and alone, but with a spare fan belt in the trunk left by a prescient father.
Back then, I loved the sun – the warmth of the sand – the compliments coming my way when my skin was toasted brown. I’d been given an opportunity to exist in my most comfortable element – the sand, the beach, the ocean. All summer, you could find me spending long, sunny days lying on the white sand of the magnificent Atlantic Ocean beaches, confident I was looking good in an orange bikini, my long brown hair flowing down my back. I was always working on my tan (innocently unaware of basal cells and melanomas). And if I wasn’t socializing at the ocean, I was happily stretched out in solitary on what was one of the most beautiful, untouched beaches in the world.
Just down the block from our tiny house in the township of Southhampton, an unspoiled sandbar beach emerged at low tide, like a giant’s finger in the water, jutting out between two parts of the bay and pointing beyond to the faraway mansions that dotted the windswept fields of Dune Road. The beach was a natural wonder – formed at the meeting point of two bays that rippled with sunlight, with mismatched currents flowing from opposite directions in an unending crosshatch of wavelets on the ocean sand. Crabs wandered past and fish swam near my feet in an ever-changing, naturally occurring aquarium. For twenty-five years, I didn’t see another person on that beach, except for occasional clammers, bucket and rake in hand, wading out into the tidal flats, or my mother, appearing like a mirage, toting PBJ sandwiches and fruit, coming to sit with me and watch the tides. Otherwise, I was alone on the sandbar – listening to my transistor radio, admiring the beauty of the open waters, watching small fishing boats bobbing at anchor while the occasional sailboat glided by, past my unspoiled paradise.
Fish were abundant in Shinnecock Bay. In photo after faded photo, my father can be seen holding up a large fluke, enough to feed a family of four. They were all keepers. But it was on the beach where I could see abundant marine life emerge from the water at low tide; the sand was paved with shiny black mussels, elongated razor clams, delicate scallop shells, and half eaten red shelled crabs dropped by the white feathered gulls fighting over the abundant food in territorial squalor. Large flocks of terns, loons and gulls migrated through, diving in the shallow waters to eat their fill of tiny, silvery fish that wandered jumping with the tides from the bay to the lagoons. It added up to a tiny functioning ecosystem, a marine wonderland, punctuated by the annual horseshoe crab migration from sea to shore. In a bizarre but welcome spectacle, dozens of the briny sea creatures floated onto the beach each summer in prehistoric glory, piling up on the sand like discarded army helmets until they were resurrected by the waters of high tide.
Those were magical days for which I am grateful. Nights were cool and breezy, days idyllic, in my part of the Hamptons. My children were born and spent their childhood digging holes in the seaweed strewn beach, marveling at the still plentiful shells. The beach was still beautiful even as I aged out of my bikini and gave up tanning many years ago. The children grew up and moved away but I still loved that beach. Winters would find me looking out at the duck blinds in the bay, standing with my husband, wondering who was killing the ducks and why the hunters sat like predators in the water. Flocks of birds perched on the cold, wet sand through the long winters, waiting for the return of the warmth and abundance of summer.
Summers came and went during this stretch of thirty years, and the little beach down the block has remained intact, but the population has changed. Small wooden fishing cottages all but disappeared. Jet skis and helicopters roar past oblivious to the aural havoc they create. Ubiquitous mansions and overlarge, elevated homes have long since hardened the shoreline and replaced the memories of crabs and mussels with SUVs and landscaped lawns. Razor clams are gone; scallop shells are a memory. The seabirds have mostly disappeared with the loss of their meals of red-shelled crabs and schools of silver baitfish. And this was the year I finally saw just one lone horseshoe crab instinctively heading for the shore, not knowing that his compatriots were nowhere to be found. I didn’t need to read the local news to know that the bay had been poisoned by nitrogen run off from fertilized, sodded lawns. It was all right there for me to see. Western Shinnecock Bay was closed to shellfishing in May of this year. The Peconic River is clogged with dead bunker. Although the fish in Shinnecock Bay have been tenacious, but they are smaller and fewer. The sea change was a long time coming.
It still takes an hour and fifteen minutes to drive east from my house, but the Hamptons are no longer the exotic playground of the seventies. My little cottage, inherited from my parents some years ago, still has the same crab grass lawn that needs no fertilizer or weed killer, and the house stands basically unchanged amidst the renovated mansions that dot the landscape and circle the formerly open bay. The marine inhabitants of our little beach are mostly gone. The sand sits barren of life except for the parents and children playing and wading and not knowing what had once been there. And I keep wondering if I should put my house on the market – but then I glance down the canal towards the bay, and I listen to the ocean pounding the shore, and I think it’s still so beautiful. But different, very different.