I sit on a balcony in California as the golden sun descends below the hillcrest, on the other side the scrubby chaparral rolls down to the vast Pacific, and a cool sea breeze creeps in to keep the temperature comfortable. I am so far from home. My parents, siblings, my nieces, and nephews still reside back east, out east. The west coast is raw, exposed to the full brunt of the massive, cold upwelling Pacific. I miss the Atlantic watershed, the hidden coves and estuaries filled with wildlife and green, thriving plants, grass, and scrub oaks. My mind drifts back to my first summer on that sandy eastern shore…
The half-moon shimmers off the black water. A lattice of stars pierce through the night, the sound of tiny crashing waves comfort me on this eerie walk along the shoreline. I have a plastic bucket in my left hand and a three foot wooden pole with a net attached in my right. My silent guide walks a few steps ahead of me with a half-smoked Marlboro red, a “cowboy killer” in his mouth, carrying a can of Pepsi One and a large waterproof flashlight. We’re going crabbing. When he invited me to hunt crabs, I politely agreed due to a combination of awkward coworker pressure and because I had no other plans, what the hell. I didn’t know anyone around so I took a job on the local ferry. The monotonous nine hour work day took me back and forth between Shelter Island and Sag Harbor on three minute voyages, not enough time to sit down between tying knots, lifting gates, and directing cars. My coworker guide was an odd man, a decade older than me, and he wrote sermons in his spare time, during those three minute voyages back and forth across the sound. As a transplant from the suburbs closer to New York City, I sought a connection to the land and sea that I witnessed the locals had out here, out east.
But to wade around in neck-high waters in an isolated marsh on an uninhabited nature preserve looking for nasty crustaceans? I should’ve paused and thought this one out before seceding. If he killed me no one would ever find the body. But that’s just my worst recesses playing survival games. Here I am, a quarter to midnight, taking baby steps along a rocky shoreline between a 30-foot sheer cliff face and an infinite expanse of dark water, the moon and stars glimmering along the rippling surface.
My parents had moved me out to a one-floor ranch after my older siblings moved out, and at the end of our cul-de-sac I could see Dune Road across Shinnecock Bay. On a clear and windless night I could hear the pounding of the surf against the shore across the bay. The natural beauty is liberating and the orange reflection of light against the ubiquitous water, the inspiration for decades and drones of artists, is intoxicating. I grew up aside the water and I believe the vista locks into a young heart the desire to explore, because that vantage brings a curiosity as to what lies across the liquid depths, the foreign adventures ahead. I believe that inspires hope instead of fear, as opposed to growing up in a place where the view outside your window is a brick wall. My family used to take day trips out east and I remember standing in awe of the ocean and the empty dunes and beaches- endless rolling mounds of seagrass and large waves that lifted my body up when they rolled past, engulfed within an energy greater than myself.
We dive right in, feet first. Curiosity and admiration for the plight of the local brought me waist high into this murky blackness. With trepidation I wearily wade into the swamp, feeling the contours of the bottom with my bare feet. I follow the beam of the underwater flashlight as it scans from my guide’s hand to the bottom of the murky saltwater marsh. The seafloor is mushy and my feet sink into the muck as turbid clouds of silt explode with each step I take. Suddenly the light freezes on a white body on the seabed a few feet in front of us. My guide motions for me to approach the softball-sized body with sharp scuttling claws lying still beneath the surface of the knee-high water. I hold the pole in my wet and trembling hands and wade slowly towards the crab. I place the net directly next to the target, and with one quick sweeping motion I scoop up the insect, it’s arachnoid appendages wriggling and snapping, and cradle it in the net overhead. Victory! I have successfully poached my first crab. I feel a primal sense of satisfaction as I shake the crustacean into the water-filled bucket. I am an Algonquin, a Manhansett, a native, a local, foraging for my livelihood. This is the visceral experience I am searching for, the connection to the salt and the sand. Who would have thought my temple would be a saltwater marsh and my bodhisattva would be this eccentric native?
This ascetic act is a reflection of the east end. Locals here preserve their heritage and resent encroachment. There is a strong reliance on tradition, a strong tie to the land and sea. With the cookie cutter sprawl of suburban split-levels, lying at the outskirts of urban metropolises, where humans pack into sky scraper filing cabinets, we lost the kindred touch of the land and sea from which our ancestors were once dependent.
I wake up to where I am now. My beautiful wife lounging on the couch with her sun kissed skin and blonde streaked hair. Our children sleeping peacefully in another room. The east end will always be there and I suppose one day I would like to go back. I dream of being able to raise my family back home, out east, a cul-de-sac of America where farms lie next to beaches, where celebrities mingle with fishermen and construction workers drink with artists. You want to ride the beach cruisers with the young girl who is now your wife. You want to have a bonfire with friends who are no longer there. You want to learn the ropes from a stranger. It’s so hard to keep things from changing.