Walking Dunes

Written By: Sara Douglas

Moments into East Hampton Middle School’s August 1997 Orientation for Grade 6 & All New Students, my parents and I ascend what is likely one of the few public school stairwells in America to feature a prominent relief sculpture of the Madonna. As an eleven-year old with a penchant for Marian art and a budding if somewhat romantic interest in vocational life, I am silently delighted. My Constitutionally-savvier parents, meanwhile, are fascinated for different reasons, discretely posing the question that prompts our orientation leader to explain that the building once housed a Catholic day school, and that the niche statue, set as it is into the wall itself, cannot be removed without jeopardizing the entire east facade of the building.

There are, we notice as the tour continues, quite a few features that seem to have survived unchanged from the time of the school’s construction: iron radiators, an arched Georgian transom window, hardwood floors buckled convexly over pipes and etched black where decades’ worth of wax polish has built up in the scratches. There is also, in one of the history classrooms, an enormous wooden map of Long Island, and it is this feature that I find myself thinking of nearly twenty years later while listening to landscape architects Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha lecture on their stormwater management interventions for the city of Mumbai. Mathur and da Cunha explain that before they could begin designing for the city, they first had to find adequate means of representing it, no small feat given the constant flux of the area’s monsoon estuary ecosystem. What kind of line do you use to indicate a coast whose contours shift with every flood? If you use blue to represent water and beige to represent land, what color do you use to represent land that is dry one season and soaked the next? Giambattista Nolli had had it easy: if you want to map ancient Rome, first draw the Aurelian Wall, then draw everything inside it. But how do you map a place that has no stable inside, a place that is less a single entity than a collection of parts subject to common natural processes?

For starters, you probably don’t carve it out of wood. And yet, if the middle school’s map failed to accurately convey the watery nature of the East End’s terrain, it nonetheless succeeded in embodying certain aspects of its ethos: a pride in place and heritage and well-developed skill, a belief that heroism and epic grandeur are not only available close to home, but more endemic there.

As a teenage girl newly arrived to East Hampton, my fascination with its history and cultures stemmed from deep reverence mixed with anxiety that my family had settled in a place where we would always be outsiders. Not long after I learned to pronounce “Bonacker” (frequently mispronounced, I was told, by up-island sports rivals as “Bone Acre”), I learned that the designation applied to only a subset of us who bore it on our jerseys.

“You have to be from here,” said one classmate.

“Also your parents,” said another.

Someone else informed me that your entire family had to be from Springs, specifically from the Accabonac Creek area, and had to have lived there “always.”

“You had to have been born,” said a friend of my father’s, “on the second floor of the house you still live in, and in which your grandfather lived before you.” Later I would appreciate the conspiratorial wink with which this information was relayed to an outsider by a man who most likely met every requirement on the books.

Barred though I was from birthright citizenship, I believe I might have passed the written citizenship test, had there been one. The area’s history fascinated me, and in the years following my family’s move, I became an avid collector of local knowledge. I learned that the town trustees’ jurisdiction over all beaches and bottomlands rests to this day on a 1686 patent signed by “Thomas Dongan… Governor-in-Chief… under His Majesty James the Second.” Louse Point had been named for land deemed too desolate to support even a louse, Pudding Hill for the boiling dessert tossed by a patriot’s wife at several hungry and presumptuous British soldiers. Sagaponack retained its Shinnecock name meaning “Land of the Big Ground Nuts,” Amagansett and Napeague preserved their Montaukett names meaning “Land of Good Water” and “Land Overflowed by Sea.”

Yet as much as I was drawn to the persistence of local tradition, I was perhaps still more captivated by an alternate cannon of lore, one that hinted at the instability and upheaval that also characterize coastal life. When Montauk students were bussed home early in advance of an approaching hurricane, it was not their early dismissal from school that I envied, but rather their town’s susceptibility to temporary severance from the rest of the island. When I once happened to witness a rising tide lapping softly at the tires of a glossy Escalade, it must be said that my adolescent hopes for the stranded vehicle did not perfectly align with those of its driver.

Even the land itself was apt to exhibit properties not typically expected of terra firma. In my first year at East Hampton Middle School, Earth Science teacher Chris Merkert took his seventh grade class to the Walking Dunes, so named, he told us, for the 3.5 feet they walk each year under the force of prevailing northwest winds. As we started up the trail, I glanced at the study packet with its diagram showing a cleanly cross-sectioned dune besieged by sharp arrows of wind. The air that morning was still, and nothing about the disorienting landscape of steep slopes softened by heather-filled hollows so much as hinted at sustained directional movement. Near the crest of the dune, however, we stopped to examine a stand of low-growing white oaks that looked as though they been stunted by gusting sea spray. What appeared to be shrubs, Mr. Merkert explained, were in fact crowns of trees being engulfed by a dune as it rolled toward the Atlantic.

In 2012, shortly after starting school in Providence, Rhode Island, I noticed that one of the cars regularly parked behind my apartment complex had a “Montauk, The End” bumper sticker. I didn’t give it much thought; the sticker seemed more like a souvenir than a memento of home.

Several months later, an upperclassman mentioned that there was another student from Long Island in our department.

“What town?” I asked.

“Not sure,” he replied. “I think she said the furthest one east.”

I asked him her name and introduced myself at a departmental meeting later that week. Marissa and I discovered that we had overlapped at East Hampton High School, hung out with some of the same people, started making art and applying to art schools in our twenties. We were even neighbors in the same apartment building; when our paths crossed following an early morning fire drill, we had exchanged greetings but not names. After establishing our common roots in East Hampton, we exchanged phone numbers and high school stories, housing and summer job leads back home.

When I tried to recount these events to my friend and classmate Christina, she asked, clearly struggling to account for my delight, if Marissa and I had known each other previously.

“No, we went to the same high school but never met. She was a grade younger and her family moved around a lot.”

“I see,” said Christina, her tentative tone suggesting that she perhaps did not. “Yeah, there’s some kids here from my high school, too.” Christina was the daughter of a Malaysian oil executive and had lived in three countries before matriculating at a top international school in Hong Kong. “None of us really hang out though.”

In her senior year, Marissa made a sculpture titled What Is This Place In Which We Call Home? It was altar-like, wall-mounted and intimately scaled, and it featured a fragment of cast-resin honeycomb balanced on metal rods surrounding a mounted bee specimen. I tried to imagine her explaining the piece to her classmates, her professors, herself. Marissa, too, had spent more of her childhood away from the East End than on it, counted among her classmates no cousins or children of parents’ childhood friends. Yet the honeycomb’s irregular top and smooth bottom edges recalled unmistakably the contours of the South Fork’s coasts.

Our field trip packet began with a seemingly straightforward question: What and where are the Walking Dunes? As a newcomer to the East End, I learned that they are parabolic dunes located between Napeague Bay and Hither Hills. In the years that followed, I came to understand that they are not so much entities as processes, collective migrations of dislodged fragments. Like the similarly unmapable wind and waves, their forms are defined not by edges, but rather by a series of subtle displacements. Unsolid, unbounded, they are nonetheless a force to be reckoned with.