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point reyes

Point Reyes, summer 2018. Photo by the author

It’s always the edges that are most interesting, the half-shadowed interface that’s not quite field and not quite forest, the crust where the dough crisps and takes on its own new texture, the border area where people mix two otherwise separate languages and cultures and foods. Just as sunrise and sunset are the most beautiful times of day, I like to think that this is the best habitat for people, the mixing zone between: between the cultivated and the wild, between the planned and the spontaneous, between ways of seeing and living in the world.

I like to think that I have this affinity in part because I was lucky enough to grow up near a beach. In my case it was on Lake Michigan, where a shadowed path wound down from our neighborhood. The woods were interesting enough, a great place for the childhood games of imagining castles and dungeons, but the beach was something else. Wind down the path, and pale bright light emerged through the dense vegetation. Round the corner, and there it was, a different world: an open horizon, a slash of blue, a swath of yellow sand.

My mom, a Chicago native, was a committed, lifelong beachgoer, and she made sure her children picked up that same addiction. We went in every season, if not to swim then to take walks, even on the tumultuous shoreline ice mountains of winter. There was always something to see.

But of course it was best in summer. In summer the water grew warm enough that, on days of a mild east wind, we could bob and play for hours. In summer the evenings were long and fireflies flashed in the oncoming dusk. In summer the afternoons stretched on and on, and it was not too difficult to sense a feeling of infinity suggesting that this all could last: the warm sand, the breath-catching chill of the water, the comfortable feeling of sun on skin.

I’m pretty sure my first sense of loss stemmed from learning that summer could in fact not last forever, that the days on the beach would end, that before too long the schedule of school rather than weather would determine things.

These were all sensory pleasures of an immediate sort, but the immediate pleasures of the beach were only a part of the appeal. More important, especially as I grew older, was knowing that the beach was there, and the lake, and ways of being that were entirely unlike what I was coming to know in the manicured suburbs. It became important to know the shorebirds and diving ducks that showed up in particular seasons were on their way to or from nesting sites in the Arctic, that the newly arrived zebra mussels that washed up in small colonies on the beach were an invasive species from Asia causing all kinds of trouble, that a little beach that most of the neighbors never even bothered to walk to was connected so thoroughly to the wider world.

Another beach, another time. July 4, 2018, to be exact. With our friends we drove out from the wine country to Point Reyes National Seashore. It’s cold out there when the wind blows onshore: At the picnic grounds families from the Bay Area were grilling lunch and playing catch on the lawn, wearing down jackets in the brisk wind. Low clouds were scudding overhead, seemingly just above the tops of the tall fir trees. But we persisted. Having driven all the way from Arizona, we had to see the ocean.

As we wound down toward the shore, we left the clouds behind too and began to feel the mild warmth of the sun. The ocean glinted in the distance. The parking lot was full with holiday traffic. People were flying kites, walking dogs. The path to the beach crossed a marsh and then passed through a range of dunes.  And then emerged onto the beach—a spectacular beach, miles long, with scarcely a building in site. And a deep beach, too, as it was a fair walk down to water’s edge across the sand. This seemed a beach that will remain for a long time as climate change raises the level of the sea.

The North Pacific was icy, but the sun warmed us as we walked, and after half a mile we were ready for that most time-honored of cold beach traditions, namely lying on the sand, listening to the surf, thinking of nothing. Or not nothing, exactly, but everything, or at least to the way that the surf breaking on a wild beach is an amazingly complex sound, a rushing sensation in stereo as a wave winds up and rises and falls and spreads onto the wet sand and is followed by another that is bigger or smaller and sounds entirely different. It’s a world, out there.

Which was clear when we opened our eyes too. They were too far away to hear, but when we looked out toward the horizon telltale billows of mist showed us that whales were moving along the shore. And then before our amazed eyes two whales began breaching out of the water, heaving themselves high into the air and splashing down again. This was the edge, all right, not just the edge of the nation and of the continent, but the edge between species and living communities, between dramatically different ways of being.

That evening as we watched fireworks pounding the air I could not help but think back on the whales, one of which used its flippers to slap the water repeatedly, sending up showers of spray that seemed as celebratory as the rosettes and chrysanthemums lighting up the sky over the county fairgrounds. Independence Day? Great holiday. But I wouldn’t mind having one called Interdependence Day, too.

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Peter Friederici is a writer and a former itinerant field biologist and tour guide who in his spare time directs the Master of Arts Program in Sustainable Communities at Northern Arizona University.

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