Life at the Edge
By Charles P. Ade
The SUN, SAND, and SURF play a starring role in the allure that draws us to Nantucket and its beaches. But I would offer another compelling attribute of the beach that begins with “S”, solitude. In our increasingly frenzied and chaotic world of deadlines, commitments, and “going the extra mile”, the beach can offer us a peaceful refuge. It is not the lonely, isolated kind of “solitude” but that which allows quietude, reflection, and communing with nature, be it with walks along the shore or remaining in place among the dunes. It is exploration using the powers of observation, hearing, and thought. In those solemn moments, our senses are heightened, and we are connected to land and the sea at their boundary, the shoreline – life at the edge.
Finding that solitude can sometimes be difficult, especially in summer. A diligent and persistent seeker can be rewarded in the early hours after sunrise, when the sounds of the wind, the waves, and the birds are not drowned out by the din of a crowded beach. Or at dusk, when the beaches empty as the sun wanes before it dips below the horizon. Indeed, sunrise and sunset can be both a meditative and visual time. Although it is easier to find solitary stretches of beach in the fall, winter, and spring, the long, warm days of summer afford a unique opportunity to experience the sights, sounds, and colors of a walk along the shore.
So what is it that I’m looking for? It depends on my mood, but sometimes I don’t know, leaving it for tide and nature to surprise me. Such was the case one evening just before sunset when I found a stranded horseshoe crab by Eel Point. Realizing its predicament, I resolved to rescue it and, like the naturalist Loren Eiseley’s “The Star Thrower”, hurled it back into the receding tide. Given another chance, it hopefully found its way inside the Point to Hither Creek and sanctuary. It is the pulse of that tide, its proverbial ebb and flow, that draws us to the water and me to the water’s edge to see what mysteries may be revealed. So, too, the sandpipers flit down to the receding water line to see what may be found before racing back up to escape the next incoming wave. And, like the sandpipers, I skirt the tide’s edge, scanning to the high-water mark to see what’s been brought to shore and left behind.
When I walk barefoot in the wet, rippled sand left behind by the tidal flow, the cool water awakens me from the toils of the day and invigorates my each and every step. Colors come alive all around me. The sand has a burnt umber and gold cast to it as the sun’s angle decreases and catches the last glint of its minerals and sediments. Even the hue of the water has changed from the blue-green of the afternoon to cobalt blue and now navy. The beach grass that provides the scaffolding for the dunes is flashing green and silver on the crest above me as the last rays of light catch its blades. The wind has shifted so that the cries of gulls still searching for any crustaceans and shellfish still trapped on the beach waft over me in diminishing fervor. Life at the edge is settling down for the night and the coming peacefulness is welcome for all.
Yet sometimes the sound and fury of the surf on the south shore, as found near Cisco, is a needed shot of energy to the soul. The force of the waves can be magnificent to behold, especially after a storm, and remnants of road from an earlier year bear witness to what that force at the high-water mark can do. The beach bears those scars, too, and its narrow expanse is testimony to the ever-changing shifting of the sands due to erosion. The power of the sea and its waves can be palpably felt as you stand at the water’s edge, the receding waters straining to pull you in along with anything else not anchored. It is a life force all its own and it can humble you in the throes of its power.
In contrast, early mornings on beaches like Coatue can be so peaceful and serene that they make for idyllic sojourns to the start of any day. One can see the fingers of the incoming tide create and replenish their tide pools. Sometimes they form intricate estuaries in the wet sand for later, giving evidence of change that the shore witnesses with every tide. My solitary footprints in the sand marked me as the first to traverse this pristine shore as did the warning cries of the gulls who scattered before me. My senses were attuned for what was new and awakening. As I walked from Wauwinet and past Coskata Pond, the scrub oak forest was alive with the sounds of numerous birds. Thickets of rosa rugosa in bloom in the lee of the dune added another splash of color in the dawn’s early light. Once upon the outer, barrier beach, it is not uncommon to find flotsam and other nautical remnants strewn about, ranging from battered lobster traps and long-lost lobster buoys to derelict dories. Crossing over to the Inner Harbor, a different ambience prevails. Several “points”, seven in all, extend like slender fingers into the Inner Harbor. It is a relatively tranquil shore and quiet haven for all, myself included. It is the essence of Nantucket that one can find a particular beach which, though familiar, can still reveal something new and provide a calmness and serenity along with that sense of wonder.