“In myths, people turn into all kinds of things. Birds, animals, trees, flowers, rivers.”
~Richard Powers, The Overstory
I’ve been here off and on for four years now, and I’m not sure I know Long Island as a home yet. Thus, I decided to take part of this summer to ask why and begin to find some answers.
In the past year and a half, I sold my home in Texas and bought a house nestled into the Pine Barrens near Riverhead, New York. The distance between place of residence and home is a resonant and palpable thing. Home requires getting to know the place (neighbors, local shops and stores, the right restaurant and pub) and, for me, getting to know the other neighbors (the array of critters and plants—native and exotic). I would suggest that the distance between place and home must also be spanned by some notion of myth, some narrative tug at one’s being that “places” you in your home.
Learning stories of a place is a beginning—who’s been writing, who’s been singing, who’s been storytelling and finding the common themes, interactions, and connections with this place. By the way, this includes ALL who have been writing, singing, and telling stories of a place, not just since 1492 (with all the violence and difficulty that includes) and not just since the arrival of humans (with all the violence and difficulty that includes). The glacial erratics in my yard have told me stories about why Long Island is here, just as the horseshoe crabs have taught me about the red knots’ late spring return. At some point, you have to place yourself in the story to make a myth of home.
I’d been sorting through how to do this for over a year—spending time in the woods and wetlands, time paddling the four major rivers (Carmans, Connetquot, Nissequogue, and Peconic), and a bit of time in the Sound and the Bay. Check, check, and check. Each of these trips included brief excursions to learn stories from knowledgeable folks, but I hadn’t had to bodily invest myself in the learning. What I needed was to take up an event in place that would demand something of me. Something that my fifty-seven-year-old body, through aches and pains, would use to remind me… “Yep, you’re here.” Also, the trip had to be about being and contextualizing here, this loooong island.
Then, it came to me: How about paddling around Long Island? It’s been done a few times in the past twenty years, and the distance is around 260-280 miles—manageable enough if I took day trips, sorting out drop-offs and pick-ups with dear friends. Kayaking seemed conducive to learning more about this place, the expanse of it, and it held the possibility of a small, myth-making experience—one that after enough days of paddling, enough time of sore shoulders, mishaps, and the unplanned oddities that always happen on long trips, could turn into something else: I might find myself at home here.
* * * *
By early June, I’d made four paddling trips and put in around forty miles or so. Today I was paddling from Albert’s Landing (on the Peconic Bay-side of the South Fork) to Montauk Harbor near the end of the South Fork. This trip was the last easy one, as the next would require rounding Montauk Point and then dealing with currents and open ocean. My kayaking partner was Maria Brown, GIS Specialist, wetland scientist, and long-time advocate for environmental causes across Long Island. In contrast to my trying to learn Long Island as a home, she has lived off the island for only a year during her entire life. THIS is where she belongs.
The water today was smoother than any previous day, and a light wind seemed to pull across Napeague Bay as we made our way to Montauk Harbor. I would never say a day of sea kayaking is a lazy day; every day on the water offers a new experience or a new perspective. But today was relaxed, quiet, and full.
On the shore, three young men were setting up the lifeguard stand for their work. One was entering Stony Brook University next fall (where I teach) and planned to major in marine vertebrate biology. His excitement reminded me of my own feelings years ago. I still enjoy seeing that sense of possibility. The best of professors still take a bit of that feeling into their work—curiosity and possibility. I remind him I am not a scientist, but I want to learn all I can about this place, scientifically and culturally.
What does that mean? he asked.
Well, in a specific place, we need science to understand what’s there and how and why it’s come to be, but we need culture to explore the values of what’s changed it or even why it might be preserved, I posited, fumbling with my chin hair.
He surveyed the beach at Albert’s Landing and seemed to connect the lifeguard stand he’d be working at all day with the beach surrounding it and the Peconic Bay stretching out before us. He nodded a thanks and returned to prepping his station for the day’s beachgoers.
* * * *
Maria and I were able to cut across Napeague Bay since the wind was mild, aiming for Cherry Point, and after that the village of Napeague. Napaegue Harbor is guarded by Hicks Island. According to historian and naturalist Larry Penny, in the nineteenth century there were two inlets into the harbor, which left Hicks Island, just that, an island. Now, Hicks Island is more of a tombolo, a former island that is attached by a rising bar of sand.
We could see rusted chunks of machinery on the beach before landing at Hicks Island. Also a large, partial, brick chimneystack stood watch over the metal ruins. An osprey had made a nest in its top and watched us closely from the fish trap poles.
In a nature column titled “The Gems of Napeague,” Mr. Penny notes that in the 1940s the area was “residence to a thriving menhaden rendering factory owned by the Smith Meal Company which produced fish meal and fish oils.” Menhaden were ground into meal to make oil and fertilizer. By the late 1960s, the menhaden (also called bunker) were starting to disappear, and this plant closed with all but a skeleton crew in 1972. The area is currently caught up in some dispute about ownership and protection, so we did not venture from the beach, nor did we see signs about restricted access due to plovers, terns, or other wildlife.
Just after Goff Point, Hither Hills State Park begins. While we could see only parts of them, the Walking Dunes are just on the east side of Napague Harbor. Hither Hills Park extends the width of the South Fork here and we would be crossing the southern beach in a few days. The park is an extensive forest just above the beach area.
We began to cross Fort Pond Bay, which dips south near to Fort Pond in Montauk. A few big boats came in fast and wake-filled, until they neared the buoy. Just across the bay was Culloden Point, which got its name from the ship that ran aground here in 1781. Divers can still see some of the wreckage not far from the shore. We had planned to stop at the beach near Gosman’s, not far at all from the point. It was a leisurely paddle to the beach. We knew the next stretch would not be as easy, so we planned the trip around Montauk Lighthouse for another day.
* * * *
A note on paddling on calm water
As I would find out, when paddling in open ocean and riding 3-4 foot swells, sometimes kayaking keeps you highly attentive to the task at hand. You pay constant heed to balance, paddle height, rudder direction, the next wave, the menhaden popping the top of the water around you as though you are in a popcorn kettle. You notice a slight change in wind direction or when a large bubble/gurgle/splash happens just in front of you and the water around your kayak shimmers with menhaden fleeing the scene of predation by something large, all happening inches beneath you. Your focus during these times is clear, and a sense of self-preservation and safety stokes the fires of whatever endocrine system reaction needs to take place for you to notice … where … you … are.
What do we do when the wind is calm and the seas smooth, and the only task is light repetitive paddle strokes, over and over, over and over, hour after hour? Are we okay with noticing the smaller and less obvious landmarks and “seamarks” (I’m guessing this isn’t a word)?
Here is a day of smooth seas… A slight sound of water trickling in the front of the kayak, perhaps the wind moving languorously through the bayberry and oaks, a tern here and there diving for silversides, an osprey returning with a bunker in its talons, the next land point to aim for, which in all honesty from the kayaker’s vantage looks similar to the previous points you’ve aimed at all day.
If you have a paddling partner, there’s an easy way to pass time on a smooth water day, talk. Maria knows the area and the science to understand it well. She knows Larry Penny and has worked with and against folks to preserve parts, places, and critters on this island since the 1980s. If the day gets monotonous, all I have to do is ask a question relating to the above and she’s there as a library shelf of information and history. She’s also wise and patient, so, most times, she waits on me to ask. I notice sometimes I’m asking out of a sincere desire to know, others to pass time.
There’s a moment in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot where the two characters mull such a scene:
Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.
However, when we let unneeded talk go silent, the next way to conjure up a perspective to keep a kayak going forward is to dig deeper with the paddle into the repetition of strokes, counting them as breaths, to ten, much as one does in meditation sessions. Make it to ten without losing your place for a few times, and you notice time does pass, rapidly. Task, task, task, wait butterfly wing distraction, and return. Task, task, task, task, why is there a moth floating toward Gardiner’s Island fifty yards offshore?, and return. What’s really rough on the novice Buddhist is when your teacher changes your focus to counting inhales, not exhales, and later still to no counting at all. Task is comforting for us; we are a species who need work. The problem is when task or work becomes habit, instead of constant and calm awareness. Paddle stroke 1 to 10, paddle stroke 4,137, each nothing special and each new.
I’m learning much about Long Island’s history on the trip. I’m also learning about the ecology of places. Other lessons are even more local—personal, I might say. What is this circumnavigation when the water is smooth and I can’t avoid being stuck with myself in the kayak? Then, even a 17-foot sea kayak doesn’t seem long enough for all of myselves. At other times, I let the slight wind do the talking, and count for a while…
one, two, three, ….
and then, quit counting,
and just paddle, just paddle,
and let the water density and my shoulder curl move me forward. Finding and making home arises as much from this practice as doing the homework and knowing what’s here. In another way, maybe this is the greater activism: to listen and begin to see more clearly with more than just our eyes and minds. Maybe we can slow down and do the hard work every day, making our tea or coffee in the morning and remembering where our water, tea bags, and gas for the burner come from, or putting the kids to bed and telling them a story about this place that has some resonance with a deep history and the naïve creativity of a newcomer’s view. This is being in our place with creative engagement instead of merely with opinion or habit.
A couple of years ago, I came across Wendell Berry’s line: “The dominant tendency of our age is the breaking of faith and the making of divisions among things that were once joined. This story obviously must be told by somebody. Perhaps, in one form or another, it must be told (because it must be experienced) by everybody.” It struck me that this is exactly how most of us are living, and, while it is a sobering story, it isn’t necessarily a tragedy. We are living in an age of divisions; so too, we are living in politics and communities of divisions, and a natural world of managed plots of preserved nature separated by marginalized landscape. However, this doesn’t exclude the hope of finding connection; it just excludes all the idealized connections we’ve been given to now. It’s a story that’s painful and beautiful, full of loss and promise, but now it is a story that must be told.
Most of our homes are made up of some kind of fractures; most of our watersheds and bioregions are remnants, too. These fractures are not just external; they begin with allowing our daily lives to fall into habit. Recognizing this helps us begin to honestly and truthfully see the loss, begin to listen, and live without rigid ideals. Maybe the real restoration of home is that fragile and beautiful moment where domesticity meets wildness again and again, when ritual doesn’t become routine or habit, when we do our best to benefit all those around us, humans and nature, our neighborhoods and the environment, by living with consideration and style in regard to our lives, meals, partners, homes, and places. Maybe I can just paddle.
* * * *
A few folks lounged on the beach, but they had little interest in us. I smiled at a child who came to play with the boat’s rudder. His dad told him to leave it alone and not bother us.
Please, it’s OK. It’s good to be bothered, I said.
We wandered out onto the riprap of the jetty to watch the fishing boats motoring in and out. As I stared out at the water, another line from Waiting for Godot came to mind: “We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener.” This trip, I realized, is beginning to upend habitual ways of seeing. It has been a good day’s work.