But the sea
which no one tends
is also a garden
– William Carlos Williams
Below where I stand are the pock-marked stony sands of Orient Point on a cold winter’s day. It is aptly called Orient because it is far out east, the easternmost point of a massive island called Long Island. I weathered half my youthful years on many sea fronts, at the edge of the shore—my islands Wellington, Langkawi powered by the sun—those were the days the sea created for me both steady and chaotic seasonal memories. If I could prise open the oyster shell of my life, like a nacre-coated milky pearl, I would catch the winds, return to the sea, run out the clock.
In another point of my life, I am still on an island far away from those other palm-fringed islands, feeling dwarfed by an expanse of Gardiner’s Bay in front, the treacherous tidal inlet of Plum Gut further east, and a long line of black oak trees broken by rocky outcrops west, as far as the eye can see. These days my choppy essentials of learning echo Basho’s poetic sentiments to a student: “If you want to know about pine trees, go to a pine tree.” I go to the lip of my island’s outermost margins, surveying the laden gusts.
Obviously, the winds are significant. I see the waves as that poet, the ground under me pitching and falling, spraying and rolling under my feet. Over the years my gait is a trifle unsteady. I could be standing on an ice road, beneath me the rolling sea. Rising out of the waters on the distant horizon could be Shelter Island, spanning the distance like a plane’s wings. I am alone.
On this day I have the whole ocean view to myself. Before my watery eyes, the tideline weakens, diminishes, merging into blotched seaweed stains where the sea encounters a nomad sky. It will snow. Looking heavenwards I can see the elements at work. To wrench open my contract with sea and sky I have picked a cold winter day for my solitary walk. When you spend an entire day by yourself without company, without conversation, you have the time to balance, to relax, to contemplate, to gather age-old detritus, to catch the wet wind, to assume mysterious upwelling of the poet Coleridge’s sunless seas, to trace the magic demarcation line of Rachel Carson’s silent shore, sky and sea. Despite myself, I am in pursuit of the past, my past and theirs.
My thoughts rotate to my natural footprints, the grainy beach I tread on, to soft-bodied mollusks, to sea treasures haphazardly belched out by the waves. I observe how they lie, upside, downwards facing, randomly tossed with purpose, whether whole or broken. The seas holding patterns can never be gainsaid. Neither can life’s holding patterns, which are starkly similar. They reverberate onwards. Hydrodynamics predict that the positions the shells will lie on the beach are the position they adopt which best allows the rough waves to wash over them instead of knocking them around. Broadly, their preservation is thereby concave or convex into infinity. As humans, we adapt our hardiest stands in similar positions for lift. Yet, how often have we been blown over at specific moments in our life cycle, gone under, with no amount of wet winds or sea fuels to keep us rotational or afloat? The winds I have inherited do not always buoy me up.
I’m no conchology expert, but the wild wet winds whipping my hair, burrowing within my sweater, have me sussing out secrets from the seashells’ spiral skin, crab carcasses, the nautical artifacts on this stretch of State Park Beach littered with serendipity. Earth’s waters regularly disgorge from their depth weird regenerated finds. I collect a few of the choicest. They are not colorful at first glance, a mix of odd-shaped shells, nothing in their dregs, although in their lifetime they held a living sea creature. The Atlantic sun is cold, lying beyond gray layers of a comatose phantom shroud. These will peel in time, loosening ice pellets and freezing rain. I can sense snow. I can smell the sheets of milky gray when sea and sky merge. I cannot decode my picks, some of these with shell life of half a millennium, maybe more. They have had their moment in the fabric of time. We have ours. Mine is even smaller, a pinprick, a dot, a nanosecond of that fractured moment.
This place named for the easternmost north edge of the twin forks is land’s end. On the south fork is the Hamptons, where a lighthouse illuminates coastline dangers. A ferry plies to New London on the mainland. I watch it sail, the whitecaps distorting my vision, a slight shift in the low-hanging clouds gives the Atlantic waves a momentary translucence, like seeing an Edward Moran maritime painting burst to life. Strolling down the water’s edge in mounting surveillance I gather shells and sea glass into a neat pile. This beach is their home. I am the outsider. I drift, mindful not to intrude into the myriad other livingness lost in their pebbled pink curled structures. The wind is our compass.
The sea is our scavenger and shadow. At the behest of the appointed expansion, we connect to the wind and the sea, the mystic tossing of the briny air. The sea can never be still. The sea breezes can never stop skimming. The sky can never be constant. The three inexorably remind me of the unfathomable magnificence of movement and wildness. These seashells have traveled the wet wind of sea, shore and sky, held creatures in them that existed, held life in limitation.
An hour later the beach is still empty. There are still no others around, not even a casual dog-walker, nor a fitness enthusiast, just a quiet hygroscopicity of a once-peopled beach, exhibiting results. I gawk at an outcrop of newer “wear your masks” pandemic signage, our urgent indicator that the maturation of human entanglements is so closely circumferenced as to be socially networked to emptiness. People don’t people the beach, not in winter. Come summer, this fine distance overture will shed. The variant virus, malingering some, whether feigning to mutate or not, has taken a tiresome toll.
Along the distant dunes, a flock of seagulls gather, holding ground against the wild wind, occasionally inquisitive, mostly stoic. Their pearly gray angst forming purposeful rows compartmentalize the fury of the winter winds. For today they are no match. From a distance their numbers are invasions of waving egg-shells, moving in soldierly formation, like styrofoam cups, Carson’s sanderling on the edge of the sea, the brisk wind has ceremoniously applied to the beach. I am rooted to the spot of wet sand on which I stand.
The seagulls vigorously pick at the shells, life and living, their supreme goal of the moment. I am spent. I cannot stay. Perhaps another day I shall seek further shores. Today, I must abandon the sea and its dwellers, the urge to lengthen my moment with the gusting wet wind at saturation. As I solemnly slip away I am mindful of how dependent I am on its uncertain movement, rising and dipping, flapping and gliding, like the seagulls drifting away.
Rekha Valliappan’s prose and poetry feature in various contemporary journals including Ann Arbor Review, The Sandy River Review, Nixes Mate Review, GHLL, New World Writing, Melbourne Culture Corner, Press 53, The Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere. Her works have earned nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.