By Pat Garber
…It was a very inspiriting sound to walk by, filling the whole air, that of the sea dashing against the land…Henry David Thoreau
Having wandered for more than an hour with my friend Rita along the salt flats at Ocracoke Island’s north end, I set out to walk in earnest. Thoreau’s account of his own beach walk, recorded in his book “Cape Cod,” was tucked in the top of my pack, within easy reach. The music of the waves breaking to my left was, as Thoreau had written, an inspiriting sound.
The wind was at my back, not a hard wind but one that sent the fine grains of sand scattering ahead of me, low to the ground, and produced the illusion that the land itself was in motion. Thoreau described the wind as he and his companion trekked across what he called the Cape’s wrist: to face a migrating sand-bar in the air, which has picked up its duds and is off, to be whipped with a cat, not o’nine-tails, but of a myriad of tails, and each with a sting to it…I have encountered many such winds, but the wind this day was gentler, and a pleasure to walk with.
Before long I noticed that I had companionship on my journey. A pod of bottlenose dolphins were making their way along the beach, their graceful forms rising and falling just on the other side of the breakers. The ocean was a busy place here, with brown pelicans riding air currents above the waves and herring gulls splashing in the grey waters. The headlong plunges of gannets, big elegant white birds with black wing-tips, a little farther out, convinced me that the fishing must be great here. I set my pace to keep up with the dolphins, slowing down when they ran into better fishing, hurrying up when they moved ahead of me. They stayed beside me (or I by them) for about a mile, at which time they and the feasting birds disappeared. I think my traveling pals must have turned around and returned to the richer fishing grounds. As I continued my southwestern trek I saw quite a few other dolphins, but most were heading back toward Hatteras, and I can’t help wondering if they had heard, via dolphin language, where the best dinner was being dished up.
Thoreau’s encounter with cetaceans was not so pleasant to read about. Whaling was legal in 1849, and an important source of income on the Cape. Thoreau described the harvest of “blackfish” (probably similar to what we call pilot whales, a kind of dolphin) which he came across near Provincetown: In the summer and fall sometimes, hundreds of blackfish (the Social Whale…called also the Black Whale-fish, Howling Whale, Bottlehead, etc), fifteen feet or more in length, are driven ashore in a single school here. I witnessed such a scene in July, 1855…I counted about thirty blackfish, just killed, with many lance wounds, and the water was more or less bloody around…The fisherman slashed one with his jackknife, to show me how thick the blubber was,–about three inches; and as I passed my finger through the cut it was covered thick with oil. The blubber looked like pork, and this man said that when they were trying it the boys would come sometimes round with a piece of bread in one hand, and take a piece of blubber in the other to eat with it…
“Trying” the blubber meant, I knew, heating it to render the oil. Here on Ocracoke, dolphins had been harvested in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and their blubber “tried” for lamp oil. Try Yard Creek, one of the saltwater creeks which partially bisect the island and which I would be passing today, received its name from this practice.
Other than Rita, I had seen no other humans since I had left the village of Ocracoke. Having the beach to myself was wonderful, and I found my thoughts reflected in Thoreau’s description of his1857 walk:…that solitude was sweet to me as a flower. I sat down on the boundless level and enjoyed the solitude, drank it in, the medicine for which I had pined…
The shore I walked now was barely recognizable as that which I had traversed seven years ago, but that came as no surprise. Ocracoke’s shoreline changes shape with every hurricane, every nor’easter that churns her sands. Barrier islands are always on the move, migrating westward toward the mainland and sharing sand up and down the beaches. It is not a new phenomenon, as reflected in the following observation made by Thoreau. As I looked over the water, I saw the isles rapidly wasting away, the sea nibbling voraciously at the continent…” Later in the book he remarked, Perhaps what the Ocean takes from one part of the Cape, it gives to another,–robs Peter to pay Paul.
There were not as many birds along this stretch of beach. An occasional squadron of pelicans, flying in formation just above the waves, passed by on occasion, and I saw a great black-backed gull sitting near the dune line. Swooping across the water, too far away to identify, were a few gulls, no doubt searching for fish. Thoreau wrote about gulls he saw on the beach at Cape Cod in October, 1849, saying Mackerel-gulls were all the while flying over our heads and amid the breakers, sometimes two white ones pursuing a black one…and we saw that they were adapted to their circumstances rather by their spirits than their bodies. Theirs must be an essentially wilder, that is less human nature, than that of larks and robins….
Being unfamiliar with a bird called mackerel-gull, I had, upon reading “Cape Cod” earlier, looked it up in my bird books. I read that in Massachusetts this name was sometimes used for the common tern. I think it would have been unlikely for common terns to be at Cape Cod in October, and I don’t know that there are black ones and white ones; so I wonder if mackerel-gull might have been a generic name Thoreau used for gull-like birds. There could have been several gulls that met his description. His thoughts about their wild spirits does, however, put me more in mind of the graceful terns than of the more pragmatic gulls.
As I followed the shore, I became intrigued by a proliferation of what looked like artistic drawings in the sand, in varying shapes and colors, a few yards my side of the tide line. They were somewhat circular but very irregular, sometimes connected, with two or three rings composed of differing colors of sand. Some resembled little people or strange creatures. I had seen them before, though never in such numbers, and knew that their formation was due to interactions of wind, water and slope with sands of differing weights and textures. With such variety and somewhat ghoulish shapes, it was easy to imagine an artistic sense of humor behind their design.
Thoreau did not describe the same sand art I saw, but a similar phenomenon which I have often noted in my beach explorations. Talking about beach grass (Psamma arenaria) he wrote: As it is blown about by the wind, while it is held fast by its roots, it describes myriad circles in the sand as accurately as if they were made by compasses.
As I walked along I noticed that the sky had grown darker. My brisk walk and heavy jacket had kept me warm, but now I felt raindrops patter against my jacket. So much for the weatherman’s prediction of a dry day, with the rain starting later in the night! Oh well, as Thoreau had begun his day walking in the rain, it seemed fitting that I end mine the same way. He had written: The reader will imagine us, all the while, steadily traversing that extensive plain…and reading under our umbrellas as we sailed, while it blowed hard and mingled mist and rain…
Farther down the beach, I came upon the timbers of an old shipwreck, its bones laid open to view by recent wind and water. I recalled another beachwalk I had taken, when the wreckage of a 74-foot fishing trawler had littered the shoreline I walked. I turned to Thoreau’s words, written in 1849: The sea, vast and wild as it is, bears thus the waste and wrecks of human art to its remotest shore. There is no telling what it may not vomit up….perhaps a piece of some old pirate’s ship, wrecked more than a hundred years ago, comes ashore to-day.
Years later, in 1857, again exploring Cape Cod, Thoreau described coming upon an old shipwreck. Soon after leaving Newcomb’s Hollow, I passed a hulk of a vessel about a hundred feet long, which the sea had cast up in the sand…half buried, like a piece of driftwood. Apparently no longer regarded. It looked very small and insignificant under that impending bank.
I was nearing the place where, on the other side of the dunes, I had left my truck. The rain was falling harder and I was anxious to reach shelter, but I took a moment more to stand and gaze out across the water. The tide was coming in, and each wave, as it thrashed its way toward land, seemed intent on out-racing the last. Beyond this stretched the unwearied and illimitable ocean…