Sanctuary

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All my sanctuaries are green and empty of people or at the edge of the sea and deserted. Some are hard to get to and some are harder. Some have names like music – Aransas, Edisto, Hatteras, the South San Gabriel River. Some are just fun to say – Abernathy, Little Pine Garnet Mine. My newest has a clunky unfortunate name that sounds like machines, all metal and rust, like a steam engine pumping, like a Victorian shipwreck, iron hull screeching against the sea, some poor lost soul’s clumsy surname – Shackleford.

What a clumsy word for the hissing of shifting sand, the hush of the clamoring surf, all that motion and energy and peace and nothing to witness it but the gulls and wild ponies. Nothing comes here that doesn’t swim or fly or float.  A fluid island, creeping grain by grain along the coast like a beast made of sand and salt and bits of shell, feather, bone and fossil, where grass roots itself in dunes and sea birds feed and shelter but just for awhile. The next storm will shift it, divide it, cut a channel through or join it with another – barrier islands don’t stay individual.

poniesFor 400 years the shaggy ponies have survived an ocean away from Spain where they began – living on rainwater and occasional springs, swimming in salt channels, eating grass dry as chaff. The wild-eyed, scarred horses – exposed on a shifting pile of sand in the heat, bearing by turns the huge summer sun or the thrashing rain and shrieking  winds with nothing but a dune to huddle behind. Sometimes the ocean wells up and washes over everything. But they drop their foals in the spring and live another year.

The Gulf Stream passes near here, a river of tropic water surges by just miles offshore just before it swings away into the massive Atlantic. It flings Florida conches and queen’s helmets onto shore, the remains of milder latitudes carried here like a message I’m not equipped to understand. But I keep trying.  I’ll spend my life trying.

Someone here salts the sea with wine and whiskey bottles. Green seems the favorite. There’s surprisingly little plastic. Just colored glass to shatter in the surf and melt in the pounding like a sliver of frosted soap for some tourist like me to find like a treasure – beach glass. And I do. And I keep it. Because it’s a bit of the message but only a tiny part.

oasis 7All the questions I see in the stars at night, I can find here washed up on the sand, but written in shell and bone instead of ancient light. The math is the same, only more apparent – almost. So I pick up the bits and bring them home. A snail made this shell from calcium and carbon it soaked from the sea. Maybe a hermit crab used it too and discarded it again. Then the warm sea river carried it here to me. Maybe I’ll put it in my garden – pick it up occasionally when I can’t remember how the ocean sounds because I’m 200 miles away, imagine the snail and the crab and the stardust in its atoms. But mostly to call to mind the quiet thunder of the surf and horses’ hooves, the tick-tick-hiss of dunes creeping grain by grain, and the windchime rake of empty shells in the undertow. The sun and salt and winter wind sucking the water from my skin until it’s hard just to swallow.

I’ll keep doing this, every time I come here or any place like it. Combing the wrackline like a priest, looking for portents in the shell and flotsam – a hollow wing bone jutting from a dune, a fossilized scrap of turtle shell, fish vertebrae, a bit of coal from a steamship wreck, a Caribbean nut – the sea tells a story, writes it on the sand all over the world in a strange and wonderful language. I think I’ll spend my life walking the tideline every chance I get trying to decipher some small part of it.

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Shipwreck

One of my favorite things about the Outer Banks, what sets it apart from all the other Atlantic and Gulf coast beaches I have visited, are all the shipwrecks. Apparently opposing forces like to meet just off shore here playing havoc with mariners.  The icy water of the Labrador Current from the north crashes into the tropic water of the Gulf Stream from the south at Cape Point on Hatteras Island (about 8 miles from where I’m sitting right now), creating strong offshore winds and the shifting sand bars of Diamond Shoals, a sailor’s navigation nightmare. The North Carolina coast became known as The Graveyard of the Atlantic. Hundreds of shipwrecks have been mapped along the Outer Banks.

And the really cool thing is, you don’t even have to scuba dive to go see one. Sometimes the wrecks have washed ashore and several of these are documented by shipwreck enthusiasts. Though even one storm can change things significantly, revealing a wreck or burying a it completely, so hunting for a shipwreck on shore is an iffy enterprise.

This is a photo I took last year of a wreck known as the Flambeau Road wreck in Hatteras village. It isn’t known what ship it was, but estimates based on construction identify it as a turn-of-the-nineteenth-century cargo schooner. I was thrilled to find it. Since this seems to be a pretty reliable wreck and easy to get to, I went back to visit this year.

And this is what I found. I was so excited I circled it for an a long time snapping photos as the sun went down, a storm approached, and the tide began to creep in.

This is me (or my feet), standing on the deck of a shipwreck (or more likely, the inside of the hull, but that didn’t rhyme or have the same visual effect).

Once I decided I could stand on the wreck without hurting it (is that silly?), I got excited all over again and climbed all over it like a hundred-year-old, salt-soaked jungle gym trying to find artsy angles.

Finally, the light was getting dim and I was thoroughly chilled, so I decided to leave my lovely wreck to the tide.