Margins: A Naturalist Meets Long Island Sound

Margins: A Naturalist Meets Long Island Sound

by Buckles

Paperback(1 PBK ED)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865475328
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/01/1998
Edition description: 1 PBK ED
Pages: 286
Product dimensions: 5.49(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.95(d)

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Chapter One


Many paths lead to water from where I live. Some are journeys of the eye through glass and screen. In winter my sight travels from the large coastal oak out to islands framed by its boughs and, far beyond, to splinters of sun that underline Long Island's north shore. This allows morning to begin while a sliver of moon still lodges in the oak's crossed limbs.

Some paths are recollections. After a season of record snowfall my back exulted as it pressed into the warmth of Sound-side bedrock. A few snows had been heavy enough to outfit this stone in white spats above the dark water of high tide. As the tide receded, a sharp line remained to define where earth began.

The best path is literal and direct. It runs from the bottom of my front steps to the top of the rocky slope overlooking the Sound. The first ten strides lead me through evergreens that serve as a windbreak for the house and garden. A dozen more and I'm across a lane and out onto turf browned by repeated freezings and the unending thoughtlessness of geese. The rest of the trip requires forty-six steps and is often breezy.

Simply to stand here and look out is to be entertained. Diving ducks court shamelessly on these sheltered waters from late autumn through early spring. There are buffleheads and oldsquaws and two species of scaups and red-breasted mergansers with their head crests like worn-out toothbrushes. These waterfowl are small, the sprightly buffleheads weighing only three-quarters of a pound.

The birds vanish under water to feed. This distinguishes them from mallards and other surface-feeding ducks, calleddabblers. It also makes guesswork of tracking a particular individual, since flock members often surface fifty feet from where they plummet. When thirty or forty ducks forage at once, the water gathers them and shoots them back to the top with alacrity, and whole stretches of liquid dance with the motion.

Before the cold lifts and the diving ducks head north, I'm likely to see the mergansers mate just a few feet offshore. A hen will swim low in the water with a wild look in her eye. A drake who's been flirting by dipping his angled, outstretched neck will try to seduce her, climbing on backward sometimes. I'll chuckle, knowing little of wet chivalry's trials. He will correct his mistake and find success. For an instant the locked pair may swim with the drake clutching the back of the hen's crest in his red beak, the hen not quite drowning. Then it will be over. The two ducks may never approach each other again, their species' habit being to put on flashy nuptial plumage and choose new partners every spring.

When the flocks are far from shore, I sometimes watch their dives and reappearances over the backs of browsing geese and pheasants. Then the ducks' fleetness forms a living fringe that extends the margins of the land. Occasionally the telescope picks up a raft of forty or fifty scaups out near the islands, which are several hundred yards away. When they're not feeding, these birds bob along the shelf of the Sound, their white abdomens bookended by dark breasts and rumps.

As the diving ducks become increasingly restless prior to their departure for nesting, great and snowy egrets and the black- and yellow-crowned night-herons arrive to stand motionless along the water's edge. They gather their bodies into S's and hunches and other uncomfortable-looking postures that they appear to hold for weeks at a time. By late in the month the sheltered waters of the Sound seem drained of quickness, as if skateboarders had somehow become supplanted by aloof royals.

The herons do not starve. Their energy is simply different from the ducks': it's spent in rhythms of boom and bust. After a long period of immobility, a neck lunges violently toward a fish in the shallows—the Sandman with a seizure.

Casts of characters replace one another here predictably over the course of seasons. Yet there are moments when the world seems unrehearsed. On April 17, the mewings of cedar waxwings caused me to look up into the crown of a cedar rooted a quarter of the way down the rocky shore. Thirty of the birds were beginning to feed there, fluttering while they tried to balance on the berry-rich branches. As they fell silent with feasting, the movement of their many wings gave the tree itself a sense of lightness, as if it, too, vibrated in the pale air.

I watched the acrobats for several minutes. In groups of three and four they began to fly from the needled greenery onto stones beneath it, where runoff from the previous evening's rain formed tiny rivulets and pools. Though waxwings are terrestrial birds, these individuals slaked their thirst just above the tide line before they flew back up to their tree. They dropped and returned, dropped and returned, with a regularity that bridged water and land like a tangible line.

Soon the entire flock moved to the deciduous tree next door. Its limbs were still winter-bare, and I could see the waxwings clearly. Their dramatic black masks hinted of bandits as the birds sat fluffed up against the cold. They peeled out, kissed the cedar in passing, and evaporated en masse.

A freshening wind off the water sometimes sends me inland a few yards, along a ragged lane that separates an old apple orchard from a grove of pines. I've seen as many as seven deer at a time explode quietly from these conifers, their tails erect and flashing white. Before I can breathe, they've leaped across the road and melted into the hardwoods and hemlocks that surround the gnarled fruit trees.

The end of this lane leads down to water protected from the wind. The route is an improvised affair—part road, part raccoon trail, part just the memory of picking my way along massive boulders and bedrock that give out onto sand. Slow going, it promises, to the extent that anything can, a close approach to creatures I don't otherwise see. In warm weather, if the tide is out beyond the derelict wall that forms a lagoon here, I have a chance of finding panicked flounders swimming among the clouds of seaweed. And sluggish, foot-long worms—blue ones, with apricot "legs" that move in waves. It is not possible—ever—to see the great blue heron at close range. As a pointed stone rises to bite me in the leg, the bird utters three nasal croaks and lifts off for more solitary shores.

Often when a big flyer leaves me to myself like this, I think about what a consummate spot I've come to. At odd moments in my previous, inland life I pondered what I would value most on land bordering water. Would broad stretches of sugary sand like the sand of the tropics be appealing? Would evergreens, marching along rock shores as in Maine? Or would I prize a wave-echoing sanctuary, a place to garden like the heaven Celia Thaxter chronicled in An Island Garden? Those flower colors, which artist Childe Hassam captured in the New Hampshire light! Those spire-like shapes, and vines that shade a lookout to sea! Amazingly, miraculously it seems at times, I found it all—trees, stone, sand, a seaside garden—the variety being concentrated in this one glorious setting near a cove.

At the cove's head, within close proximity of the water, mountain laurel rises ten feet tall. The plants grow close together; in places their twisted trunks limit how far I can penetrate. Behind the laurel hells, which is what the dense patches are called, open forest floor is covered in matted leaves and in remnants of the plant called, quite wonderfully, wild sarsaparilla. Young sassafrasses stretch toward the light of clearings.

A small sand beach lies across a road from the laurels. Cradling it are thirty-foot-high curved banks of rock and soil. Trees extend down the banks to about fifteen feet above the tide line. The lower stone is devoid of major vegetation except in the few spots that hold marsh grasses. The overall configuration is that of a giant U, with the beach tucked into the closed curve between two headlands.

Alternating coves and headlands are typical along the north shore of the Sound. Michael Bell, author of The Face of Connecticut, compares the arrangement to a meter of poetry. "Like Shakespearean couplets," he writes, "place names along the Coast are paired, a 'convex' name followed by a 'concave' name: Hammonasset Point, Clinton Harbor; Bluff Point, Mumford Cove; Indian Neck, Branford Harbor. And on and on down the line."

This beach and cove, like many others along the Sound, attract beer cans and other throwaways that remind me I don't live near wilderness. Juice bottles, and braided ropes, and pink ribbons that wished someone three yards of "Happy Birthday Happy Birthday Happy Birthday," and aquamarine sea glass, and one-quart plastic containers printed with the words "Ursa Super Plus SAE 40 Heavy Duty Engine Oil" above the red-and-white Texaco star are all here.

After storms huge windrows of oyster shells lie tossed together on the sand with jingle shells and clamshells and blue-mussel valves, slipper shells, the occasional perfect conch. The whole lot often ends up bound into bolsters by seaweed. Giant waves fling the heaviest shells, oysters mostly, well above the coastal stone and onto the dark soil and leaf litter. In the calm that follows they look like bits of tissue strewn across the landscape.

An enormous white oak rooted on the bank overhangs this beach. I collect a handful of its acorns when I find them. They remind me of the thoroughly adolescent notes I used to leave curled inside acorns from my parents' yard. I wrote my brief announcements ("Meet me on the bridge, James Dean!" "Read this and die!") on strips of paper the size of those found in Chinese fortune cookies. After I rolled the strips into circles around my fingertips, I sealed the ends with saliva, removed each acorn's cap, and scooped out the pulp. When the hollow became large enough to hold a single scroll, I stuffed one inside and put the cap back on.

I thought of the ark as a tidy package of anticipation, since its existence was a secret known only to myself. I placed it and several others like it inside a dresser drawer in the house. I hoped someone would lift the linens and find the treasures. No one did. Nevertheless, I still think of acorns as vehicles for communication between unseen parties and myself. They are my own digital chip. There's a message in that drawer, still.

Here along the Sound the oak itself is the message. A predominantly oak forest hopscotched across much of southern New England during the 10,000 years that preceded the European immigration. (Historian William Cronon describes the precolonial woods as a "mosaic of tree stands with widely varying compositions.") The southern New England Indians burned and cleared many acres of woodlands. But their communities relocated seasonally, which gave altered tracts time to restore themselves.

British and other European settlers who began arriving here in the early seventeenth century hacked the forest down in the process of clearing land for fuel and housing and a more permanent style of agriculture. The largest, straightest trees—white pines, initially—were singled out for the masts of sailing ships. By some estimates three-fourths of the southern New England woodlands were gone by 1840.

In 1864 George Perkins Marsh's ground-breaking book Man and Nature called attention to the devastating environmental effects of deforestation. Within the next two decades, partly in response and partly out of fear about the economic consequences of deforestation, many Northeastern farmers abandoned stony land that they or their forebears had cleared, fenced, and impoverished; and they didn't stop moving until they reached Connecticut's Western Reserve in Ohio or other areas in the fertile Midwest. Ironically, the migration gave the Northeastern forest a chance, once again, to begin healing on its own.

Now, little more than a century later, the oak forest has made a remarkable comeback. Stone walls originally built along the edges of fields currently lace up returning woods. Oaks and their co-dominants hickory and tulip poplar extend today from southern New England all the way into Tennessee.

As the trees have returned, wild turkey, black bear, and other native pre-Revolutionary forest creatures have reestablished themselves as well. (The connection between oaks and deer ticks transmitting Lyme disease has only recently become clear: the numbers of infected insects are now known to increase dramatically in response to extra-large crops of acorns produced every three to four years. The huge crops initiate a population explosion in acorn-loving white-footed mice, from whom the ticks are infected with the disease-causing organism.)

Though the success of these woodlands is sweet, the Northeast's second-growth forests are never free of threats to their future. Development, acid rain, and clear-cutting are just a few. Nonetheless, the very fact of the woodlands' presence in this populous region of the country is nothing short of astounding. As Bill McKibben points out in his book Hope, Human and Wild, this is one of the unheralded triumphs of the past one hundred years of conservation history.

Bedrock—the miles-thick crust of stone that wraps the earth, ancient matter twisted and pressed by an energy so unimaginably vast that a friend thinks of it as the erotic energy of God. I had never given bedrock any thought at all. I'd had no occasion to wonder how parts of neighbors' houses had been fitted into the soft spaces between huge, hard outcrops. I had certainly never imagined that the stony nakedness could make me feel connected to the planet through a more direct lineage than any I'd previously claimed. Living in a stone dwelling seems totally appropriate here.

Bedrock preselects the direction I move as I wander this coastal land. I travel the same basic north-south route the matter itself assumed millions of years ago, when this part of what is now the state of Connecticut was given its dominant grain by planetary forces squeezing it from the east and the west. Whole continents collided and rebounded like languorous bumper cars then. The gradual fender benders resulted in, among many other things, the predominantly north-south orientation of the Appalachian mountain range.

This major land feature extends from Georgia to Newfoundland and constantly sheds sediment eastward toward the sea, though the flat band of eroded sediments known as the Atlantic Coastal Plain no longer covers the bedrock north of Staten Island. Here along the Sound, low hills of the exposed stone plunge right into the water. Their north-south alignment is obvious along the Sound's upper margin, just as it is in the hills and valleys of Connecticut's interior.

A more recent story with a similar theme is told in features of the land right around me. Bedrock rises gently out of the north here. In some places it suggests a whale's rounded bulk. The repeated grinding and scouring of glacial ice moving south across this region resulted in a prominent asymmetry of the stone. When the ice rode uphill, it skimmed off the top layer of rock. As the glacier began to slide over a crest's far side, it loosened some of the bedrock and fractured it into boulders. This plucked leeward stone was carried along under the frozen mass. The rock that resisted and remained often has a jagged profile.

Moving across bedrock in the same direction that the glacier traveled, therefore, is easy (though it's clear the ice didn't always head straight south). All that's required for the climb are leg muscles strong enough to make the gradual ascent to twenty or thirty feet. If I walk north as if opposing the ice's general forward movement, however, I can go only so far before I reach sheared-off vertical surfaces that stop me in my tracks. Passage Interdit, they say; and they are not to be argued with.

This bedrock is predominantly metamorphic stone such as gneiss. Most Connecticut granite, an igneous rock, has been metamorphosed to granite gneiss. It was formed some 400,000,000 years ago deep inside the earth. Erosion and shifts along fault lines have brought it to the surface. More than the actual force required to form the stone, this ungraspable age is what confounds me. My computer has to be coaxed to accept all those zeros. My brain simply closes down.

Yet there are living things that take the bedrock on. They are the small plants called lichens. Part algae and part fungi, lichens secrete acids that initiate the process of breaking down stone into soil that will support higher plants. Though the vast majority of the soil around the Sound is glacial in origin, the notion that even a fraction of it has arisen through the work of plants as inconspicuous as these seems almost beyond belief.

Some lichen species look like no more than sprayed-on crusts of paint. They're the size of coins, the shape of the moon. Other species are less regular, with rubbery lobes I can flick and peel. Lobes that measure only a fraction of an inch across are considered large. Still other species spend their entire lives trying to attain a height of two to three inches. British soldiers (Cladonia cristatella) is one of them. In a spot I know along my stretch of the Sound, this lichen grows where the original British soldiers invaded more than two hundred years ago. The scarlet structures that Cladonia bears are reminiscent of the soldiers' red coats.

Lichens' typically more subtle coloring helps the plants blend into neutral host stones. The big question with muted lichens, in fact, is what's the lichen and what's the rock. Light-edged gray and gray-green varieties overlap everywhere; clusters of brown ones lack obvious margins.

It was a stroke of genius on somebody's part to leave the treasure sitting out where thieves could find it—if only they knew what to look for. To my mind, what to look for with lichens is beauty—piled-up beauty; beauty grainy as sand, delicate and vulnerable-looking as lace.

To celebrate unsuspected beauty and strength, I gave my husband a small rectangle of soil. I'd watched a bird dislodge it from a depression in bedrock near the house. Lichens paper the bedrock's vertical surfaces. Mosses, which are lichens' direct beneficiaries, scallop the horizontal ones. It was spring, and the moss was thick with spore capsules.

Steve placed the gift in a glass coaster with a shallow rim. He mists and waters it daily, calling it his farm.

"Will you take care of my farm when I go out of town?" he asks.

At a lower elevation than the lichen- and moss-dominated stone and immediately above the tide line runs a twenty-to forty-foot-high band of bedrock utterly different from anything else along the Sound's shore. The nature of the rock itself is not different. The distinction is in the community of vegetation that the margin of land supports. This is not a kind country. Winds sweep across it. Salt spray bathes and bleaches it. In many places the sun beats down on it for most of the day, and fresh water can be scarce. The few species of plants that manage to survive scattered about this landscape are highly specialized.

I visited this zone in the early fall of 1995, after a drought had turned the already demanding habitat into a wasteland. A bee had flown into the emptied coffee mug I clasped as I wandered above the band early one morning. The day was fine, and the buzzing bee made no attempt to exit the pottery mouth. Since I enjoyed its amplified buzz, the two of us began traveling downhill together, the cupped bee my engine and I its train.

Atop south-facing bedrock above a cove we met a post oak that had shed all but a handful of its cross-shaped leaves. Post oaks, which tolerate impoverished soil, usually have sufficient grit to live on the most exposed headlands. This one was dying of thirst. Its trunk was embraced by an eastern red cedar, which looked healthy. But below it bittersweet, that supposedly indestructible kudzu of the North, appeared too anemic to choke even a stem of grass. A thorny bramble bearing wizened leaves grew with the bittersweet in a crevice that ran downhill from the duo of trees.

Raccoon scat was everywhere. There had been no rain to wash it away, and now the droppings decorated the tops of ridges all along the woods' edge. In the older piles I could see calcified crab claws a fraction of an inch long. Moss on a ledge that was recessed into the forest had turned a sickly yellow-green. Fallen twigs and branches lay in every direction. Except for the occasional squirrel scampering through dried ground litter and the rattle of blown leaves, the shore was eerily quiet and still.

The drought was even more evident in plants on flatter, maximally exposed bedrock. Fifteen feet above the tide line a waist-high northern bayberry shared a depression with a pitch pine of similar size. Like the prematurely fallen leaves, these woody plants looked sere. The needles of the conifer and the crinkled deciduous leaves of the bayberry had turned cinnamon, though more mature bayberries growing in another exposure were still green. The only prominent color anywhere around belonged to goldenrod, bronzy poison ivy foliage, and a two-foot-tall groundsel tree, a shrub often associated with salt marshes. The groundsel tree, with white fruits and iridescent underpinnings on its branches, grew in a protective V of stone.

There seemed to be very little hope for the pitch pine and its bayberry partner. To be sure, both plants are adapted to grow in pockets of sterile, acidic soil containing little or no humus. The pitch pine even has a long root that equips it to seek out moisture, where available. But two nearby pitch pines, gnarled and contorted after many years here, had turned the same rusty brown as the small tree. It was not a good sign.

If salvation turns out to be possible for the pine, it may arrive much later, via a cone. The scales of a single two-inch-long cone on the tree were sharply pointed and stiff (thus the plant's Latin name Pinus rigida). Sealed at their tips by resin, the scales will remain closed with the seeds of a new generation inside until heat from a fire causes the resin to melt.

Long Island pitch pines were among the trees that burned for a week on the western edge of the Hamptons during the summer of 1995. Only two days before the bee and I began our trek, I had seen the smoke from our cove, which is seventy-five miles from there. Not all the cones on those Long Island trees were adapted to remaining closed. But some were. After the fire they would open and release seeds capable of germinating. This helps explain why, except in spots where the burning of extensive underbrush caused temperatures to soar above expected levels, those charred acres will eventually become covered in new pitch-pine forests. My bee had flown away when I wasn't looking. This left me on my own to cross a vein of quartz twelve feet wide. Once past the interspersion, I headed to a slightly higher elevation above a deeper cove, where I knew there was a prickly pear growing. A cactus of the genus Opuntia, prickly pear is usually considered a desert plant. Yet here it was in a maritime locale, the only cactus native to Connecticut. The recumbent growth of this patch is extensive. It begins near the top of a ridge and ends twenty feet downhill. The root system that supports such irrepressibleness appears confined to five inches of soil between scrubby trees and obdurate stone.

The prickly pear had bloomed the last week of June. Its yellow flowers, shallow and cupped, sat along the edges of fleshy oval structures. What looked like hundreds of separate stamens, also yellow, surrounded a green, six-parted female structure at each cup's center. The blossoms looked so vibrant yet fragile that it hardly seemed possible they had opened on this ridge of baking rock above salt water. Altogether they embellished their stark surroundings with a ruff of colored laughter.

Even in the dry autumn of 1995 the salt-tolerant cactus bore edible pear-shaped fruits on the fleshy pads. A cross between mahogany and pink, they blended with the burnished leaves of the few unparched deciduous coastal trees. This made the cactus seem as integral to its surroundings as the flowers had made it seem anomalous.

Prickly pears lack true leaves. Instead, like those of many cacti, their flat, succulent stems are capable of photosynthesis. The water stored in these stems equips the species to survive in a hard, dry environment. Prickly pears also collect dew. The drops coalesce on stem structures known as glochids. The British horticulturalist Anthony Huxley describes the structures as "masses of unspeakable miniature barbed hairs ... which become readily detached and penetrate skin with alarming ease, where they produce intense and persistent irritation."

Deep-green poison-ivy vines that had been flushed with red only weeks earlier romped through the crevices around me. When poison ivy can't contain itself as a vine, it becomes a shrub or even a small tree. The plant is so prolific along the Sound's shores that there is hardly any way to escape it.

Early last spring, when the weather was warm but poison ivy still looked inconspicuous, I watched a macabre scene unfold. I was scanning the islands with the telescope. Two camera-laden photographers and a man who turned out to be a model were carrying clothing from a beached boat onto the sand. Several feet above the tide line that sand is rife with the poisonous plant. The party headed into it. One of the photographers stomped out a site for the model. The model stood (click). He sat (click). He reclined (click). The other photographer, a woman, adjusted the angle of the model's cheek each time a new pose called for a tighter embrace of a certain vine-clad tree, and thereby joined her fate to his.

These people faced hospital time. They had not reckoned with the Sound, whose margins contain all manner of surprise. The fungal and algal components of lichen, long believed to live in symbiotic bliss, are now known to wage war. Even in drought, mica in bedrock near the prickly pear hosts orange dots that turn out to be chiggers. From that same bedrock I've watched groups of lion's mane jellyfish turn themselves inside out pumping their bells against the whim of currents. With each thrust the gelatinous bodies became liquid caramel breaking the water's surface. Their labors helped save the jellies from being thrashed against stone. That day.

Another day, on sand near the pitch pines and bayberries, an upturned Atlantic slipper shell full of water hosted a mystifying skit. A dark, pinhead-sized creature that looked like an insect flung itself against the shell rim and bounced back to the center. It did this over and over. For what?

In spite of such apparent misery, the narrow band of hardship above the tides is capable of generosity. My first year on the Sound I found a contorted crabapple four feet tall growing here between stones. Every spring it leafs out and blooms in perfect pink and white, prolifically, as if it were growing erect and well loved on some suburban lawn. Though I know where it is, the crabapple always startles me. "What are you doing here?" I ask in May. It responds with a quick stillness.


4:49 AM read the numbers on the coffeemaker. Something has awakened me. From the kitchen I glance through a sleepy haze at the pink-and-blue light on the water's surface. The air is cool. The day has not quite arrived.

A sound catches my ear as I pass an east-facing window on the way back to bed. A hard object has struck the asphalt beneath the sill. I look across the road to a doe, who stares back at me. Our heads are twenty feet apart.

Damn. She's after my daylily buds. She's probably been here every morning, waiting for the gold to show in the long, plump bullets. These are my favorites—'Jerusalem.' Yesterday I counted fourteen buds on two tall scapes. Today I expected them to open.

In this summer of disastrous dryness I've kept 'Jerusalem' watered. Earlier I thrust some green metal fencing into the soil around it, the kind sold in short, arched spans. This has protected the daylily in previous years, since the plant is close to the house. But in the drought, when animals have taken food and water wherever they could, the barrier is obviously a joke. The deer have already snipped off one course of Hemerocallis. It's time for another. And so the white-tailed tribe and I are locked in a classic confrontation between gardener and pest.

I stare at the doe for a full minute, wondering how many deer ticks she's brought me in exchange for my bounty. Then I say in a breathy whisper, so as not to awaken Steve "Go on." Her ears, which will be fully backlighted in another five minutes, look enormous as they stand out from her slender head. Her thin legs are bunched beneath her. "Go on."

She turns around slowly, her back trailing her head and tall neck, until she ends up in the same position from which she started. Undecided.

Suddenly it is no longer half-light. I am aware of the single notes of birds in the trees. Still, the doe stands looking at me and I at her. "Go on," I say once more. She slowly walks around the low berm that rises between the house and the drop-off to the water. Then she retraces her steps to claim the same position she was in when I surprised her. The creature testing me this way is as lovely as any I have seen.

I say "Go on" again. She circles her own body and then the berm before standing profiled against the Sound. She exhales a half hiss, half harrumph, three times, moving a few steps farther away as she does so. Soon she is lost from sight.

"If we leave now, we can get to Australia and back before dark," I say to Steve. Australia is what we call the bedrock at the very tip of a headland beyond beach and cove. It's so far out in the water that a lobster once swam between my feet there as I straddled two points at low tide. At high tide, Australia is gone.

Coming here is the ultimate journey. Since this land is not-land for approximately two-thirds of the time, Australia has the mystique of every place where worlds meet. In late evening we often stand bathed in western light on the plateau's slippery seaweeds. The sky dims in stages. Since we are below a ridge, we enter shadow before the blush withdraws from the breasts of soaring gulls. Soon the near islands lose their luster. Then the far ones. What only moments earlier was a frame of darkness around those bright, distant mounds is now unanimous dusk. Sometimes a trio of American oystercatchers rises and circles in that instant before the glow is completely lost. The birds' persistent pipings somehow match the blowsy look of their flight, as if three perfect, suspended pale roses were belling while wind tore ar their petals.

When darkness approaches in late summer, fishing boats gather in the distance. Some string themselves out across the horizon. Others form bobbing flotillas. Still others venture toward Long Island on a diagonal. The reds and greens of running lights turn on, and suddenly it's Christmas.

Once on Australia we had a private Fourth of July, in August. For fifteen minutes the faded sky above a fireworks barge anchored offshore took on the tints of morning. I never learned why. Even on ordinary midsummer days, celebrations billow in the bright colors of sailboats' spinnakers, and in the specks of kayaks and canoes. During the summer drought of 1995, when lawns along the Sound were parched and brown, the marsh grasses out on the islands remained fresh and green. Each day they painted a prominent stripe across my view, a reminder that intertidal plants abide by their own rules.

On a humid evening in July, Steve and I stood on Australia and watched two men rowing a shell in the distance. The peculiar flash of their oars had attracted us. Though their movements were only milliseconds out of sync, we saw their blades pull the water in four separate strokes, we counted four distinct featherings after the lifts, and we watched four separate angles of the long, slender shafts turn into half a spider gone spastic. At just such wry moments as this the line between human life and all other life blurs, and Australia salutes one world.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Setting the Margins3
The Shore15
Leeward—First Spring35
Canada Geese49
Bivalves and Boats135
The Dock155
Horseshoe Crabs175
Salt Marshes193

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