Cut Deep, Travel Far
Anne Hodges White
Due west and two hours along a bendy road from the elbow of Cape Lookout lies North Carolina’s tucked-under barrier island, Bogue Bank. The cottage faces south. Here, parents and grandparents grew up and grew old; from here, we cousins grew up and moved on; now our children and grandchildren make their own discoveries.
I remember when there were more square miles of beach, dune, sea oat, and water oak than cottages. When the one-lane oyster-shell road burrowed through a tunnel of dense marine forest, its growth humped leeward by Atlantic gales. When we children built pirate lairs in the dunes, out of sight of grown-ups who favored childrearing by loving neglect. When we chased hundreds of shore birds down the beach, interrupting them from their constant pick-pick-pick for food. On stormy days we retreated to garages where we made mud pies we sold to kinfolk who gossiped and fanned themselves on the front porch. When beach manners passed from elders to young: give folks their space, smile and say good morning, let the shorebirds feed themselves, allow the dunes to move where they will, don’t honk impatience on the drawbridge, and unless someone is drowning, there’s never cause to shout on the beach.
I am older now. If I have juggled fire or ice for too long, I return to Bogue Bank to get my negative sproutings sawed off. Here, the sun is hot, high, and life giving, not delivered through a complicated food chain—seed, corn, chicken, egg, breakfast. Colors vibrate in soft neutrals, unlike the harsh primaries of New England where I push cold hands into wool gloves and wait for July. Who can turn away from the primal rhythms of this place: tides rise and fall each day, habitats change each year, the Bank migrates each eon.
Return to this refuge is more than Southern-born obsession with place. It’s a call answered by the heart and the body. It’s residual memory of ancient fin and tail and gill, the longing for water. The thinking brain is shoved aside: accept the clotted two-day drive on I-95 South, pack the cars—beach chairs and umbrellas, books and laptops, pimento cheese and barbecue—and set off for the cottage where time shifts to present tense.
Each morning, I cross the dune to the shore, schlepping my chair, umbrella, and bag of notes, books, and drafts. I gaze out over the horizon and wait.
Barrier islands move with their own natural rhythms. They require fierce storms to assist their comings and goings, to ensure their survival. In the distant past, barrier islands migrated seaward when they sensed a lowering of the sea level. Today, as seas rise, they are regressing toward the continent at three to five feet a year. Their purpose is not so much to protect the shoreline as to neaten it up, keep order, deal creatively with chaos.
Orrin Pilkey, an expert on barrier islands worldwide: “What other features on the surface of the earth possess the ability and even the intelligence to escape from processes that would destroy them.”
For months, a query has gnawed: In any art or craft, what’s going on inside the cauldron of creative process that we can witness? What is given and what is made? What forces support; what forces oppose?
Eric Gibson’s review on “Matisse in the Studio” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: “How does an artist’s mind work? We can say that it passes external stimuli through the refiner’s fire of an individual sensibility or vision. The trouble is…we see only the artist’s inspiration objects and the end result...”
Drs. John Kounios and Mark Beeman study the Eureka! moment using the fMRI, miracle sleuth of iron-rich hemoglobin in the blood. A second before we experience an insight, a burst of alpha waves appears at the back of the brain, a brain blink that restricts incoming visual information and permits a burst of very high frequency gamma waves in the right temporal lobe. The scan lights up. The aha! moment.
Focusing on the visual, the adult brain hijacks insight. By looking at a blank wall or gazing at a great distance, you cut off the distraction of sight, giving gamma waves a chance to deliver insight.
The child’s brain is different. Immature frontal lobes and a lack of life experience, Kounios and Beeman suggest, account for the young child’s conceptual freedom. The frontal lobe can be jailer to adults, a box.
A recent play date. Our three-year-old grandson arrives with his orange toolbox. He unpacks his tools and lines them up on the hardwood floor. He ambles to the back door to fix the lock, which is “bo-ken.” He putters in the library and kitchen, opening and closing drawers, talking to himself. “This is a good one.” “Not that one.” He returns from his wanderings. I ask what he’s doing.
“I need these different things for mine work.”
May I see?
In his bucket, he has placed a blue jay feather, a starfish, a circle of dried kelp, a Forever stamp, my brass Ganesha, and a whole wheat Cheerio from the kitchen floor.
“I will need these when I make mine some new thing,” he says.
I ask him what he will make.
“I do not know yet.” He sits on his heels, small palms together on his thighs like prayer.
He looks off into the green distance of the sunny yard.
“I am waiting to know.”
We began to notice exploding development in the mid-l970s when news of the Bank escaped North Carolina’s borders and burst into the hinterlands. The interstates became arterial, pumping in invaders and the things they couldn’t do without for a week. The primary and secondary dunes were replaced by beach-front cottages on stilts, three-story slabs of reflective glass and vinyl siding. “Sea Oats,” “Dune Crest,” “Sanderling’s Rest.” Named by developers for the sea oats they ripped out, the dunes they bulldozed flat, and the shorebirds they displaced. We used to call this place “the beach.” Now brochures christen it the Crystal Coast. Google it: find a Sand Castle to rent, poke your mouse into bedrooms, bathrooms. Look at the toilet if you like. License plates at Food Lion say Pennsylvania, Iowa, Tennessee, New Jersey.
I don’t admit to this in front of most folks, but I collect offenses: You’ve got your dune trampling and garbage can missing, your boom box throbbing and Frisbee beheading, your minnow seining and fish hook slinging, your gull feeding and jet ski roaring, plus little girl screeching and her daddy’s fifteen-by-fifteen-foot polypropylene tent eight feet from my chair. Nature is crowded out.
I can’t take my eyes off the sucking riptide of them. I slam my pen down and my notebook shut. With a sense of things coming to an end, I’ve half a mind to migrate to an isolated atoll with a tidy hut, an inexhaustible supply of spiral-bound notebooks, a hand-cranked pencil sharpener, and unlimited sightlines. I drag my stuff and my haughty, inconvenienced face back up the dune, moving inland with the threatened Bank, attempting to make order out of chaos.
Just after he turned two, he tried to absorb our descriptions of the beach—a big place, bright with sunlight. An ocean filling you up with the hiss and roar of breakers. He finds his bucket and shovel and his yellow ball, which he’s told he will need, and places them by his back door next to his little suitcase. In the sleepy July dawn on the morning we leave, he will add Moo, his stuffed cow, and Turtie, his blanket imprinted with little green turtles.
The Walt Whitman Rest Area and Service Plaza on I-95 South, one of several stops along our two-day haul from New England to the Outer Banks, is a human and canine watering hole for the queuing, shuffling, buying, eating, drinking, pushing, gassing up, and toileting masses. In spite of New Jersey’s effort to trick the place up with bold stripes of teal and tangerine, it smells of grilled grease, burned coffee, disinfectant, and sweat. Lines at the fat pumps are seven cars long; queues at Starbucks are longer.
The entrance to the women’s bathroom, wide and without doors, is