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 choked with women and children. He senses some threat and reaches up for his mommy’s finger. In the cavernous white-bright space, the automatic sinks whine, the hand dryers roar, the light off hard tile blinds, the toilets suck air and water.
“Is this the beach?”
It may be 1969 everywhere else, but on WindanSea Beach, a rocky peninsula jutting out from La Jolla into the Pacific, it’s another gorgeous day in paradise. A castaway from D.C.—that tortured place, this sorrowful time—I wash up here. Lacking a meaningful pursuit or the disciplined craft of a real writer, I analyze waves and the surfers who ride them.
This warm December day of investigation—a Sunday morning—I leave my Anchorite-perch-of-an-apartment overhanging the Pacific and, barefoot, maneuver the rocky up-thrust of one of the north-south runnels of the San Andreas Fault. Back in September, winter storms stripped the beach of summer and, for safekeeping, deposited its tonnage of white sand in an offshore canyon, the same underwater rift that amplifies WindanSea’s combers.
The choppy, wind-whipped sea of yesterday has settled. Today, ground swells, born out of the Pacific’s breadth and depth, begin to roll in. Visible from my rock perch are blue, sun-ribbed rollers, parallel and uniformly spaced closing on the beach in sets of twelve to sixteen, thirteen seconds between them. Pencil-and-paper math says this train has traveled three thousand miles from a storm center.
Watching is one of the best big wave surfers in Southern California. He stands beside his ancient VW bus in the parking lot. This surfer, rider of the monster waves only he dares to ride, is a bit of a beach bum. He can’t know when or where the next massive one will break; he’s ready at a moment’s notice to travel the coast to Bird Rock, Venice, Malibu, Half Moon Bay, Rosarita Beach, San Miguel. So, no full time job, no full time girlfriend. Today he’s here: perhaps he’s heard a weather report about a cyclone off the Aleutians; perhaps farther north a friend surfing the first swells refracting ashore has called him.
He leans against his bus, his chosen short board under his arm. Glossy like a seal in his black wetsuit, his surfer-hair sun-bleached straw, he reaches down, grabs a handful of wiregrass and tosses it. The wind takes it west, a sure sign: the wave face will hold. Poised, he faces the thrall of the Pacific.
When he knows these combers as well as he can, when he’s converted his terror into a respect for the merciless ocean, he paddles out and settles astride his board. He waits in his body, his instrument that senses even the slight swells of a new set.
Robert Guza, an oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography: While waves arise from chaotic origins, once they move out from a storm center, they become wave trains, traveling almost friction free, transferring energy born of wind and sun and heat. The swells settle into stable and predictable packs. The tallest are bundled in the middle. Often, the biggest and most stable wave in a set of, say, fourteen, is the seventh.
The watery mounds build height as they push toward shallow water. In Southern California, where no sloping continental shelf soaks up and disperses energy—as on the Atlantic Coast—swells approach the shore in deep water. Feeling the resistance of canyon walls and rising seafloor, the bottom of the wave column drags and slows. The top of the wave, feeling no resistance, races on and climbs into air, its energy finding nowhere else to go. It leans forward, loses its stability, overreaches, crashes, transferring the energy of the wind onto the beach.
The next seventh wave is his, a mounding twenty-footer-to-be, building seaward of him, becoming his forward-closing horizon; his wave, as he whips his board around and faces the beach, muscled arms stroking to gain traction and position against the resistance of water, sure feet gaining his stance on his board; his wave, as he knows not to take it too far down the face or else risk running out of water, not to take the face too wary of risk or else watch the comber outrun him, not to take the face too cautiously or else feel the break bury him, twist and turn him in its maw and rake him, screaming for breath, along a rocky bottom; rather, he knows to use the brake of his back foot, the accelerator of his forward foot to play in the middle of its curling barrel, riding its energy, feeling the right-racing crest plunging into the trough at his feet, hearing the rasp of it—ashashashashashhhh, the whisper that, moments later, reaches us with a seismic crash—and impervious to opinion on the rocks or in the parking lot, and joyous, he leans onto his back foot, whips over the lip like a seal flashing sunlight, and drops out of sight. On the rocks, we keep a silence near to homage.
A deep stirring. Watching the master on a big one is not enough. Researching the physics of wave propagation is not enough. Being told that energy transforms this to that is not enough. I cannot understand indirectly.
He’s never seen the white-on-green onslaught of surf, the relentless repetition of it, the might of it. “Where do they come from? Who makes them?”
“The wind makes them,” I tell him.
“From out there?” He points out into the Atlantic. The gusty sou’-easter ruffles his flaxen head. His back little-boy straight, his shoulder blades like small wren’s wings.
I tell him, yes, as far as he can see.
Around his ankles, the spent surf pushes in and millions of air bubbles burst, adding their treble to the bass of the breakers. He scoops into his small palms the blowy foam from atop a wavelet. “Big ones!”
Beyond the cacophony lays the shallow Continental Shelf, the Gulf Stream that becomes the North Atlantic Drift, circles south into the Canary Current, bends west into the North Equatorial Current and slides over the crust-creating Mid-Atlantic Ridge 25,000 feet below, yields to the Antilles Current and, again, the Gulf Stream. The Atlantic gyre, the child of water and heat, the gift of earth-spin.
He lets go of my hand. “I figure it out mine own self.”
It’s 1980-something. I’ve joined the crew of the local aquarium’s fifty-foot collecting boat—two aquarists, a dive master, a galley cook, and the captain who says, come right ahead, miss. We’re to head for the kelp forests in Mexican waters, a three-day hunt for pretty fish.
Our calm anchorage, leeward of the Coronado Islands—a group of rocky crags fifteen miles southwest of San Diego, eight miles off Baja—is a gentle settling over water clear to thirty feet. My dive partner and I spit into our facemasks, drop off the starboard side, and settle into the sanctuary of the kelp forest, the jungle of the Pacific Coast’s cold-water upwelling. In cyan water, sunlight shimmers in drifting curtains and spools down in near-vertical slices as far as light can probe.
Insignificant amid towers of giant kelp undulating to a rhythm unfamiliar to me, I hang weightless. The hiss of my breathing is familiar, yet the unexpected surrounds me—the muffled snap, crunch, thump, click, whistle, and haunted songs of a thousand creatures. Where are these creatures? I push through fronds, hanging thick like amber beads in an exotic doorway.
Out of nowhere, a massive school of herring flashes around me, coiling itself inside out. My senses are not prepared for this onrush of new impressions—think swimming in an immense blue-green lava lamp on speed. Intelligence informs their flashing meander: a horizontal stripe—gill to tail, the lateral line—reflects for a millisecond a quantum of sunlight and communicates a spark of intention to schoolmates as they move with stunning synchronicity. Across my back and along my legs and arms, I sense the flicking wakes of tiny fins, tiny tails, perhaps the outbreath of tiny gills.
Kelp is a study in verticality amidst turbulence. A fingernail-sized pod at the base of each frond, filled with carbon dioxide, provides kelp with its buoyancy and lifts the column up into light. The canopy, sometimes fifty feet above the ocean floor, unfurls one hundred feet of copper and amber onto the surface, often so dense in summer the water world beneath lives in shadow. The mid-story—thin of blade and thick of stalk—connects canopy with ground and provides sanctuary for millions of fish. At the seafloor, root-like holdfasts clasp rocks and provide anchor against the swift current.
As Nature heaves and pulses, often with savage force, She provides ground, spine, and light.
If herring are schoolers, the garibaldi is the loner. One peeks out from behind a frond, half hidden, an orange splotch of frowning belligerence. I scoop the small body into my net. It fights with an extraordinary savagery for so diminutive a being. Determination is in its bones: sun-born energy powers an inhabited body and is transformed into right action. With the heart of a warrior, it finds a way—a small tear in the net—and swims free.
Both many and one, I move in the blue-green world with the kelp and the fish. I am spare: nothing of habit or control here, nothing of memory or plan. No abstractions here. My breath is no longer all mine. I can add nothing to what is felt: direct experience of life at work, braided by a single rhythm.
He is being introduced to the swimming pool in our New England backyard. I tug at his swimsuit, a screaming neon orange, his favorite color, with navy blue and white sailboats tacking to starboard across spandex. His frown expresses concern. I ask him what’s on his mind.
“I do not want to get all of mine parts wet.” The careful period he places after each word says he understands that every one is a noble thing chosen with scrupulous care.
“What parts do you not want to get wet?”
I ask him why.
“Because. I. Want. To. See.”
Last week, the Blue Jay wheeled into our backyard and busied himself competing for a mate, troubleshooting his territory, and hunting for a nesting shelf. He’s a cheeky fellow. Perched on the drooping hinoki cypress, his call jerks a limb into play—jaaaaay, jaaaaay, jaaaaay—that throaty jeer. His new lapis suit flashes the purple of noble birth, the marine blue of oceans, the azure of the vault of heaven, and a bit of iridescence that evolution decided might attract a female. We’ve waited for him to return; spring is about our expectations.
Spring is attempting a comeback with New England reticence. On the first almost-warm morning, my husband and I suit up. We haul out our tools—my rake and pruner, his tractor and chainsaw—and by mid-morning, mounds of leaf and limb pock the lawn. We labor with soft, winter bodies, complaining a little and laughing more.
At noon, a watery sun hangs weak and low in the sky. We toss our sweaters on the ground, lean on the stonewall, and wipe cotton sleeves across our damp brows. As expected, the harshest of recent winters has ended—amputated arms high up in the pine grove, ice heave in the perennial beds, slapdash damage everywhere. We survived another Long Night, dying only a little. We imagine the seasons of our lives spooling out into an endless future, as if a future is birthright. We take so much for granted.
A slender flight feather—smoky azure with black stripes and a white tip—sticks up akimbo, shocking and obscene, in a pile of evergreen. I pick up blue and 150 million years of evolutionary tinkering. Tucked amid debris are skull, hollow bone, contour feathers, and semi-plumes. Water beading on his waterproofing protected him from Monday’s hard rain. Blue-gray down—his long underwear—insulated him from Wednesday’s hard frost. Taken together in all his blue, black, and white, his plumage assured his picky mate of his worthiness to sire her fledglings. Among several sparring males, she had chosen him. Females do this.
Yesterday, with renewed life all around him, he was dispatched by tooth and claw of a single predator who stalked him. Hawk, raccoon, owl, fox, coyote, feral cat—we see them all here. He was all instinctual risk; no camouflage for him. His journey home, his song, his battle for his mate, his nest were his statements of hope. That thing with feathers.
Shaken, I hold a dead bird in my palm. The ground shudders along a fathomless slip-fault. My belief that he would return to our yard every April had blinded me to the end of all things. What expectations, those hobbles of fixed habits of mind, must we struggle against? What must die in us—or be forever transformed—before we can fly free into open space?
Water, fresh from our deep well, washes from his feathers both blood and sinew, and from my hands sorrow and remorse. My thumb and forefinger move along the vane of the flight feather—from hollow quill to white tip—and, with an urgent awareness of time passing, I zip it into wholeness. I wish us both a safe journey.
In his 1973 book The Denial of Death, psychoanalyst Ernest Becker posits that the artist creates as a way to control his fate. His art is his hedge against the terror of death. The artist’s urge to immortality is “a reaching out by one’s whole being toward life. It is a reaching-out for meaning, a reach past the earth itself, which is why man has always placed God in the heavens.”
He leans over the edge of the pond in his back yard, pollywog-spotting.
“There’s one!” he shouts. “There’s another one!”
Their tails sprouted this week. I explain: next arms and legs will grow, tails will disappear, and the pollywogs will become frogs he will hear at night through his open window.
“Not too much longer. Maybe two or three weeks.”
“Will the pollywogs die first?”
“No, they change completely, in stages.” I teach him a new word—metamorphosis—which he bravely repeats in a commendable three-syllable attempt.
“Does it hurt?”
Another autumn has blown up our hill and, on the north side, trees are laid bare. Last week, the ladies of the woods, like elderly Mandarins, dropped their gowns of maple, ash, and elm. Having completed their summer work—drinking water through delicate root hairs pushed into hillside springs, transforming minerals into liberated ions, opening to the sun’s power-pull from above, breathing yellow and making green—they stand together and take their rest, naked to the springy floor, their arms bare and lacy-limbed, intertwined as if still in their sassy green scarves. We stood in awe of them—sixty-foot walls of splendor, leafed out and heavy in emerald garments—and of their breezy music: viola, lute, a jazzy brush on a snare drum.
Now, we rake up their party clothes from around the pool. Yellow like old silk, rustling like dull taffeta. Wind-whipped, they cackle like unoiled hinges, their personal conversations—some above ground; some beneath—at so low a frequency we cannot hear.
I imagine their whispered exchange to be about their lives with water, working vertically and horizontally, and serving the whole.
Steven Vogel in The Life of a Leaf: “Nothing in physical biology makes a better story than the tale of the ascent of water from root to leaf. The pumping system has no moving parts, costs the plant no metabolic energy, moves more water than all the circulatory systems of animals combined, does so against far higher resistance, and depends on a mechanism with no close analog in human technology.”
The secret of a tree’s waterworks was eons in revealing itself. Now scientists make a good case for extraordinary suction, a pull from above rather than a push from below. The root-to-leaf pull is dependent on the cohesion of water—the tendency of its 2hydrogen-1oxygen molecules to stick together. Pulled up by the sun, defying gravity, a solid column of “sticky” water is drawn up from root hairs by negative pressure, filling thousands of vertical tubes and released as water vapor through stomata, tiny mouths, in the underside of the leaf. At that tiny gate, a single water molecule, freed into the air by transpiration, is replaced by another “sticky” molecule pulled up into its place. One hundred gallons a day, one molecule at a time.
Their rogue companions, the winged burning bushes, muster and scrabble at their feet. These squatters spatter the woodland floor, push against the outbuildings with woody ambition, and crowd the green tunnel-of-a-driveway down to the distant road, which they jump with easy abandon. In late October, their armor bursts into flame—a fierce scarlet rout against autumn’s subtle yellow-orange-brown.
“Grab ‘em by their corky-winged stems and yank ‘em out by their roots,” we’re told by our local nurseryman, “but don’t dump ‘em in the compost pile. Nope. Uh-uh. Nope. They jump out, yes, they do. You gotta get ‘em to the dump and rake up good behind ‘em.”
We hesitate. We are curious about how these two species, tangled together at root and branch, skirmish in each others’ lives—the vertical and indigenous stability of breathing green; the horizontal fire of wild and invasive impulse—with often unpredictable result. Struggle everywhere.
I let my weight down, a simple, intentional movement of relaxation—gravity is a help; why do we fight gravity?—and tension drains out. Energy ascends from the ground, up through muscle and bone, that dependable scaffolding. Energy descends from the blue dome like sunlight, that renewable source of grace. I begin to see that we are meant to be quiet and powerful transducers.
I am tempted to kneel.
He opens his new book, Look Inside Your Body, and points to a boy with his digestive system open to public view in full color.
“This page is about what happens inside mine self.”
With his little finger, he follows a hamburger from the boy’s mouth, through the maze of digestive organs, to a brown lump under his butt labeled “poop.”
He explains. “It goes in here. It comes out here. In between, it changes.”
There was a time when I could not write in this room.
Given the tenacious chill of New England and my ongoing war with the thin 1950s insulation of this inherited house. Given that I begrudged the table, the room, the house, the town, the state, the region, the people. Cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, and cold, respectively. Given that the walls closed in. Given that I squandered too much energy—the pacing, multi-tasking kind, not the listening, attending kind. Given that, reactive and unmoored, I was beholden to external opinion and fixed forms.
E.O. Wilson, naturalist and expert on ants, advises his lab students to cut deep and travel far, and I am nothing if not a dog with a bone. I make a list of essentials for my journey to the blank page. I am a world class list maker. Lists suggest concrete and logical sequence, help for the anxious. Lists are bearing walls.
One. Begin with place. Push the pitted library table perpendicular to the southwest window, as close to light as possible. Gather objects: watercolor of cottage, carving of sandpiper, jar of blue jay and shorebird feathers, dried bracelet of kelp, photo of waves, postcard of a Buddhist monk gazing across a still pond and into trees. And that Post-It note—“Don’t write about writing; no one wants to read about writing. Don’t write about the creative process either; it’s a trope”—toss it.
Two. Recognize the role of ritual, conscious intention. Not smothered in sentimentality nor hobbled by habit. Rather, a faithful repetition, alive and embodied in the senses. Yellow glows from a desk lamp. Scent arises from the musk of books marked akimbo with purple, yellow, pink page flags. Taste is hazelnut decaf. Touch is a Red Cross fountain pen. Sounds are the clanking heat vent and the murmured sentence tested by the ear for potholes, pulse, and poetry.
Three. Love the artist’s craft, practice under its severe demands and honor its laws, finding freedom within them. Submit gracefully to its discipline—tools, materials, techniques—and the way forward can unfold along the boundary between gift and work. Do one thing at a time. Do it slowly, deliberately, completely. Put space between things.
Four. Approach the original idea with respect.
Five. Struggle with the mess, the artist’s normal s