Dragon mired

Thu, 10/06/2011 - 5:09am

The roll of the sea, the power of the surf, is usually foretold by the roar that rolls up, following the hollows of the land. Other days it seems it must be calm, it is so perfectly still as I walk toward the beach, surrounded by the clatter of crickets and an occasional birdsong. I am surprised to look up the hill and see vehicles parked in the upper lot at the Mansion, in what would have been the side yard, between the building and the grand ship’s mast flagpole, both existing only in old photographs.

It is where most of the surfers park, instead of the lower lot that, in high summer, is the first space filled by beach-goers eager to reach the shore with their loads of coolers and umbrella and chairs and paraphernalia, probably enough to get pioneers across a state or two. There must be some ritual in the walk, carrying boards, not umbrellas and chairs, down the hill and out onto the sand, then north to Jerry’s Point where the rocks begin and where someone once told me the waves that look like nothing special are, in fact, very good.

Sometimes they are just there on a quick swing through, making sure the surf isn’t any good on a given day, but these vehicles are not moving. I continue up the road, following the incline, and begin to hear the ocean, realizing it was muffled where I had been walking, silenced by the land and by the thick vegetation that lines the road. The road itself is a distraction, this crazy strip of dirt that at some point became, on maps, East Mansion Road, the flat north-south stretch that in old photos is a boulevard, wide and smooth and gated.

When it rains the puddles are large and erratic; now it has been graded and slicked with that horrid oil that even I, with my faulty sense of smell, notice. I pull the dog along, explaining that I do not want to have to tell his “parents” that he got sick drinking soy-oil-filled puddles, and reminding him, as I always reminded my Mist, that there really is no law about having to eat a peck of dirt.

At first I do not see the surfers, specks of black on the water, half hidden by the rise and fall of the waves.

Years ago, Tom Rush, a folk singer from New Hampshire, sang of Biloxi where pretty girls were swimming in the sea. They looked like sisters in the ocean and the sun set off toward New Orleans.

I never quite understood what those words meant, but the tune always wafts through my head when I watch these surfers, locals mainly in mid-week off-season leisure, clad in black, paddling, waiting, then suddenly rising and maneuvering their boards just ahead of the crest of a wave, in some perfect capture of the surging energy that lies beneath the water’s surface.

The ocean is a silvery gray, not quite the color of rain but far from the shimmering blue of the summer day it could almost be. It is has a soft, ethereal cast, and time feels suspended, measured not by the swing of a pendulum but rather by the uneven progress of the ocean.

A few days later the sun shines and the sand is warm underfoot, drying from the rain that fell the previous night. There is a slight crust remaining, broken wherever feet have landed, crumbling under the soles of my bare feet. It is late afternoon and the sun has shifted, there are shadows on the east sides of the tiny hills that form the beach, and the temperature is different, dropped already in the shade.

There are no surfers, no walkers. The beach is empty, the tide rising. It changes from morning to evening, from tide to tide, even when there is no pounding surf or strong wind. For weeks after the storm — the hurricane that had lost its stature before reaching us — a section of a tree, forked, with bent branches, rolled about, a dragon rising from the surf just to the east of the path through the dunes. It did not move north, as all things eventually move. It seemed oddly stationary for a good four weeks, tossing and turning, unsettled.

Then I mentioned it to the neighbor and within a few days it settled, dragon rising turned to dragon mired, half covered with sand, no longer dramatically recognizable or even slightly mobile. Half buried, it became more a part of the landscape than a story of its own.

Another log, not as interesting but solid and large, was nearly submerged and would have slipped from memory but for a pale back still visible — an alligator, perhaps, sleeping under the sand.

I wonder how long it will be before a storm tears at the smooth strand and uncovers these and so many other remnants of the storm.

It is autumn in New England. The beaches are empty but still warmly inviting, the grass is soft and green, little asters are flourishing in the shadow of still vibrant goldenrod and the Red Sox did not make it into the play-offs. I never thought they would, but I had not been paying close attention and didn’t realize they had enough of a lead that their final collapse would gain them a special place in the great book of statistics kept by followers of the game. There were a few days of talking about failing empires, then, unable to stop myself, I caved to an old addiction and turned the radio dial to the sports station out of New York just in time to hear their gleeful reminders that it was the silver anniversary of Game Six.

In the pages of this paper I have read of surfing competitions elsewhere, but off Jerry’s there appears to be no structure to the activity other than not running into each other. Perhaps on these almost perfect autumn days, that is more than enough.