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Learning the Fine Art of Vacationing

Bill Meredith

"Nothing is constant except change." …attributed to Heraclitus

Most people think of vacations as a way to get away from work, so it is ironic that my wife and I did not begin to vacation regularly until we retired. My ancestors were farmers for generations, and hers were coal miners; so naturally, regular vacations were a novelty for us. Throughout our working lives we both thought of ourselves as normal, but everyone else thought of us as workaholics. However, even senior citizens can learn. Since we retired we have gone to the Outer Banks of North Carolina with our son and his family each summer.

To people who grew up in the hills of West Virginia, the edge of the sea is an alien environment. I was familiar with it academically, of course; in addition to field trips in graduate courses, I had done research on Chesapeake Bay and studied marine ecology in Connecticut and Delaware. But I had never gone to a beach to relax, and the first few times we went I found I could not. My wife adjusted easily; she sat in the sand, watched the surf and played with the kids, and was happy to do the shopping and cooking for the lot of us. But for me, there was too much to see; I suffered from sensory overload, and while I enjoyed it, I got no rest until I got back home. But age helped; this year I finally relaxed enough to watch and think as a vacationer should.

Some things at the beach are always the same; others change annually, and some are quirky. Something is always forgotten; the first day, fish were biting but my son had neglected to bring a bucket to put them in, and threw several back, to my wife’s consternation. When my granddaughter came in for lunch the first day, instead of shells she had a bouquet of four-leaf clovers… she had found at least two dozen of them along the road.

I took my daily walks along the shore, and roar of the surf, the sand and shells under foot, the dunes, and the ebb and flow of the tides seemed as they always had been, eternal and unchanging. But I knew they were not. The Outer Banks is a chain of barrier islands, formed by a unique convergence of ocean currents, and they are inherently unstable. Maps from years back to the 1700s show the islands have changed amazingly, some growing while others shrank or disappeared. At present, the coast is moving westward; the Cape Hatteras lighthouse was originally was built well inland, but a few years ago it had to be moved to keep it from toppling into the sea. This year, at a place we always go to look for a favorite seashell called the Scotch Bonnet, we had to wade through an area that was a dry path last year; a storm washed the beach away last fall.

Everything on the beach is time-dependant. I saw fewer birds this year; we were earlier than usual, and migrants had not yet arrived. Some years, we rarely see ghost crabs; this year they were everywhere, scurrying about even in the daytime. The seaweed that washed up with the tide was different; the brown, strap-like rockweed named Fucus, familiar to every botany student, was there as usual, but was outnumbered by the elegant Sargassum, washed in from the Sargasso Sea. It is a beautifully intricate plant with lacy "leaves" and round floatation bladders like clusters of grapes.

I am blessed to have grandchildren who are curious and observant; they see things I miss, and bring them to me. The girls caught a strikingly beautiful jellyfish (they knew it might sting, so they prudently found a plastic container for it). It is rare even for a biologist to see one that is alive and uninjured, and this one was perfect… rings of body parts arranged in circles as accurate as a draftsman could make with a compass, and colored delicately. At first glance, the colors made me think it was the common species described in all zoology books, but I quickly realized it was one I had never seen before.

Going to the beach is a sort of busman’s holiday for me; even sitting in a chair and watching the surf takes my mind to thoughts of the moon’s cycles and the composition of sand and shells. But I suppose it must be possible to enjoy a beach without knowing any ecology at all, because most of the people there seem to be having a good time, and few of them can be biologists. The beach must be good for them. Couples who probably were fighting last week walk by hand in hand, oblivious to everything else. Boys throw footballs; men who probably shouldn’t join in. Girls walk by in bikinis, exploiting that brief window of time when they look good in them; older women walk by similarly attired, apparently unaware that their time has passed. Toddlers run toward the ebbing surf shrieking with delight, turning to flee back to mommy’s arms when the surf returns. Everyone builds sand castles at least once. This you will see on any beach, any year.

But as the beach changes, so do we. Our grandson has a few years to go, but his sisters both have drivers’ licenses now, and one is in college; one of these years, perhaps even this one, will be the last summer of their childhood. Knowing this makes the vacation an event that must be recorded. Besides the ubiquitous photographs, the children started keeping a vacation journal as soon as they could write, and in recent years they have decreed that each member of the family should make an entry in it. I got in the habit of writing mine in verse; as poetry, it would be a compliment to call it doggerel, but I figured if Ogden Nash got away with it all those years it was worth a try. Below are a few lines from this year.

Remind me not of grass to mow,
  or weeds to pull, or beans to hoe…
But speak to me of fish set free
  for want of pail to put them in…
And clover blessed with extra leaves
  designed by elves, good luck to win…
And flounder pulled fresh from the sea…
  and girls in holes dug in the sand…
And kites cavorting in the breeze…
  And couples walking hand in hand…
And seaweed found among the skree
  with bladders that remind of grapes
that gave name to Sargasso’s Sea
  and once grew far beyond the Capes…
And ghost crabs peeking out of holes
  with eyes on stalks so they can see
    in all directions, all at once,
if yet the tide has brought their lunch,
  or predators there be…
And sanderlings on clockwork legs,
  that run to meet the tides
and feed upon crustaceans’ eggs,
  while castles built of sand arise,
    take form and grow while tide is out,
      and wait for their demise.

At Ocrakoke we sought Scotch Bonnets
  under clouds and sun;
we walked and searched and dug and called,
  but answer came there none,
for wind and tide and hurricane
  had hidden every one.

The flatly floating jellyfish that Grace
and Annie caught
  had tentacles of greenish blue
  arranged in circles, pure to view,
  around a body pale in hue…
Perhaps it was Aurelia…
  or maybe it was not.

"You see one beach, you’ve seen ’em all,"
  says Ma, and she is right;
the surf that crashes on the beach
  is such a pretty sight….
The beach goes on, through time and space;
the poet had it right…
  while boys grow into old men, just
as day flows into night,
and lovely girls see silken skin
turn into cellulite…
The surf erodes the sand away,
and brings it back amain,
and shells from creatures, eons past,
are brought to shore, and then
the ever-changing, constant beach
   will bury them again.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith