Bay CrossingsJournal

Iím curious about the migrations that are now occuring along Taylorís Creek and Shackleford Banks. First the skimmers started flying back and forth, curving, arching up and over, hundreds of them, day after day. Then they left. Now the cormorants, who have only been here a month are ganging up and steaming along waterís edge, so earnest, no sound, no looking back and forth, just heading out toward the Atlantic. The sun in late November adds a glitter to the incoming tidal current. The wind out of the northeast creates riffs of minute whitecaps. But this is a superficial glimpse. Current, deeper and wider is stronger than wind. The riffled waves makes it look like the water is going south. But look at the buoys, the water steaming around them points north. Current wins.

Squawking At Dawn 


Published: March, 2002

Editor’s note: this is the final of a two-part series.

I’m curious about the migrations that are now occuring along Taylor’s Creek and Shackleford Banks. First the skimmers started flying back and forth, curving, arching up and over, hundreds of them, day after day. Then they left. Now the cormorants, who have only been here a month are ganging up and steaming along water’s edge, so earnest, no sound, no looking back and forth, just heading out toward the Atlantic. The sun in late November adds a glitter to the incoming tidal current. The wind out of the northeast creates riffs of minute whitecaps. But this is a superficial glimpse. Current, deeper and wider is stronger than wind. The riffled waves makes it look like the water is going south. But look at the buoys, the water steaming around them points north. Current wins.

Maybe that’s why I live here on the far edge of land, a few feet from creek, bay and ocean. This tidal clock, a six hour turning, turning, out and back, out and back, a mysterious retrieval and then release. “What goes around comes round.” For many years I lived along rivers. “Time like an everflowing stream, takes all...away.” But that’s not how it is. The tides redouble, back and forth, four times in twenty four hours. There is a return.

That night heron fishes across from my apartment. In the evening as I ride my bike along the street in front of the creek, I can hear her warn off some intruder with her “squawk.” Uttered twice. I squint through the amber light of the street lamps but all I can see is a twinkle of light from the tops of masts. Anchored sailboats from Canada and the Northeast making headway south. It’s a startling chortle, her squawk, but now I have become accustomed to her voice and I am comforted as I head toward home, eyes on the road, trying to avoid the lurking potholes.

Dawn on Taylor’s Creek begins with the white wooden boats returning from a night of netting brown shrimp. Then the construction and yard maintenance trucks speed up the steet, followed by drivers going to work or headed for a cup of coffee downtown. The wild horses come grazing , moving slowly. Seagulls circle, the least terns fish and I sit in my wicker chair and think of my dad. His quiet, calming smile unimpeded by conversation or radio; we drove on through forests of green. Our destination: “up north.”

Maybe he was preparing me for a different sort of parenting, one that he couldn’t do. He gave me to the world, “out back.” Out beyond our gravel driveway and dirt roads that transversed the lake. When we would arrive, he’d immediately start puttering around the yard, scraping some dock boards, raking some leaves and I would hike toward the nearest logging trail.

We would cook dinner together and he would ask me, “What did you see?” He would smile, chuckle a little and tell me a tale about his own childhood.

This squelching of biography. My dad had little recollection of his mother who died when he was eleven. My dad’s father had a vague recall of his own mother dying when he was eight. My grandfather sent my dad to military school after his mother died. My father did the same, sending my brother John to military school when our mother died. They had to leave the woods and water of their childhood, move far away, dress up in gray uniforms, learn how to be a man, grief vanquished.

But I was not sent off, I was given trees, two pine-needled ruts to follow and a deep cold watered lake to sink into. A long quiet, bereft of words. When I turned eighteen, I drove to Downing, Wisconsin to see the house that my grandfather and my father had lived in. It was still there, on the far edge of a village. Standing alone, two stories high, outhouse to the side, barns in back. My grandfather, then my father, and now I, learning to live in that quiet place without a mother.

My grief at not knowing my mother and growing up without the stories that could bind a family together with nods, chatter, interruptions and teasing has meant I have had to go it alone. This missing has slowly melted away, like snow in the first blush of spring when the temperature rises above 35 degrees, the snow is transformed into water, seeping down, down; unseen until the last particles of slippery ice leave a dirty residue on streets and sidewalks.

Nature is double edged. I went out and lived in the wildernesses of Michigan and North Carolina for 25 years. Like a gravational pull, I built cabins, dug gardens, fenced in abandoned fields, milked goats. But the longing and the grieving remained, I needed a different kind of intimacy. But what kind? And why was wild nature no longer enough to sustain me?

It wasn’t until I turned 50 that I had the answer. It was ‘both and.’

I needed the wilds and I needed a person I could sink my body into and stay, resting, safe. I have discovered that bodies love long quiet wordless phrases.

I also know that a life lived with absence suffers from a lack of trust. Tender moment built upon tender moment, fragile threads intervowen with walks in woods, sitting on sand dunes, arms outstretched, these water-laden bodies become buoyant with affection. Time and again, season after season, a full dozen for me, learning how to walk with another, a heart quaking like a water lily, opening noiselessly only in the safety of the night.

And now my life is filled with words, written in long hand with a pen and legal pad. Tortured words, scratched out words, reread phases, silently, testing cadence and rhythm and then given to you. And you take them quietly to your heart.

I have become a part-time hermit. I can go days now without saying a word. But that odd gravitational pull often locates me. It begins as slack tide, waiting, moving back and forth, waiting. Then the direction clears and comes into me, deeply. I am never quite sure of it’s occasion. Sometimes I’ll pick up a pen and write a little, nudging the small urgency out of that hollowed feeling in my gut. Often though I will take it as a signal and I’ll go out for a long bike ride to Gallant’s Channel and check out the wooden boats and then on to Pinners’ Point and Davis Bay for a glimpse of the pod of dolphins that fish the shoal waters. From there I’ll swing back by the “the cut,” and count the fishing boats ready for the ‘spots’ who are crusing down Taylor’s Creek. The longing has become my friend, a knock on my door to go join the birds, fish and trees that provided me a haven for all my years.

When my dad turned 18, he went to Canada and became a guide, days filled with canoeing, fishing then cooking over fires at night, quietened. That is the gift he passed on to me, the nuturing of the wild, slowly and elegantly. A grafting has taken hold, the scent of spruce, the feel of pine cushioned trails, I am that boy, I am that man.

My dad would take pleasure in his final months when I’d return from a long run or hike and recount what I had seen and heard: the wild turkey, some mallards, a few deer in Turner’s cornfield. I know he would because of his smile. Now I know what I didn’t know then, that we were being conversant, often intimate and vulnerable as father and son. He gave me what he could, what he knew, the embracing arms of quiet trails and pristine waters. And he left me out there, unattended. A risky trust, only a loving parent could offer. Now I know that words matter, deeply, justly, greatly. And sometimes they don’t.