Tuesday, May 27, 2014

a strange and beautiful place

The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place.*
* all quotes in this post are by Rachel Carson, 
in honor of her birthday today

Toughening up our feet was a job taken very seriously when I was younger.  It's one of those childhood rights of passage that I would hate for all the fancy water shoes and germ fears and lives lived less at the mercy of nature to take away from our children.

Between the pebbly beach of the lake where we spent our summers swimming and the rocky ocean beaches where we spent hours searching in the tide pools, and finding the bottom and grabbing it with our toes when learning to ride the waves, our feet took quite a beating. And our knees as well.

I remember the feeling, at the beginning of each summer, of finally going barefoot.  Of taking off your school year shoes.  And how you could go days before you realized that your left shoe was missing.  Of your feet in bare grass, freshly cut grass, sand, wet and dry, rocks smooth and sharp, for the first time.

Each summer, we would spend some time with family friends who lived a few blocks away from York Beach here in Maine.  At the start of each visit there, I would have to brave the three block walk from the beach house -- down the burning hot paved streets to the ocean, and then over bank, a tippy pokey imprudent scramble created by piled rocks -- to the gaggle of kids on the beach below.

I usually burned, then scratched, then sliced, my feet badly on these first walks.  And then would hide this from all the cooler teenagers on their beach towels, burying my injured feet into the hard sand.  Dip them in the icy salt water of the ocean.  Let them get numb, so I could forget about them while I listened to the chatter of the older kids, learning a great deal.  Later in the evening, I would take stock, assess the damage, clean out my wounds, and dig through our packed toiletry kit for bandaids.  I often kept my injuries a secret, because under the box of bandaids was my father's container of iodine.

This weekend, we spent the day at the beach with good friends. White and pale skin was exposed, legs were bared. Goosebumps covered everyone's skin as the gusts of wind cooled their warm from running and scootering and skipping bodies. And very quickly the shoes came off.
In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.
It was low tide, and there was an enormous stretch of tidal mud flats, with circuitous streams crisscrossing the beach.  The mud was perfect.

We're Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury

Deep, dark, and sucking.  With that smell, slightly rank, a bit salty, but mostly just good.
For the sense of smell, almost more than any other, has the power to recall memories and it's a pity we use it so little.

I watched the kids from the dry warm sand.  Giggled as Jonathan walked out toward them and tried to snap some pictures.  And got completely stuck in the mud.  And lost a shoe.  Now I better understand the experience of quicksand, he announced upon returning to our group back on dry land.

And I smiled, thankful for the fire back at our friends' campsite and the complete change of clothes that I had thrown in for each child in the back of the Subaru.  So I just let them enjoy being knee deep, elbow deep, chin deep, in mud.

Let it cover them, suck at them, and let them feel the pull of the Maine coast's mud.

Again this year, as they have each year since we moved here, feet a year bigger, legs a year longer, but the smells and the sensations still the same, the kids rediscover the ocean.  Its raw and wild and full bodied beauty. There was a great deal of jumping, splashing, leaping, crossing, figuring, and rescuing to be done out there.

And the water was cold.  Numbingly cold.  I mean, it is only May.  It must have been.

And it was not until they needed a warm up and they came off the mud and up onto soft sand that they began to realize.  They had each cut their feet.  To varying degrees.  Elliott's feet, the youngest and likely therefore the tenderest, looked like he had walked across glass.
It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.

Cleaned off and feet washed a bit with promises to do a thorough cleaning later, they were now in their extra clothing.  Once warmed by the fire, the kids headed off into the woods to play an elaborately ruled game of tag.  Julia ran back a few minutes later.  With pitch in her hair and all over her hands.  I asked her how she got it in there.  And she, talking fast and a bit out of breath from running, said: Well, I was climbing up into a tree to get away from Nicholas who was it.  We rubbed her hands in the dirt to de-stick them.  Dabbed at the excess pitch.  And sent her back into the woods to play.  She ran back off into the sun dappled woods, leaping across the patches of small white flowers that were everywhere.  And disappeared into their game.
Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.
A while later she returned, smelling piney but laughing.  Elliott lost his shoe.  In the mud of the creek.  We all followed her out into the woods and found Elliott, hopping on one foot and digging at the mud with a stick.  And his friend, his own shoes at risk as well, was searching about, calling out to him about just where they had been running when his shod foot went in and then an unshod foot came out.  

And then Elliott's shoe hero shouted, Found it!

We grownups made some proclamations about staying out of the mud.  Reminded them that they were already wearing their extra clothes.  And suggested that they stay clear of the creek.  And headed back to the fire.  And I smiled as I walked back through the woods and heard the squelch squerch of the mud again from behind me.  Heard someone run across the creek we had just asked them to stay out of.  And the laughing and the frantic enthusiasm as they each ran in different directions back into hiding.
A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full or wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later year…the alienation from the sources of our strength.
So Julia required some snipping and peanut buttering (do you know this trick for pitch in hair?) when we got home.

And Elliott required a good deal of soaking.  His pants, despite my best efforts, are now in the rag bin.  And his feet?  They went straight into that ubiquitous, iconic, multi-purpose Maine Kitchen staple...

The lobster pot.  Julia helped him fashion some healing shoes to speed along the process.

And, parent in this age that I am, I added antibiotic cream and warm clean socks as well.  

The beginning of summer conditioning of winter tender feet.  It is just the beginning of this season, the one that in some ways we are able to get out and in it most.  To feel with our bare skin all there is to feel, including the pain sometimes that nature can inflict.  It's so important to us, because I think, I hope, that there is a connection here, that to want to take care of nature, of the earth?   I do think we need to get in it, let it touch us, let it show us its strength and wildness.  These sensations, these memories, the stories of mishap, they are all a part of the puzzle of wanting to protect it.
The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction. 

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