On the Nature of Fire Island

On a summer afternoon, I sometimes can imagine myself suspended in mid-air about twenty feet above the oceanside dunes of Fire Island.

Fire Island has many moods of a simple order. On a clear sunny day, I can see many miles out to the blue sea and miles along its sandy and grass-green shores as well. At other moments the mood is stark gray, with scudding thunder clouds hovering over a white-capped sea and over the bay spitting electric strikes – sometimes in rapid succession. And it also has an extra beauty to reveal on a full-moon evening, with its
puffy clouds to flit about.

That simple closeness to the natural order of things can raise wondrous thoughts in your mind. It can stimulate thoughts of just how great it can be to be within such a canopy of kaleidoscopic nature.

One of those sunny mid-days, I began to focus on the dune grass below and spotted a number of movements there. A rabbit here. A mouse or shrew over there. A sparrow . And swallow soaring close to the beach looking for a buggy lunch. And the gulls and terns were soaring as well.

It wasn’t long before I spotted a pair of ducks at the ocean’s edge, working their way through an apparently clear tidal pool that was only a few inches deep. They seemed to be feeding as if in the bay, but what could it be that was their motivation? A bit of plankton off the ocean’s run-up? I know that this can be lunch for the occasional whales that run offshore, but ducks should be vegetarians. I’ll have to research that a bit more.

It makes you think.

And I know that I’ll be seeing – in seasonal episodes — whales offshore, along with seals and sea-turtles too. Things are improving for them I believe.

Far off to the right I spot two horseshoe crabs stranded just after high tide that were slowly inching their way back to the ocean. There weren’t too many people on the beach and I hoped that no one with attitudes unsympathetic to horseshoe crabs would come by to tip them over or do otherwise evil things. Those crabs have enough trouble surviving in reasonable numbers in our Great South Bay, where they habituate in good numbers and try to avoid those seeking to round them up beyond stated limits for sale, as they have value for medical use.

I notice the grass once more. Storms last year had scarped away the grass nearest the ocean, and I could see that the grass plugs which were left topside of the dune, sending out little runners called rhizomes (tendrils) downward into the sand blown into the base of the dune that would replant the grass cover nearer the dune toe. While some beach grass can yield seeds, like wheat that can be a means of regeneration, the rhizomic method seems to be faster in getting the job done.

Jigging my eyes just a bit more on to the beach itself, I notice that the recent high tide has left a wide swath of small pieces of driftwood, and shells. My thoughts turn to the need to get down there onto the beach to retrieve some of that for crafting into my driftwood clocks that I whimsically produce for friends who like “beachy” stuff. Maybe there is a harvest of beach glass in there as well, to add real extra value to the beachcombing ahead.

I notice that the rather brisk breeze is blowing in from the southwest today. I think – that’s good it will build up the beach when it comes from the south or southwest with any vigor. I note that the offshore sandbar is beginning to come back at low tide this week. That’s a good sign of the possibility of the beach being able to repair itself after last year’s horrific storms. I make a mental note of the fact that full moon and new moon higher tides haven’t been as severely busting at the dunes toes lately because health seems to be returning to the beach.

You might think that the beach scene is pretty much the same, year after year, but it does change and evolve. I’m aware that some forty years ago, mankind’s efforts tried to fortify the beach way down past Smith Point, where I can see today in this clear air; also even further east where I can’t see Moriches Inlet beyond. A sudden negative thought hits me about that effort decades ago. An unwanted inlet formed as a result and sucked away millions of cubic yards of sand that should have moved this way, until only a few years ago. A boo-hiss act that that affected us over a 40-year span really made me think about that one.

I return to my thoughts of what we like to think is the protective offshore sand bar that is now struggling to reconstitute itself. I’d like to reverse that unnatural act of 40 years past – and I once dreamed of writing letters to try and get that legendary submarine, the Red October, to park offshore in the sand bar location to protect the beach. Or maybe I’d like 30 to 40 subway cars that they drop offshore in many locations to stimulate reef-like areas that harbor fish. I know – two wrong and unnatural acts don’t make a right natural move.

I got thinking on the natural track once more by dwelling on the idea that many of us see the ocean as where life on this planet once began. I remember well the personal turn-on of Rachel Carson’s 1951 book The Sea Around Us. She had been chief editor of all publications for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Her lifelong passion with the preservation of nature was inspired by the mysteries of the sea, which covers over 70% of this planet earth. They say that there are more than 400,000 species in our oceans of more than 300 million cubic miles. That’s a lot of thinking.

Carson asked her readers to re-think complex phenomena like the sea as she had come to know it. She was hoping that we would become enthusiasts for preserving the natural qualities of the oceans and shores around us. She predicted that there would result a great understanding of the oceans and its shore and that would create beneficial changes in thinking.

That book stirred many early thoughts on the nature of Fire Island for me at least.

My soul is full of
longing for the secrets of the sea,
And the heart of the
great ocean sends a thrilling pulse through me.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Bob can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Copyright (C) 2009 Robert H. Spencer