Love for a Barrier Island by the Sea

The ocean has a mystique for millions of people, who are drawn to it for many hidden reasons.

I caught a life-long urge to explore that mystique as a teenager one evening sitting on a beach in Maine staring at the full moon rising out of calm and distant ocean horizon. When I turned 29, I borrowed a dune-full of money and built a small house on the barrier island of Fire Island to espy those moon rises — and occasionally some sunrises. I had connected with something meaningful.

I can remember one late and dusky September afternoon when I was body surfing with “island-famous” Hobby Miller. The beach was especially flat that evening, and modestly good surf was rolling steadily in for possibly more than 200 feet before halting. Both of us had caught the swells well out and were gliding along at the end of this marvelous ride to the last ultimate inch. I was a mite skinnier then and won that “heat” by an inch or three. We laughed and stood up. Hobby had this world famous grin and stared intently out to sea. After a moment, he said with a flourish, ”Did you ever stop and think about all the billions of creatures living in this ocean, with everything eating everything else? Wow, it makes you think.”

That’s exactly one of the things that the sea can do is make you think. It fascinates. It has mysteries. It’s a lot more than a sea-view.

One learns early to respect the ocean. If you give it its strong close relative, the wind, it can be wreaking havoc in no time at all. Even those giant whales offshore swim just a bit deeper on those days when the sea is yelling for respect. This is when you also gain respect for a “barrier island” such as Fire Island in doing a special task of holding much of those raucous storm waters away from low lying back bays, marinas and homesteads along those waterways.

Living close to the sea also can place a barrier against what might be life’s complications. You can remove yourself from many of life’s stresses. When I first came to Fire Island we had no electricity and loved it. Egad, gas refrigerators and no TV! Without many electric lights in communities, the stars at night glistened a lot more clearly than you find in most locations nearby. It was not until 1994 that I succumbed and allowed a full wiring to my house. I had just felt closer to natural things without it.

When you do feel close to nature, you tend to scan the environment a bit differently. Again, it makes one think. You stare at the small things that grow off to the sides of paths and boardwalks. You begin to focus on the many things that struggle to live, and the many other things that grow with gusto. You often stroll along the ocean and bay beaches and stare at the thousands of flotsam objects that keep appearing in varying patterns each day. You tend to appreciate nature’s art. These adjacent sea elements are poetry to life at its edge.

It’s this combination of “artistic sense” and respect for nature that welds together people who live or visit barrier islands. Many years ago, when a monster storm came along one mid-March, 1962 the few thousand residents of Fire Island banded together to defeat a project put forth by Robert Moses to build a road-dike down the middle of this small barrier island. As a result of their love of the road-free island they initiated multiple bills in Congress to bring in a National Park, such as the US government had successfully created in Cape Cod. This worked, and the Seashore came in two years.

But now there are those with governmental and also non-government planning agencies who think they love the island even more than the original residents, and who think it would be nice to “naturalize” the beach and eventually present a barrier beach without some 400 to 500 houses remaining along the dunes. Mind you, the 17 Fire Island communities only exist within six miles of the 32-mile island, and fought hard to keep roads away, so there are troubles ahead. This is especially so since there was major sand-catching groin construction at Westhampton some 40 years ago, which was left unfilled with sand when constructed, and that has caused chronic sand-blocking and extra erosion all along Fire Island. There thus is some resentment about not replacing blocked sand, accompanied by possible removal of homes via storms or new laws.

Beware those “messing with the love affair” of many islanders with the preserved natural wonders which many residents take credit for.
It’s going to be the question of who is more in love with Fire Island – the residents or the governmental planners?

Anyone who has a passion for shorelines, and waking up to Atlantic sunrises with surfing sound effects, followed by moonrises, will become fervent in their protective nature of living within a slightly less complicated way of life, that amounts to “seaside grace.” There is a strong appreciation of nature’s air, light, sounds and colors by the sea that often brings treasures ashore and makes artists of us all. There is mutual appreciation of fellow Fire Islanders who have a like-minded leaning to artistry of the “seaside grace” contained in the life-style located there.

Carl Jung, well known psychiatrist of the last century characterized our fascination with the world’s seas as connected to the “collective unconscious,” and thus symbolizing why we feel so at home at the edges of our seas.

Rachel Carson had an affinity for oceans as well. She would say that the only way to understand the planet we inhabit was to take a long ocean voyage, and spend the day looking at nothing but the sea. I’ll bet that standing onshore, and absorbing the early glistening waves of sunlight at dawn, or the moon light dappling the waves of night off the shores of Fire Island would have brought smiles to her eyes.

Bob may be emailed at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Copyright (c) 2006 Robert H. Spencer