Chesapeake sunrise courtesy of smanter
These boards. Grayed from wind and water. Green- stained from moss and algae. White- streaked from bird droppings. Time-buffed to a rich patina. My bare feet want to linger here, flesh warmed by the sun-drenched wood, but memory scampers off to the sunshine of a distant day. When I watched my father build this pier plank by raw pine plank. Sweat glistened on his face. I sat on a freshly-split log stair, clutching a glass bottle of orange soda pop. Each of my endless questions received the same smothered response, for my father’s mouth was filled with nails, but one question – What makes waves? – I can answer for myself today.
It walked with me through the trees, the wind, touching each leaf as we clambered down the hillside. I can go no further than this dock, but the wind continues on. Making for itself a moveable staircase of water and air molecules. Traveling across the creek, out into the river, through the bay, to the ocean. Clasping hands with other winds from far off lands. Dancing with giant currents that gyre and eddy around the globe in a planetary celebration of energy and motion that I don’t have to budge one inch to join.
Through wooden slats I watch the water slide shoreward. Light splashes off its wavering surface and back onto the pier in a brightsome, undulating mosaic. Stirred by the soft salt breeze, tree limbs cast quivering shadows on cliff and creek, while above me, white clouds roil with gray as they drift across their own blue sea. Seagulls, ospreys, crows. Dragonflies, butterflies, wasps. The air is aslant with wings and tangled with sound: warbles, trills, whistles; the slap of fish falling back from their sunward leaps; and always, the liquid tattoo of waves on sand.
My trusty online encyclopedia tells me that, in physics, motion means a change in the position of a body with respect to time, as measured by a particular observer in a specific frame of reference. Memory records such changes, yes? I remember childhood, when the pier and I were not so weathered. The pier, too, remembers: its worn metal cleats still wait for boats that have long since been junked; frayed rope from abandoned crab traps still clings to its pilings.
And the beach remembers. This morning I saw coon tracks in the sand. The faint tracings of a meandering periwinkle. The short squat imprint of a twig that rested briefly then ran away with the wind. Every passing wave leaves its inky autograph: pebbles, bits of shell, leaf mold. The swash pushes sediment in at an angle, the backwash pulls it out perpendicular to the shore. Hence, the zig-zag footprint called beach drift. The pebbles remember themselves in larger incarnations: rocks, boulders, mountains. The shells remember their fleshy occupants. Since all life on earth began in the sea, the sea itself – that particular observer, that specific frame of reference – surely the sea remembers us?
When I was a young girl this creek froze over every winter. All the kids in the neighborhood ice-skated around our pier. Laughter rang from hill to hill, shore to shore. Games of tag. Show-off stunts. The flash of moonlight on silver skate blades. Hot chocolate in my father’s thermos. But the creek hasn’t frozen over in years. Those giant currents are warming us into a future substantially different from the past, as just about any observer above a certain age can measure.
Over raised dots of sunlight, water’s blind fingers play lightly. Flung against the sky, passing birds make an I Ching of lines long and short. The whole planet is groping. Stumbling as one towards something only we humans can imagine or create. We are not fallen leaves, floating helplessly to shore like shipwrecked boats, we can plot another course, arrive somewhere else, think up new names for a world no one has ever known before. Ours.
Elizabeth Ayres is the author of Know the Way (poetry, Infinity, 2005) and Writing the Wave (how-to, Perigee, 2000), and is completing American Dreamscape: Encounters with the Wonder of Earth, Sea and Sky, from which collection this reflection is taken. She runs a Creative Writing Center with writing retreats in Chesapeake Bay country. She performs her essays on Internet radio WRYR Saturday evenings at 6 p.m. eastern time.