And now, a small hiatus from Going Aloft. I am happy to announce that my essay, One Year on Masonboro Island, has been published by Eno Magazine, and is the featured essay of their fifth volume. Eno is the student-run magazine of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, and has been putting out their wonderful publication since 2011. I am honored to have been selected.
They even gave me the opportunity to read it at the magazine opening party in the rooftop gardens of their building:
The plants seemed to like it, at least.
What a cool place for a reading.
You can read the entire magazine by following this link. My essay starts in the middle, but be sure to check out all the other cool poetry and art inside (including some beautiful cut-paper azaleas by the incredibly talented Gina Ramseur, who has been illustrating Going Aloft). Many thanks to Kati Moore and the staff of Eno for this wonderful opportunity!
Here’s the essay:
One Year on Masonboro Island
by John Wolfe
In the expansive marsh behind Masonboro island’s low dunes, the ever-present smooth cordgrass, Spartina alternaflora, lives up to its Latin name. The lush green tufts of summer are no more, a visual indication of seasonal change, the entrance into a period of quiet recovery for this sunburnt landscape. Now the marsh is copper-brown and the water itself seems to rest, somehow, as if its eyes were closed. It still sleepwalks through the tidal cycle (for water is never truly still, especially this close to its source) but there are no wavelets born of sweeping fish tails, no pelicans pierce it from above. The only thing that moves the water is the wind as it blows from the north, rippling the steel-grey surface into celestial undulations, patterns of archaic and repetitive beauty, oscillations of matter, energy, and time.
The common loon (Gavia immer) floats alone in the waters of Banks Channel far from shore. If I approach one too closely it will throw me a dirty look, then dive under and reappear far away. They’re in breeding plumage now, a fine salt-and-pepper pattern on their backside that contrasts with their bright red iris. Soon they will leave us to return to the freshwater lakes of Maine and Canada. The loon’s lonely call: a two-toned mournful howl, low and then high, that tapers off into an otherworldly lycanthropic echo that melts into the marsh, mingling with the rustle of cordgrass in the wind.
In the warm dusk, black skimmers (Rhynchops niger) fly low over the water’s edge with the long lower mandible of their red-black beaks submerged, the hair-trigger tongue waiting to sense prey and snap the beak shut. When they fly they are graceful and boomerang-shaped, black forms arcing over the water in clusters of twos and threes, airborne ballerinas of the marsh. Their call is a hoarse bark: auk auk auk. Like the tourists who have come to gawk at this pristine low country, they too are seasonal, fleeing to South America in wintertime, following the warm weather. But the birds have been visiting for longer. And they have a role to play here in the ecosystem (although, perhaps the tourists do too: providing the little beach town I live in with enough income to survive the cold winter).
On the fourth of July the shallow channel behind the island is crowded with tanned young bodies in bikinis and board shorts. They blare Jimmy Buffett and Zach Brown on their stereos, and tear through the water on polished white fiberglass boats with sleek lupine outboard engines. The holiday is a wild bacchanal, a celebration of life and bare flesh, power and youth and gasoline, replete with flip flops and grills and coolers brimming with beer. They throw empty cans and cigarette butts on the golden sand.
The backside of the secondary dune is covered with a fine spiderweb of tawny olive-colored vines, the annual emergence of the dune bean (Strophyostyles helvola). The lilac-purple flowers and the stubby green pods of late summer and early fall are the manna of the rodents and birds who live on this island. I plucked a pod from the vine once, to learn how my island tasted. My rough thumbs broke the tender green shell to reveal the delicate legume inside. On my tongue it felt fuzzy as a cotton ball, and when I bit down the taste was tart and slightly bitter. It was not like the caged and canned beans I was used to. It tasted wild.
Hurricane season. When a storm comes it’s a sharp reminder that this place is dynamic. Constantly in motion. Subject to the whim of the sea. The island is constantly shifting, and in the lethal force of a hurricane the island’s movement intensifies, migrating inlets and flattening dunes, building sandbars and swallowing beaches. For an island made entirely of sand caught between the two most powerful eroding forces on the planet, wind and water, it’s a wonder that it’s even here at all.
The flounders are hibernating in the mud. Or at least they’re not biting when you drop a delicious curl of squid down to their level. 72 degrees is the magic water temperature for fishing here- any warmer and you catch a cornucopia of species, but colder than that and you’re lucky to get a bite. This year it stayed warm longer than usual, and the bluefish ran late. Muscled silver-blue prizefighters with sharp dagger teeth, we pulled them from the depths one by one, over and over, until our cooler was full. I cradled them in my arms, and in my friend’s kitchen we scaled them and fried them in hot oil until the soft white flesh melted off the skeletons into our hungry mouths.
The beach is empty. The dull roar of surf against the sand. I am the only one on this entire eight-and-a-half-mile island, on this chilly December day, undisputed sovereign of this shifting landscape. From my perch atop a dune I can clearly see the delineation between wilderness and civilization, between the pristine and the polluted. This island and it’s sister to the north, Wrightsville Beach, were identical uninhabited twins less than two centuries ago. But now Wrightsville is smothered under the usual concrete constructions of man, immovable beach houses which spring up like acne, multi-million-dollar echoes of Ozymandias. Every three years the citizens petition the government to dredge new sand on their beach to buy their doomed houses more time, time that has been merely borrowed from the ocean. But the ocean always collects on its debts.
HERE AND NOW, AND FOREVER
The sky, the marsh’s most prominent feature, remains a pale blue dome over everything below it. The feeling of empty and infinite distance, of eternity. Of scale. When all that is above you is the low-cresting sun and the pale moon you really feel yourself on the earth. Triangulated. Defined in three-dimensional space. You are here and nowhere else, in this place that exists in it’s present arrangement but briefly, for only the time it takes for a wave in the ocean of time to crash against the shore.
I have found arrowheads and pottery shards on this island, gifts of the past from the Cape Fear tribe who knew these ancestral dunes, their birds and plants and fish. Their legend occupies this place, providing a backdrop of history to the rhythms of life which continue to pulse here. The seasons change, the beach erodes, the visitors come and go. The tide rises and falls. But at night I walk under the same unchanging stars and moon as they did, and remember the ancient people gone from this place as someday I will be. The memory of their past is written in the constellations above.
©2016, The Writer John Wolfe. All Rights Reserved.