“Man does not stand in awe of man, nor is his genius admonished to stay at home, to put itself in communication with the internal ocean, but it goes abroad to beg a cup of water of the urns of other men. We must go alone.”
– R.W. Emerson, Self-Reliance 1841
The “Great Lakes State,” as it’s known, is surrounded by bodies of water; but Michigan couldn’t be further from the sea. Since I was very small, my family has made journeys to the water each summer. Many of my most vivid childhood memories take place in the shabby “resort town” of Houghton Lake, a three hour drive north. The week we spent there each summer was bliss for me—and my brother, sister, and our cousins. It was a child’s paradise—the way the air smelled, learning how to cast a line at the end of the rickety dock, being able to see land on the other side of the water, and our grandfather waving back at us from his boat as he motored out to the deepest parts of the lake to lure in our dinner. Aside from the occasional strand of seaweed tickling the leg of an unsuspecting child, which always produced a deafening shriek, there wasn’t much to be scared of in the lake. The sea, however, was an entirely different story.
My first experiences with the ocean weren’t my own at all; they were stories of my father’s great love of water. Off he went on trips far and wide, to the coast of Exuma, to Jamaica and Oaxaca, Cozumel and the Riviera Maya. When he returned it seemed to me that he had been to another world entirely. Tanned and tranquil, he was full of tales of huge fish held high above his head on chartered boats, pockets full of beautiful seashells, bits of driftwood, and always a small trinket from a distant land for me. Stories of scuba dives in the open sea—visions of electric-colored coral reefs and neon fish, of stingrays and
sea turtles and the menacing, transparent tentacles of jellyfish—more than fascinated me. I listened, wide-eyed, and asked for more, even when he had nothing left to tell.
August 1994 was our first summer at the beach. At seven, I had my first nose-full of seaspray, my first accidental gulp of saltwater, the sting of the ocean in my eyes, the salt tightening my skin. We have driven the nine hundred miles, fifteen long hours, to that beach in Oak Island, North Carolina eighteen times since that first August. None of us could have known then how we would grow to love it so, how natural it felt to be there, how much it would come to mean to us as a family. Our annual trip to the beach is that of spiritual pilgrimage; we return to the sea for rejuvenation, for reflection, to mark the end of the passing summer, to enjoy one last carefree week as we ready ourselves for yet another autumn of school and jobs and internships and extra-curriculars and shorter days and chillier weather and growing up.
August 2012, eighteen years later, was to be our last summer at the beach for some time. Following closely after our close of summer holiday, one member of the family would be moving to London in a matter of weeks. The unknown grips tightly, and demands its own accounting of what the future holds. No one could be certain when, or if, we would all be able to return together again. But, our days at the beach passed as they always did; Dad awake at the crack of dawn to fish in the surf before the beach got crowded, up early for bottomless cups of coffee on the porch and quiet contemplation, only to drift back to sleep in our sun chairs in the late morning, stacks of books we hoped to get through, although somehow never did. This time, however, something felt different. A dull anxiety surged through me the entire week; I sensed it in both my mother and sister, too. My soon-to-be transatlantic relocation was the elephant in the room, and the magnitude of that elephant was immense. Still, the days rolled on as methodically as the waves, no one quite able to address the weighty feeling hanging in the air. I assumed my mother must be afraid; the kind of fear only a mother could have for her youngest daughter moving so far from home. My sister’s fear was of another kind: the fear of being without her best friend, I think. She and I have always been close, so much so that I can’t remember a time when it was different.
Our last full day on Oak Island was business as usual. My sister and I awoke to sounds of sizzling bacon on the stove and the sweet aroma of buttery biscuits in the oven, awaiting our arrival at the breakfast table. Around our morning banquet, we talked of the minutia of the coming weeks—flight details, hotel confirmations, passports and visas, airports and taxis. After breakfast, we wiled away the day lounging on the beach, soaking up the Atlantic rays, racing each other into the ocean when it became too hot, and listening to breaking waves pounding against the shore. We ate dinner that evening at the Yacht Basin, our favorite seaside eatery that serves up steamed shrimp pulled out of the bay right in front of your eyes, and the best crab cakes on the southeast coast.
Back at the beach house after sunset, the wind stopped and the sea had grown calm. A big Carolina moon hung low in the eastern sky, illuminating the pier down the beach, casting shimmering light over the lulling waves. A few stars twinkled faintly overhead as my sister and I sat outside on the porch of our beach house in the heat, smoking the odd cigarette, talking about everything and nothing. Each night had been the same: prattling on, listening, and watching the crests of waves as they spilled over the sand, flooding the beach with their moonlit beauty. For as much sameness as we had experienced together throughout our lives, very soon and without a doubt, things would change.
Sometime around midnight, we called it a night. I lay awake in the darkness of my little bedroom for what seemed like an eternity, listening to the gentle waves lapping the shore just outside my window, haunted by my own autonomy. Disturbed by faint yet frenzied lights reaching my window from the direction of the beach, I rose from the too-small confines of my twin bed and peered out the window. Something seemed wrong, since artificial light is prohibited on beachfront properties at night during sea turtle nesting season. I went out onto the porch; the moon was much higher and smaller now. I picked up the flashlight, went down the stairs onto the chilled sand to the pathway through the dunes, and stepped out onto the beach.
A nest full of hatchling sea turtles were everywhere; hundreds of tiny green warriors racing toward the sea. No bigger than a half dollar, legs akimbo, navigating the obstacles of the sand—human footprints, tire tracks, eroded moats of forgotten sandcastles—all mountainous hills and cavernous valleys from their miniature perspective. Naturally attracted to light, the hatchlings push relentlessly toward the brightest part of the horizon; toward the shimmering moonlight reflecting upon the sea.
I ran back for my sister and the rest of the family. She and I stood side-by-side, giddy and laughing heartily; helping to guide the little turtles safely toward the water with our flashlights, although we knew they did not need our help. No, not in the same way we need one another’s help. We watched together as each one completed their journey to the sea, accomplished entirely by instinct, never having done so before and never to be done again. Then they were gone. Out into the unknown, with only their tiny, fleeting tracks in the sand and their collapsed nest as proof of the miraculous event that happened on the beach this night.
They say the first few moments out of the nest are the most dangerous in a sea turtle’s life. Predators abound. Many hatchlings don’t even make it to the surf, and those that do await an ocean full of malice, apathetic to a young turtle’s extraordinary feat to reach the sea. When you stand at the beach, you stand at the edge of an unfamiliar world, fraught with risk and danger and uncertainty, yet also full of unexplored, undetermined, captivating opportunity. We take the ocean for granted, much in the same way we take the comfort of our family for granted. The sea is always there—the tides, in and out like clockwork, a gravitational pull—whether we’re conscious of it or not. It provides much and asks for precious little in return. The time inevitably comes to leave behind what is familiar in a quest for growth and experience and change. Yet, much later in life, a female sea turtle that has survived the relentless challenges of the ocean, no matter how far and unpredictable her travels, always returns home, somehow aware that she herself came into the world on this very beach so many years ago. ◊
*This text was written in response to an open brief entitled “The Sea” set by acclaimed British author Philip Hoare. “The sea. Few three-letter words are so evocative,” he wrote. “What does it make you think? Fear, awe, sensuality, fun, travel, transcendence, animals, dreams, disaster, death? Write about the sea in any way you like, using or inventing scientific texts, fictional narratives, art historical images, personal memoir, or abstract impressions.”
The text appears in the book “As Is The Sea: An Anthology,” published by Critical Writing in Art & Design at the Royal College of Art in 2013.