June Brings Many Ritual Returns to the Beach

Jun 13, 2017

Credit Laurel Wilkerson / USFWS / flickr

Earlier this week, coming back from the Registry of Motor Vehicles, I stopped at Gray’s Beach in Yarmouthport and walked out the long, straight, wooden weathered boardwalk that struts its way several hundred feet directly out onto the salt marsh. The beach itself is punctuated with “memorial benches,” which seem to have flourished since I was last here. There are at least a half-dozen now, so that one is always sitting on someone’s memory.

The tide was almost at dead low. There were a dozen or so people on the boardwalk, and about the same number in kayaks in the tidal channels running beside it. There is something arresting, almost unworldly, about walking out on that long stretch of wooden planks, supported by long silver-bleached shafts that penetrate deep into the peat. Patches of last year’s straw-colored grass lay like discarded garments in the gullies and sloughs, while tussocks of bright, new, green marsh grass blossomed on the glistening mud. Beyond them stretched light, beige mounds of sandy flats and a labyrinth of blue tidal channels. It was like walking along a found art installation, which in a way it was.

At the end of the boardwalk a small number of people stood around, watching pairs of horseshoe crabs doggedly ploughing the channels, the smaller males hooked onto the rears of the females. Overhead several least terns screamed their high chivy calls. They didn’t seem to be actively feeding in the channels, but simply engaging in aerial ballets. Decades ago, when I lived on the mid-Cape, there was a bridge that used to be put out in summer at the end of the boardwalk. It spanned the main tidal channel and gave access to sandy flats where the Gray’s Beach tern colony nests. In late March and early April I used to go out with John Hay and other volunteers from the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History to rake marsh grass away from the nesting sites, helping to prepare a nesting place for birds’ annual return. The bridge is no longer there – only the thick stumps of the pilings that used to support it. I like to think it was abandoned to protect the privacy of the terns, though it may just have gotten too costly to maintain.

I walked back on the boardwalk and headed towards my car. As I did I encountered one of those anachronistic apparitions that sometimes appear on our beaches in the warmer months. Walking towards me was an old woman of indeterminate age. She wore a large, white, broad-brimmed hat whose shade obliterated the upper half of her face against the bright background of the day, and left her white wrinkled mouth and chin exposed. She had on a heavy, long-sleeved, wool-textured blue coat that covered everything else except her hands and feet.  One of those long, white-fingered hands, bedecked with rings, grabbed the knob of a silver-headed cane as she hobbled down to the beach. 

As we passed I said hello, which she barely acknowledged.  One could see that she was not really of this world or this age, that she lived in her memory as she re-enacted this life-long ritual of walking down to a beach in June, like the horseshoe crabs crawling out of the water up onto the beach to spawn, as they have for a quarter of a billion years. 

Robert Finch is taking some time off to write a new book. In his absence we're replaying some favorite essays. This week's essay originally aired in June, 2014.