MORE THAN A FEW YEARS ago, I became the "owner" of a beach cottage that had fallen into such disrepair I could afford it. One can own an apartment or even a house in the 'burbs, but when a place is already old, and it sits amid dune grass and wild beach-plums, and a box turtle comes confidently seeking the blackberries it has enjoyed for decades, you feel - at least I feel - like the property has many owners and I'm just their newest tenant.
I'd hoped to find a home in a certain South Fork fishing village. Well, it was turning into a resort. The next town was unaffordable, too. So one day I ended up down a road along a marsh popular with mosquitoes, looking at a dilapidated summer cottage with missing windows and a square hole in the roof where a skylight should have been. It certainly was bright and airy, but some of the inner walls had been torn from the studs, freeing a bloom of insulation and leaving wires in a puddle under that skylight hole. Better houses have been demolished.
I dismissed the house as a wreck, out of the question.
This wasn't about getting a little house and finding myself in the solitude and peace. It was, though, partly about getting reacquainted with rhythms that come naturally. And it was partly about applying some healing to a kind of heartbreak for a living world so vitally unaware of how imperiled it is. I sought my healing in a sort of reassurance, that nature still carried on, that it retained its pulse.
I was looking at a house, but I was looking for a place.
I walked across the street, over a low dune, and got a glimpse of the water. A five-minute beachwalk took me to where a broad, shallow bay communicates with wider water through a fast-flowing channel that I was sure would hold fish. The house said I'd be crazy. The place said I was home.
My hero, the great writer Peter Matthiessen, later told me that the name of this spot derived not from appreciation of a peaceful locale, but from ne'er-do-well squatters who'd first established a presence here. I like the name, and whatever it's called, I like the place. It's called Lazy Point.
Every beach walk is a product of the present and the past. Strolling today, I reach for a large time-blackened oyster shell uncovered by wind. It speaks across time from when they grew wild, abundant, and big. So it whispers a little reminder of how the world was, how it is supposed to be, perhaps how it should be.
With binoculars, I swivel my gaze across the water, scanning several loons glossy with new plumage. red-breasted mergansers, heads war-bonneted with ragged crests, sit scattered across the bay. On the far shore a seal rests gracefully bowed, head and rear flippers up off the sand, air-cooling.
This daily morning walk is how I take the pulse of the place, and my own. The daily miraculous seldom gets attention. We are too busy, insecure, and - mainly - blind to the exquisite. Those urgent things mistakenly called "the real world" - though they are entirely artificial and simple - intrude continually on the real real world. All real things are wondrous, complex beyond comprehension. In a real place, the mysteries of the ages pile thick with enduring truths and intricate beauties.
Mysteries notwithstanding, Lazy Point is a good spot in which to wake up. Waking to such beauty is like finding a private invitation on an unlocked door. That door opens to a room bigger than human time. Step inside, you can easily spend a life. All are welcome though few notice their invitations. It's become the most exclusive party around.
The sun here comes out of the sea and returns to the sea - a trick that's hard to pull off unless you live on some narrow bit of land with its neck stuck out. You can watch the points of every dawn and sunset migrate across the horizon a little each day. On a coast ruled by a wandering sun and twelve full moons that pull tides like the reins on chariot horses, a year means something.
Seasonality here isn't just a four-season march. The year here beats the syncopated rhythms of perpetual migrations, rivers of life along the leading line of coast. Birds, of course, and fishes, and also migrating butterflies, dragonflies, whales, sea turtles, even tree frogs and toads and salamanders whose migrations move them merely from woodland to wetland and back. Each has its schedule, dances to its own drum. Getting tuned-in to the migrants' urgent energies turns "four seasons" into a more complex suite of what life is and does, how life comes and goes.
Time has been called an arrow, but natural days and years, like these, take on a circularity. Circular time. This is perhaps time as the animal perceives it, each day replayed with all major elements the same and every detail different. Circles of time like pearls on an unbroken chain of being. Time and tide. Ebb and flow. Many a metaphor starts in water. As did life itself.
METAPHORS ASIDE, THE EAST end of the East End is a defiantly reared-up, jutting jaw of land, exposed to the open ocean on the south, exposed on the north to the full-face force of all nor'easters. Bulldozed here tens of thousands of years ago by the thrust and withdrawal of massive ice sheets like the one now melting in Greenland, Montauk Point forms the break between New England and the Mid-Atlantic. It's the southernmost rocky beach on the East Coast. With its headland, lighthouse, bluffs, buffeting breezes, surging tides, and crashing waves; and drawing great numbers of seabirds, fishes, and other ocean life; Montauk's waters are a great cauldron of vitality. It's a real place, of real power.
This morning when we get to the Point the sea is still calm - no whitecaps, no swells. A light, ruffling breeze is up, and an ebbing tide is streaming a broad current of water toward the open ocean. The sun, low, sets the water shimmering. A gull floats overhead like an idea perfected.
In the circle of a natural year around here you may see everything from arctic seals, whose summer home is Canadian pack ice, to tropical reef fishes that have ridden up from the Caribbean in flickering tongues of warm water. Some birds, like the terns that often lead me to dinner at the end of my line, breed here. Others, like harlequin-costumed ruddy turnstones, migrate right through. Sometimes when I'm thousands of miles from home, I run into migrants I'd last seen here. They all remind me that the world is much bigger than we know, yet much smaller than we think.
"I have traveled a great deal in Concord," reported Henry David Thoreau. And how much greater might he have thought his travels if he'd lived here instead. The coast's moods, changing light, and shifting migrants, year upon year, make this a much bigger place than any map of it could ever suggest.
A coast is an edge, an edgy place. Life here presents stark realities and a sometimes-terrible beauty. Continent consistently confronts ocean. Weather intensifies tides into tantrums. Shore can never conclude its eternal negotiations with an ocean that gives much, but demands more. Every year the raw rim of this coast gets hammered and reshaped like molten bronze. Roiling with power and a wild, bare allure, the coast remains youthful, daring, never certain about tomorrow. The guessing, the risk. In a way, we're all thrill-seekers here.
One summer, the air one night was so still that you could see distant lightning reflected in the water; it was mirror-calm. But soon arrived that black downpour full of thunderbolts upon ten thousand winged stallions that beat the water frothy. My neighbor's anemometer registered winds leaping past 50 knots before one staggering 80-knot gust blew it to pieces that lodged under his roof shingles.
I worried about my neighbors J.P. and Marilyn Badkin, in their 80s, taking it full-force in their tiny beach-shack right on the dune. But I knew they'd weathered many tempests. When I inquired the next morning, Marilyn said approvingly, "That was a fantastic storm."
In a word, this place is fluid. Jackson Pollock, who worked nearby, famously said that his art was about the rhythms in nature. Mountains, plains, valleys dotted pleasantly with cows - to me, they seem uncomfortably . . . what is the word . . . stuck. The coast is no still-life.
I sometimes tell friends it's possible to see the whole world in the view from Lazy Point.