The directions were a little vague. Arriving on the downwind leg of the afternoon, we followed not so much directions to this place as a description of it. Our friends decline cell phones. Their farmhouse is lined with shelves of books, the kitchen with jars of food from the garden. They don’t use the internet; no email or texts. They send hand-written notes by mail, or call on a land line shared with another couple. Not much help here. There’s no land line out on the island, either, so we can’t call to be sure.
This feels right, though – they’re good with words, our friends – but we’re going a bit on faith, like looking for a place you only know from novels.
There’s a welcome party on the docks at Isle au Haut. Families here to greet relatives, fishermen to collect gear ordered from the mainland, others just to see who or what the tide has brought in. I recognize the Mayor and Mrs. Mayor from the short film I saw a few years ago, the one that made me want to come here.
In 1813, a handful of lightly armed vessels, sent down from defenses at Baltimore, confronted British warships out in the Bay and were cornered here in the Yeocomico. It did not go well.
Morning is clear and warm, with a light steady breeze out of the West. It will be hot today.
Several of the boats are out in the creek already, or working their way downriver. Doug’s new Marsh Cat is not yet finished, so he’s sailing the second Melonseed. From the beach I can see Caesura’s tanbark sail glowing and gliding against the bluegreen treeline in the distance. Then I, too, am off.
There’s a male Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) who sings outside our bedroom window every Spring. Despite the fact it makes them eminently easier targets for predators, like owls, they like to perch in the highest tree tops, and our house is at the top of the hill.
In Spring, on quiet nights when there’s a full moon, he sings all night long. So loud he wakes me from sleep, even with the windows closed. At 3 a.m., unable to go back to sleep, I gave up. Went outside with a microphone and a camera. The trees are budding out, and it’s a warm night with a soft breeze.
By odd coincidence I was just reading about mockingbirds, in a book by a local author. Our daughters played soccer together. She often writes for National Geographic and Smithsonian, and sometimes we shared conversations on the sidelines during practice about the topics she was researching. The book is called The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman.
It’s full of fascinating info. I just finished a section on Mockingbirds. Apparently, Thomas Jefferson (whose house I pass several times a day) kept one as a pet in the White House when he was President. His name was Dick. Dick not only mimicked the calls of many birds from the nearby woods, but also did a fair rendition of some popular American, Scottish, and French melodies, things you’d hear in a local tavern. Jefferson was so fond of the bird it was allowed to follow him throughout the house during the day.
Mockingbirds will acquire hundreds of phrases in a complex library of sounds they can imitate with great precision, switching between them at the rate of 17 or 18 a minute with such accuracy that in sonograms they are almost indiscernible from the originals. And not just the sounds of other birds – car alarms, cats, people, sirens, whatever strikes their fancy. All using a brain about the size of a pea.
No wonder I can’t sleep.
This one is on a roll again, just like previous years. Though I’m only outside listening for a few minutes, I pick out a couple of hawks, Osprey, Cardinals, Robins, Sparrows, etc..
They sing to impress the ladies, of course, and will risk their lives to do so; but they don’t just sing during mating season. The rest of the year they sing just because it makes them feel good. Brain scans show singing gives them pleasure and comfort, so they often do it whether anyone else is listening or not. Just for themselves.
Sometimes the is sea is benign, sometimes it is dangerous; always it is indifferent.
I was given a good book recently by a friend at a poker game. Tom worked for many years at a well-loved used bookstore near the university. Toots, his wife, recently retired as a librarian. They’ve never owned a TV, to my knowledge. Needless to say, they are good sources of good books. The walls of their house are insulated with them, on shelves stacked floor to ceiling.
Tom still wanders into any used bookstore he passes, disappearing for hours I imagine, and at yard sales skips the rusty tools and goes straight for the tables where the books are kept. With so much experience sifting, he has a knack for finding unusual gems he knows will interest me.
It covers all the types of barrier islands along the East Coast, from Texas to Maine, with a special emphasis on the ones I know best – where my parents live between Charleston and Savannah, and of course the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands. The way they are formed, how they shift and change shape constantly, etc.; all of which is eminently interesting if you have spent any time on them.
But it also explores the history of these barren and tenuous places, the people who are drawn to them; and the special feeling of desolation and power surrounding you there, where wind and water and sand alter the landscape constantly.