Ocracoke’s beach with Henry David Thoreau: Part 4
“I wished to see that seashore where man's works are wrecks...where the
ocean is land-lord as well as sea-lord, and comes ashore without a
wharf for the landing; where the crumbling land is the only invalid, or
at best is dry land, and that is all you can say of it..”
20, I set
out to walk the southernmost part of Ocracoke Island, to look at the
ocean once more through the eyes of 19th century naturalist Thoreau.
In order to begin this part of my walk, I had ridden my bicycle down
South Point Road, passing through the vast expanse of salt marsh that
straddles both sides of the sandy lane. As the wind grew stronger and
the sand softer near the road's end, I gave up riding and walked my
bike to a spot where I could lay it down behind a dune.
The road emerged here into a vast expanse of sand spreading in all
directions and disappearing finally into the sea -- a place which, in
storms and hurricanes, was swallowed by the waves and where the ocean
was indeed land-lord as well as sea-lord.
The dunes and vegetation that had reached nearly to the ocean farther
up the island were far away, the electric poles following the highway
out of sight. Standing here, I could imagine myself in a great sand
desert, and I compared this vista to Thoreau's description of the great
flats on Cape Cod, of which he said:
aspects of this
desert are beautiful, whether you behold it in fair weather or foul, or
when the sun is just breaking out after a storm, and shining on its
moist surface in the distance, it is so white, and pure, and level, and
each slight inequality and track is so distinctly revealed; and when
your eyes slide off this, they fall on the ocean.”
The shell hash near the shoreline created an interesting pattern here--
stripes lined up side-by-side with stripes of sand, suggesting an
interesting mix of currents and substrate. Further down, the cacophony
of the direction of the current was even more apparent, as sunlight
gleamed on water rushing into shallow channels and around and back,
folding over other currents and waves.
The beach here was crisscrossed with tire tracks, though not nearly as
many as in later spring. This was the favorite area for surf fishing,
and even this early I saw a few fishermen with their lines out. Further
up, however, was a zone that was closed off for shorebird nesting and
marked with signs which forbade both vehicles and foot traffic.
The signs were reminders that this was a national seashore, and that
there were angry debates going on about driving on these beaches and
its impact on these birds.
The creature that has caused most of the stir is the piping plover,
federally listed as a threatened species. Thoreau frequently mentioned
these little shorebirds in Cape Cod, and he said that:
“ ...if I
to name a sound, the remembrance of which most perfectly revives the
impression which the beach has made, it would be the dreary peep of the
On another page he wrote:
“I turned up
hollow. A piping plover peeped around me there, and feigned
lameness,--though I at first thought that she was dusting herself on
the sand,--to attract me away from her nest evidently.”
Walking just a bit seaward of the fence of posted signs, I found myself
in a series of small sand hills which made it necessary to watch ones
step or topple over. Driving this stretch in the past had felt like
taking a roller-coaster ride. It brought to mind Thoreau's description
of what he called “regular hollows or dimples” in the sand on the Cape,
or upon approaching Provincetown, walking across “great ripples.”
Thoreau wrote about his visits to Cape Cod:
seashore is a sort
of neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate
this world. It is even a trivial place. The waves forever rolling to
the land are too far-traveled and untamable to be familiar.”
I found myself contemplating, not only the island of Ocracoke
the sea, but the world. The seashore is, as he said, a wonderful place
for thinking, and I have done a lot of it on Ocracoke's beaches.
Horrific events on the other side of the globe made it hard now to
evade such contemplation. As I watched the waves roll in, I was
reminded of the images I had seen on television of the tsunami that had
recently devastated northern Japan. When the waves approached, I simply
walked higher up on the beach to avoid soaking my shoes. That option
had not been available to the thousands who died in that tragedy.
Thoreau's words, written in 1849, described what that ocean could, and
had so recently, become:
ocean, as civil now as a city's harbor, will erelong be lashed into
sudden fury...It will ruthlessly heave these vessels to and fro, break
them in pieces in its sandy or stony jaws, and deliver their crews to
sea monsters. This gentle Ocean will toss and tear the rag of a man's
body like the father of mad bulls, and his relatives may be seen
seeking the remnants for weeks along the strand..”
As you walk, you can look away from the ocean here, back across the
dunes, and get a glimpse of one of Ocracoke's favorite attractions, the
The Ocracoke Light, built in 1823, is one of the oldest on the East
Coast and, while not the tallest, it is surely one of the prettiest.
Thoreau took note of the lighthouses he saw on Cape Cod, and spent a
night at the Highland Light. Built in 1798, it stood, at the time of
Thoreau's beach walk, twenty rods from the edge of the bank, and rose
110 feet above its base.
He described accompanying the lightkeeper on his rounds:
candle-light he lighted a small Japan lamp...and told us to follow him.
He led the way first through his bedroom...then into the lower part of
the lighthouse...thence we ascended by a winding and open iron
stairway, to a trap-door in an iron floor, and through this into the
lantern...The light consisted of fifteen argand lamps, placed within
smooth concave reflectors...We walked slowly round in that narrow space
as the keeper lighted each lamp in succession.”
Thoreau's exploration of Cape Cod included visiting some of the towns
there, including Provincetown.
Now, glimpsing Ocracoke's lighthouse and water tower, I couldn't resist
referring to his 1857 description of staying at an inn there, as it
reminded me of a few occasions in my own home.
He wrote that, while staying at the inn:
window could be
kept open, though at the risk of being visited by the cats, which
appear to swarm on the roofs of Provincetown like the mosquitoes on the
summits of its hills...At still midnight, when, half awake, half
asleep, you seem to be weltering in your own blood on a battlefield,
you hear the stealthy tread of padded feet belonging to some animal of
the cat tribe, perambulating the roof within a few inches of your head.
Okay, it’s not that bad here, but Ocracoke does have its fair share of
cats, and there have been a few that liked to ramble around on my roof
top. Fortunately, at least so far, we do not have the other distraction
he mentioned in describing his nights in Provincetown:
memorable nights there...and have added considerably thereby to my
knowledge of the natural history of the cat and the bedbug. Sleep was
out of the question..to say nothing of what is to be learned in
bedbug infestation that is tormenting many Americans in other places
will stay away from Ocracoke!
A few yards farther on, I saw a plastic water bottle lying in the sand.
Whether dropped in carelessness or tossed out an SUV window, it was a
sad reminder (one of the few, fortunately, that I had seen that day) of
how we humans are trying our best to trash the earth.
Tossed out on a beach, plastic water bottles wash into the sea where
they may, like balloons, entice sea turtles to eat them. If not eaten,
they may become part of the huge plastic masses that float like dead
continents in the ocean. Thrown into trash containers, they fill our
landfills, creating ever more need to despoil the earth with our trash.
Even recycled, they contribute to oil consumption and pollution.
Thoreau spoke of finding a bottle at Cape Cod in 1849, but at that time
plastics had not yet been invented. His bottle would have been glass,
which is far less harmful to the environment, and surely less mundane
“I picked up a bottle half buried in the wet sand, covered with
barnacles, but stopped tight, and half full of red ale, which still
smacked of juniper,--all that remained I fancied from the wreck of a
rowdy world...but as I poured it slowly out onto the sand, it seemed to
me that man himself was like a half-emptied bottle of pale ale, which
Time had drunk so far, yet stopped tight for a while, and drifting
about in the ocean of circumstances, but destined erelong to mingle
with the surrounding waves, or be spilled amid the sands of a distant
I pondered his words as I walked on. When he said “man,” I wondered,
did Thoreau mean humankind as a whole, or were his words defining an
individual? I thought that I could see myself as that half-empty
bottle, adrift in uncertainty, not sure where I would land, but
struggling to determine where my destiny lay.
The crash of surf was less distinct here, waves lower and longer. I was
approaching Ocracoke Inlet, the channel which separates Ocracoke from
I have stood at that shoreline many times and gazed across at
Portsmouth, trying to imagine the busy town that once bustled with life
there. Now it is a ghost town, preserved as part of the Cape Lookout
National Seashore, its prosperity destroyed when the inlet silted in
and ship traffic went elsewhere. I planned to dip my toes into the
waters of that inlet before turning back.
It was with shock, therefore, that I realized that the previously
mentioned no-trespassing fence had curved around to close off the beach
before me. I would not be able to complete my walk to the end of
Ocracoke. I did not begrudge the piping plovers their safe nesting
grounds, but I felt somehow cheated out of what I had come to feel was
my right to walk on Ocracoke's beaches.
I turned around and, now walking into a strong wind, headed home. I
felt that my studies of Thoreau's classic “Cape Cod,” along with my
ramblings on Ocracoke's beaches, had led me to new understanding of
home at 5 P.M.”
David Thoreau, June 22, 1857