On Beerworld and bald eagles

Last week we weathered a polar vortex, tucked inside our homes, cussing the anticipated heating bills, keeping the water in the pipes moving, getting a little stir crazy.

A bald eagle off Beach Avenue–it was within a few feet before we got a camera out. Photo by Leslie Doyle.

Outside near the bay a bald eagle did what it could to survive. The bay was crusting over with ice, and this animal, like most who opted to stick around here for the winter, was in trouble.

Yesterday we decided to take a walk in Beerworld (or Ponderlodge or the Villas WMA–whatever you call it, a wonderful place to walk in the dead of winter). We usually come in from the Delview Avenue entrance, and we took a short detour to peek at the bay.

As we crept up Beach Drive on our way to Beerworld, marveling at the waves pushed by the stiff northwest breeze, a large bird slowly rose up from behind the dune, hanging at our eye level, no more than 10 yards away.

I thought it was the largest black-back gull I’d ever seen. I was wrong.

It was a bald eagle riding the wind as it was deflected upward by the dunes. By the time we got our phones out, well, it did what animals do, and we were left shooting shots of its backside.

Schmidt’s pool frog pond, via ACP

Beerworld used to be a golf course owned by Billy Plaumer, a man who made a fortune distributing beer, ultimately owning Schmidt’s. One of his pools had the Schmidt’s logo engraved on the bottom. The last time I saw the pool it had been taken over by large bullfrogs and a few turtles.

Plaumer made a lot of money, but should have made a little less–the Feds caught him, and Beerworld eventually went belly-up.

The greens have gone to cedar, but the ponds are still there. The main pond, the site of a recent rescue, held three swans and multiple ducks. The reeds along its edge wore crystal ice collars, just forming as the sun dropped lower in the sky. A fisherman in full camouflage sat at the edge. A large snapping turtle poked its baseball-sized head out of the water, took a peek at us, then headed back under, an unexpected treat in February.

Photo by Leslie Doyle, February 9, 2019

Winter is lovely–the ticks, the mosquitoes, and (for those among us who mind these kind of things) the black snakes hanging from the trees were all either hibernating or dead.

February 9, 2019, Lincoln Avenue–apparently the cold makes me hold a camera cock-eyed.

We went home, gobbled down dinner, then headed back out again, this time to catch the sunset. We do not venture out every time it’s a clear evening, but we’re never disappointed when we do. The sun has been setting on the bay a long, long time, and people on the Jersey side have been watching it a long, long time.

January beach walk (January 26, 2019)

A blue crab’s claw, one of several found today, likely in the gullet of a gull now.

Death dominates the bay’s edge in midwinter. Life needs light, and the sun’s long shadows tell the story.

The gulls, beasts of the beach, are dwindling in number, seemingly mocked by the diving ducks, beasts of the bay, who arrive each winter, exuberant and alive, finding plenty of life beneath the gray-steel surface of the Delaware Bay.

The day’s walk was punctuated with whelk collars and angel wings left by the receding tide. No ice today, but more is coming next week.

An angel wing among the the tideline’s detritus.

As I walked I was startled by a large crow–I had stumbled close enough to hear its wings beat the air as it rose from the beach. Crows are uncommon on the beach–they usually have a reason why they’re here. In a moment I saw why.

A freshly killed raccoon, its ribs splayed open, appealing to a crow.

In the summer, northern gannets can be seen crashing into the bay–they easily swim to the bottom, then grab bunker as they glide up through the water to resurface. In the summer light the birds look impossibly white.

Here on our beach lies a bird that has traveled thousands of miles in its lifetime. It has been dead for at least a few days, its eyes no longer the bay blue gray of the living.

Its beak looks startlingly lethal, the serrated edges the last thing felt by thousands of writhing fish caught when this gannet still breathed.

The carcass of a northern gannet lying on the Scott Avenue beach.

Despite the long shadows, the cold air, the slate upon gray where the sky meets the bay, there are splashes of color among the dead, a reminder that the light is returning, and spring will return for those who can hold out through the winter.

A splash of blue, a reminder Imbolc less than a week away.

Only a few humans walked this particular beach this particular afternoon, and there were as many dog prints as boot prints. But at least one soul bared her soles on this chilly January afternoon, a mortal’s reminder to live.

A footprint on a January beach.

North Cape May snowfall

Delaware Bay from Beach Avenue

The light today hummed–a gentle snow fall, a hint of fog, a chill but not much breeze, a good day to be outside.

In a few months, the beaches will be busy with humans again.

In the meantime, breathe and enjoy.

“Literal” is abstract: the bay tells us so

Reading about 30 knot gusts registered by a weather station just a mile away is abstract. Federal funds maintain my local station, and I read it religiously.

CMAN4, at the Cape May ferry dock (photo by NOAA)

Thinking about the wind and clams and life as I drag my rake through the mud is literal.

The real happens when the words fade away, when  “I” (never real) dissolve in the salty mist of the strong breeze coming off the flats.

What is real is as unknowable as the shiver of life felt when a rake’s tine carves a line in a quahog. I find the line later, as I wash the mud off the clams under running water, like blood from a deep cut, reminded (again) of the violence even in clamming.

The strike of tine against clam is real.

The clam knows something at that moment, as I know something, but words serve neither of us as I curl three fingers under its perfect shape, a tinge (literal) that my imperfect state (abstract) requires eating (literal, again).

We take mammals made for running under the sun and the stars, made for climbing and dancing and singing and playing, and (literally) make them human (abstract) at the cost of the real. Show me a child who loves schooling, and I’ll show you another lamb who has lost her way.

1921 classroom, by Lewis Wickes Hine, via Shorpy
Clamming reconnects me to what is real. So does gardening. And stargazing.

You have your ways, too. We all do, or did, anyway, before we let the abstract get in the way.

All the words and pictures I seek, the ones I share, are useless if just reading and looking are the goals. The goals remain wordless but not unknowable.

But sometimes all we can do is point and hope.

And try to assess that on a standardized test, Mr. Coleman.

Losing our religion

Somewhere on a back bay in Jersey

Went clamming this morning–chilly dawn, quarter moon, and tame tide meant I may have burned as many calories as I raked up for dinner. 

But that’s not why I clam.

After a week under fluorescent lights hearing folks reveal what they know to be true, I need to feel the back bay wash my over my feet to remind me what’s real, to feel my fingers become clumsy as a toddler’s as they grope into the mud to pull out another clam, to feel the human world of words dissolve in the chatter of geese and gulls.

If you do not know what’s real, if your feet never (literally) touch the earth, then you will believe anything. And most of us do.

If you grew up in the States anywhere but a farm, chances are pretty good you learned of natural cycles through your church. While our dominant culture thrives on linear growth, most religions honor the cycles of life and death.

Science is the closest thing we have to true religion in public school these days, technology the furthest. Science seeks the mystery, technology exploits it. Very little science happens in schools.  
We’re in the dark days now, and will be for some time. 
The dying sunlight reminds us, if we care to see, that all things fall apart.
The sun has shifted, the shadows have lengthened, the cold darkness creeps in.

Delaware Bay in winter, North Cape May

If your child spends most of her waking hours either in school or in front of a screen, she will learn to live in a world without tides, without death, without the slow grace of our sun. She (like so many others) will fail to discern the natural world, the one we’re all tied to, from any of the multiple artificial universes available to her.

Of all the Commandments, the wisest may be the first:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.
What we see and smell gets down to molecules, which get down to mass/energy, which gets down to the unknowable. Science requires a basic faith in logic, in math, in entropy, in our senses, and ultimately a humbling recognition of our place in the universe. Science promises death.

School and the economy it now serves requires a disconnect from the natural world and ultimately a basic faith in what somebody else tells you. Our culture promises immortality.

Horseshoe crab spine, North Cape May

I’m going with death.

There are no standards or Commandments on a mudflat.

Paradise on the Jersey shore

Tucked along the edge of the Delaware Bay, bounded by the Cape May Canal and Town Bank Road, lies a small community with big sunsets.

A “snowman” sunset, as seen from the end of Lincoln Avenue

Just about all of the photos are from North Cape May, and unless otherwise noted, are taken by us.