I am fifteen years old and brushing my teeth in the ladies’ bathroom at Jones Beach State Park. It is the morning after my first day as a runaway. The day before, I filled my beach bag with the necessary items, counted out my cash earned from six months of babysitting, and with ease caught one bus, then another headed for the beach. In case you don’t already know, June is the perfect month for a teenager to run away. With school just out of session, the world of adults sees only a sudden confusion of children everywhere, barely noticing one unattended teenager. On Long Island, the warm summer weather, easy bus transportation, and an abundance of inexpensive food make walking away from home only an impulse away. One lone teenager sleeping on a towel at the beach is invisible.
I have thought about my destination carefully as I head east from my home in mid-Nassau County to Montauk Point, traveling one beach at a time. I operate out of instinct and grief, for less than two weeks ago I was called out of my ninth-grade biology class by my sensibly shod and oh-so-very-stern biology teacher, who quietly delivered the news that my father had died and that an older cousin, waiting in the principal’s office, would drive me home. Not only is this my first morning as a runaway; it is also the first morning after a night spent sleeping curled up on a towel in the curve of a sand dune, the first night I have slept easily in months, lullabied by the waves.
Jennifer Ackerman writes, “Studies of human preferences for landscapes have found that our tribe tends to favor savanna-like land—flat, grass-covered landscape studded with trees, where we had our origins and earliest home. Also promontories overlooking water. Some scientists even speculate that somewhere along the way we veered off the common primate course of evolution not just by swinging down from trees, but by going toward the sea….I like this idea that our earliest home landscapes are buried deep, embedded in our minds like an anchor at great depth, that we know in some dark, birdly way where we want to go.” In some awkward, teenager, birdly way, I have found my way to Jones Beach, where I will stay for a few days, washing up in the public restroom in the mornings, dreaming peacefully to the sounds of waves at night.
A bus and a train ride later, I disembark in Montauk, the Long Island Railroad’s last stop. During these runaway days and nights, I begin to understand the pull of the tides. Sir Isaac Newton, the first to explain tides, writes in the second volume of the Principia in 1686, “it appears that the waters of the sea ought twice to rise and twice to fall every day, as well lunar as solar and that the greatest height of the waters in the open and deep seas ought to follow the appulse of the luminaries.” While Newton may have unraveled the science and math behind the tides, he does not explain their aesthetic pull on humans. Tides are rhythmic, predictable, and unpredictable. The astounding power of the moon’s gravitational pull to shape and reshape my coastline becomes the single most fascinating aspect of my life as a runaway. I quickly learn to be wary of the high tides and go shell seeking during the low tides. I discover, though I cannot name it, an intertidal period that leaves a band of shiny stones ribboned along the shore—and I fall in love with these transitory moments.
My beach life becomes increasingly regular: I sleep at night securely tucked into the crook of a cliff dune, walk the shoreline at the low tides, and read the one book I have dragged along (a collection of Edgar Allen Poe’s works given to me by my father). Beyond the brief conversations I have to buy food, I talk to no one for two weeks. No one knows my name, no one recognizes me, and I am, for the first time in my life, identity-less to those around me. My main occupation becomes listening intently to the landscape. The tides sooth and guide me, and soon I recognize their essence—predictable change. I also begin to measure my life against this mutable constancy, pondering who I am and what path I will take. I catch myself spinning out imaginary and silent stories that have only one common denominator: they are all set at the edge of the sea. Shaped by this ocean, my imagination broadens and wakens from the sound and feel of the wind, the itch of the sand, and the calm of the light, and, in turn, my imagination prompts me to story this place at first with mermaids and sea captains and later with many other watery or shore-bound characters.
During one stormy night, I find limited protection by sleeping in a deteriorating World War II concrete army bunker, and while the tides are beautiful to watch on a peaceful day, the storm wakes me to the power and violence they can generate. I discover not only that I am drawn toward the geography of edges but am in sympathy with this margin of the world. When I finally decide to catch a train back home to interior suburban Long Island, it is not because I have been lonely or frightened living wild on the beach but because I have been taught by the landscape about the basic ebb-and-flow rhythm of life and I know it is time for me to return to my mother’s house.
This is an excerpt from the essay ‘Tidal: Subtidal’ originally published in “Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together” edited by Julie Dunlap and Stephen R. Kellert (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012). Reprinted with permission of the author.