Ocracoke

Ocracoke

You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty. –Gandhi

I suppose one could argue with Gandhiji’s statement here, but it works for me anyway. We went to Ocracoke Island last weekend. It has always been one of my favorite places in the world, although I did not discover it until I was supposedly an adult. In our family, though, the Outer Banks were where we went at least once a year in order to restore some semblance of cleanness in our psyches, which in our family were sorely tested in daily life by way of numerous family dysfunctions. There was something about proximity to the ocean that kept my soul alive, nurtured and protected at least enough to allow me to grow into adulthood with sufficient resources to survive and heal. I’m writing a book, currently, about the therapeutic heuristics of space and loneliness, and although the book is primarily about my life in bush Alaska, I found myself needing to return to those early memories of the Atlantic as the primer for my later understanding:

. . . I returned to one of the first of these greatly loved places, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a place my family visited yearly when I was a child, returning again and again to a fairly unattractive, flat-roofed little forties-style beach cottage on what was then a miles-long stretch of stark seashore where the distances between dwellings was great enough that one was seldom aware of one’s neighbors. And even if one were, the continual roar of the wind and the ocean filled in any space that might be invaded by an awareness of lesser importance, for the poetry of those waves, for me, was far more worthy—and indeed, insistent—of my attention than any more ambient words or sounds might be, and I needed to be able to look at the horizon and see no-thing of human origin. I remember, at night, lying in bed sunburned and painfully sensitive to my gritty, sandy sheets, listening to that music; imagining, in cold terror, a vast tidal wave racing over the dunes and carrying us out to sea, into that vast being I loved and feared so greatly, perhaps one of my earlier intimations of religious horror; and I remember now, although I was not aware of it then, feeling comforted by not being able to hear, under the roar of those waves, my father bellowing about a light being left on, or my mother’s slurred speech as she stumbled off to bed, possibly falling, cursing at her inebriated clumsiness. I was at once terrified and comforted by the power of that great parental Ocean, my stand-in for what I did not find in those who were supposed to enfold me in their largeness. The ocean might frighten me, but it was, somehow, constant, and it made no excuses for itself, nor did it tell any lies.

We spent long weeks at the beach in summer, and although I knew that my family was around, and that we had visitors and friends and a fairly lively social life, given that many of our neighbors from the mountain village we lived in during the rest of the year also came to “our” beach in the summer and had cottages near ours, I seem mostly to recollect myself as being alone. It amazes me, now mother to children whose welfare was all-important to me from their very beginnings, to recall that my sister and I were allowed and even encouraged to play on the beach and swim in those treacherous waves—the “graveyard of the Atlantic,” so called–while my mother was playing bridge and drinking bourbon with her friends, or at best passed out on a towel on the sand reeking of beer and suntan oil, well out of earshot of any maritime catastrophe that might take place in those waves. That vast “graveyard,” with its unpredictable and powerful currents that made swimming dangerous and often impossible, was universally, in our day, referred to as Nags Head, one of its villages so named because of the dunes-dwellers who led an old horse with a lantern around its neck up and down the dunes at night, seeking to lure loaded cargo ships to shore, where they would crash on its shoals and be plundered by these land-pirates. It was, then, an austere and lonely landscape, and people said you either loved it or hated it, never in-between. I loved it, but I realized many did not, and when I returned after so many years, it amazed and amazes me that so many have come to build on those dunes, and that the Outer Banks now rivals the coastlines of such places as Florida and California. Its miles are now lined with huge, pretentious houses, and many of the bare miles are landscaped and planted with such trees and flowers as will grow in that sand, and where they will not, turf is brought in to replace what is meant to be there, which is very, very little other than sea oats. Chic shops and restaurants abound, and if the ocean is not entertainment enough for your kids, you can take them to play miniature golf or see a movie. Wal-Mart has come to the Outer Banks, I deeply regret to report, and the Food Lion rules, in a place where I recall a dearth of fresh vegetables when I was a child, an earlier prescience of my life in the Alaskan Bush.
Copyright 2006 Amidha K Porter

I think it is the vastness of the ocean, its unforgiving and uncompromising insistence on being exactly what it is that was and is the healing for me. When we returned to the Outer Banks all those years later, I was astounded at the changes, and yet–it’s still the Atlantic. She (and the ocean is a ‘she,’ you know) takes what she needs and brooks no denial. She comes and goes as she pleases, and–to quote my former employer in the Dare County Soil Conservation Service–no matter how many times people with more money than brains build at her very edge, she handles the matter as she thinks best. Ocracoke itself is an even better example of this, as it is surrounded on all sides by the Atlantic, and although building a bridge so that tourists and developers can overrun her continues to be a hot political topic, it hasn’t happened yet, and Ocracoke is still comfortingly shabby and picturesque, and although the wild horses would rather be fed by hand than forage for themselves, I am thankful for the National Seashore, which keeps trying to make sure we do not squander all of our most precious resources, all of which are found in the ineffable. And it is in that which I cannot see completely but only marvel at, that I am purged of my misunderstandings.

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