We never did find the chest of gold we were after, as we swooped like vultures to the storm-ravaged coast of Maine.
It is an old New England tradition to be a beachcomber, seeking through the flotsam and jetsam and lagan and derelict, and then running like heck when we find anything valuable, to avoid the maritime lawyers who know the definitions of flotsam and jetsam and lagan and derelict. All New Englanders, at least in spirit, once walked the shores after storms. Even when a person didn’t “go to sea”, the sea was part of a New Englander’s life.
The sea is in New Englander’s blood, though I’m not so sure about young whippersnappers, these days. They seem to prefer the virtual world of the web, but my grandchildren came along with me, as I hoped to give them a transfusion of Yankee blood by osmosis. Not that I belabored. I was in no mood to lecture them, and mostly was obeying a craving all my own.
I blame my craving on my doing my taxes. Doing taxes makes me slightly insane, and I find I crave the sea, because the sea does not obey bookkeepers or lawyers or governments. You can claim you own the sea but you can’t fence it. And from time to time the sea goes wild and smashes people who think they own parcels of property, when they are in fact stewards.
In any case, I wanted to see the ribs and keel of an old “pinky”. What is a pinky? A pinky was a small, square-rigged ship that carried cargo along the coasts of New England two hundred years ago. The recent storms had exposed the skeleton of such a ship at Short Sands Beach in Wells, Maine.
However we were too late. We parked in a parking lot that was only usable after a front-end-loader rumbled about scooping away all the sand and cobbles the gale deposited on the asphalt. It still wasn’t up to tourist-season snuff, but we could park.
But the problem was that the front-end-loader had to dump all the cobbles and sand somewhere, and the closest and most logical place was the beach, and then the second gale came along and spread the sand around and nearly buried all signs of the pinkie, except the bow.
My grandchildren were not all that impressed by a few beams of the stern we could expose.
The pinkie had been earlier exposed by especially bad storms, and in the past samples of its wood have been taken. It is made of local trees, back when people knew how to cut trees and make a boat of them. But one odd thing is that this wreak has no name, and has no history. I gather no tree-ring studies have been made of its wood. It was a craft that was for the most part pegged together; if there was any metal in the wreak it was long ago salvaged. There is no local memory of who owned it, and no way to date the wreak without deeper studies. It could have beached as early as 1750, or as late as 1870. It was a minor, undistinguished ship at a time when the waters were crowded with ships, even in the winter, for ships defined the word “shipping”. There were no tractor trailer trucks, and no railway boxcars. To get most any goods from here to there involved men going to sea.
“Going to sea”. Oh, it sounds like heaven to me, as I face doing my taxes. I feel I live in a society of pencil-necked, needle-nosed geeks, who haven’t a clue of what the word “risk” means. I was born too late, and looking to sea I do not see a single sail.
The only people who sail nowadays are fat-cat millionaires, and sailing is their arrogant luxury. You will not see them out on the dangerous waters of the month of March. (I confess; I’m jealous. If I had a boat, I’d likely stay in my nice warm mansion in March as well.)
But once these waters were full of sails. Short Sands Beach is sheltered by Cape Neddick, which had a small island called “The Nubble” off its end. If a lighthouse had existed, perhaps the pinkie would have found its away around the cape, but no lighthouse existed until 1879. Then the Cape Neddick Light guided sailors with light and horn, in the gales and fogs of March.
On the other side of Cape Neddick lies Wells Harbor, where ships could hide from Nor’easters. But when the winds swung to the southeast they had to hug the northern side of the harbor to avoid the surf that came charging in, as it did last week when our first March gale exploded off our coast.
When these winds howl, something that has the nice name of “spillover” occurs. It means the waters spill over from the sea-side of coastal dunes to the marshes on the landward side of those dunes. But “spill” sounds like it only involves a coffee cup. In fact it involves a raging ocean that treats cobbles like grains of sand. It is no joke if you happen to live on a barrier island between sea and marsh. Your front lawn becomes a cobble beach.
The cobbles clatter and rattle as the waves roar by your house, down to the tidal river seen from your back door.
At this point, though you never meant to “go to sea”, you are at sea. You understand there is a power that could care less for the property values of your shore-front property, or the fact you put your business signs to the legally prescribed depth in the shifting sands.
And it is at this point many think it is wiser to flee the sea. The sea is too uncivilized. It has no respect for the progressive aspect of government, which wants all safely clamped. Such houses should be abandoned. Why, then, do I thirst to “go to sea”?
To the north the next danger thrusting out from the mainland is Portland Head. We went up that way to search for treasure exposed by the storm. The coast was all rocks, so it seemed treasure would be less likely to be buried by sand.
As we searched we of course could not help but notice the Portland Head Lighthouse, which now seems but an anachronism, as if it was built by Disney to increase the tourist trade. But the truth is that it dates from when sails could be seen in the winter months, back when, when you shipped something, it involved ships.
Eventually we grew discouraged about finding boxes of gold coins, and wandered up to the lighthouse, and saw the storms had attempted to erase the message on the ledge next to the light.
The graffiti hints life was different, back when men “went to sea”. There were no guarantees, even on Christmas Eve, that you would reach a safe harbor. Not even a lighthouse’s light and horn could always save you from a wreak.
I’m not sure what the circumstances were. Did the wind die as the tidal current increased? Was it foggy and still, or abruptly crisp and clear with a sudden gale? Whatever happened, you can be sure the captain was embarrassed, especially as his wife was aboard. After all, it was Christmas Eve, and they were so very close to the safety of Portland Harbor! But I do notice that they left no sails up. They tidied up the ship, clambered onto the ledge, and then the lighthouse keeper dropped a long ladder to the ledge, and they all clambered to the safety of shore. Merry Christmas! What a miracle! (But then, of course, there were probably a lot of legal details, involving flotsam and jetsam and lagan and derelict, to deal with, but only after the holiday.)
Odd. Why should hearing of this calamity that occurred nearly 150 years ago make me want to “go to sea?” Shouldn’t I strive to avoid the fickle winds, and the uncertainty of those days, when shipping involved ships?
I simply feel some treasure is involved. Perhaps it is not cold gold. Perhaps it is a sort of goodness. Is there anything like a lighthouse keeper in the modern world? If you crashed into a ledge on Christmas Eve, would anyone try to rescue you, these days?
Whatever the treasure was, I couldn’t quite grasp it. But I did find one final bit of treasure I couldn’t grasp, before we headed home. As I took a last walk on a sandy beach I noticed the sea had not only beaten back the dune grass that was attempting to encroach seawards to the beach, but it had chewed up huge amounts of kelp and seaweed that was attempting to encroach upon the beach from the seaward side. The surf built heaps of weed and kelp over three feet tall.
As I looked at these heaps I couldn’t help but see it as a treasure. Not that I can lift such heavy gold, at my age, but I felt the vague memory of ambition. If I was a younger man I’d hurry my pick-up truck to this beach, and, working fast, before any could call it environmentally unwise, I would load the truck to its springs with heaps of seaweed.
As a farmer, and landlubber, I see seaweed as superb fertilizer. I once knew a man who heaped seaweed on bare rock, planted seed potatoes in the weed, and when harvest time rolled around he didn’t have to dig. He just lifted the seaweed and there were dozens of potatoes to harvest.
As a farmer, and landlubber, I also know about “greensand”, which is created by nature when heaps of seaweed is buried with sand in an anoxic environment. I’d used greensand to make the heads of my cauliflower and broccoli absurdly large.
Seaweed is indeed a treasure, if you are young and strong. However I am not as ambitious as I used to be. Nor are lobster-men, I surmised. In the old days they’d bring their traps in before big storms, and even before winter began, but now the beach was strewn with foolish modern lobster-men’s storm-crumpled traps.
But then I wondered to myself. Perhaps modern lobster-men were not lazy, but more daring. And perhaps these bent and twisted lobster-traps on the shore were like the shipwrecked ships of those who dared “go to sea” long ago. Who was wiser? Modern lobster-men or their elders?
I could not decide. I could only stand and look out to sea, where sea gulls sat in the sun-brightened water. I closed my eyes and just listened, and felt a strange longing for a treasure I missed.
There is something we’re missing in safety.
I stand by the sea, and I long.
The land has built dikes, and has braced me.
The land thinks it’s mighty and strong.
But something by land’s sure to crumble.
It can’t withstand gales from the east,
And now the land’s starting to grumble
And ban fish from our Friday’s feast.
I’m baffled, and slump by the storm-wracked beach
And close my eyes, and hear surf suck and thump
And hiss, as the crazy gulls wheel and screech.
I listen, and find my shoulders don’t slump.
I listen, and, feeling surf’s sun on my face,
I’m hearing a Truth that the land can’t erase.