Last weekend, I ran away to the wild places and beloved people.
I first went, alone, to the coast of Maine, to the beach and geography of some of my earliest memories. This particular beach was where I learned what it is to fall in love with a place. In my experience, falling in love with a place is not so very different from falling in love with another person or finding a piece of your soul in words or art or music—it is as if your bloody muscle of a heart melts away and a space of light appears in your chest instead. The world comes in, the world goes out, alongside your breathing and while all may not be right in the world, for these ragged moments, all is right with you in the world. There is a tremendous sense of exhilarated belonging, of security and wild possibility.
I do not know of anything more beautiful than this.
The world, including this beach, has changed since I was first in love with it. Walking along the sands, I noted the absence of soft, rolling dunes and the presence of sterner, sturdier rock walls. The summer homes and cottages, the steep piney hills beyond, the continuance of all these things depends on how much sand is or isn’t lost to the hungry tides.
The thought of losing this place, of the waters rising and rising and erasing something so dear to me from the map used to keep me awake at night. I don’t relish the thought now, either. And it is not that I have reconciled myself to the loss, or the threat of loss. I am not, nor will I ever be, at stoic peace with the sea changes and erratic weather and melting glaciers and roulette-wheeled seasons, and all the rest that climate change means. It is not, though, the climate change itself that keeps me awake at night. It is our responsibility for these horrors that keeps me hungry for people to band together with and live out solutions, rather than dithering in fear and mourning and denial.
But, never mind that. We all know what is at stake. We, each of us, carry something known or unknown in our hearts that is the seed of all fears and actions regarding how to save the world. I am constantly surprised and buoyed by what is stronger than these fears. To wit, even as my sometimes weary and mournful eyes looked at the changing coastline, the better parts of me were hyperaware of being in the right place, of feeling as in love with this little corner of the world as I have ever been.
The ocean was a dark dark blue, glinting with the red-gold light of the setting sun. Where the waves crested and crashed, the water became the misty bottled green of seaglass. Frumpy uncomfortable looking adolescent seagulls swooped around. The beeches and maples on the otherwise evergreen hills behind and the islands before me lit up like fires that will never be extinguished. Looking far out of the islands, scrubby deep red plants—blueberries and poison ivy and sedges and the same hardy plants I love from mountain summits—clung to the edges of the sun-bleached rocks. The wind was cold coming off the water, the sort of breeze that smells of frost, while also carrying the scent of woodfires in the surrounding cabins and cottages. My hands felt chapped in my mittens and my face was wind and sun and smile strained by the time I got back to the car.
I lingered too long, perhaps, although it didn’t feel like long enough. This is the thing about love, tearing yourself away feels impossible, even if you are cold and hungry and needing to find a place to camp. My plan had been to camp as close to the beach as possible, so I would fall asleep to the sound of the waves and wake up to the sunrise.
Much as I might try, my life is not consistently as poetic as I find sunlight on the water to be. I spent the night curled up in the back of my car, with my sea-damp dog, in the relative safety of the L.L.Bean parking lot in Freeport.
On the plus side, when I woke up at 3:45 with numb legs and a kinked shoulder, there was no possible thing to do but get back to the beach in time for sunrise.
I walked down to the mouth of the Kennebec in the pearly darkness that comes just before sunrise and hunkered down on a log of driftwood.
And slowly, there it came. The darkness faded like a healing bruise, the star-like light of the lighthouses grew less bright as the sky pinked and purpled and blued back to day. I could see dear tracks along the sand, see the birds as they flew around cawing in the dawn chorus. A black bird—a cormorant? a sparrow in silhouette?—flew up the river.
By the light of the rising sun and the riffles of the dawn wind, the current of the river was visible, rushing to the open sea. The bird, whatever it was, flew up the river. For a moment, I could see the opposite forces together, like retrograde motion or an Escher drawing. The water goes one way, the wings the other and it seems as if they cannot possibly exist together.
Yet, they do.
Now is a time to be schooled in such beautiful, active paradoxes. There is so much—too much—in the discussion and actions of climate change that is focused on what is lost, what will be lost. There is fear and mourning and grief and anger, and all of that is warranted. But, at the same time, the world is not dead yet, and often our fear at what may be builds a premature coffin around what is.
Along my most beloved shoreline, there are changes from what I knew. What matters more, though, is what has not changed. The way the sunlight hits the water at all hours, the eternal and always fresh crush and crash of the water, and the feeling of being always in love with the intangible here of this place.
We must immerse ourselves as often in the wildness and variety and love and beauty of the world as we do in fear and facts and figures of threats to and hard realities of this world. I believe, with the certainty of tidal sunrise and the clarity of mountain frost, that doing so is vital to the salvage and survival of all that really matters. Sure pure love drives purer and purer actions, stronger and wiser choices.
And, conveniently, such immersion is eternally, ecstatically joyful. What is truly, cleanly, lovingly good for the soul is also for the world.