Sometimes life just hands you a random bouquet of flowers and says, here, just enjoy this. It’s surprising and lovely and when it involves a friend offering a place away from it all in an incredibly beautiful location with no strings attached, the only thing you can do is pinch yourself and say thank you over and over again.
This very thing happened to me last week and in less than two days I’d packed my sleeping bag, my food and water for a few days, my drawing and watercolor supplies, and a few other necessities. I was delivered to my little sanctuary on the backside of some dunes overlooking a marsh on a bright sunny September morning. It didn’t take long to put my supplies away and survey the camp I was in. Used by hunters for many years, it had a rustic but comfortable feel as well as an indoor composting toilet and solar power.
I headed out to walk a trail that went alongside the dunes and the marsh and was accompanied by thousands of swallows flying and swooping overhead. This area is well known as a staging area for swallows preparing for migration. They feast on the multitude of insects in the marsh and fatten up on the abundance of bayberries in the dunes. There were so many birds they flew by me for hours, often massing on the marsh only to explode into the air with a magnified twitter of swallow voices.
While watching a group pass by I realized one bird was not like the others, and I lifted my binoculars to confirm my identification. It was indeed a merlin, a smallish hawk that can often be found where such large numbers of smaller birds flock. It split the flock or rather the flock split itself, with more than half the birds turning to fly the other way. The birds ahead of the hawk, perhaps unaware of imminent danger, kept on moving and they were all out of sight in a matter of minutes.
I noted the color changes flooding the marsh along with the tides as the moon prepared to fill herself up. There were clouds, then sun, then a sprinkle, then more sun, and each new weather change brought more colors to dunes and marsh grasses.
Clouds of sandpipers joined the dozens of egrets and great blue herons feeding, and as the tide rose the cormorants arrived. The water beyond the marsh and the marsh creeks and pannes were filled with baitfish moving through, and in some spots I could see the splashes the schools of fish made as hundreds of gulls seemed to appear out of nowhere.
I woke very early to dark but beautiful mornings. Clouds obscured sunrises but one morning the sun won out for enough time to spread pink light across the land. On the darker mornings the dunes, sky, and marsh turned the various shades of coffee brown, a phenomenon I’d never seen before.
There were coyote, deer, pheasant, turkey, and baby turtle tracks. There were rabbit, skunk, mouse, vole, and toad tracks, as well as the largest raccoon tracks I’ve ever seen. At different times I smelled the skunk but never saw it, which was fine with me. I heard the coyotes yipping and howling each evening and listened to the crows converse each dawn.
My sketchbook and pen went on all my walks but the painting I did back at the camp. With no screen time, no electronic devices, audio books or music to distract me I was totally in that time and place. Time stretched out before me with little meaning. I ate when I was hungry and slept when I was sleepy. I painted and drew constantly, writing notes and bits and pieces of paragraphs in between. Sometimes I just stared into the marsh or walked on the cross-dune trail to go stare at the sea and the thousands of shorebirds that were feeding there. On Sunday I walked out to the main parking lot to help with the Coastal Sweep beach cleanup which ironically took me out past where I was staying and back again.
Years ago, I led overnight trips out to South Monomoy, and when we returned one of the people I reported to always said we had the Monomoy glow. As I returned home from my few days alone in the dunes and marsh I felt that glow of being somewhere beautiful once again. Short walks and visits to beautiful places can give us a bit of that glow as well, but there’s something special about an extended stay, especially alone.
I can’t say I did any great work or great thinking. I fiddled with ideas and collected shells, crab parts, and feathers to sketch. I dreamed with the swallows and counted sandpipers instead of sheep when awake in the middle of the night. Mostly I just felt part of a place in a special and intense way. I highly recommend it. It is the best deep breath a person can take, I think.
There’s a reset that happens when we spend time alone in a place very few other humans visit. I saw less than a dozen people in my time there and those were just passing by. A northern harrier visited each morning and a mockingbird kept me company each afternoon. They were excellent companions and reminded me that our rush-rush crazy world isn’t really worth all the fuss.