Exploring the wonders of where water meets land

May 20, 2021

The leading edge of the sun has just crept over the horizon on a morning clear enough to distinguish the outline of Cape May nine miles to the east across the Bay.  At this moment, with the sun’s angle of incline virtually flat, the shadows we cast are narrowly elongated to stretch from the surf to the dune.  

There is nobody else to be seen in either direction, we are alone.

A trio of pelicans passes overhead, their pterodactyl silhouettes so non-aerodynamic it’s a marvel they can fly. Pelican sightings at Cape Henlopen have become frequent only in the past few years, as they follow their prey into waters that are warming with climate change.

A pod of dolphins, at most fifty yards from us, surface for air to replenish their lungs. A calf hugs close to an adult.

Just another dawn beach walk at Herring Point.

As this series of columns debuts, full disclosure dictates that I admit I am not, by nature, a beach guy.  No idyllic summers by the sea in my boyhood. Most of my life has been lived land-locked.

It took COVID to awaken me at age 75 to the wonders of where the water meets the land, and ‘wondrous’ to a writer is a word carefully chosen.

We - wife Cait, son Will, dog Mango - have had a house in Lewes’ historic district since 2009 but our permanent residence is in D.C.  Several months into the COVID lock-down, we came here for what figured to be a few weeks of respite from cabin fever.  That was a year ago June.  We haven’t left.

Cait takes daily walks along the ocean to clear her mind and revitalize her spirits. I wrote a book about Burning Man, the annual counter-culture extravaganza in the Nevada desert, and dedicated it to Cait, “who gets me to all places.”  

During the Long Siege, she got me to accompany her to the beach. It didn’t take long to get hooked.

Over the winter, I worked my way through Annals of the Former World, 800 pages about global geology. An unlikely subject to hold my interest were it not written by John McPhee, our generation’s acknowledged master of non-fiction. His explanations of how the planet continuously forms and collapses blew my mind.

My excitement carried over to our beach walks. I’d point out configurations in the sand I recognized from his descriptions: ‘that’s the Mississippi delta taking shape, there’s the Great Salt Lake, this will become the Rockies.’  Which would prompt random, odd-ball questions about dune grass or wave patterns or washed up horseshoe crabs. 

I’ve spent a career as a journalist mostly to satisfy my personal curiosity. The job gives you license to ask questions that in polite contexts would be aggressive interrogation. There’s nothing else I’d rather do.  

The ‘ah-ha’ light that ignites when I have a creative inspiration started flashing:  it was signaling me to ‘report’ on the beach.  

My idea was to take walks with experts in various specialties and engage in free-form conversations centering on their expertise. I presumed there must be lots of readers, habitués or first-time visitors to the Delaware coast, as eager as I am to learn more about what is happening at the beach.

I pitched the concept to the editors of the Cape Gazette. They shared my enthusiasm and proposed a regular report in their special seasonal editions. So, voilá, here we go.  

Over the summer, I’ll be conversing with a wide range of folks.  There will be various marine science faculty types from the University of Delaware.  And a fellow recognized as the ‘number one sand guy’ on the east coast.  And the former executive director of the Lewes Historical Society who talks about Cape Henlopen as the ‘great meeting place’ en route to Philadelphia. And an celebrated painter who will share his perspective as an artist. An environmentalist.  A ship pilot.  An  ‘old salt’ who’s been walking the beach for decades.  Maybe a wetlands expert.  Or a member of the Nanticoke nation that frequented these beaches long before the first Europeans. 

Possibilities are wide open.  Indeed, readers are more than welcome to suggest sources they’d like to hear from. 

I’ve come late to appreciate what locals have long understood.  We are living in the presence of a phenomenon of cosmic proportion.  The on-going evolution of our planet and its life forms is occurring at our doorstep.  Grain of sand by grain of sand.

  • Neil Shister, a lifelong journalist who has reported for national publications, has lived part time in Lewes since 2009. He is the author of “Living Lewes,” “Revealing Rehoboth” and most recently, “Radical Ritual: How Burning Man Changed the World.” 

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