Notes from the Shore
If we look at anything long enough, with enough attention and persistence, we are apt to see ourselves. Jennifer Ackerman's Notes from the Shore is a book of essays describing her forays along the Delaware shore at Cape Henlopen; through her eyes we see an immense variety of living things formed and shaped by such forces as the action of waves and the upheavals of geologic time, and yet the book is also a self-portrait. The author casts the wide net of her attention over horseshoe crabs and shorebirds, whales and mosquitoes, and as the net is drawn in, the gift of her writing is not the ordered nature of science but a more personal account of discovery and contemplation. "It's in our nature to see order," she writes, "and when we don't see it, to try to impose it. We have to put things through our minds to make sense of them, and our minds crave pattern and order. So maybe what we glimpse is only what we desire. . . ."
Ackerman's glimpses of the Delaware shore are full of the kind of fascinating detail that makes good nature writing as engaging as any fiction. And her insights lead us to see more deeply into this land's-end habitat than we might by traversing it alone. I've seen fish at my feet before, for example, but I'd never heard them. "As the sea travels over the ribbed bottom of the flats," Ackerman observes, "fish move in from the deep, dissolving in and out of sight around my feet. Though they seem mute, they are not. They fill the waters with belches and cries, calls of courtship, alarm, aggression, and fright. A researcher . . . once auditioned every species of North Atlantic coastal fish she could collect and found that they thump, cluck, croak, bark, rasp, hiss, growl, swish, spit, scratch, and quack. Eels bubble and thud. Herrings signal in soft chirps. Sea robins squawk, toadfish grunt, and striped bass utter an 'unk.'"
Although there is a mass of information in these pages, Ackerman is more interested in stories and scenes than in data. She takes us, flashlight in hand, to a moonlit beach to watch the annual coupling of horseshoe crabs.
"Each female lays thousands of eggs in several nests," she notes, and uses the scene to sketch in the evolution and ecology of these ancient creatures; to digress on the migration of shorebirds that feed on their carcasses after a storm; and to speculate with Saint Thomas Aquinas on the nature of angels' time as having a beginning but no end — "This notion might hold for the way horseshoe crabs occupy time, these creatures so durable that they antedate most other life-forms, so adaptable that their survival as a species may, for all we know, approach eternity."
The speculation is more intriguing in light of the number and variety of species that gorge themselves on the horseshoe crab's eggs. Migratory sanderlings, before a 2,000-mile flight to their own Arctic breeding grounds, eat about 9,000 a day for two or three weeks. Ten other species of shorebirds feed on them, Ackerman tells us, "along with sparrows, mourning doves, cowbirds, common grackles, pigeons, and three kinds of gulls. Turtles prey on them, and mice; so does the raccoon, who steals down through the dune grass to dig them up. Eggs caught in the receding waters of the tide are snatched up by crabs, eels and minnows. Mollusks scavenge those that drop to the bottom. Nematode worms parasitize the egg clusters. The loss is enormous, but somehow [the horseshoe crabs] keep ahead of the slaughter."
Notes from the Shore includes musings on crumbling lighthouses, shipwrecks and herculean government projects to build seawalls or drain mosquito-breeding salt marshes with ruler-straight ditches. Ackerman also touches on the effect of contemporary problems — toxic wastes, global warming and shoreline erosion — on her habitat. There are personal notes, too; the family memories and feelings that shape an observer's perspective. If "what we glimpse is only what we desire," Ackerman proves herself an observer with a very open mind and heart.
Paul Trachtman is a writer based in rural New Mexico.