Southern Rhode Island is wet. For being the smallest state, it is perhaps one of the wettest. The land-mass of the state is only about 50 miles from north to south, and 30 miles east to west, or about 1500 square miles of which 500 is water. The state has 410 miles of land that is bounded by the salt waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Closely adjacent to this coastline, with all of its bays and coves, is a network of salt-water ponds and marshes that harbor a diverse flora and fauna, including the notorious, pesky mosquito. All of this surface water contributes to a microclimate that is known for its high humidity. Fog is a common phenomenon in the coastal area as is heavy dew. Waking up to an early thick morning fog, sometimes called “thick as pea soup”, is not unusual. For those hoping to go to the beach on such days, the rallying prediction frequently heard was “it will burn off by noontime”, and most usually it did.
To live on the Atlantic coast is to be exposed to both the tumultuous and erratic patterns of the ocean and the stagnant, constant presence of the swamps and the saltwater ponds. There were days when you would walk out onto the sandy beach and encounter the ocean to be so calm that the mini-waves would realize their final destiny as a gentle ripple on the moist sand. At other times the waves would be so fierce they would gouge the sand from the beach leaving only rocks too big to be washed away. When this happened I was sure the beach, as I knew it, was gone forever. Somehow, it always returned in its magnificent splendor.
To walk on the hot, soft sand with bare feet was like walking on red-hot coals. If you didn’t keep moving you felt as though your feet were on fire. Many times the sand was so hot I had to run to the moist sand where the waves had washed over the sand cooling it to a temperature that was soothing to the bottoms of smoldering feet. The microclimate along the shoreline was very different from the mainland. Quite often you would drive to the beach from 5 – 10 miles inland where it would be stifling hot and arrive at the beach where you would be chilly. Ocean breezes would send shivers up your spine. One way of compensating for the chill of such a breeze was to lie down on the hot sand and pull it up against your body until you felt like you were back in your mother’s womb. As I lay there soaking in the ultraviolet rays of the sun, which will cause sun burn for the unprotected, or tan if Marsh with salt water inlet Salt water ponds with egrets you were out every day like I was, I could only tolerate so much exposure before I had to go immerse myself in the ocean. Others would soak up the sun until you imagined them to be parboiled.
The white sand of the beaches was a fascinating media. Each grain of sand was discernible to the naked eye when you let it sift through your fingers. Some grains were as white as quartz, which it probably was, while other grains were varying grades of brown to black. The white and light brown grains predominated giving the overall impression of being pure white, especially in the bright sunshine when the sand acted as a great reflector of the light. When you picked up a handful of dry sand, it seemed quite light, and so it wasn’t too surprising when there were strong gusts of wind to experience yourself being pelted by sand grains picked up and carried by the wind. Yet, when you picked up a handful of wet sand, it was as if it had been transformed into this heavy, pliable media. It was this latter quality that provided youngsters and oldsters the fun of creating sand castles with great moats filled with salt water that could be channeled from the waves as they surged towards the beach after cresting and crashing down onto the receding water of the preceding wave. The sand castles were meticulous engineering feats that sometimes became works of fine art as they were adorned with bits of seaweed carefully placed and a textured stucco created by drooling a wet, soupy sand on the castle surface. The final ecstasy was to see the advancing tide eventually wash over the castle or if the tide was ebbing, to run through it and smash it before some big kids would come along and do it for you. The ultimate connection with the sand was to dig a very big, deep hole, sit in it and have someone push the sand around you until you were covered up to your chin. It was a total body experience that left you feeling very vulnerable, not being able to move any part of your body except to wiggle your nose or blink your eyes.
The most fascinating and daunting experience facing every beach participant is the entry into the generally “frigid” salt water that was continually washing onto the shoreline. It did make some difference whether it was early or late summer. But even in late summer, it either took preparing oneself mentally, going in gradually, or a spontaneous decision to run and plunge in. I have discovered over time an inverse relation between my age and the frequency of spontaneous immersions. The higher the air temperature, the colder the water seemed when contemplating the big plunge.
This was the place where I first learned to walk, where I was as comfortable in the water as I was on land. It was my initial image and experience of planet earth.