Last week, I traveled to the outer Cape for a work venture. I had a lecture to give at 10am Thursday morning, and several hours to myself the evening before. Arriving in Orleans around two in the afternoon, I stopped at Rock Harbor Beach to pass the time until I could check into my motel.
For much of the year, winter specifically, which sometimes seems to last six months here, I get a lot of good-natured ridicule from friends living in warmer regions of the country. “Why stay there? No one likes winter up there. They just say they do,” they say. “You could live here, in southern California/South Carolina/New Mexico/etc. and visit New England when it’s nice.” This is out of the question for me. Born and bred here, I don’t stay out of habit, or inertia, but out of love. New England’s weather is sometimes cantankerous, cross-grained and ornery. But when it’s good, it’s very nearly perfect.
On Rock Harbor Beach, everything was all golden sunlight with a brisk wind. I walked a quarter mile down from the parking lot until I saw no one else. I don’t sit still often as it does not come naturally to me, but on my own, with no children to entertain and no one to talk to, I settled into the side of a small dune to watch the gulls.
They weren’t doing much, just standing or sitting, arrayed in their phalanx with their faces into the wind. Some were sleeping, some staring at their feet for several seconds at a time. Occasionally, a new arrival would glide in and drop soundlessly into an open patch of sand. Occasionally, there would be a squabble for it. Back in July, I was out working in a gull colony on Appledore Island in Maine. These birds are not stupid, and my threatening, alert presence in the colony, racing around catching chicks and taking their blood, was unsettling to them as a jackal in the nursery. I took hits to the head, and was repeatedly bombed with feces. But when the chicks are fledged and have moved on, the parents move on from the island too and now these birds were tolerant of my close presence, my downcast eyes and posture of slouching indifference.
A couple days before, my biology students had taken an exam on evolution and natural selection. I noted a common theme in many of their answers–they took “survival of the fittest” and the Darwinian struggle for existence to mean the biggest, baddest organism always wins. In their minds, evolution was all clashing antlers and broad-shouldered males grappling for dominance in a spectacular show. I thought of how I might convey to them that survival and reproduction, the only parameters that matter to natural selection, are often dictated by something silent and invisible. Sitting and watching the gulls doing nothing at all, or subtly jockeying for position, is watching it unfold. Somewhere, in the dark gonads deep in the body cavity of each gull, cells divide, the replicating mechanism makes small errors, and some are not corrected. Cells that will form next year’s chicks are altered from the parent, and the alteration will hurt, or be fatal, or do nothing at all, or confer a tiny advantage. All this wondrous machinery ticks over invisibly.
As I walked back, the sun was behind me, warming my back under my fleece jacket like a pelt of brown fur. It’s not that this kind of perfect warmth can’t be had any other way; the sensation is the same as sitting close by a wood fire. But by a fire in winter, to feel that same warmth on your back, you have to turn from the light and out at the wan daylight, or, more likely, the long dark that overtakes most of the hours. Right now, this time of year here, the sun is still both warm and bright, slant-angled in its decline and beginning its withdrawal, but still high enough. It is the most beautiful place on Earth, I think, New England at this time of year. I admit, I feel the nervous bracing in myself, looking into the wide maw of winter on the other side of this, but winter has its spare pleasures too. And while maybe it’s true that the mere word February strikes a chord of weariness in me, the deep gratitude I feel when the first wood frogs begin quacking in the icy pools in early spring is an exquisite pleasure that cannot be bought any other way, and one I would not trade it for a whole grove of lemon trees in the backyard.