Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Something in the Air



            Something in the air. And in the light. And the water on the earth's surface following a downpour, a cleansing rain... changes -- everything.
            The ocean looked green and almost transparent. You could see through it right to the sand and stones at the bottom. As a rule you cannot see the ocean floor in Quincy Harbor, at any depth. Nor can you, for that matter, anywhere in the cold water of the North Atlantic. The semi-transparent water had a light green tint, influenced by darker hues as the ripples swayed. Lima green, I asked myself; or olive? More like the color of canned peas. Not the most inviting color, yet its translucence gave it that inviting quality that sometimes makes people feel they can live and breathe at the bottom of the sea. Until they find out differently.
            The change in water color and the startling purity arrived one noontime in the midst of several days of frontal weather. Downpours, followed by sudden breaks in the clouds. Golden light, warm air above, while dark unbroken clouds gather in another quarter of the sky. The rains were accompanied by strong tides pulled by the new moon. I saw the evidence of these tides in the wrack line. The sine curves of the dried seaweed marked their differing advances. Ah, I thought, water the color of seaweed.
            But the seaweed was dried and brown, and then I realized how strong was the smell. A pungent odor of sea and seashore that brought me back to all those rides to the beach when Mom would drive over a causeway on the way to the beach and we'd get the first whiff of sea-smell and she would exclaim, "Low tide!"
             Low tide was undesirable, the leavings of the sea smelled stronger then. Yet there was something stirring in that recognition, the familiarity of that unique smell: Yes, we Long Islanders have come back to the sea by the carful!
            (Later, I learn that the folks down the shore were complaining of a strong unbearably septic odor and blaming it on red tide. Not so, say the authorities, who attribute it to an algae.)
            But that wasn't all that looked (or smelled) strange and was somehow different this day from all the other days I have looked at the world from the very same point on the earth's surface at Wollaston Beach. The entire marsh area directly across the roadway from the beach -- the area I walk through time after time, week after week, every season of the year -- looked different. It was filled with water and the color had changed. I've seen it wet before but this time it looked like the ocean had poured through it while the heavens opened from above at the same time. The channels that wind through the marsh grass were rivers, or ponds; the water a gleaming pale blue, and the marsh grass itself flattened. The salt marsh is primarily a place of marsh grass (spartina patens and spartina alterniflora), two related grasses of different heights, both thick as a dog's hair, both ordinarily sticking straight up as porcupine quills. But both flat as a rug today.
            And the color was different. A reddish-brown, coppery tone drew the eye. Marsh grass is the color of winter hay until it greens up in summer. In the golden light of autumn, the dying grass gives off a beautiful red-golden shade. But what I saw wasn't that either; it was woody, and fiery.
            I realized finally it wasn't the grass I was seeing but the the marsh elder, a tall woody-stemmed wild shrub that drew the eye because it was the only thing standing up straight since the marsh grass had been flattened by the water. The mostly bare elder stems look brown up close, but life was in them and the strange, strong light bearing down on the flooded marsh sucked the life out of the stems and transformed their mass into copper.
            The more I looked at it, the more the beaten down but shining marsh, its gleaming waters, reflections everywhere, resembled a land newly emerged from a flood. A land where the waters were receding after the forty days.
            But that wasn't all. I turned back to the shore to look at the green see-through water, and the sky, so bright and cloudless above me, underwent a stark change far out on the horizon where the sea met the sky. It was dark and deep out there, purple thundercloud deep, an undifferentiated black cloud mass. The dark cloud covered only the last five percent of the sky perhaps, but it was as dark as superstorm doom. Painteresque. Something out of Turner or the Hudson School of insuperable nature painters.
            Directly above us on the shore, the ordinary traffic zooming by on the roadway, the sky remained clear and golden. Was that oceanic darkness a storm coming our way? But no movement appeared in the sky. All held steady; the impossible sky, the transformed earth, the green-glass ocean. Sunlight poured down, and I was warm, too warm for my sweater.
            I gazed on this most familiar of landscapes. Always the same, always different.