The Will of Water

The sea changes before the sky. White caps explode throughout the water, leaving the ocean a churning mess of gray and brown. Birds have long since departed. The current is willpower embodied. Next, the air comes to life, like a breath held and all at once released with a seemingly infinite surge of power; the winds come from all directions, some hot, others cold, all entangled in a swarm of sand blasting this way and that. At last, the clouds begin to roll in. Their bulging bodies swollen with rain, they hang heavy and ripe as they encase the sky.

Video: a break in the storm, following the initial downpour. Plumes of rain can still be seen feeding into the sea.

Fat drops pummel the windows in splatters and streams as I make my way outside. Pellets of rain sting my skin and make a sound like static, that soon evolves into white noise as one mass of water merges with another. The distinction between ocean and sky is warped as I ease myself into the waves. I am tugged, elbowed, and punched by the sea, but it is a welcomed relief from the storm infused rain that seems to try with all its might to shred and bruise my skin.

Water on water on water on water, the crashing, kicking, stomping screams “CHSSSSHHH!!SSCCCHHH!CCHHCHHSSSHHHH!!!” I plunge myself into the growing crescent of a passing wave—quiet washes over me. The contrast is so severe, at first, I hear nothing. Gradually, the muted rumble of waves and soft pitter-pat of rain reaches my ear; beneath them both, the tinkling of shattered shells and smooth stones dancing together on the ocean floor. I remain. Light. Peaceful. Until, the grip of necessity clasps my lungs and I am forced to emerge. 

The clamor surfaces along with my head, this time accompanied my a long groan that turns to a rolling roar as I listen. Submitting to the rule of thumb—if you can hear thunder, you can be struck by lightning—I stumble out of the raging sea, pushed along by a scattering of waves. My swim may be short lived, but I prefer that to the conception of death. 

Trudging through the storm, I hear the ocean throw itself against sandbags stacked eight feet high, angered by its confinement and eager to break free. When my neighborhood was erected in the early 80’s, no such barricades were required to keep homes safe from the water. They stood a reasonably safe distance of 50 yards from the sea, with precautionary dunes that grew with every passing year. Even I can recall in my younger years when the dunes rose so high I was unable to see the beach from my second story window. But in the past five years, erosion has grown increasingly worse, aided by the hasty dredging of marine vessels and the fact that sand was taken from in front of our home in order to fill sandbags that would be placed further south. 

Of course, with a house on the island, no one is truly safe, no matter how far the ocean may seem. Even if it isn’t the waves that rip through your home, a storm’s reach is lengthened by vicious winds and downpours. Many say we were foolish to have bought land here; they do not know what it was before, nor do they understand how quickly nature can change.

A Closer Look, a Broader View

The beach can be treacherous, not only for the temperamental nature of the ocean, but for the earth as well. Left to bake under a sweltering summer sun, the sand becomes scalding, ready to burn any unsuspecting feat not sheathed in a shoe. But even worse is where I’ve found myself now…

The jagged remains of scorched mussel shells protrude from a spongey deposit of ocean bred peat that spans for several yards over the base of the inlet. The charcoal colored earth has the shape of something oozing and the smell of something dead. Alert as I am when stepping onto the slick surface, needles of shell still prick at my feet; the smallest shards are impossible to escape, but the larger ones, at least, can be narrowly avoided. I tiptoe around them with the upmost care, stopping only briefly to admire their pearly interiors that glisten among the muck.

Image: scorched mussel shell

Dull ground at last meets my skin as I come to a shallow carpeting of water. Only several inches deep, the ground is easily perceived. It is similar to that which came before, but rather than mussel fragments, this earth is riddled with an onslaught of circle-like splotches. A closer look reveals them to be shells—shells which, elsewhere, would be colored shades of red, orange, white, and cream, but here conform to the same murky gray that is everything in sight.

For a time, the shells do nothing. Or, rather, they appear to do nothing. I crouch down to analyze one nearest me. After a moment, it works. I stand back up to stare down the whole lot, until they are no longer so still as the water they inhabit. Their movement is painfully slow, easy to overlook or pass off as the result of some steady current that does not exist. But once you’re able to understand one as a mobile being, bit by bit they all come to life. I scan the water for a particularly large specimen when my eyes land on (what I imagine to be, beneath the grime) the shell of a banded tulip snail, since departed. Reaching towards it, my hands touch a soft and slimy surface. I feel a rapid movement shoot through the shell as I turn it over and bring it close to my face. 

Image: previous shell of a tulip snail, current shell of a green striped hermit crab

Three legs and one claw of a green banded hermit crab remain visible outside its home. The tip of my finger nudges a single limb and they all retract with a “shwp” sound and one swift movement. Unlike the tulip snail, this crab does not possess operculum on the base of its foot, which would provide a sort of door to its dwelling. Instead, it must rely its ability to condense into virtual nonexistence while retracted in its shell. 

I consider the hermit crab’s reliance on another species, the fact that it could not have evolved as it has, if not for the existence of sea snails and their homes. Though we consider ourselves independent and separate from the natural world that surrounds us, humans are much the same way. To exist is to depend upon the Earth from which our species was born; it is more than our home, it is our means of existence. 


Eight-Legged Friends

Shifting my hands and feet below the surface of soft white sand, warmed by the afternoon sun, I imagine myself as a crab, tucked safely beneath the ground. I allow the sensations of cool moisture and grainy infiltration to spread through the rest of my body. The sea oats brush together in the breeze. The ocean pulses a melodic beat. I turn my head to the side and feel the salty skin of my right cheek merge with specks of crumbled shell. The world is an expanse of sand, strewn with cockles and tufts of American beachgrass. I wait.

Two black ovals appear behind a mound of white. Before I can make out anything else, they are gone. Only to reappear once more a few seconds later. They linger long enough for me to follow them downwards—down two custard colored stocks, onto an armored chest, a hunk of claw, and one, two, three, four bristled legs, bent at ninety degree angles and ending in a point. The ghost crab peeks out of its burrow and shrinks back inside twice more before allowing its entire body to linger in the open. 

Confident in its relative safety, the crab scurries soundlessly across the sand. It seems to hover just above the earth as it moves, not disturbing a single grain, nor faltering over any sharp incline produced by a discarded can or stray rock. It makes its way several feet from its abode, freezes, and darts back underground. But I need only wait a few seconds for those two eyes—curious and kind and nearly always outweighed by a body of fear—to reemerge, survey the land, and vanish without a trace. 

This time, however, the crab stays hidden. As minutes pass by, I surmise that it must have escaped through the second entrance to its burrow, and resolve to find entertainment elsewhere. Pulling myself up, out of the sand, I spot what appears to be a second crab several yards down the beach. Its shell is darker than that of a ghost crab and it stands impeccably still. With every step I expect it to scuttle away, into the ocean or sand, but it remains. I start to wonder if it might be dead, and, if so, why it does not currently sit digesting in the stomach of a gull.

Eventually, I am close enough to observe that the creature is not, in fact, a crab at all—it’s a spider. Its long legs and swollen abdomen draw me closer. This spider would barely fit in the palm of my hand. Pulling my phone from my pocket, I intend to document the unusual sight of a spider sun bathing on the beach. However, as I bring my camera into focus, I realize—it is not just one spider, it is many; a wolf spider with dozens of babies clasped to her back. This is the only breed of arachnid that not only keeps her fragile egg sack fastened to her back, but also tends to her babies until they are grown enough to hunt down prey on their own.

Video: wolf spider carrying a clutter of baby spiders on its back

I am amazed by how tiny the spiderlings’ bodies are compared to that of their mother, and I am amazed also by the blog posts I come across which are labeled by titles such as “This Horrifying Spider Is The Only One That Carries Her Babies Like a Human Mother Would” then refer to the mother wolf spider as a “hairy bastard.” Why even bother to write a post about spiders if you cannot appreciate their delicate bodies, their elegant strides, and, in this case in particular, their admirable instincts to care for their young? Far too many posts about wolf spiders center around them being squashed or screamed over, with comments often pleading that the spider be taken care of with a flame thrower, rather than a shoe.

I understand that everyone has their irrational fears, but why has a spider, visually similar to a crab (minus the claws) and free from any life threatening venom, come to be the bearer of so much hate?


Tip of the Island

Protected from the destructive hand of human development, the northern most tip of North Topsail Beach teams with life. I find myself here—beyond the beach driving limit, across the jagged, shell encrusted marsh, through the barricade of sun bleached and sea beaten trees, uprooted and deposited by the inlet’s northbound tide—among an entanglement of life. Bunches of live oaks and pond pines glob together, their trunks rendered nonexistent by American beach grass and seaside goldenrod, while brown pelicans bob on the water, American herring gulls peck at the shore, and bottlenose dolphins make fine substitutes for waves. 

What would be considered beach spans only a few feet wide, the rest consumed by a thicket of greenery. I stick to the barren sand, tiptoeing between the ocean’s drop off to my right and bur infested field to my left. The walk is beautiful, if precarious, and made even more so as I come to the realization that, for all the many breeds of plant that rule the north end, beach vitex is not among them. So prevalent is it across the developed portions of Topsail, that I have to wonder if its absence is a fluke; but, it is no coincidence that this single portion of “uninhabited” beach is free from more than one invasive species.

Rounding a corner, my ears prick up. Eerie sounds of scratching and scuttling scrape tenderly against my ear as I bend down to inspect a tufted web of sturdy green. My eyes meet the source of the sound and watch while sand fiddler crabs sift between stalks of salt-meadow cordgrass. They are easily distinguished by their square bodies, as well as the stains of vibrant purple, like accidental tie-dye, that bloom across their backs, mingling with shades of golden brown and placid white. And, as if that weren’t enough, every male lugs about an oversized claw, small if found detached and separated from its owner, but massive when compared to the fiddler crab’s inch long body.

Image: a cast of sand fiddler crabs by the ocean

Left behind by one crab among the cast, I pick a lone claw from among the grass. Although typically used only for show when finding a mate, male fiddler crabs will occasionally fight one another for a spouse, willing to lose an arm and a leg in the process (literally). Of course, there could be any number of reasons why this claw in particular sits clasped between my fingers and not joined to its owner; perhaps the crab died, and the gull lucky enough to claim its flesh was full before it could finish the job (unlikely—their hunger is never satiated). If it’s alive, however, it need not worry for long. In the event that a fiddler crab loses its dominant claw, its lesser appendage will grow to the size of its brother, while the missing claw reforms as a new minor claw.

The sound of needle-like legs against grainy sand has faded by the time I restore the claw to its resting place—to be found by bug or bird or sea, and slowly returned to the nothing and everything from which it came. 


The Drop-Off

Muffled sirens and muffled footsteps. I wake to the excitement of a new rescue mission. All forces the island can muster are racing down the street in a flurry of sand—one ambulance and a single cop car. Their screeching sends my cousins and younger brother into a mad dash for binoculars while my mother stands at the edge of our porch, three floors up, squinting towards the sea. 

When I arrive, the binoculars have been found and several people have pointed out the speck of flesh bobbing up and down in the water: there and gone, there and gone. We take turns ogling with the binoculars as a jet-ski is pushed from beach to water, mounted by someone in a luminous orange vest, blinding in the sun. I watch a string of water spit out the vehicle’s back end, first high, then lower, lower, lower, until it’s gone and the drowning man is reached. He is heaved onto the jet-ski with apparent difficulty, and my cousin yowls, “oh god! He lost his trunks!” He presses his hands against his eyes as others clamber towards the newly discarded binoculars. “I will not be able to unsee that…”

A common source of excitement on the island, instances of near death and frequent rescue happen at least once a week. But, not all missions end in amusement. The crosses that litter the dunes—some dated, some inscribed with a name, others bearing cloth petals arranged in a ring—attest to the lives lost at sea. This sea. I watch as it sprawls out along the sun soaked sand, lazily ebbing in the morning breeze. Looking out along the drop-off, where the ground is too deep to warrant the breaking of waves, it seems even more amazing that something so seemingly gentle could snatch a life, a dozen, a hundred, without giving the matter a second of thought.

Image: a cross, left as a memorial to a victim of drowning

Demoted to faux memories and cautionary tales, townsfolk often speak of the cocky marines who have tested their strength against the waters (and failed), or of the father who attempted to rescue his son (“just four years old, what a pity”), only to leave his wife with two coffins to buy. The ocean is never to be taken lightly, but here most of all, swimmers must exercise caution. Signs posted at the public beach entrance next to my home warn of strong currents and deep waters, but the illusion of calm is a deadly temptation. Many do not realize how desperately their feet rely on sand to keep them grounded in one place, rather than tossed among the waves. And few realize how quickly the currents can change; a strip of water, placid one minute, can become entirely too vicious the next.

I know this, and yet it is difficult, floating on the water at low tide, knowing ground awaits mere inches below, to imagine the ocean ever taking me. It is an old friend, one I claim to know well, but the sea is a force of chaotic neutral: it will hug me tight and eat me whole.

Image: the drop-off

A Vicious Invader

Smooth, round disks of leaf nestle in bunches by the shore. Their slight silver tinge abounds across miles of beach, the vines hugging tightly to the sand below. Bumblebees are drawn to their buds, tickle the soft purple petals, emerge with puffy legs dusted in pollen. When split open a smell like licorice and mint leaves caresses the air. By all accounts, Beach Vitex ought to be welcome on North Topsail Beach. But this is merely a tourist’s fantasy; a facade of Summer that is only skin deep.

Image: Beach Vitex and Bumblebee in Summer

Of course, tourists have not been the only ones fooled by the appeasing look of Beach Vitex as it rustles unassumingly in the warm, salty breeze. Introduced to the East Coast in the mid to late eighties, the deciduous vine was brought from Asia to be utilized for both aesthetic and environmental purposes. With its rolling branches, pastel colors, delicate flowers, and sweet smelling bark, it was quick to win the hearts of many. So quickly, in fact, that apparently no research was done into the actual nature of the plant.

Thought to be the perfect candidate for limiting erosion, Beach Vitex was considered an alternative to native species, whose root systems have long kept sand from being drawn out to sea or blown halfway across the world. Unfortunately, no mind was paid to the fact that Beach Vitex enters more than a dormant state following the Summer months. During this period, it essentially dies—not only losing its buds and leaves, but its roots as well. Every Winter, they retract, poking out through shallow sand, leaving the deeper levels barren and the area overall vulnerable to erosion.

Image: Beach Vitex in Winter

Were additional root systems to exist in areas where Beach Vitex prevails, this would not be such a devastating issue; however, the species has been found over the years to cause “intense substrate hydrophobicity that persists for several years” following its removal. Essentially this means that the sand surrounding Beach Vitex becomes repellant towards water, thus depleting the area of resources needed to sustain additional plant life. As a result, American Beach Grass withered, Sea Oats withdrew, and all aside from the occasional cluster of Pond Pines was ultimately choked out—paving the way for erosion galore.

Image: Example of Beach Erosion

As of February 1st, 2009, the Beach Vitex was officially added to the North Carolina Noxious Weed List. Not only can the species no longer be sold or maintained, it is also required by law that all known populations be reported to the official Beach Vitex Task Force. What was once a highly sought after plant, thought to be the answer to all coastal needs, has become a fugitive—breaking the law by merely taking root. Conversely, according to North Carolina state law, it is “unlawful to dig up, pull up, or take from the land of another or from any public domain the whole or any part of any Sea Oats,” without the approval of a special request.

Image: a mixture of Sea Oats and Beach Vitex, competing on the dunes.

Once thought to be the ugly, itchy, straw colored predecessor to the new age Beach Vitex, Sea Oats are now proclaimed saviors of the land. With their extensive root systems, resistance to drought, and generally robust nature, they implore humans to see beyond artificial  conceptions of beauty, and focus instead on deeper levels of understanding.


Washed Up

I’ve trapped the power of the sun beneath my skin, feel it radiating off my shoulders and sticking to my cheeks in patches of blotchy pink blooms. It has kept me warm through the night, but will soon reveal its true master as black fades from the sky. Announcing the approaching sun, the horizon bleeds a radiant red. Streaks of gold, orange, and salmon stream above the ocean, illuminate the clouds, dissolve into blue while the fiery blaze begins to rise. As its rays intensify, they meet my skin with burning resolve; a hot, stretched, prickling sensation digs its nails into my shoulders and face. I cover them in a beach towel and feel immediate relief, though the fabric against my burns causes problems of its own.

Image: Sunrise on the Beach

I remain outside, parted from the soothing cool of air conditioning and aloe, determined to make the most of this dawning moment—when shells are ripe for the picking, washed up overnight and turned visible by day. Some of my most precious shells have been found just as daylight breeches this sliver of planet called Topsail Beach. But before I can continue my journey, I must leave my phone behind; there are waters to be tread before finding the best locations, and I am not willing to risk the safety of my device.

Pushing through the oncoming currents, I reach a part of the beach best known for its shell deposits. There, I find treasure troves of countless Cockles, even more Arcs, Netted Olives, Keyhole Limpets, Periwinkles, Turkey Wings, Coquinas, Cat’s Paws, Angled Wentletrap, Scallops, Clams, Angel Wings, Atlantic Lady Slippers, Bittersweets, Eastern Oysters, Cross Barred and Imperial Venuses, Turrets, and even the shell of a banded tulip snail. I scour the sand for pearly glints, shades of red, yellow, orange, purple, and pink—like a sunset made solid and scattered through the beach.

Image: Shells I’ve collected

Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse a vibrant blue. But I am more experienced than to fall for such a trick; any extreme blues almost surely mean plastic, and I will not go out of my way to be met with a Mounds candy wrapper. I am given pause, however, when I see that same blue repeated once, twice… Looking up from my feet to scan the beach I find, to my surprise, a scattering of cerulean disks, increasing in numbers as one after the other floats from sea to land.

Taking a closer look, the disks appear like some flattened jellyfish, with a silver coin set in gooey blue gel, and translucent tentacles sprawled out over the sand like a child’s depiction of the sun’s shining rays. Later this evening I will learn that, despite its common name of “Blue Button Jelly,” the Porpita Porpita is not a jellyfish at all. Rather, each is its own colony of individual polyps, linked together and serving unique functions to keep the mass a functional unit. Kept afloat by a gas filled chamber that makes up the majority of their unified body, Blue Buttons drift aimlessly along the tips of waves, their destinations completely determined by the elements that engulf them.

Image: a Blue Button Jellyfish washed up on shore. The photo is not mine, but is the closest I could find to what I saw. Credit:

I wish now that I had risked my iPhone plunging headfirst into the sea so that I might snap a shot of the blue dotted sand and colonial hydrozoan that seem a hybrid between some elegant alien and a sweet gummy snack. Thinking that I might bring one back to be photographed later, I dig my fingers beneath the sand and scoop up a mound that has, perched on its back, a perfect Porpita. But, departed from its resting place, it soon begins to crumble. I know that by the time I could return, the Blue Buttons would be made ghosts by the rising tide; so, I collect my shells, take one final glimpse, and begin my trek back home.


Carolina Seashells, by Nancy Rhyne

Southeastern and Caribbean Seashores, by Eugene Kaplan

A Dark Night

Night consumes me—starless and black. There are no lights in the ocean, no lights in the sky, nothing to distinguish earth from water, water from air. All visual barriers have become obsolete. The horizon has vanished, leaving behind a boundless black sea, an infinite black sky. I hear the waves wrestle, feel their pulse in the ground as they crash and recede, know the ocean will greet me if I take one step more… And yet, I feel as though I could walk for miles, up into the void, higher and higher, without my feet ever leaving the sand. 

My dreaming has seized my logic; my legs react as if teetering on the edge of existence. A fear of falling—of being abandoned by my surroundings, of flailing hopelessly in a world of nothing—forces me to stumble forward. Wrenching me from my anxieties and thrusting me into the reality of pain, the sensation of sharpness shoots through my leg as I recoil from a perfectly angled slice of shell. My hand finds the sole of my foot, follows the ache, feels for traces of something warm and wet. Finding nothing, I shuffle tentatively back towards civilization.

The glaring light pierces my vision as I round a corner. Shielding my eyes, it takes me a moment to make out the road I know to be sprawled out before me. After a few blinks, I make it out: a beacon of grating light and cracked asphalt. The walk home will be less perilous from here.

Past the signs that warn of swift currents, past the lumps of beach that have invaded the road, past the cattails, past the pond, I come to the complex called “Topsail Reef.” The parking lot is littered with more cats than cars. Tabbies and calicos laze in the open, comforted by the safety of dim light and late hours. They sniff at the dumpsters, weave between wheels, lick at their hides, then freeze. I see every ear raise, every eye widen; they scatter like a fist full of rocks flung at the pavement the moment they see me coming. And in less than a second, it’s as though they’d never existed.

Image: Signs posted by the vehicle entrance onto the beach

Feral cats were not an original element of the island’s ecosystem. They were brought by people hoping to be rid of snakes and of mice, or perhaps just people who thought it’d be nice to have an outdoor cat to terrorize the gulls. Whatever the reason, they’re here now—and, they’ve multiplied. In 1995 the colonies became notable enough to warrant the foundation of Operation Topcat, a non-profit made up of Topsail residents who “trap, neuter, and return” feral cats across the beach, in hopes of severing their means of reproduction.

My twang of guilt ebbs. Had I not scared off the cats myself, they’d be fleeing now; a dog trots down the road and heads directly for me. Its demeanor is so friendly and it approaches with such pep that it takes me a moment to realize the dog is, in fact, a coyote. A surge of excitement fills my chest as I watch the native predator diminish our distance. I expect at any moment for it to dash into the bushes, or freeze while several feet back, but it keeps coming. My heart races and, before I can decide whether I’m incredibly lucky or incredibly unlucky, the coyote is at my heals, sniffing at my shoes. In that moment, magic was real. I wait for it to look up at me with glowing gold eyes, to speak in a rumbling song, to walk towards the brush with a single glance back, showing in its face that I ought to follow suit. And I would. I would follow that coyote to the ends of the earth.

Instead, what I get is, “hey! You okay?” I jump as my body swivels to meet the sound—simultaneously shrill and deep. I see a man beneath a porch light, and quickly redirect my attention to the destiny-fulfilling creature before me. But it’s already scurrying off into tightly packed bushes I could not hope to penetrate.

“Boy, sure is the biggest fox I’ve ever seen!” the man blurts.

“Oh? I thought it was a coyote.” It was a coyote.

“Nah, I should know—hunted plenty of foxes in my time.” Oh, great, Mr. White-Man, the expert, here to teach me what a great learning tool violence can be. “You need a ride somewhere?”

“Uh, no. I live just down there.” I gesture towards my house.

“Alright then, just be careful.” My eyes roll internally as I thank him and say goodnight. Luckily, despite the man’s best efforts, an essence of extraordinary still tingles in my fingertips. I turn my head skywards and see that the clouds have begun to part. Moonlight follows me all the way home.

Image: Moonlight on the sea


Camp Lejeune

Without the sun’s rays to warm the night sky, whirling winter winds tumble into me from all sides—shooting directly through three layers of clothing, and meeting my flesh like a thousand pins and needles. Hair cuts across my face, blasting upwards and down, as I watch one. Then two. Then three, then four. Then five,six,and,seven orbs of red light materialize over Camp Lejeune. There is nothing to trace them back to the ground; no bright fizzy tail that accompanies fireworks to their ends, no visible trail of smoke left to fume in the eerie dark, no story of ascension to fill the gap between void and existence. They simply appear—like stars after a setting sun—stagnant and bright.

Image: Camp Lejeune by Day

Located on a forested beach spanning 14 miles long, the marine corps base is relatively unassuming by day. But by night, cloaked in shadow, collecting fog, silent beneath the balls of light suspended in mid-air, Camp Lejeune becomes a harbor of imagination. In an instant, the military grade flares transform into interstellar UFOs, hovering over the island to… collect human specimens? No; steal technology? No; enact a deal? Yes. The government has sold us out to an advanced species of extraterrestrials. They’ll be stowed away on the opposite end of the galaxy while the remainder of humanity is enslaved, prodded, or exterminated without a second thought.

In reality, I need not fear waking up to a man in black wiping my memories and deleting this file, but history has proven that, while aliens may not be involved, Camp Lejeune is far from being a benign force. According to a survey conducted on December 11th, 1980: the radioactive corpses of two canines were found buried on site. When soil and water samples taken from the location were confirmed to be contaminated with traces of radiation, as well as much higher levels of industrial solvents, benzene, and similar chemicals, the scandal resulted in the unearthing of a number of unsafe disposal practices, dating back to 1950. 

Such news might have mattered only to the marines living on the base, if the ocean’s reach were not so far. But water is expansive. The water molecules that make up a hundred raindrops from the same rain cloud will all embark on separate journeys, miles away from their brief unity. As a result, the victims of Camp Lejeune’s water crisis were widespread, suffering from a surge in birth deformities, miscarriages, nephrotoxicity, and 8 different forms of cancer. It was not until 1987 that the waters were properly managed.

Since that incident several decades ago, civilians have forgotten what the marine corps has done to our waters. What they still do. They are known instead for the “fwump. fwump.” of shelling that rattles homes from across the bay; for the tank-like boats that drill through the sea, as casual as if they were a jet-ski; for the drone of helicopters that drowns out the waves; for the rigid, metal breed of osprey, that never ceases to disappoint when some infatuated tourist points up to the sky and calls, “look! An osprey!” The essence of combat has become commonplace, even here—among the salt, the sand, the gulls, the breeze.

I watch as the red lights fade to black. They, too, are but synapses of war.


Coming Home—To What Remains

When looking out over the parameter-defying sea, seasons are indistinguishable. Winter does not dull its color, sap its salt, make dormant its waves; the ocean is consistency in motion. The same cannot be said, however, for the would-be-greenery that is reduced to varying shades of grey and brown for a minimum of three months every year. I expected this much when returning to North Topsail Beach in late February; but, climbing over the ribbon of tar that stretches from Sneads Ferry to the island just East, I am met with a plethora of unforeseen change. 

Roofs of shingle and tile have been wiped clean off of homes, debris lines the main road, side-streets are buried beneath inches of sand, natural dunes are replaced by loose heaps of sand… As I drive over the seemingly endless stretch of New River Inlet Road, the damage caused by Hurricane Florence grows increasingly worse—until, at last I reach the Northern most tip of the island’s coast, and pull into the sand-logged drive of my home. 

I stop short of the garage, which has been demolished into a single wall and hazardous looking floor. The car door shuts behind me. I think I must have closed it. But my mind is too focused on this beacon of disaster to perceive anything else. The walls are stripped of their stucco, replaced by shivering sheets of plastic; splintered wood hangs from the building; I can see inside without the use of a window or doorway. 

Walk up the stairs. Enter the threshold without needing a key; the door is off its hinges. Sand coats the floors, sticks to any remaining wall, catches somehow between my teeth. The coastal breeze follows me no matter the room I enter.

Eager to escape the pitiful ambiance of my shredded home, I make my way downstairs, and drop down from the newly made ledge that has formed between the “ground level” of my house and the actual ground now inches below. I pass what was once a spiral staircase, its metal now warped and jagged, sticking out at odd angles, looking like the mangled bones of months-old road kill, left to be picked over by flies and bleached by the sun. My feet guide me to the shore, move robotically one after the other, in search of the typical sanctuary granted to me by a journey even father North—into the undeveloped regions of Topsail Beach.

Image: warped spiral staircase

After just a few minutes of walking, I am beyond the houses, but not beyond human interference. The ground crackles and pops as I watch a silver jeep pulverize shells into fragmented versions of themselves. The wide rubber tires are only speeding up the natural process by which sand is created, but the sound is unnatural, uncaring, unable to equate to the ancient handiwork of strong winds and choppy waves. Looking down, I cannot help but notice the sheer amount of debris that should not be here—not solely man-made, but natural as well: furry sea sponge, translucent seaweed, fractured segments of a horseshoe crab—elements of the sea that ought not grace land.

Image: Ocean Debris

I walk further. Past the driving limits. Past the bird sanctuary. Past the final littering of misplaced building components. Until I stand among a field of dead sea grass, broken trees, and icy, lifeless water. There is no escaping this storm.

Image: Broken Trees

With global warming to blame for hurricanes becoming more frequent and intense, the side effects of erosion have become increasingly apparent. A mile down the road from my house, at a complex called The Reef, is where it began. The ocean crept nearer, nearer, until it was not simply a creep but a thrashing demand to be seen. To prevent the tide from roaring beneath the buildings’ infrastructure, 20 feet worth of sandbags were stacked up tall in 2014, only for the rushing waters to escape under neighboring homes. One beach restoration project after the next called for more sandbags, more sandbags, more sandbags and nothing more. So the sea traveled with them, until a problem one mile South was suddenly (and literally) banging at my door.

There are now plans to install a terminal groin, should funding prevail. A Facebook group called “Save North End” holds out hope. I am a part of it. But the sea is on a new course. The winter cannot change it, and neither can we.