Wreck and I got acquainted within the first several days. We had ample chance to take one another's measure. To begin with, there are at every sand beach two routes a wanderer can choose from, since the high tides leave an upper shelf of jetsam that becomes in time a sort of storehouse for the world's imperishable refuse, and a lower line that is the thin, damp deposit of the receding waves. I alternated between them, depending on my mood. The upper beach was littered with basic symbols of man's modern life: electric light bulbs, milk and egg cartons, whiskey bottles—the remnants of things that seemed wonderfully unimportant from an island perspective. An international motif ran throughout: a crate stenciled with Japanese characters, a Spanish wine bottle, a woven mat from the Orient. There were giant timbers that seemed too heavy for even the ocean to lift. I found the body of a young bird, dry in the summer's heat, and remembered the assurance that not even a sparrow falls....
The lower beach was nearly barren. I came across an occasional evidence of subsurface life: a twisting ribbon of heaped sand or a tiny syphon hole. There were the scattered, surf-broken remains of calico crabs and spider crabs, and—rarely—a young blue crab. Yet I found nothing alive, aside from the birds that fed in the shallow wake of the waves. With their eyes I could have discerned the abundant life that attracted them. Without their eyes, however, I turned to gathering the limpet and razor-clam shells that life was done with.
I found at both ends of Wreck large natural deposits of oyster shells, reflecting the favorable environment that existed at some time in these inlets for oyster propagation. Also, the southern flats were rich in a selection of snails and whelks. Sand dollars, on the other hand, were almost exclusively at the northeast corner; and I discovered the delicate, translucent jingle shells in a section of the northern head no more than 100 feet wide.
The search for shells is much like eating popcorn, and I kept at it for several hours' running without a thought for anything but what the next yard or two of sand might yield. These fragile discards from the sea represent so well both the diversity and the continuity of nature that the collection of them is itself a kind of identification with the larger world where there is so much more than just oneself.
The beach directly in front of my camp was a phenomenal thing. I had seen nothing like it elsewhere on the Atlantic coast. It was a tidal flat similar to the flats of Maine which the sea will flood to a depth of several feet and then drain of everything but scattered algae-and-mussel-laden ponds in the magic six-hour cycle of the tides. However, in Maine these flats are inland from the open sea. The maze of coastal islands protects them. They are sheltered and soundlike.
The quarter mile at the southern end of Wreck, to the contrary, was directly on the open ocean. Nothing sheltered it short of the Azores. Yet at low tide a mucky table of sludge, sea grass and mussel shells reached at least 150 yards seaward from the high-water mark near my camp. Sweeping rivers of clean sand washed through it, forming ponds in their largest bends where the sun warmed the water that waited there for the tide's return. Birds fed here by the hundreds. The muck was alive with many sorts of sandworms building an array of minute towers and ridges. The calm, shallow water teemed with hermit crabs, scampering for food under shelter of an endless assortment of borrowed hiding places.
As the time arrived for my daily "swim" before lunch, the morning's explorations finished, I shed my shirt to sit waist-deep in these warm and healing shallow waters. It was a ritual, celebrated either at my doorstep if the tide was in or at the far edge of the flats when it was out. It will not seem a particularly robust practice to surfboarders, for instance. But then for once I did not have to give a second thought to what anyone would think. I was free to pursue an inclination as a man is seldom free, for Wreck was quite indifferent to my human whimsy. And in this case my inclination was to sit peacefully and undisturbed by anything but Frank, so soothed by the sea's waters that I was sometimes almost oblivious to him. I would remain in this state for perhaps 45 minutes.
Lunch was a little can of this or that, unheated, topped off with an orange or several cookies. There was never a better place or time for a nap. The middays of the whole week were beautiful. I would lie on the air mattress, shaded and cool and safe from the birds. From the distance of both Wreck's northern shore and the shoals of New Inlet I could hear the low, rhythmic beat of waves collapsing at the end of a journey that might have begun half an ocean away. They were not a part of the island. They did not belong to it like the birds and shells and grass did, or even as I was coming to belong. For we living things that were part of the little place had no defense against the sea. It came to affect us. We could hope only to endure. And there was always the chance it might flood the reef again before my week was done. I had planned no defense against such an emergency. There would then be nothing to do but leave my gear in its path and seek the security of the dunes to the north.
In the afternoon an hour's walk would do, usually for some undemanding chore such as the gathering of angel-wing shells or the examination of the patterns of the darker mineral sands across the light tan underlayer of quartz. It was an island schedule I kept, undisturbed by mainland concerns, which were so easily set aside in this raw world.
Supper was at an early 5:30, consisting of much the same subsistence fare that had been my lunch. With evening, the birds began to feed again in earnest, particularly if the tide was low. The black skimmers ripped the water with their lower beaks, sometimes as much as 50 feet at a run. The terns dived from their flight pattern high above the skimmers, hitting the sea for a flashing instant in the search for food. Someone must have been feeding Frank. He never took time off to fish. Dowitchers, willets, sandpipers and the numerous oyster catchers would turn up, sometimes in considerable numbers. The oyster catchers looked like stubby, preliminary models for the more graceful but similarly colored skimmers. Several times, at the distant edge of the flat, I could see a snowy egret, its identifying yellow feet vivid through my binoculars.