Sunday, May 30, 2010

The End of the World

Shrimp Town lies about two hours from the end of the world, as the car drives.

The long and slender liquid fingers that lace it 
stretch up from the flat palm of Broad Water.
The shrimp swim in and out, from the fingers to the palm
and sometimes into nets.

Down the road that leads through the trembling prairie 
(the old words for the marshes)
the land drops away and becomes a little less solid
and a little flatter; hugs the water more closely
with every turn of the tire

until eventually you feel that you've reached the very edge.

When you come here, 
you might feel alone,
just you and the shorebirds
or just you and the hermit crabs.

The shorebirds flick the drops of surf 
from their feet as they dance in the waves,
finding little water bugs to eat.
The hermit crabs are more languid:
 in the still waters of a tidal pool
herds move slowly like benevolent undead, 

And sometimes you might hear cries of children
as they dart into the sea, a little farther this time,
and watch their fathers cast their lines into the Broad Water.

I came here last September.
I volunteered for a cleanup at a public beach that had just opened,
and it was no skin off my back to help.
Though Shrimp Country has no shortage of water,
it hasn't very much sand.
(Instead the Broad Water runs its 
skinny fingers through cord grass and mud.)
So when I found this public beach I,
who grew up along the shore,
found a treasure.
I stayed long after the other beach cleaners
had returned to Shrimp Town or City Where the Water Bends,
just me and the shorebirds,
just me and the hermit crabs,
just me and the children darting to the sea.

My car, parked on wet sand, got stuck when the sand dried.
Two fishermen, who seemed to appear from the surf, came and pushed me out.

I came back in November, with a boy,
and we walked along the beach together
in the singular light of a fall evening.

The boy and I broke up in the winter.
Then it was spring, and I came back to the edge.
I walked from across the barrier island, from the bay
to the Broad Water, in about twenty minutes.

I stood at the end of the world.

And I thought about the fact that it wasn't just the edge of the world,
but the end of the world.

This was pastureland not so long ago,
in living memory.
And the places where people once stood to fish 
are washed away, too.

It's partly because the river has been diverted.
It used to flood its banks each year, spreading sediment out over the land.
It's partly because of the canals dug by those looking for black gold.
It's partly because no one thought the wetlands were worth anything.
The old maps call this expanse "Useless Land."

They say that a football field's worth of land is lost every half hour.
Since I moved to Shrimp Town nearly two years ago,
32,160 football fields have disappeared.

That's 42,451 acres,
or 66 square miles,
or three Manhattans.

You couldn't blame the residents of Shrimp Country for being a bit tetchy.
No one would let Manhattan sink into the Hudson three times over,
but no one seems to notice that this land is disappearing:
this trembling prairie
this paradise of shrimp and crabs and shorebirds
this home.

It's not Useless Land to them,
because it's full of all this life
and because it buffers them from hurricanes,
after each of which the rest of the country tells them they should move.
But they won't leave their home.

This is their life,
so the end of the marsh
is the end of the world.

When I came here, I thought I could play some part in saving it.
I cleaned a beach.

But then there was an explosion,
and the black gold in the Broad Water was lead.

Everything has been happening in slow motion since then.
There isn't much we can do.
There is five weeks' worth of oil in the water.
It has leached onto blades of cord grass
and the wings of dragonflies.

On Tuesday my beach was closed, guarded 
by spray paint on plywood and two National Guardsmen.

On Friday I drove over the river
from the City Where the Water Bends.
I was behind a National Guard convoy
and in the fading light of evening I saw a soldier
near the open back of the truck.
His hand rested on one bent knee,
and he was texting.

I worried for a minute about him being so close to the back of the truck,
and then I cried,
for the innocence and experience 
of a soldier who was younger than I;
for the passion of the wetlands and of these fellow people
who were so different from me when I came but who are now my neighbors;
from fear, from unknowing.
I pushed my eyes open through the tears
and drove across the bridge.

This fish washed up in September.
There was death before,
and there will be life after.
But now I am afraid.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


There is something so lovely about the soft light of home.

How do you know when you are home?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Papa a la Huancaína ... Kinda

On my way back to Shrimp Town from City Where the Water Bends, I stopped by Whole Foods to stock up on "hippie foods," as I called them when I told my mom about the trip.  They had the most beautiful things in the produce section - rainbow chard and purple and white carrots.  I found a whole display of potatoes, among them these tiny blue potatoes that made me feel like I was in the Andes.  I remembered my trip to Ecuador and the itty bitty potatoes we saw while wandering among the market stalls.  Obviously, I bought them.

I thought the best thing to do with them would be to make an Andean dish.  When I spent a year volunteering after college, the volunteer program took us on two retreats at retreat center in the countryside.  There was a young man working there who had spent four or five years teaching in Peru. One day he decided to make us all a Peruvian meal, and he seemed to spend the whole day working on the sauce for the ají de gallina, mixing together the chicha morada, laying out lettuce leaves and hardboiled eggs on the plates for all of us.  The snow fell softly outside the window as we gathered around the table for spicy South American food;  I looked down at my plate to see extra hard-boiled eggs.  "I remembered that you're a vegetarian," the chef said proudly and sweetly.  He didn't know that I hadn't managed to get an egg down since an egg salad sandwich had made me throw up in the 5th grade, and I didn't tell him.  But that little Peruvian egg was the most delicious one I've ever eaten.  And that meal was so good - the company of the volunteers, the excitement at the deer we saw high-stepping through the snow outside, that spicy green sauce on the lettuce and the eggs.

I wanted to recreate that sauce for my tiny blue potatoes. I looked for Peruvian potato recipes; I couldn't decide between papa a la huancaína and ají verde - so I sort of made both.  I followed the recipe for papa a la hauncaína and threw in some green onions and cilantro, and a tiny bit of basil from my garden.  (I guess it's not authentically Peruvian anymore.)

When I made it I kept stopping to look at how beautiful the ingredients were.

When they were done, I put them on my plate with a tomato.
(Unauthentic again; see "hard-boiled egg trauma" above.)

 When I pushed on the potatoes with my fork, they popped open suddenly, like balloons bursting.
They were the color of purple construction paper inside.

What was one of the most memorable meals you've had?  Most beautiful?
What's the nicest meal someone's ever made for you?
What color was the last thing you ate?