nature 07.12

What a crazy holiday week it was! Traffic, cookouts, traffic, beach time, fireworks and traffic, traffic, traffic. At times I just wanted to yell out my car window, “Nope, you can’t get there from here!” It was just crazy-ville everywhere.

Many beaches and sidewalks of our towns were left a mess after all the parties. Trash was tossed out windows and left behind after picnics. All sorts of trash, including single flip-flops, beach towels, broken balloons and a trillion paper and Styrofoam cups.

Town staffs did an admirable job with cleanup, as did the many people who just went out with trash bags to help pick up. The latter weren’t paid, and it wasn’t their trash. They were just being good citizens. Here’s a shout-out to all who helped clean up: thank you!

After the last of the crowds had finally crawled over the bridge toward home, I returned to the beach. I don’t do crowds anymore and there’s nothing about a packed beach that appeals to me. All I can think of is the birds that are being disturbed, the shellfish, crabs and minnows that are caught and left stranded on the sand, unintentionally left to die by children. Many kids love to explore and discover but haven’t quite learned the etiquette of returning their finds to the sea when they are done examining their prizes. Big holes in the sand may lead to trapped baby birds, balloons flying into the air could land in the sea and choke sea turtles and, well, you can see why I stay away on super-busy beach days.

The morning was already sunny and warm but mine was the only car in the parking lot. The sun shone off the quiet blue water as the tide washed out. Stones and pebbles glimmered and beckoned, and I obediently headed down to the water’s edge to see what I could find.

Out on the water two common loons were fishing. A least tern flew overhead and in the distance I could hear laughing gulls making their distinctive calls. In the dunes I could hear a common yellowthroat, a prairie warbler and what sounded like a dueling pair of horned larks. Mostly, it was very quiet, the lapping water on the sand the only consistent sound to accompany my walk.

I headed up to the wrack line, that spot where the high tide turns to go out to sea once more. This is the best place to look for what the sea leaves behind and it’s always interesting.

The first thing I found was a partial sand collar, part of the moon snail’s egg casing. These have fascinated me since I was a child. They are at once strong and delicate. There were fish vertebrae and more than a few crab claws. There was piece of a horseshoe crab shell filled with sand and seaweed and a smallish spider crab carapace.

A worn feather from an immature gull was stuck on a piece of seaweed and there were multiple shell fragments. The beach I was walking was a rocky one, so finding an unbroken shell is always a treat. It took a while, but I eventually found a big old surf clam shell that was intact and unscarred. It was thickly lined on the outside, smooth as satin on the inside. I remember when the adults sent us kids out searching for these on late afternoons many years ago. Cape Cod ashtrays we called them then. That’s out of favor today and rightly so. Trinket trays, perhaps? I think our long, lazy searches allowed our parents an extra cocktail or two and in return we got to wander for miles down the beach on our own. It was when we discovered starfish and stopped to pop the seaweed “bubbles.” We hummed to periwinkles and pinched and poked each other with crab legs. We were as free and mischievous as the gulls who kept us company, hoping for some handouts.

All these thoughts and images rushed through my mind as I stopped to look at the huge and ugly head of a fish someone had left behind. As a kid, this would have been a true find, scary and mysterious. A halibut, maybe, but I couldn’t be sure. Probably tossed from a boat when cleaning the fish, unceremoniously left behind. I’m pretty sure any child could make up a much more satisfying story than that.

There are many treasures to be found on an early morning walk along the sand. Not all of them are tangible. Some are simply memories. All of them have been left behind from days long gone, but that doesn’t make them any less precious.

(Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist, and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis. More information at

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