Knowing a place, and its nature

We spent the weekend at Stinson Beach, a little town tucked between the steep western slopes of Mt. Tam and a 3.5-mile-long strip of sandy beach. Until last year, I could count the number of times I’d been to Stinson Beach on one hand. Since January, though, we’ve been there three times. 

I’ll be spending even more time there in the future. In December we bought a house at Stinson, jointly with two other families. So our family has use of the house every third week. 

Stinson Beach

It’s all still new enough that we don’t have routines yet. (My uncle and his wife visited on Saturday and kept asking things like, “So is it usually windy in the afternoon?” and I kept giving non-answers:  “I have no idea what is ‘usual’ — yet!”) 

Both Saturday and Sunday mornings, I walked down to the northern tip of the beach, where it ends at Bolinas Lagoon, about an hour and a half down and back. 

The beach was the same both days. I mean, this wasn’t a Yahoo! home page that changes every  ten minutes.  Same houses. Same ocean to the west. Same mountainside to the east. Same lagoon at the end. 

But there were also all these little differences. On Sunday  I saw a flock of 13 tiny shorebirds skittering at the edge of the incoming waves like ball bearings, their legs a blur. On Saturday the waves had carved out a kind of basin in one section of the beach, where water calmly pooled between a sand bar and the shore. Both days I found a lot of sand dollars. Other times, I haven’t found a single one. 

Now, I grew up in Manhattan and have spent virtually all of my life in urban landscapes. I think a lot about how I – and most Americans – are well versed in the sensory cues of urban industrial life.

We can discriminate among a half-dozen brands of sneakers by their wordless logos. We hear a police siren, or a cell phone ring tone, or a truck backing up with beeps, and we know exactly what it is and how to respond.

Just as our hunter-gatherer ancestors could identify a hundred different kinds of plants, we can identify Oreos and Rice Krispies and Paul Newman dressing and Big Macs with just a split-second glimpse of their packaging. This is the information that we inhale with the air as we grow up; no less than our ancestors’ knowledge of the difference between poisonous berries and nourishing ones, this is the information we need to survive. 

By contrast, when I walk down the beach at Stinson,  I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe what I see. There were four different kinds of shorebirds on Sunday. I knew that some were willets, from their mid-sized bills and their white-striped wings in flight. But the others – curlews? dowitchers? godwits? sandpipers? I need to fetch the bird book and teach myself the names and signs. 

Is it easier for you to tell a willet from a godwit...

... or a Coke from a Pepsi?

I look forward to having a piece of natural land – the beach, the hillside — that I come to know well. No, I’m not about to go all Annie Dillard or Thoreau. I am bored to tears by most nature writing! But I’d like to notice the daily and seasonal changes in the sand, water, vegetation. I’d like to develop an eye for quiet, small changes. I’d like to learn the names of things in the natural world as well as the industrial, commercial one. 

When I used to commute to San Francisco, I took the same walk down College Avenue to BART each day, along a pleasant strip of cafes, boutiques, bookstores and restaurants.

The shop windows changed slightly from week to week, but the walk still got boring. 

I don’t think walking the beach will get boring, even if I do it every time we visit. But it will require an eye and a vocabulary for those small, quiet changes – changes in how the sand is shaped, the shells washed up, the birds. 

On Saturday a young woman rode down the beach on a horse, so fast that she was soon a dot in the distance. Then she turned around and rode back, posting perfectly, so that the horse moved up and down and her torso moved up and down, but her head and shoulders remained still, straight, as if suspended by thin wires, looking ahead into the breeze.

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6 Responses to “Knowing a place, and its nature”

  1. Nancy King Bernstein Says:

    You’re bored to tears by Annie Dillard??!!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I think I started Annie Dillard’s Tinker’s Creek decades ago and couldn’t get through it and haven’t tried since.

      Yup, badge of writerly shame.

      Other shameful admissions: I am bored by most of John McPhee (exception: the one on the people who eat roadkill).

      Could never get into Gravity’s Rainbow. I hated Moby Dick and Ulysses in college and know I should try them again but haven’t “found the time.”

      I am more middlebrow than I look!!

  2. Judy Pace Says:

    What lovely images to start the morning! Sounds like a dream. Feel free to consult Sam Z about the shorebirds (-:

  3. Rob Says:

    Hey i just read your article on SFgate’s vault about inn-to-inn hiking. Do you know if inn-to-inn hiking has been growing. Do you know of any things like that that are out here in California? I could see Stinson having a nice B & B that would be good for hiking.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I believe there is a B&B in Stinson, and there a bunch of lovely ones just a bit north in Olema, Pt. Reyes Station and Inverness. But as far as I know, there is no inn-to-inn program in California where the innkeepers transport your belongings for you or drive you to the trailhead. So you’d just have to organize your own day hikes.

      The nearest inn-to-inn hiking is, I believe, a chain of old fishing lodges along the Rogue River in Oregon. The Chron did a travel piece on them about two or three years ago, which you could find by searching on SFGate.

  4. Bob Brown Says:

    Just found this exchange. If you’re bored by most of John McPhee, you’re terminally hopeless. He is the finest descriptive writer since Updike. And by the way, what led me to this site on Google is a McPhee piece he wrote years ago about Stinson Beach……when he dreams in New York it’s about going to Stinson Beach, and whenever he gets to San Francisco, he makes yet another pilgrimage.

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