Beat the Blerch: Into the Woods!
Updated: Jun 12
On camping, stars, and a sunrise with new friends. Weekend of June 5, 2021 in Nickerson State Park, Brewster, MA.
In the Oscar-winning Netflix Original My Octopus Teacher, documentary filmmaker Craig Foster is called to the ocean. In the depths of a burnout, he had turned off his camera and dog-eared a page in his prolific career to set that story aside, bowing to the call of another. When he returned to the lens again, it was at the invitation of Mother Nature as she shared the secrets and enchantments of a world often veiled to those of the anthropocenic world. And she spoke through the form of the titular octopus.
Through the year-long mentorship and love story that followed, the ocean and the octopus taught Craig about the fragility of life and the debt owed by humankind's to forces far greater than us. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it brought me back to the opening passage of Herman Melville's Moby Dick: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul...then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”
In literature as in life, humankind seeks meaning in the sea.
TODAY lauded My Octopus Teacher as the "antidotes to our pandemic year" and I wondered what would become of such cures when the poison, be it boredom, burnout, or an existential fog, faded to mist. No longer demanding attention yet lingering. It is with such a state of mind and spirit—thickened by the year's woes, confined in the mind which lacks a ready aperture, and less than mollified by the vaccinated public's speedy return to the hustle and bustle of "normal"—that I went to the woods and waters one weekend.
So here I remove my unintentional philosopher's hat and tell you that camping is not a poetic escape. On the contrary, it is the thing that takes your head out of its metaphorical clouds and back to earth, 10,000 feet under the condensation in some moments, and directly under the sun and sky in others. On an evening under a waning crescent moon like ours, it leaves you in the dark save for four iPhones, one handheld flashlight, an infant of a bonfire, and car headlights which serves as a mental comfort. We used ours sparingly, preferring the intimate bond between for us with our humble tools, and nature.
Around the time of sundown, the infant flame in our fire-pit comprised of one part light and three parts smoke. This was the thick grey kind, full of ash that creeps into the lungs and the settles into your hair as you cough like a chainsmoker and turn away with squinted eyes. But if the smoke was heavy, we made up for it in the way our spirits lifted after many a small triumph. Half and hour in, we developed the child into raging teenager, angsty and red against the hazy blue smoke. Let me proudly say the flame was entirely too successful. As we lowered our foiled grill over the vigorous flames, it melted right through the aluminum, transforming it into a first dewy and then disintegrating sheet which we pulled at tenderly with our tools. With our sacrificed tongs (by now the heat had warped its plastic tips) and other metal contraption (the BBQ version of a fork lift? Hereby named the Lifty) we strategically deconstructed our log cabin fire for a shorter and broader heat source (for more on our fire-building strategies, BBQ recipes, and more logistical details, see Beat the Blerch: Camping 101).
The Spirit of the Woods has three claws and blue wings. Angel or demon? You decide.
Although the elements got between us an a fully cooked dish of meat that night, being at the mercy of nature proved worthwhile as we wound down the night under the stars. Armed with skewered marshmallows for an entree of s'mores, a side of tortillas dipped in instant lentil soup, and iced grapefruit cocktails, I looked up at the Big Dipper glinting clearly over our head, four points of the handle connected to the bowl and ending with the Polaris-pointing Merak and Alpha Ursae Majoris nodes. The Big Dipper is what we call the asterism for the constellation of Ursa Major, or the Greater Bear. Her back points constantly to Polaris, or the North Star, which is also the tail of the constellation of Ursa Minor, or the Lesser Bear. It is as if the mother bear is telling her young that she trusts him to venture the cosmos alone, chewing star berries and hunting space fish (sorry Pisces), but even turned away something close in her core will always tell her where he is. Specifically, Alpha Ursae Majoris in the lower back of the mother--the position of a hunch; the location of intuition; the coordinates of a feeling.
According to Wikipedia (sorry grade school research instructors), "the revised Hipparcos parallax gives a distance to Polaris of about 433 light-years (133 parsecs) [from earth], while calculations by some other methods derive distances up to 35% closer." On the other hand, "Alpha Ursae Majoris (Latinised from α Ursae Majoris, abbreviated Alpha UMa, α UMa), ... [is about] 123 light years from the Sun." While this gives me little data on the exact distance between mother and child, I have a feeling that no matter the distance, the two are never too far. Actually, the illustrations of the bear varies, with some identifying the North Star as the tail in turn turning him completely away from his mother. Others identify it as the snout which points directly to Mom. Some bears grow up fast while others linger.
My favorite constellation maps are these hand-illustrated ones. At the risk of blasphemy—astrological stories strike me as biblical in its allegorical nature. Is an illustrated manuscript dissimilar to an astrological map? Left: constellations as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope.
What is your map of the world?
On nighttime, sunrises and waterfronts.
Spongebob's depiction of camping is inaccurate for the cooking-inclined; you have little time for ukelele songs and fighting off seabears when you're cooking from scratch for four people under a nearly new moon. Putting it out there for my early 2000s Nickelodeon babies. By the way, the Suponjibobu Anime by Narmak slaps.
A mood: listening to an audiobook while falling asleep under the stars, separated only by lightyears and thin mesh. The audio: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous—immigrant novel and work of autofiction read by the author Ocean Vuong. His voice is so fragile yet sensual, teetering gentle at the seams.
Nothing beats the feeling of sleeping directly in a bag on the ground and waking up to the voice of 4 AM birds. I felt like a caterpillar, spinning my nylon cocoon at astronomical twilight, then stretching my wings at dawn. Cue voice of Anna from Frozen: the sky is awake, so I'm awake, so we have to play!
Remaining thoughts: the fire ring is no place for a baby turtle but appropriate for the smoking of muffins and fuzzy caterpillars. On that note, an air pump for camping is valuable for many cases, from inflating air mattresses and SUP boards to oxidizing a bonfire and blasting fuzzy caterpillars off your tent. Notice that fuzzy caterpillars are a constant.
One peachy edit and one cinematic crop. Morning scenes from the west bank of Cliff Pond.
The soft light of day break vs. a creative edit, both shot ±10 min. from the 5:07 AM sunrise.
Skaket Beach was a white sandy beach with tidal pools and entirely too much wind in the afternoon but rather alright at sunset. And now for entirely too much geological information than you needed to know:
Shu Gao, in Coastal Wetlands, 2019: "tidal flats are formed in areas where there is a sufficient supply of fine-grained sediment and tides dominate over other hydrodynamic forces. The tidal signal is reflected in the zonation of the morphology and sediment distribution patterns in the intertidal zone."
What are harmonic constituents?: "The Earth rotates on its axis every 24-hours, but the Moon is orbiting in the same direction as the Earth's rotation. It takes a location on the Earth an additional 50 minutes to “catch up” to the Moon. This results in a tidal signal (M2) which has 2 peaks every 24-hours and 50 minutes."
Intertidal zone: the area of a seashore which is covered at high tide and uncovered at low tide. Also known as the foreshore of seashore. This area can include several types of habitats with various species of life, such as seastars, sea urchins, and many species of coral.
Hemenway Landing was a recreational grounds from which folks enjoy kayaks and canoes on a calm surf. We spotted a crab carcasses and a mosquito control unit in the form of a blue box on the salt marsh. Blue boxes are put out each summer across the peninsula to attract and trap mosquitoes, green flies, and other pests. There are osprey on the cape that use it as a perch to spot fish, and then a table to enjoy its fresh meal.
Following the landing we drove through downtown Orleans and pit-stopped at the popular Ice Cream cafe: a charming, seasonal fixture offering homemade ice cream (with vegan options), frozen treats and coffee. The purchased flavors included Dirty Bomb (cinnamon and pecan); ChocoMint Chip; and a large cup of what melted into sugar soup topped with M&Ms.
Skaket Beach in the afternoon. Bottom left: Tutu demonstrates the consequences of wind.
Hemenway Landing at golden hour.
Skaket Beach at sunset. Eat the sun and grab the waves.
And that's a wrap.
Big thank you's to my companions Tutu Ji, Ewen Wang, and Dylan Gong. Credits go to them for so many of the snaps and memories above and more. Beat the Blerch: Camping 101 for logistics on bonfires and cooking.