Moving Sand, Moving Water, Moving People

by Heather Marie Spitzberg

As a child I lived on a narrow street without shoulders or painted lines. Across the pavement was what we called the swamp. Beyond the swamp was a small clear lake. Our feet entered that cool water and emerged with cuts from mussels to become covered in sand and pine pitch. I wondered about that sand, misplaced as it was, at the edge of the otherwise rocky shore.

We shared that place with a scattering of other homes and hundreds of hemlocks and oaks. I glided from water to land as effortlessly as the beavers inhabiting the stream that fed the lake. My dad and I regularly walked the stream, and I delighted in beavers slapping their tails to warn others of our arrival.

In 1985 Hurricane Gloria doused us with rain, wind, and panic. Birches weren’t supposed to be horizontal against a sky the color of a yellowed bruise. After days of helping crews remove debris from the roads, we inspected the river. A fallen maple created a new bridge to cross. A sheared-off tree top blocked the deer path we followed. The beavers’ dam had broken. Water poured over the breached sticks and mud as it might out of a pitcher. The animals had begun rebuilding in a different place, further downstream. I wish my young self knew to study the advantages of that location over the other.

In 1994 I stood on the shore of a private-access beach, spiral-bound notebook in hand, salted air frizzing my hair. Finished with my count of Piping Plover nests, I slid my notebook into my waistband and walked to where the land ended at fast flowing water between me and the next beach to the south. In the middle of the river that fed acres of tidal marshes behind the beaches floated a brachiosaurus-sized machine that scooped buckets of sand onto a barge.

The beach maintenance person told me they were returning the canal to where it belonged after Bob moved it. He meant Hurricane Bob, which had devastated the New England coast over two years prior. Twenty feet away, on the other side of the flowing water, was a public-access beach. Once the birds fledge, he said, they’ll pump sand on the dunes to restore them, too. He pointed to where snow fencing and months-old Christmas trees wrangled sand into a pile attempting to grow valuable dunes.

The naturalist in me held back a scoff at the idea that a canal or dunes belonged anywhere other than where they existed, no matter human need, history, or understanding.

The young woman in me who had been raised by local government employees in the Country’s Live Free or Die state saw the consequences of twenty feet of shore on tax base, tourism, and the owner’s sense of, well, ownership.

In the mid-twentieth century, my mom grew up outside of Daytona Beach before moving north. The beach she knew formed one half of a track with cars speeding onto the adjacent Route A1A for a race’s second leg. Flattened dunes provided seating for the throngs of fans, precursors to today’s NASCAR enthusiasts.

We visited throughout my childhood, years after the beach was rescued from the racetrack. Dunes had been restored and hotels built. Mom commented on the beach’s improvement, even with its risky towers. Perhaps that was true, for a while. Until the sand eroded like the snowbirds flying north in the summer.

In 2018 I visited a town in southern Florida connected to the mainland by bridges. On the southern tip of the island, at the end of a breakwater, squatted a round structure that looked like a misplaced granary. Curious, I learned it was a decades-old sand pump that became necessary with the expansion of a non-navigable entry to the Intracoastal. The expansion interfered with natural sand drift, preventing sand from traveling further south. Now, erosion on the shore to the north of the pump created a three-foot drop between the dry sand where children played and the wet area where waves crashed and joggers ran.

Around the corner from that pump station stood a wall of white plastic sandbags. They were not temporary. Along with a grassed berm, they protected a waterfront building that appeared less than a decade old. A seawall and mighty boulders tried to hold back the waves, which crashed into the rocks, spraying warm salty mist onto my eyelids. With tide in half-way and the moon only three-quarters full, larger waves were assured

In 1987 we moved from that house across from the swamp. As much as I loved the location, I never trusted it. Our home sat dozens of feet higher than the grade of the road in a notch that had been blasted out of a face of granite. I feared the boulders, and trees, and millions of pounds of dirt hanging above us. None of those slipped; the water got us. Pouring rain on the frozen ground created sheets of water flowing overland toward the lake. The house held strong, but the window wells filled, and thirty-six inches of water flowed into our basement. Our cat drowned.

We left for unrelated reasons, but it felt right.

Heather Marie Spitzberg has over twenty years of environmental science, law, and writing experience. She lives in New York’s Capital Region with her husband, twin son and daughter, and rescued dog, Thor.