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.