Valentine's Day Waves

Impact wave, blooming at Vaill Beach.


There was a big storm with wind from the northwest at 30 knots, gusting to 50.  My friend Linda had already called to tell me the waves near her house were awesome.  So of course I had to go out and take pictures.

I went to Vaill Beach.  The trail had turned to a stream on account of the snow melt.  I climbed down in slippery stages, carefully placing my equipment below me in order to use my hands.

There were new waves churning, made by near wind.  These are different than waves that have come from a distance.  Waves combine as they travel.  They smooth and they organize.  They are farther apart.  But these were like suds in a washing machine.   I wanted to show you their energy and chaos, but I also wanted some form.  I didn't want to show you mountains of mashed potatoes.

I climbed up on a boulder,  just outside of the impact zone.  I saw the white water coming at speed.  There is a reason they speak of war in the language of water... an army surging or pouring forward...waves of attack.  One wave would come directly at me and before I could recover, another one would come. 

The entire island is glacial till, made of sand and clay and boulders.  The bluffs are always unstable - particularly after a thaw.

Then I made my way around the southwest corner of the island and I felt the full force of the wind.  I walked in the margin between the water and the bluffs, which are always in the process of falling.   I called my dogs when they got too close.  I called “danger!” and they came running.  (This is not an example of obedience but of our history together.  We spend a lot of time on this beach and they know what that word means.)

I wanted to find patterns.  I needed some height.  I got myself up to a grassy, stable perch.  It was a gentle slope with nothing to calve off, no stones or sand above me to fall.  My dogs sat up there with me, smelling the wind, as always.  I saw the trains of waves and the wind blowing wave tops sideways.   I braced myself in the strong wind.  I saw how the light was changing, and I knew I would get some good pictures.

Every wave is true, and everything about it is true, but you can tell a different story through what you choose to show.  In close, you'll show detail and people will feel how it is to be in the water, and farther away they'll see the shape of the ocean.  There is always a series of questions... Where does a wave begin and end?  Where is the best light shining?  Where is the clearest pattern?  What is the most beautiful or powerful thing?  

I was weighing my situation.  The waves would be getting bigger.   It was a full moon, and a very high tide was coming.   I didn’t want to have to hug the bluffs and I didn’t want to walk through water that was 39 degrees, Fahrenheit.  I told myself it was time to leave. 

But the colors were getting glorious...

... and the cormorants began circling round and round.  They were working between the sky and the ocean.  I wanted them low.  I wanted their dark shapes in front of white water.  I found myself saying, “Come on… come on…” and then they flew right where I wanted.

And the colors kept deepening...

I began to say, "39 degrees is not that cold." and "I'll only get wet on my feet."  And I stayed for several more minutes. I finally talked myself into leaving by making a number of excellent observations.   I said I didn’t have to cling to a dangerous situation…that I would find new things on my way.  I reminded myself that I have always found surprising new beauty, the moment I moved along.

So I was walking back and I actually practiced how I would tell you about my maturity and respect for the forces of nature, you know, being one with the elements and everything.   And I did get some wonderful pictures.

Facing northeast, the sky was already darkening, and waves were breaking on the same boulders as they had been at the beginning of my expedition.  Now, the waves were catching the evening light.  It helps my heart to see this... light and wind and water and stone...what could be better?

There was only one spot where I had to rush, timing myself between waves, and everywhere else I had lots of room.  I'm not saying I was reckless.  Living on Block Island has been a progressive realization, not just of beauty but of danger.  As Edie's father told her, "You never turn your back on the ocean".  If I had doubts I would have listened.  But my body turned around and I just let it happen.  I followed my pictures.   I went back and I stayed until sunset.