The Mast-Head: Relics on the Beach

This stratigraphy caught my attention while I was walking to Promised Land and back with my son, Ellis

The dune line to the east, and for a distance west, of my north-facing house on Gardiner’s Bay has been moving landward for as long as I can remember. Looking carefully the other night, I noticed a dark horizontal line in the low bluff, what was once the bottom of a bog, perhaps, above which was centuries’ worth of white sand, like vanilla frosting on a cake.

This stratigraphy caught my attention while I was walking to Promised Land and back with my son, Ellis. He had been home all day with the remnants of a summer cold and was eager to get outside when I returned from the office. The short hook of beach where Multi-Aquaculture is now is covered with old bricks and rusting things, relics of the fish-processing plant that once operated there. 

Until about 1968, bunker steamers, as my father’s generation called the big, low boats, would bring freshly caught menhaden, bunker in the local parlance, to the dock at Promised Land. There, it was taken up into the giant, now-gone steam ovens and cooked down for oil and meal. The smell, which I can still remember, was astonishing and overpowering and why our house, about a half-mile upwind, was the nearest one to the plant until after it closed for good. Old gears, fragments of conveyor-belt chains, and broken firebrick remain, though, and for a 7-year-old recently interested in treasure-hunting, it was all solid gold. 

On the walk back with our loot — me with a bird skull, Ellis with an assortment of bones, plastic, and metal bits — the light was just right to see the line in the dune in strong relief. The dunes here go way back, I presume, to the period when the last glaciation receded, leaving bare sand and gravel in its wake. Wind did the work, assembling the loose sand into dunes, which it then shaped and scalloped. With very limited exception, that process ended long ago on eastern Long Island.

Now, as sea level relentlessly creeps upward, the dunes are being taken apart. At our house, erosion has cut through the highest portion of the post-glacial dune line and is beginning to chew its way down the progressively lower landward slope. To the east, several of the houses built 50 or more feet back from the edge years ago now dip their toes in the water at high tide. On Tuesday night, one of my neighbors had three men out putting up snow fence on metal stakes, like King Canute, in an effort to trap any sand at all.

Snow fences work at building new dune up to a point, but when they are placed where the water now wants to be, they are, in the end, a waste of time and money. One good storm and it is all for naught. 

That is what the dark line at the base of the dune is telling us. The bay is rising. The beach is receding. And there isn’t a thing three men and a roll of snow fence are going to do about that.