His name was Sawyer. Dirty blond curls spilled down to his shoulders. He smiled easily with small, straight teeth lined up like itty bitty Legos.
“Can I play with you guys?”
My girls, stooped in earnest competition for the best sand castle, straightened up. They were double his age, double his size, and hesitant as they checked out his tiny bare chest and sinewy arms. Their lips pooched out a bit, but finally their manners ensued. “All right.”
“I’ll be right back. I’ve gotta get my bucket.”
The peace of Lake Tashmoo’s steady wind brushed our ears and rustled the shore grasses, sanderling and gulls called out from time to time, just to remind us we were near the sea. Past the inlet, the lake water spilled out through the Sound, toward the Atlantic. But here, at our feet, the surface barely rippled, tapping the beach only when a windjammer or troller pushed it ashore.
Sawyer exploded back to us, joyous, with his bright yellow bucket.
“Did you catch any crabs yet I found some over there by the rocks Do you have a shovel I can borrow I think I caught three crabs so far Hey I like your castle I caught them in my net but with the little ones you can just scoop them up in your hand…” Here, he took a breath and his little arm swung across his body, hand cupped, imaginary immature crab captured. We took a collective deep breath, as if we were the ones on verbal overdrive.
But then we began to listen.
Despite the fact that we live in Maryland, the east coast self-promoter of all things crab, five-year-old Sawyer from a pictorial town on the north shore of this Massachusetts island gave us an education about the blue crab. He taught us how to catch them. How to know their age and whether they were boy crabs or girl crabs. How long to keep them in a bright yellow bucket before they got sick and died…and surprisingly, the importance of returning them back in the water, “so they can grow and eat other things and keep the water the way it’s supposed to be.”
“Eat them? No. I don’t eat them.”
Off-islanders often consider Martha’s Vineyard a rich enclave for celebrities, writers, artists, and even presidents, who make summer or permanent use of its vistas as muse. But the island is about so much more. The locals care about preserving fields where sheep and cows dot the way to the water. They farm, not because it’s popular, but for survival. They breathe, slowly, in “island time,” so that every blue-headed hydrangea in Edgartown, every heart-stopping jump from the bridge at Sengekontacket, every red-clay cliff at Aquinnah and every applauded, dazzling sunset at Menemsha, is savored. There are no stop lights on the island.
Sawyer’s mother called to him from her blanket, some 30 feet away. “Look at the osprey!” Digging in the sand, heads tilted toward books, staring out in a sun stupor, my family had not noticed the osprey.
Sawyer pointed excitedly to the towering white pole with the plywood base secured on a beach across the inlet. The osprey pushed her talons toward the edge of her nest, spread her great wings and flapped against the wind to slow her descent. Majestic, yet silent, the sound of her remained intangible, muted by the wind and small splash of the surf. To notice her required eyes above the horizon.
“Look, one of the babies is learning to fly!” One of the small heads popcorn-ing in the nest tolerated a small shove, spread his wings and found a thermal to ride, surfing it like a wave at South Beach.
Sawyer gave us the play-by-play as he toed a hole in his sand castle: “You can tell it’s a baby because it’s all white Can I use your net and bring it in the water The mom pushes it out when it gets strong enough I’m going to drip some water on my castle When they grow up they get their gray feathers Mom! I see the daddy osprey He’s hunting over there!” The girls looked up from their sand art and followed the bird’s arc and flow while Sawyer explained what delicacies daddy ospreys prefer.
“How did you learn so much?” I asked as he walked toward me. He did this each time I dipped my head toward my book, just to be sure he had my attention. He laughed a hearty but still little boy laugh and shrugged his bony shoulders. “I don’t know!”
Sawyer’s streamed his coastal water knowledge about sea life and pond animals and flying insects for a half-hour or more — until he found a new group of kids not squeamish about digging their hands between the slimy rocks to reach for baby crabs and starfish.
My daughter and I walked the shoreline, quietly. I wanted to let the wind pelt my ears for a bit and whisk away the darkening idea that somehow, this little island boy knew more about the natural world than all of us with our prep school educations. His knowledge surpassed fact. Somehow, he just had a “sense.” Somehow, being with Sawyer made me feel as if I’d missed one of the boxes on my checklist of ideal parenting. My kids are active, intelligent, engaged. But are they ever free to be still, or observational?
On our walk, we came upon line after line after line of wiggling black dots in the sand and we crouched for a closer look. The writhing sea creatures, washing up by the thousands, looked like nothing I’d seen before. Their shrimp-ish, gelatinous bodies spanned only a centimeter or two and curved like a teardrop. Each had a dark eye that watched us warily as their tiny tails waggled and glinted in the rays of the sun.
“What are they?” Without waiting for an answer, knowing, I’m sure, that I had no answer to give, my daughter dug her toes into the sand and up the bank, toward Sawyer.
“Hey, come see what she found,” she told him excitedly. The other girls and Sawyer’s mom joined us.
“Krill,” said Sawyer’s mother.
“To feed the whales!” Sawyer cried out in an undulating sea of questions: Where do they live Why are they here Did you see the ones in the water I’m going to catch some in the net Are they still alive Why are they dying?
Sawyer will leave the island soon. His parents are selling their house near the town where we go to spot celebrities, and shop for books, or expensive soaps at a store partly owned by the singer Carly Simon, or for a calendar at the photography gallery of her brother, Peter. His color-rich shots of island life keep us longing for the place all year.
“It’s beautiful, but limiting,” said Sawyer’s mom, nodding toward her son. She told me that he frequently asks to go the museums in Boston. They make the trip as often as they can. The Steamship Authority charges $135 roundtrip to ferry a car to the mainland in the summer. The drive to Boston is 79 miles. Gas on the island is $4.50 a gallon.
There are half-a-dozen museums in a 10 mile-radius of my house in Baltimore. Some, like the Museum of Art, bike-able and free. I can’t remember the last time I took my daughters.
Like Sawyer, my girls pinched a few krill carefully between their fingers, set the wiggling crustaceans atop their feet and tossed back their heads to screech in delight. When they couldn’t stand the ticklish feel any longer, they stepped into the water, washed the creatures free and started all over again. I daydreamed of the small creek near my home, where once, some time ago, the girls found a crayfish. We don’t go there anymore with so little time between car trips to dance, tennis, soccer, gymnastics.
Kids like Sawyer possess an instinct for the ecosystems of the world and their intricate networks. They know how to move within an environment without disturbing it. Their hearts are gentle-wired to care for it. They are purveyors of connections the rest of us don’t see – to the sand and the sea and the shrimp and the sanderlings — and as a result, navigate the human world with imagination and openness. I don’t want Sawyer to leave the island. On the mainland, there is so much traffic.
Michele McFarland is a freelance writer currently working on her MA in both fiction and non-fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in Baltimore Magazine, Maryland Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. When not on Martha’s Vineyard, she generally spends the other 51 weeks of the year in traffic.