The huge blue heron glides over our cottage roof and settles down gently, taking up his post at the mouth of the tidal cove. Standing guard on elegant long legs, he picks off trespassers who swim too close to the border. When he is through and the water begins to intrude again, he takes off, arcing out over the bay.
Every day since we arrived, the great bird has followed this pattern. He arrives at each low tide like clockwork -- no, nothing like clockwork. Watching him at my own porch post, I cannot imagine anything more different than tides and clocks, any way of life more different than one in tune with tides and another regimented by numbers.
The heron belongs to a world of creatures that follow a nutural course; I belong to a world of creatures who have fractured continuity into quarter- hours and seconds, who try to mechanically impose our will even on day and night. But each year I come here, vacating a culture of fractions and entering one of rhythms. Like many of us, I need a special place just to find my own place, my own naturalness.
It has taken me longer than usual this year to sink into the island life. My time here has been wrapped around those most certifiably "manufactured" events, political conventions. There was no internal logic or cosmic timing to the political clock. The quadrennial gathering of elephants and donkeys, the rituals of politicians, have no common purpose with the shifts worked by the heron. The contrast was jarring.
Even here, the outside world pursued us. One night my husband and I stood on the porch watching lightning far offshore. As the sky between clouds and water lit up, we felt awe -- and a gradual realization that somehow, subconsciously, we were waiting for the stem of a mushroom. Even the most stunning natural spectacles are dwarfed by our man-made nightmares.
But finally one morning I left my watch to wind down on the bureau. Life became simple again. I ate when I was hungry, slept when I was tired, woke when I was rested, did a great deal of the things we call nothing. This is what I will remember of my summer time here. And I will remember how hard it is in our human world to get back to simplicity.
The most basic of human rhythms disappears in our workaday lives, the way the sound of a cricket disappears in the city. Whatever is natural in our biological patterns gets knocked out of sequence by the metronome of our social existence. From the time we're small, we learn to wake up to alarms and work to somebody else's schedule. We have lunch when it's lunchtime, go to bed when it's bedtime. Sunrise and sunset are less relevant to our lives than 9 to 5. Hot and cold are less significant than thermostats.
Most of us work 50 weeks a year in order to have two for ourselves We work 30 or 40 years in order to have 10 more in which to retire. There is very little room on our shopping lists or weekly calendars for being natural. We need literally to vacate the premises of our ordinary life.
I suppose it's something of a miracle that, given time and environment, any modern urban dweller can still drift into his or her own nature. It's as if there is some center waiting to be rediscovered, one that we can touch when we are at rest. Maybe simplicity is a secular miracle today the way that Willa Cather's archbishop once described religious miracles: something that comes when our perceptions are made finer "so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always."
I don't know if I can take simplicity home with me tomorrow. Like multicolored sand carefully layered in a glass jar, it doesn't travel well. By the time I return to the city, the subtlety may be jostled away. But during this list-making, schedule-hopping, clock-abiding fall, I can retreat -- at least in memory -- to the cove and the tide.