Without the boardwalk…

“There is no there there.”

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Gertrude Stein’s famous remark upon visiting the site of her childhood home in Oakland California, only to find that it was no longer there, has been resonating for me recently.  Clearly the DCR’s closure of our boardwalk for safety reasons has had a powerful effect upon me, the staff, and the entire Stony Brook community.

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It’s not that there aren’t still many wonderful reasons to visit the Sanctuary grounds that I think of Gertrude Stein. Teal Marsh, Kingfisher and Stony Brook Ponds have many access points and much to offer from any vantage point. The boardwalk, however, defines this space. It is the heart and soul of Bristol Blake, an iconic ribbon of sun-washed boards capable of transporting any who walk it to undiscovered places.

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The boardwalk is a source of adventure and mystery, for many a portal through which we become kids again. Thick-skinned creatures emerge suddenly from beneath the depths to match our stares, then slowly slip back into the mud only to reappear behind us as a series of bubbles breaking upon the foot rails. Steam rises off the water and hisses slightly as it evaporates into the sunlit air. Red and blue and yellow stripes flash in and out of swaying trees in a celebratory song to spring. Here we can walk upon water. Here we can gaze into the depths.

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A huge swan flies menacingly over our heads, its wings whirring, laboring to keep him afloat. Wood ducks and mallards leap playfully into the air and then course back into the stream with grace, undisturbed by the cackling geese in the distance. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer will no doubt soon float by on their way to the island, there to build a fort or be on the lookout for ghosts and robbers. Anything is possible here: a chance to be brave, to shout out at shadows, to follow a whisper, to still heavy breathing and a beating heart.

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For others the boardwalk is like Jacob’s Ladder, a path to peace, a means to stillness, a source of contemplation, an escape from the mundane and dispirited. Eyes and ears open. The skin feels prickly then smooth. Muscles relax and we are human again. The absurdities of politics, the economic fears, the madcap race to prosperity or influence or acceptance become meaningless and ephemeral. Something is eternal, and we have the sense that we are closer to that here upon these bleached out boards of pine that seem to float upon the water.

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Here we see evidence of beavers felling trees, stopping up the spillways, ferrying sticks and brush and clay into a den they call home. Here turtles sunbathe upon the rocks, undisturbed by thick black water snakes circling about them for a quiet spot of their own. Here, if we are patient, an otter or a mink will swim by on their way to the mudflats, and we bear witness to a great blue heron plucking a fish from between the reeds and gulping it down in one big swallow. Nature follows its own rules in this place, and sees no need to wear disguises.

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We need to be reminded of mystery, the many shades of reality, our connection to nature, and the restorative power of the imagination. We need occasionally to find our mouths open in awe. Our minds quiet. Our eyes able to see what is before us. At Stony Brook, the boardwalk is a means to these ends. It’s a stunning part of the landscape which we hope soon to be open again, the DCR and the state willing. In the meantime, the support – and patience – of all our visitors sustains us.

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