A fun Memorial Day weekend on the Outer Banks — eating, talking, running, looking at wild horses and birds, and reading
by Rob Tiller
Again this year, my sister Jane invited us out to the Outer Banks for Memorial Day weekend, and we happily accepted. The beach is a good place to relax and restore. After weighing the pros and cons, we decided to drive out in Clara, who with her sporting heritage rides rougher than the Suburu Outback, but is also prettier and more exciting. Traffic wasn’t bad. We went at the speed limit plus 9, and the heavy complement of state troopers along I-64 tolerated the overage.
We got to Corolla about 9:30 p.m., and everyone was up and happy to see us. We enjoyed a glass of Keith’s merlot before bed. We also met their new dog, Charlie, a friendly beagle-boxer, or boogle. The camera made him a little nervous.
The next morning was sunny but chilly and windy. Keith prepared an egg casserole and fruit salad for breakfast, and we caught up on family news.
We also talked a bit about technology and biology. I briefed them on some of the progress on understanding the human microbial community, which I read more about in the piece by Michael Pollen in last Sunday’s NY Times. Pollen wrote, “It turns out that we are only 10 percent human: for every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are about 10 resident microbes . . . . To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. And it appears increasingly likely that this ‘second genome,’ as it is sometimes called, exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents.”
This is mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting stuff. One researcher says “we would do well to begin regarding the human body as ‘an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.’” We’re just starting to understand some of the links between human health and microbial health. It’s a huge mistake, which most of us have previously made, to think of all germs as things that should be exterminated. Certain bacteria are essential to health, and problems in the microbiome appear to relate to chronic disease and some infections. Human health can be thought of as “a collective property of the human-associated microbiota . . . that is, as a function of the community, not the individual.”
The Pollen article is a great introduction to this subject, which is also discussed in The Wild in Our Bodies by Robert Dunn.
After breakfast, I went out for a run with my nephew David, now 13 and growing fast. David has fallen in love with lacrosse and is getting lots of playing time as his team’s goalie, so I figured he would probably run me into the ground. Instead, he developed a major cramp problem, and so we did more walking than running. I learned about his prize-winning science fair project, which involved growing and measuring characteristics of a fast growing plant called brassica rapa.
Keith cooked an amazing lunch – cucumber soup and pasta asparagus salad. Then we loaded up in the 4WD sport ute, and drove north on the beach looking for wild horses. Past the lifeguard station, we turned left into the sand roads through the gnarled trees and bushes of the maritime forest. We found several horses. It’s cheering somehow that these big animals can make their own way in small wild areas surrounded by development. We also saw a fox.
I had time for some reading in the afternoon, and got a good start on Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer who died recently. This is his first and most famous book, and perhaps the most famous work of African literature to date. I was immediately hooked. The prose combines the muscular economy of Hemingway at his best with the vision of Faulkner, with an overarching tenderness and humanity. The story is about African village life, which, it turns out, has many of the same emotional components as our lives.
I also read more of More Balanchine Variations by Nancy Goldner, which is a book about various Balanchine ballets. Goldner is a generous-hearted critic, and she loves her subject. It’s so hard to bring dance to life other than by dancing, but she comes close.
One other major bit of reading was chunks of the complete poems of Wallace Stevens. I came close to reading them all last year, before shelving the project some months back. Stevens is challenging, and not uniformly great – some of the poems seem mannered or even mad. But the greatest poems are both beautiful and profound. My favorite is still Sunday Morning, which is a sly, subversive, arresting, sensual, and humorous. I memorized it, and it still gives me goosebumps at the end, with its powerful image of “casual flocks of pigeons make/ ambiguous undulations as they sink,/ downward to darkness, on extended wings.”
Stevens proposes this joy in nature as an answer to religious asceticism, and it works for me. It also makes me look at the world with different eyes. For example, in back of Jane and Keith’s beach house, purple martins are still numerous, and still flying fast feeding on insects. It was a pleasure to watch them.
We played a new beach game on Sunday afternoon. It’s one of the many variations on horse shoes, but a good one. Points are scored by throwing a string with weighted balls on each end around a bar. They couldn’t remember the name of it, but no matter. It was fun!