A charming New England beach trip, with friends, shorebirds, croquet, and a spot of evolutionary theory

by Rob Tiller

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Last weekend we took Friday off and flew to Boston, then drove down to Westport, Massachusetts, a small coastal town on the border with Rhode Island, where we were privileged to be guests of Sally’s cousin and her family. The area has a lot of New England charm, with stone walls and farm fields. Our hosts’ house was beautiful, and also well designed for relaxing. We did a lot of sitting around and talking, eating, and laughing.
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Two mornings I got up early and walked down to the beach to stroll with my camera. The beach was rocky, but pretty. It was peaceful to just walk with no one around as the sun came up. I watched the shore birds, and felt a combination of amusement, delight, and wonder.
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In the backyard, we saw a beautifully camouflaged tree frog sitting on the stone wall. It decided to jump onto Sally, which she liked.
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We also took a boat ride and saw quite a few ospreys, including nesting fledglings and patrolling parents.
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We took along a 12-week-old golden retriever puppy, the cutest thing ever, friendly and curious, with amazingly soft fur. This one had a specially designed life jacket.
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On Sunday after a beach walk and a lovely breakfast, we watched the end of the British Open, where Rory McElroy triumphed like a true champion. Then we played some croquet in the backyard. It had been some years (like maybe 40) since last I tried croquet, and I was definitely rusty. But it’s a fun game, and I’d enjoy playing again.
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It was also fun to sit on the back porch and read. I finished re-reading Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived, by Chip Walter,a book that must have not been too successful, since Jocelyn had a free copy for me. It is a non-specialist science book about the evolution of homo sapiens and other humans.

I hadn’t known that we were only one of at least twenty-seven human species that existed in the last seven million years, some of which overlapped in time with us. Our kind originated about 200,000 years ago, but came close to extinction about 70,000 years ago, when only 10,000 or so individuals were alive in southern Africa. Walter’s book explores how it is that we alone survived and became what we are.
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Our brains had something to do with it, of course, but that begs the question why our brains became what they are. According to Walter, it relates to our long childhoods, which relate to our ability to learn from other humans, which relates to our social natures. We are naturally curious – learning machines. And we are creative, because creativity gains attention for the individual and brings innovative progress for the group. Our development of symbolic thought and complex communication systems allowed for social organization that made us the dominant creature on the planet. There’s a lot interesting fact and theory here, and also an acknowledgement that there’s still much we don’t know about ourselves. A stimulating, worthwhile book.