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  • Writer's pictureAnne Hodges White

Sea Oats Draw Arcs on a North Carolina Dune

Unless you're a science junkie -- that is, you research (and write about) how the chambered nautilus evolved to move vertically, how trees move tons of water hundreds of feet from roots to leaves, or how a potter creates space inside a nascent pot -- you may not be interested this question: How does the North Atlantic gyre, that great counterclockwise oceanic movement of air and sea, convert its circular template into arcs around sea oats on a North Carolina dune.


I'm curious.


Sea oats draw arcs on a North Carolina dune
Sea oats draw arcs on a North Carollina dune

Sea oats. Let's begin there. A perennial grass, it thrives along the upper dunes on beach fronts and barrier islands. Sea oats are tolerant of Nature's extremities: they survive drought, salt spray, blowing sand, hurricane-force winds, and, if brief, dousings in salt water. They also serve: they anchor the dune with their extensive root system.


The leaves are cutlass-thin -- often less than a half-inch wide -- and grow to two feet long. Which makes them the perfect instrument of wind looking for a stylus at the end of a long, circling arm.


The great North Atlantic gyre births the cyclonic winds -- from the south, then from the southwest, then from the north, then from the northeast, then from the east, then the southeast, then back to the south -- full circle as it moves around Bogue Bank. The gyre takes in hand the points of the sea oat leaves on our dune, like an ancient geometer with his compass, guided by a greater hand, draws Euclidian arcs around the sturdy stalks. In the sand, their work is saved until the next storm blows in from the southeast and wipes the dune clean.


To the writer, the impression of these arcs can be received either as ordinary or new. On the walk from the beach, up the dune to the cottage, the writer looks, then notices, then, if she is paying attention, sees with an eye that is open and present. The impression -- simple arcs of circles etched in the sand around the sea oats -- enters the eye and encounters no prior impression, although it could, in which case it would be ordinary. The impression must remind the writer of nothing and set up no associations, although it could, in which case it would be ordinary. The impression must fire no memory, although it could, for memory is long and sweet in this place. Better to have a new impression than an ordinary one.


Today, the impression of these arcs on this dune is fresh, new, and direct. It opens the way to a new seeing, and for pondering other circles: the chambered nautilus that circles itself, the circular transfer of water in trees, the throwing of a pot on a circular wheel. A writer's collage in the making.


Knowledge without experience is abstract philosophy; knowledge coupled with experience brings understanding. And appreciation.




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