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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 look up (and write about) how the chambered nautilus moves vertically, how trees move tons of water hundreds of feet from roots to leaves, or how firing clay creates inner space inside a nascent pot -- you may not be interested in how the North Atlantic gyre, that great counterclockwise oceanic movement of air and sea, converts its circular template into arcs around sea oats on a North Carolina dune. But I am.

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, they thrive along the upper dunes on beach fronts and barrier islands. They are tolerant of Nature's extremities: they survive drought, salt spray, blowing sand, hurricane-force winds, and, if brief, doucings in salt water. The 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 brings the 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 shifts over Bogue Bank. The wind takes the points of the sea oat leaves on our dune in hand, like an ancient geometer with his compass, and 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 is either 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 encounter 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 for pondering other circles: the chambered nautilus, the transfer of water in trees, the throwing of a pot of a wheel. A writer's collage in the making.

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