A little visit to Fire Island last month was a little revelation. It has the most wild beaches, just a couple of hours or so from NYC by train and ferry. The island reminds me that in traditional Chinese medicine the heart is represented by the element of fire.
The sea around the island is overwhelming in the best possible way – joyous, melancholic, and impossible to measure with your own body. Denizens of sea and isle are ancient futurists, simultaneously a welcome and warning. We came across huge horseshoe crab armor flung on the sand. Numerous intricate webs in the trees that serve as ecstatic bouncy houses for caterpillars. Groves of trees that reminded me of the Odyssey, wedged between the narrows of the island. Paths that Google said were so, and were not. Loose communities of gulls, terns, cormorants and sandpipers who carefully attend to ocean swells. And poisonous hands of poison ivy that clasp all the wild parts of the island, blistering our feet when we wandered on paths to nowhere, and which corset the sand so they don’t spill into the Atlantic.
It was the first time I experienced the sea air as truly sticky, like being smeared in snot. I’m used to a bracing Pacific. A few days later I learned that bacteria foment easily in these warm waters, making swimmers sick. I would have thought that the salt would have been protective against bacterial growth. This ocean soup – that grew our bodies millions of years ago – is an unpredictable friend, cozy one minute, and mean the next. The Atlantic Meridonial Overturning Circulation is collapsing, a kind of maritime inflammation.
The places we think are protective – especially the ones we’ve made – can turn on us. I listened to, and overheard, stories from residents struggling to thrive, a dismal reminder of small town spite, both on the island and its mother, Long Island. Homophobia, racism and classism flourish, liberal neighbors look the other way, and lookist gay cultures drive men into more anxiety and depression than they had experienced in the city they had left behind.
Fire Island always seemed like sexual utopia, a vital respite from hostility, and everything architectural screams care and class, unlike almost every other coastal place in the US. But its dependent lifestyle is eerie – everything has to enter and leave by boat. No amount of ecstatic wealth, creativity or eros can protect the rich and cultured from boiling seas.
Fire Island is also a guardian, whose physical location protects Long Island from disappearing into rising waters. The island’s governance has decisively protected its wildness against exploitation. In traditional Chinese medicine the heart is represented by the element of fire – and that balancing act of over-cooling vs. burning to ash is tricky. We don’t value protecting the heart, and the heart of things, enough.
As Matthew Reynolds once told me, things might be frail, ugly. You might regret ever having believed in your silly ideas of utopia. But never let anyone extinguish your fire, your joy.