Levin: Memory And Climate Change

Jun 5, 2017

The word topophilia means love of place, a complex, multilayered emotion that the poems of Mary Oliver and the essays of Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey awaken without ever having to mention the word. Landscape memories involve a jubilee of sights and sounds, smells and textures of bygone days, which, in my case, are those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer… beach days.

I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island, a short bike ride away from the salt marsh kept wet by the rising and the falling of the Great South Bay and from a skinny barrier island known as Jones Beach - seventeen miles of dune, swale, and eternal surf. For me, going to Jones Beach meant especially seeing birds, all sorts of birds from the four corners of the continent.

Also for me, one species stood out from all the rest. The marsh hawk was the first raptor I’d ever identified on my own. It’s a large, sexually dimorphic hawk, which means the sexes are noticeably different. Males are smaller than females: pewter-colored above and white below, with wingtips dark, as though they’d been dipped in ink. Females are mud brown.

Marsh hawks are buoyant as kites, coursing endlessly and effortlessly over the marsh on long, narrow wings held in a shallow “V” with long steerage tails that fine-tune flight. On any given trip to Jones Beach I would spot five or six, maybe more.

Unfortunately, higher tides and more frequent flooding brought on by climate change has greatly reduced the number of marsh hawks still inhabiting Jones Beach, since ubiquitous and marsh-loving meadow voles, their principal source of food, have been pushed inland by the rising sea. Now, whenever I return to Jones Beach, a once visible and visceral connection to my childhood has become noticeably scarce; its absence a frayed strand in the fabric of memories tethering me to my coastal roots.

But on a recent trip to Dead Creek, in Addison, I experienced a ghostly echo of those summers past, when a male marsh hawk flew back and forth over the hayfields distracting doves and robins - and lulling me into a daydream of green-plumed marshes and snow-white clouds, of bare feet and carefree summer days, when time seemed almost to stand still.

I am the steward of those childhood memories and climate change has begun to exact a toll.