I have been visiting the Urban Waterland of the East Coast. Not all of it. Three islands: Long Island, Manhattan and Shelter Island. Lorrie and I stayed with friends or family and joined others, during our ten days away, for meals and a chat - trading news from the left coast, and our experiences in the Urban Wildland, for their stories of living in the Urban Waterland. That's my spin. Those are my characterizations. Here's my rationalization.

I was musing lexically, in a discursive kind of way, riffling through some words that might encapsulate our east coast trip when I turned up 'waterland'. When I pre-fixed it with 'urban' it was a mild epiphany, a lower case omg moment. It happened in Manhattan.

The story of our picayune travels (primarily undertaken to attend a wedding in New Suffolk, North Fork, Long Island) was then subjected to this procrustean schema - forced to hang, comfortably or not, on the three island waterlands of our itinerary.

My first landfall in the United States was at Staten Island, in 1967, back before containerization, when it was host to the tramp freighters of the world, including the Ferndale, an ancient 10,000 ton Norwegian ship headed to new owners in Florida and upon which I served as engine-room boy (Bodies of Water). From Staten Island it was a ferry ride to Manhattan and my first experience of the watery edge of the United States (although our entry into the harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, resplendent on her own little islet, should have prepared me). I have been back many times, but this fall trip was the first time my travels were overlaid by this newly minted apercu, useful or not, of 'Urban Waterland'.

How does this change things? First of all, I get to blog about New York in a way that connects it to my experience of the Urban Wildland. If we allow the applicability of the prefix 'urban' to both places (it is a distinction of magnitude not kind) then we are down to the disparity between water and wild. Both constitute edge conditions, they operate as limits, and, to some extent as the 'other'. It is unthinkable that the urban can exist in the wild - they can abut one another but not co-mingle. Similarly, waterland speaks, to my mind, of a chimerical, evanescent, shifting world where the primacy of water and land are in conflict. The tidelands. The shifting sands of beach and river bank are inimical to urban development, they are unsure edges that give on to the further insecurities of the ocean. Even shored up - transformed into embankments, piers and wharves - the edge remains between the solid and the watery.

In 1984, Graham Swift's novel Waterland was published in New York by Poseidon Press. Half a dozen years later, I read the paperback and I suppose it was at that time that the title lodged in my brain. There it hibernated until awoken by the watery bastion of end-of-days capitalism that is Manhattan. This island is a rock riven from the mainland by the Hudson that rises at the melodramatically named Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondacks and flows on to create the cultural, geographic and bureaucratic gulf between New Jersey and New York.The East River is actually a tidal estuary but performs a similar role in fending off Long Island. It is then the Harlem River to the north that transforms, what at first blush looks like a peninsular jutting into the Upper Bay, into an honest-to-god island.

'Waterland' was, I thought, all mine - until I googled it. On re-aquainting myself with the book I realized I had filched more than its name. Its narrator is a history teacher living in the Fens (that reclaimed marsh around England's Wash, a broad bay that defines the northern edge of the rump of low lying eastern Counties configured to the south by the serpentine Thames Estuary). This marsh or fenland, holds a watery history of locks, rivers, and eels all scoured by the malignant east wind from "its birth in the Arctic Ocean, north of Siberia.... round the northerly tip of the Urals'' and which in turn, holds the secrets of a long-ago murder that is at the heart of the novel. Swift lingers over dense thickets of arcane natural history that become warp to his narrative weft. (Words to blog by).

I have acknowledged my debt (White-Out) to W.G. Sebald who, in his novel, The Rings of Saturn, 1998, covers similar ground to Swift as he documents a walking tour of the eastern coast of England; but in Sebald's world a strange dreamlike quality inures and makes possible a series of learned, but bizarre excursuses. Both men opened up a space for the notion of sampling or pastiching fragments of reality in essays and novels - now made dangerously easy by the advent of Google. (Mea culpa).

We left Manhattan in a cab and then rented a car at JFK for our journey to Long Island's North Fork. New Suffolk sits on Great Peconic Bay and forms the western arm of Cutchogue harbour. We dropped in on the incipient bride and groom before motoring on to Greenport and taking a ferry to our quarters on Shelter Island which appears as a morsel about to be consumed by Long Island's crocodile jaws, the North Fork the upper jaw and the South Fork the more muscular mandible. (Lengthy excursus on the Crocodile, the ultimate beast of the waterland, has been redacted - ed.)

The wedding (a part of the somewhat threadbare narrative weft of this piece) was held at the 'Galley Ho', a hundred year old scallop-packing shed, latterly converted to a restaurant (long-failed) and currently owned by a local non-profit preservation group. Amidst a century's turmoil, its various owners had neglected to provide either heating or insulation but its prime water-front location was sufficient compensation. It was a beautiful ceremony which I watched while keeping a weather eye on the rising ocean which seemingly threatened to engulf the fragile building; and what began as rain lashing the single paned windows that lined the seaward side of the structure changed texture right about the time that vows were exchanged (did I really hear 'for warmer or colder'?) and assumed the soft granulations of wet snow. But the seas failed in their efforts, as they have for five score years, to wash away the scallop shed; the snow abated and wedding guests slowly warmed the space with the glow of their good wishes and the bride and groom hastened off, at some point, for the cosy 19th century New Suffolk cottage they will share together.

We, in turn, ferried across to the storm tossed island called Shelter. Here were the gentle undulations of one-time sand dunes now host to pine barrens, post glacial, pre-lapsarian (the fall here considered as the drop of the woodsman's axe) hardwood forests of maple, beech, and red, black and white oak. In the center of it all, the seventeenth century manor house of its first European settler, Nathaniel Sylvester (1610-1680) still stands. He it was who acquired the land from the indigenous Manhanset Indians and used it as an entrepot for the shipping of West Indian tobacco, sugar and rum back to England (the same destination, incidentally, of many of those brined and barrelled New Suffolk scallops).

While fully one-third of the island has been preserved by the Nature Conservancy - over which we rambled for a couple of hours one day - and functions at its edges of bog and tidal creek as a primordial waterland, the other 65% is an outpost of the City, where the 1% have summer houses and those that serve them have their more modest, middle of island, residences.

But the island transcends its socio-economic numerics and in places (and not just on the Mashomack preserve) it is as if the last four hundred years never happened: Urban never happened. On a early morning run I looked over West Neck Bay, just down the road from where we were staying, and saw several snowy egrets swoop down through the mist and alight on the dawn grey waterland. The (almost imperceptibly) Urban Waterland.

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