Channeling Thoreau: 24 Hours on Pea Island

There are something like a dozen little islands off the coast of New York City, near where I live. Most people don’t think of the Bronx or Queens or southern Westchester County in terms of natural riches, but look, and you will find them. Sometimes I like to visit these places with my kayak. Most are uninhabited by people now, but they are filled with stories. There is Huckleberry Island, the purported site of the buried treasure of Captain William Kidd (I haven’t found it). There is Rat Island, nothing more than a pile of rocks with a strange statue of the Swiss folk hero William Tell. There is Execution Rocks Lighthouse, named for the legend of colonial prisoners who during the Revolutionary War were taken there, chained to the rocks and left to drown with the rising tide.

But my favorite is called Pea Island, a five-acre spit of sand in the western Long Island Sound off New Rochelle, N.Y. Not many people even know it exists, let alone that it is so close by: 10 miles as the crow flies from Manhattan and a 30-minute paddle from my hometown in the densely populated northern suburbs. Its shoreline is mostly rocks and kelp. Inland there are half a dozen scraggly trees, some weeds and shrubs. There are ruins, too—from 1992, when a coastal storm destroyed a site of the Huguenot Yacht Club, which all but abandoned the place after that. All that is left now are some cement blocks and tall stone pilings where osprey have made their nests. Offshore, the sea hawks dive into schools of fish, emerging with prey in their claws. Long Island looms to the south, and to the west, the city skyline glitters as it consumes the horizon like a Hollywood backdrop.

Once I camped out on Pea for some 24 hours. I had been reading Henry David Thoreau, who was not much older than me when he famously set off to live two years in the woods at Walden Pond. There is something about this age—being in your 20s and just waking up to the world with the wide-eyed feeling of burgeoning independence—that makes many people want to do the same: live in nature, deliberately, away from the concerns of the world, to make sure that we could someday say that we had lived at all.

I admit that to call 24 hours on Pea Island “living in nature” would be a bit of a stretch. Its beach is so littered with plastic detritus that it is hard to distinguish bits of straws and disposable cutlery from the dried kelp and seagrass. The island itself sits close to one of the busiest cities in the world. But my options were limited.

Thoreau’s spot at Walden Pond, just 25 minutes’ walk from his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, was still wild enough in the 1840s to feel removed from the commotion of everyday life. “I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds,” Thoreau wrote in Walden, “not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them.” Walk a similar distance from the little red house in Pelham where I grew up, and it is difficult to say the same today. The banks of nearby ponds are rattled by highways, scattered with plastic, trampled by joggers, patrolled by cop cars, suffocated by homes on all sides and forever plagued by the lingering smell of a fading cigarette—all things that now feel almost more natural  than any wildlife.

Shorelines and islands up and down our little stretch of saltwater coast are mostly colonized by houses and beach clubs or run by cities that do not allow anyone to camp on their land. Even Pea Island, a rare patch of vacant sand, is privately owned. The man who bought it from the Huguenot Yacht Club years ago was a businessman, physician and human-rights activist named Al Sutton. But Dr. Sutton was now selling Pea—as a kind of untouched backyard to a neighboring island mansion—for $13 million. And it was Dr. Sutton, via his cheery real estate agent Patti, who gave me permission to be there at all (“Godspeed,” Patti wrote).

So I set off for Pea Island one weekday in September, late in the afternoon. My kayak was weighed down with a tent and sleeping bag, plus some food and all the drinking water I would need, but the Sound was as peaceful as I had ever seen it. The speedboats and Jet Skis, for the most part, were all back at the docks. This was the stuff of my dreams—to sit perched on the sand beside a small, crackling campfire and fall asleep to the chatter of gulls and terns. But when I had told people of my plans, only a few shared my excitement.

One was my neighbor Paul, a man in his 50s who grew up in the house next door to me. “You’ll have to tell me how it is,” he said longingly. Paul used to tell us stories from back when he was a kid, when our dead-end street looked like just a couple of farmhouses in the woods. “I’d like to do that myself someday,” he said. Another was my 90-year-old grandfather, who had spent much of his 20s exploring the Argentine countryside on foot with just a backpack and a tent. “It’s a very interesting thing you’re doing,” Abuelo said before presenting me with far more of his old camping tools than I would ever need.

Most people my own age did not seem to understand. They thought I was joking, that there had to be some other reason I was making so many calls and signing so many liability waivers to get access to a sandspit 30 minutes from home that was not much more than a pile of rocks and weeds. “I’m laughing,” one friend told me a few days before I set off (and I could hear it in her voice), “at the thought of you getting there and having absolutely nothing to do.”

“Though all you have to do is see the country, there is hardly any time to spare,” Thoreau said of his canoe-camping journeys through the Maine woods. This was, of course, precisely what I hoped for my little urban-island camp. I brought a newspaper not to read but to burn as kindling for my fire. Once I arrived, my only plans were to make camp, read Thoreau, write in my journal, eat, sleep and, perhaps, fish. I was, however, able to take in the new perspective from this strange place. Pea Island is one of those parts of New York where the city’s torrential development is juxtaposed with scraps left over from the rich biodiversity of the past.

It was early autumn, and the sounds and smells of change—dying leaves, migrating shorebirds, chimneys exhaling the season’s first woodsmoke—became clearer and crisper after nightfall. From my tent, I counted the rare dark patches of trees on the expansive horizon, amid the houses and apartment complexes and streetlamps of three boroughs and dozens of smaller cities and towns. I listened for baitfish schools feeding, flopping in the placid shallows, during the brief lulls between jets landing at LaGuardia Airport. Late enough at night, I caught a faint shooting star in a sky blanketed with artificial light. I did not know what time it was, only that soon afterward I fell into a deep sleep.

It is hard, I think, for many people my age and younger to fully fall in love with the natural world, simply because the little nature that is left is quickly dying before our eyes. Thoreau came of age nearly 200 years ago, when the U.S. was still immensely undeveloped—even before most of the Northeast was dewilded in favor of the highways, railroads and subdivisions that make up today’s megalopolis. The New England of his time was not entirely unspoiled—the 19th century saw the rise of heavy industry and its pollution. Yet Thoreau wrote in The Maine Woods, “I am reminded by my journey how exceedingly new this country still is.” Cities and towns were surrounded by wilderness. “There stands the city of Bangor,” Thoreau wrote, “with a population of twelve thousand, like a star on the edge of night, still hewing at the forests of which it is built …. The country is virtually unmapped and unexplored, and there still waves the virgin forest of the New World.”

Now it is nature that is surrounded. In cities and suburbs we find ourselves trying to grow vegetables in small dirt patches between fences and grassy yards, hanging bird feeders from balconies and cement porches, driving out of town to pitch tents in campsites with electricity and running water. Access to public green space is distributed unequally—lower-income neighborhoods have scarce vegetation and many fewer parklands. These are the same communities, often also communities of color, choking on the dirtiest air and drinking the most contaminated water. And what is left of true wilderness—in the U.S., the vast and solitary grasslands, mountains and forests—is usually a long car or plane ride away, out of reach for many.

Even those lucky enough to live within striking distance—or to be able to travel far and experience the greatest wild places—find constant reminders of loss. A hike through the rainforest evokes the memory of all the world’s trees that have been logged, slashed and burned. The sight of a lone bison grazing on the prairie reminds us that there were once millions roaming about, from the mountain west to parts of Mexico and Florida. Even the journey to get to those places, be it a short road trip or a long-haul flight, makes us complicit in the destruction.

I envy authors like Thoreau who could write meandering, joyous, even spiritual celebrations of rivers and mountains and ponds without fearing the looming absence of vibrant ecosystems they loved. Even many contemporary naturalists who have long helped inspire conservation and climate action began by writing about the sheer beauty of landscapes where ecological collapse was not yet seen as such an imminent and existential danger. Theirs was a world that could be loved for what it was, not for what it would soon cease to be.

That is not to say that Thoreau saw no threats to nature in his own time. “The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard,” he wrote. He described the tranquility of his beloved Walden Pond interrupted, now and again, by locomotives whistling, bells ringing, woodcutters chopping, cattle cars and wagons rumbling over bridges. His journeys through the Maine woods are marred by the “tragedy” of moose hunting for sport (“Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it,” he wrote). And his understanding, back then, of the need to tread lightly on the natural world reads now as a haunting and prescient warning. “I should be glad if all the meadows on the earth were left in a wild state,” he wrote in Walden, “if that were the consequence of men’s beginning to redeem themselves.”

In some ways, Pea Island hints at the way things once were. The morning was as peaceful as the evening; you could hardly tell it was rush hour in the cities and towns, which, just for today, had disappeared in a thick and enveloping fog. I awoke to the grumble of a small skiff coming to check its crab pots a few dozen yards from my tent. A lone kayaker paddled by serenely. The bunker schools were still feeding and flopping, quietly stalked by cormorants ducking their heads below the surface. A harbor bell tolled softly in the distance over the gentle lap of the waves.

I decided I would go fishing for lunch, so I fashioned a hook and line from a safety pin and some string that I found in my backpack. For bait, I walked down to the low-tide pools and caught two darting minnows by pinning them down with my fingers in kelp-strewn pockets of rock. Each was not longer than a couple of inches, and after five minutes of dangling them half dead in deeper water for whichever porgy or kingfish might be tempted to bite, I regretted it in a way I would not have done had I purchased bait from a tackle shop the day before. Effectively the two actions are one and the same—if anything, my improvised bait harvest left less of a footprint—but I have always had a peculiar relationship with fishing, informed by an overwhelming feeling, once again, of direct complicity in the total destruction of nature.

At that moment I saw another skiff drifting by, so I decided to speak with other fishermen. I paddled toward them. They were two older Puerto Rican men from the Bronx. They did not seem to speak much English when I introduced myself, so we spoke in Spanish and got to talking about how the fishing was not as good as it used to be. One of the men also recalled that people used to set lots more lobster and crab pots all over these waters, but then those numbers went down, too. “Up by Port Chester, they’re starting to come back now,” he said, one result of successful programs for fisheries management and water cleanup.

I offered up my observation of the crab boat from earlier that morning, the one whose crew had been checking their pots near my island. Indeed, they had come up with only a handful of crabs and a whole load of sea robin, a winged, prehistoric-looking fish usually tossed back as bycatch. We all remarked on how much trash was everywhere. “And if that’s what’s on land,” one of the men said softly, “imagine what’s down there.” He pointed to the water and shook his head.

Their tone was mournful, nostalgic in the same way my neighbor Paul recalls his childhood street stripped of its woods or how Abuelo remembers visiting the quiet trails of his youth decades later only to find them paved over and built up. When you know you are losing your love, the aching, dizzying pain dominates your thoughts, keeps you from falling asleep at night, and greets you from the first moment you wake up in the morning—and you will fight endlessly not to let it go. But you cannot fight hardest to save something if you do not have the chance to fall in love with it in the first place. If there is ever one reason for anything, maybe that is the reason I wanted to spend time on Pea Island—to keep trying to hold on to some semblance of Thoreau’s idyllic world that, near me and around the globe, is quickly slipping away.

After a while, the two older fishermen said their goodbyes and warned that the wind would pick up later in the afternoon. Sure enough, it did. The autumn gusts lifted the fog, though clouds still hung heavy in the warm air. The Manhattan skyline took shape in the distance. The Throgs Neck Bridge once again became visible from my sandy perch. It was as if Pea had given me a few hours of peace before the world came encroaching again.

It was only when evening came, and I was almost finished packing my kayak, that I heard voices—happy voices—and realized I was not alone. I walked to the other side of the island and stumbled upon a couple of elderly skinny-dippers frolicking in the deep water. Their large sailboat was docked just offshore, and they were just as surprised to see me as I was embarrassed to be running into them. “Hello,” I said quickly, turning my head away. They giggled in the water.

As it turns out, not everyone seeks permission from Dr. Sutton and his real estate agent to use Pea Island. But I wasn’t going to stick around to inform them who owned the place now, the windy swells spraying as they collided with the bow of my boat. I turned back briefly without thinking and caught a glimpse of the two of them holding hands as they gleefully made their way up onto land. That was my last image of Pea before I rounded the bend of Davids Island and it was gone.

Adapted from Now Comes Good Sailing: Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau, edited by Andrew Blauner, Copyright © 2021 by Andrew Blauner. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.