»  The Straggler, No. 7

May 19, 2003

  Long Island Easter


Religious observances aside, the principal component of Easter, so far as the Derbyshire household is concerned, is a picnic at Caumsett State Park. This is a spread of open land, about two miles by one and a half, on Long Island's north shore. It was farmland until 1921, when Marshall Field III, grandson of the Chicago department-store magnate, bought it to be his country estate. With the assistance of the architect John Russell Pope, Field built a 65-room mansion overlooking the Sound, with wide lawns sloping down to woodlands, a freshwater pond, and the beach. The rest of the estate, to the south and west of the mansion, was turned into an active gentleman's paradise with facilities for every sport but golf (the area being already pretty well supplied with exclusive golf clubs), as well as cattle- and horse-breeding.

Field himself seems to have had little pleasure of the place. The puritan work ethic — Zechariah, first progenitor of the American Fields, arrived on these shores around 1630 — ran strong in him. Says a biographer:

He was surrounded by the luxuries intended to provide relaxation, yet he never relaxed … At Caumsett he hurried from one sport to another as though they were appointments in a business day … While others relaxed on his yacht, Field would board a speedboat, dash down the Sound, and thread his way breathtakingly through East River traffic until he reached the River Club …

One is not very surprised to learn that Field's first two marriages failed. The third lasted, though, and he died in 1956 after twenty years of philanthropy and high-minded social activism. Caumsett passed to the State in 1961 and became a public park.

We flatter ourselves that our modest annual visits here give us more enjoyment than Field ever knew. Arriving at the mansion, we spread a blanket on the lawn and unpack our feast: sandwiches, decorated eggs, fresh fruit. Afterwards we fly kites and the kids climb a tree. Mrs. Straggler is still, after 17 years residence, struck by the emptiness of America. That this lovely lawn, these secluded beaches, a mere thirty miles from a metropolis of millions, attract only a handful of people even on a warm holiday weekend, still seems amazing to her. "In China, you wouldn't be able to see the grass for the people." And in fact, of the thirty or so picnickers scattered around the lawn, a surprising proportion are Chinese. We get talking to one of them, a lady from Shanghai. The lady's husband joins us. Non-Chinese, he is a high-school teacher in the city. While the women stay to chat in their own language, I walk with him and our children down over the lawn and through the woods to the beach.

It turns out that the husband is an amateur geologist. Why, I wonder aloud as we stand on the beach, are the boulders so strikingly different from each other in appearance? This one is reddish and porous-looking, that one square, smooth and gray. Ah, says my new acquaintance, this area was the furthest point reached by the great ice sheets of 20,000 years ago. The glaciers dragged along with them rocks from all over. Then, when the glaciers receded, they left the rocks behind.

I love to pick up odd facts of that kind. They nourish the imagination. Looking across the Sound to the far Connecticut shore, it is easy to conjure up the scene as it must have looked 300 lifetimes ago. Instead of seven miles of placid water, in my mind's eye I see a vast plateau of ice, ending in an ice wall a few yards to my front, cracking and groaning as it begins its slow retreat northwards.

As several famous poems illustrate, these millennial reflections always come easily to mind when contemplating the sea. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story about a beach, describing it in three snapshots several thousand years apart. In the first, a naked child plays with the shells and pebbles until his father, clad in animal skin and carrying a spear, calls him away. In the second we see a modern child building sandcastles, the family sedan parked up on the road. In the third, a child of the far future lingers on the beach till his parents come to fetch him, to take him to the great silver starship waiting to evacuate mankind from Earth ahead of a looming cosmic catastrophe. It's a nice story, but unrealistic: beaches don't last that long. They expand or erode, are lifted up or drowned by earthquakes, have their water sucked away into ice-caps. Still it's a good story, and romantic to think of little Indian children playing here in the centuries before Columbus, calling to each other as my own children are now, but in some lost Algonquian dialect.

Presumably Marshall Field III walked here, too — perhaps in the dawn after some sleepless night while one of his marriages was disintegrating. He felt his failure in marriage very keenly, and submitted to psychoanalysis in the hope of understanding the causes. That was in the mid-1930s, at just about the time he stopped being a Hoover Republican and took up Rooseveltian social reform. Field went on to found New York PM, a liberal newspaper that carried no advertising. Some of his conservative friends blamed it all on the analyst, a Russian named Zilboorg, who had held a minor post in Kerensky's government of 1917, then come to America and made a name for himself analyzing showbiz figures like George Gershwin.

It is useful, and psychically healthful, to take time out like this in some beautiful place, preferably near open water; to savor the sunshine and sea-smell; to talk in an inconsequential way with one's family or with strangers; to reflect on those who have gone before, and those who will come after. What better season for such an exercise than Easter, the time of rebirth and resurrection, when the turning of life's great wheel is most visible? Recreation; re-creation.