Walking Through the Present's Past
This is a fine time of year to be out walking the dog in southern New England as the biting flies and mosquitoes have yet to emerge and get you cursing. Winter's hush still holds sway over woods and field alike, with only occasional breaks for Northern Cardinal and Black Capped Chickadee song. Foliage remains firmly in the bud, leaving the trail-side vistas open through a canopy's bare bones.
The shoulder season is also a prime opportunity to explore the coastline. I have been visiting Rhode Island's Napatree Point sporadically ever since an early September 1986 afternoon when as an undergraduate my animal ecology class took a field trip to the area's sandy stretches to study shorebird feeding behavior. I still have Robert Askins' handouts from the time.
Dr. Askins was a great and demanding professor from whom I really learned how to reason and write more clearly. Essay exams and numerous paper assignments were the norm of the day, and his corrective marginalia were both unambiguous and instructive. The simple and accurately-worded declarative sentence was the aim. Anything less, and you would be hearing about it in red. For example, I'm not sure why I ever thought so little of Mallard flight during the previous spring semester's animal behavior course. And besides, why would anyone use such a vague descriptor as "adequate" in a research paper?
Obviously at 20 years old I was still a muddled writer, banging away on a frighteningly buggy Coleco Adam computer in my dorm room. What follows, however, from the succeeding term's animal ecology final paper assignment was a breakthrough:
At long last, those condensed, crimson-inked coaching sessions were having a positive effect on my writing style (albeit with noted reservations). All told I took three courses with Dr. Askins during my time in New London. Additionally, he served as my senior honors thesis advisor for two more semesters. By my last term, it was OK for me to call him Bob, and his subsequent recommendation helped me secure my first job: a prep school teaching gig in northern Vermont. To this day, he continues to publish authoritative research in the field and to teach at Connecticut College. I wonder what his courses are like now?
As mentioned earlier, I've made a number of return trips back to Napatree Point over the years, mostly in the late winter/early spring, often with wife and one of our huskies. It's a time when the shorebirds have yet to arrive from their long northward migrations, and you can bring your dog to the beach and park for free. Our latest trip there was Timber's first brush with the sea and all things briny.
Napatree's shoreline is extensive, lightly peopled during this season, and makes for an inviting launch pad for a day of fun and investigation. It remains, in essence, as I remember it back in 1986. Some places (and the lessons they impart) never get old, it seems.