Do they have seasons here?
That's one of the first things I asked a coastal Carolina native when we were first considering a part-time move to the region. Because as much as I like sunny beachbound days, I knew I would miss the changes that occur with the passing of the year.
"Of course," was the reply. "We have summer and fall and spring and winter. It even snowed once last year."
We've now seen those seasons change, one by one, since starting our back-and-forth treks between Illinois and North Carolina last January, when it actually did spit a little snow a couple of times. It's pretty darn subtle, but we are now seeing October roll into November and the sure signs of autumn are beginning to appear.
Some of the leaves have finally begun a slow, gradual transformation from dark green to a sort of soft rusty tone that falls way short of the rich red-gold hues we know at home in Illinois. But those colors have a certain prettiness all their own that we like and watch for as they gently appear. The temperatures have begun to drop, too, with the moist, balmy breezes of summer now replaced by a cooler offshore version that creates a persistent daily chop and and a sudden unaccustomed chill to the water.
Autumn in Carolina.
Instead of farmers gathering golden grain at the end of a midwest growing season, we now see fishermen, shrimpers and oystermen pursuing the rich harvest that both the deep sea and marshy backwaters have to offer as cooler water generates new, livelier life in ocean and inlet.
But, no matter what time of year it is, the place that seems able to change every day is the beachfront. We're regulars along the shore, with very few days passing without a long walk, sandcastles and shelling with our grandsons, or just few minutes with a book and a chair.
"I wonder what kind of day it will be?" is her question almost every time we make our way across the walkway that bridges the fragile dunes that divide our front yard from the shoreline.
The answer is almost always a surprise, because that's how it goes when you live next door to an active ecosystem that's likely to toss any number of treasures your way on a daily basis.
There are "shell days," when the waves deposit unusual numbers of different kinds and colors, ranging from perfectly patterned oyster and scallop shells to the ones that are tougher to find, like Whelks, Olives, Scotch Bonnets and Sand Dollars. We call some days "crab days," not because of my sulky mood or behavior, but because the beach is littered with the bodies of blue crabs and other larger crustaceans who have washed ashore, or busy with the darting of sand-burrowing ghost crabs, who scuttle at lightning speed from hole to water and back and forth. We're now experiencing what we call "jelly days," with both mushroom-shaped bell jellyfish and round, transparent "moon jellies" lining our path along the surf line. And, of course, we always hope for "Dolphin days," when offshore pods jump and dive and splash in a watery ballet.
The shorebirds, who come and go with the weather and food sources, now crowd the beach. Strutting, overstuffed gulls that resemble 19th century Tammany Hall politicians compete for space with quick, darting sanderlings and sandpipers, while daring terns and pelicans swoop, soar and dive recklessly into the fishy seas.
All in all, it's a pretty scene, no matter what kind of "day" it is.
I was wrapping this column up the other morning when my wife and youngest grandson, John, announced they were heading to the beach for a walk. I'm always willing to put things off, so I rushed to join them, even thinking I'd be able to put a label on the day as a sort of concluding statement for my essay.
The morning's scenic selection varied, with a spectacular mess of glistening jellyfish, a long scoop of daredevil pelicans and the shattered remains of some shells that would have been pretty spectacular if they had survived the trip through the surf in one piece. The sun was high, turning what had been a cool, windy day into something nearly perfect as we headed towards the fishing pier that lies a mile south.
"So what kind of day is it, anyway?" I wondered to myself.
I got my answer from a solitary fisherman we ran into along the way.
"You doing any good?" I asked.
He looked up and smiled.
"Can't help but do good on a day like this," he said.
I smiled back. He was right.
Because whether its a shell day or a crab day or a jelly day or a bird day or even a dolphin day, it's always a good day, too.