Fire Island Flaneurs


It starts with the watch, always.  Boarding the ferry at the Sayville Harbor on Long Island, I remove my watch and zip it within the special pocket of my duffel.  Vacation begins the moment we start the short trek over to the narrow strip of land that stretches thirty miles, just south of the city.  Our vessel is crowded with men who could be my housemates / boyfriends / colleagues, their exotic-acting female friends, and assorted pet dogs crawling among the boxes of Ciroc and organic farm meat gussied up in designer tote bags.  Escape is what unites this throng of bodies, and the elusiveness of time proves to be a great co-conspirator on Fire Island.  Out there, wooden planks and summer foliage replace streetlights and stop signs.  Flip-flops and old-fashioned wagons replace taxis.  Mobile reception is at a blissful minimum, and the planning and execution of a poolside barbeque can fill an entire afternoon.

We yearn for a simpler life (with the proper amenities), but Brooklyn-based artists Jon Cotner and Claire Hamilton have captured the vibe of the sprawling communities and unique characteristics of this land in their “Fire Island Slideshow”  (which appears online in the Art Issue of The Believer).  Walking the length of the island creates a kind of visual meditation on environment as fragments for inspiration.  Slowing their movement down to an amiable stroll allows the pair to focus on the minutiae of a basketball game, a makeshift sand sculpture, the navigation of packed sand.  Being bound (or stranded) to the Pines/Cherry Grove communities all these years, my eyes were opened to the possibility of adventure found all over the island.

Inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s 2000 tome to mind-expansion through walking Wanderlust, and mixed with a heavy dose of Thoreau, Cotner and Hamilton photograph their encounters as archivists, even as they are living moment-to-moment, step-by-step, within the adventure.  A cautious deer inspires whimsy.  A pair of jovial-looking clerks at a market generates practical commitment.  The roots on Fire Island are deep, and many of the people found are honoring traditions of sitting still and staying put while basking in the sunsets found only there.  A middle-aged man, buff, sun-kissed, and nearly naked, searches for intimacy in the woods while mere steps away a boy’s cave for his imaginary lion is being excavated on the sands.  All enjoy the freedom escape affords them there – some for mere hours, others for a stretch of months.

Villages named Saltaire, Point O’Woods, and Atlantique drift throughout this photo essay.  A gloriously stark library houses an intriguing honor system and yoga mats.  Ice cream rebellion occurs in Cherry Grove, under the suspicious eye of a proprietor’s sweet mother.  These photos reveal eyes that are open and inviting, yet laser-like in their accuracy.  Cotner and Hamilton implore us to slow down, breathe in, and listen to what is happening around us.  The visual becomes audible as our eyes focus on each image as it refracts and alters our initial impression.

One of my favorite activities while staying out in the Pines is running the beach –  back and forth, up and down – circling the Sunken Forest (just beyond the Grove) before circling back along the bay side of the island.  At certain points in the Forest, with bluegrass and New Orleans jazz blasting through my eardrums, I can see the village just beyond the sand divide, squinting through the sun to make out the houses, the people, the stories they have to tell.  “Get their stories while they’re here,” implores one of the locals in “Fire Island Slideshow.”  This photo essay inspires me to ignore the divide, climb the dunes, and listen to my own versions of their tales.

Mark Snyder is a writer and essayist who lives in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. His play As Wide As I Can See opens in February 2012 at HERE in New York. More from this author →