We have returned to our post, holding on to the tail end of summer as it races away from us.
In front of me a scene stretches out as familiar as the face in my mirror: A tidal cove, a clam flat, a lobster boat motoring laconically from one string of traps to the next. A flock of sea gulls follows the boat like oxpeckers on the backs of African cattle.
This morning, the sound of the CB chatter that connects one lobsterman to another drifts up the lawn and onto the porch. And from time to time the scream of a herring gull on the roof startles me as much as a car alarm in the city.
We pick up summer here where it was left off, the way we pick up the shorts and T-shirts and baseball caps that are left to winter over in chests of drawers. By now, 20 summers are strung together like lanterns along a single piece of shoreline.
By September, our friends are already back from places as far away as Tuscany and New Zealand. They have added Great Barrier Reefs and Serengeti Plains to their vacation life lists like Audubon birders boasting a rare species.
But we have returned to this island as surely as the goldfinch and the black-crowned night heron. We do not spend the winter browsing through travel brochures. We do not make summer plans any more than do the flycatchers that migrate each year to build a nest on the exact same piece of our porch roof.
Last week on my way out of the city, a friend on his way back spotted my overflowing Bean bag. As we stood and talked about foreign ports and languages, he stopped and asked curiously, "Don't you ever want to go someplace new?" For a moment, I felt like a stick-in-this-island-mud, a creature of dull habit and unimaginative routine.
But this morning, I take a fresh accounting. There are bullfrogs in the pond this summer. That's new. The purple finches that were once rare have become frequent fliers to the bird feeder, and I spotted a gannet in the bay beside the sea gulls and cormorants. That's new. So are the phlox making their first personal appearance -- unannounced, unplanted -- in my garden.
I am not unfamiliar with travel. I have spent enough hours in enough airports to know which side I'm on in the debate over who is responsible for air rage.
From time to time, I still develop a crush on a new place. Last winter I fell for Hawaii -- infatuated with the exotic landscape, the people, the food. The Brazilian cardinal had it all over the red one in my Maine chestnut tree, the lush tropic trumped the granite shoreline, the warm South Pacific was more welcoming than the icy North Atlantic.
But a crush is not a marriage, and I know now what I didn't know when I was young: In one way or another, we are all, inevitably, tourists. The truth is that we can't know too many places or people in our allotted time. Not really know them.
When we travel widely, seven cities in seven days, we are always newcomers, inevitably dwelling in the present tense. We know a snapshot -- Paris in 1987, Prague in 1995, the Vineyard last year, Vancouver this year. The paradox is that we cannot actually know what is new without knowing what is past. We cannot recognize a new hairdo on someone we have just met.
There are two ways to live -- wide or deep. Sooner or later we have to decide whether and where we want to land. We have to choose the people and the place we call home. We have to choose what we want to learn.
It takes time, the painter Georgia O'Keeffe once wrote, to really see a flower. It took me two or three summers to tell one berry bush from another and the best mussel beds under the seaweed. I had to spend an entire season with the trillium to know that it has a white flower in June and red berries in August. It was 20 years before an eagle was spotted over the bay! Now that is news.
So, to others, sightseeing -- that strangely redundant word -- may conjure up images of grand canyons and great cathedrals. But today I saw a sight on this small patch of land, a small magenta wildflower that I have never seen before. And this is how I find out what's new: by staying put.