Monday, June 15, 2009

The Beach: an essay

I recently spent several days camping at Carpenteria Beach--that's Southern California for those who don't know. I spent a lot of time thinking and reminiscing. The beach in general has never played a huge role in my life, but it does hold a significant place in my thinking. My mind wandered as I drove back to Bakersfield, one of the most nondescript cities in the United States, and I realized for the hundredth time: there's something special about the beach.

Not any one specific beach or area of coastland, mind you. The beach. It is the beginning and ending of a thousand voyages. The subject of countless songs and legends. The ideal romantic getaway. Full of beauty, power, danger, and mystery. Men have bled and died for even a few hundred yards of this razor strip running all over the world, yet it is home to so much. Where would we be, where would our lives be, I wonder, without that crucial meeting point of the sea and land, that bridge between the two great worlds, that springboard from reality to fantasy?

As I was hiking along the bluffs of Carpenteria, I came across a tree. Now this tree possessed nothing tangibly outstanding. No leaves graced it's gnarled bows as it stretched it's few tired gray limbs to the sky. It looked scarred and beaten. Surely it had endured all manner of winds, rain, lightning strikes, and flames. Nevertheless, it was awesome. I wondered at the things it had seen--the gradual smoothing of the rocks below, the migration of whales and seals, the construction of the oil rigs which now dotted the horizon, perhaps the occasional couple or troubled soul who sought the privacy of the beach below. Standing alone for hundreds of yards in every direction, it stood like a lone sentinel watching over the rocks, sand, and sea creatures below. Only one green branch that sagged near the ground sustained this sage of the coast, and it did nothing to detract from the rickety crown adorned only by the nest of a lone black bird.

Years ago, when I took art classes, I would have spent weeks capturing a tree like this with my pastels. If I ever wrote a book about the sea, I would find no shame in gracing the cover with an image of this tree. There could be a treasure, or some secret message, the key to a life-changing discovery, under it for all I knew. In any half-decent story about this tree, there would have been. Should I grow up to be a filmmaker or writer, I may return to that tree to shoot a closing scene or seek inspiration. A fitting deed, I think. Something to immortalize this unsung wonder of nature. Surely its story is one worth remembering.

In hindsight as the bustle and distractions of summer sink over me, I find myself fighting the reality of the matter. It is no more than tree. One of thousands--perhaps millions--of it's kind, and a pathetic one at that.

Over the years, the beach has come to mean different things to me as I have gradually fallen in love with it. First it was the simple joys of the waves and sand. I would run out towards the ocean and then back to the higher ground as the last swell came in after my feet. The ocean was cold and always threatened to knock me off my feet. I could dig in the sand all day, a poor medium but one in infinite supply, and never grow disheartened or bored.

Later on, the waves became little more than afterthoughts as the local wildlife became of supreme interest. I recall a brief excursion on a medium-sized boat where a net was let down to drag up all manner of ocean dwelling life forms like flat fish with two eyes on the same side of their head, starfish, and even several stingrays. I was only too gland to handle the creatures, especially the pancake sized rays that fit even into my child's hands. On a different trip, I spent hours crawling over human-deposited rocks in search of crabs and starfish. It posed quite the challenge. The green-brown crabs, no bigger than my hand, sped across the rocks and managed to wedge themselves into crags of rock so think that even my fearless, prying fingers could no squeeze into. I eventually caught one of these foreign creatures, and recall once running back to my family, screaming at the top of my lungs, with a severed crab's pincer clamped on my finger.

Next came boogie boarding and ultimate frisbee. Back then, boogie boarding required skill, skill that I seemed to naturally possess. Suddenly, the waves were paramount. Long minutes would pass in waist-deep freezing salt-water before anything worth riding emerged from far offshore. If you finally caught a big one, relish it, ride it, take it all the way to the sand. Well done, now go do it again. Even Ultimate--a miserable sport to play given the wind and noticable slope of the beach--managed to produce more entertainment on the coast than anywhere else.

Today, I still enjoy being teased by the waves, searching for crabs, and throwing a frisbee through the fresh salt air, but the wonder has grown much greater. The endlessly crashing waters--blue-gray under the oft-cloudy sky--the giant stained rocks standing defiant against the elements, the rocky sand extending to my right and left for miles, and of course, the infinite horizon. They say the world is shrinking, but when I stand out on the wave-swept sands and stare out to sea, I feel smaller even though nothing has really changed. Maybe, just maybe, the coast has always been the same, and I'm the one growing.

That tree was small, yet huge, all at the same time. I've never been able to stop any of those waves, waves which contain an entirely new world of creatures underneath them. And even on my best day of frisbee, the wind still holds the final say. Indeed I could play the warrior in an ancient epic on these shores or sprout wings and fly inches above the white-topped crests, but I've never been a king of these lands. No man has.

And no man ever will.

1 comment:

Nate said...

Hey...write more.