Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Beach: An Essay (revised)

The following is an updated essay that I posted on here a while ago. It's seen several parts rewritten and edited, and it's been through trial by fire in a workshop with Dr. Simons. Hopefully that means it's better.

Last summer, mid-June to be precise, I spent several days camping at Carpentaria Beach. Away from friends, internet, and responsibilities, I realized as soon as the great blue sea came into sight: there's something special about the beach.

I do not mean any one specific beach or area of coastland, mind you. The beach. It is the beginning and end 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 feet of this razor strip. One could hardly find a better place to spend time alone, yet even in human solitude the wildlife abounds in a flurry of activity. Where would we be, where would our lives be, I wonder, without that crucial meeting point of the sea and land, the bridge between the two great worlds, a springboard from reality to fantasy?

As I hiked along the bluffs of Carpentaria I came across a tree. Now this tree had no tangibly outstanding features; I couldn’t even name what kind of tree it was. No leaves graced its gnarled bows as it stretched its few tired gray limbs towards the sky. It looked scarred and beaten. Surely it had endured all manner of winds, rain, lightning strikes, and flames. A certain intangible aura of emotion emanated from its rough bark. 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 shore below. Standing alone for a hundred yards in every direction, it stood like a lone sentinel watching over the rocks and sand. Only one green branch that sagged to the ground sustained this sage of the coast. It did nothing to detract from the rickety crown adorned only by the nest of a lone black bird.

When I took art classes in high school, I would have spent weeks capturing a tree like this with my pastels. If I ever wrote a book involving 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, hidden under it for all I knew. In any half-decent story about this tree, there sure 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.

I continued on along the bluffs. From the layered rock seeped a strange oily substance. I don’t know whether it came naturally from the depths of the earth or if the operations of the rigs offshore left it as a by-product, but I chose to believe the former. Looking down at my sandaled feet, I took care to avoid stepping in it. All the sand grains and dirt on my feet usually bother me to no end, but at the beach it never matters. Eventually I descended the small rocky face down to the sloping sand below where a series of tide pools lay sprawled before me. My eyes quickly begin probing the shallows. I found nothing of interest as I skirted the pools, eventually wandering across the uneven rocks and toward the open sea where the last boulder jutted out of the water. The wind rustled my shaggy hair while the waves growled in their persistent raging against the land. I paused and inhaled deeply, recalling the words of the Psalmist: “For He founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the waters.”

Much has passed since all of that happened. Were it not for my own note-taking shortly after the trip I probably would have forgotten about that tree by now. Soon the bustle and distractions of summer sunk over me, in turn giving way to autumn’s new semester of books, faces, and computer screens. A few sentimental days of Christmas break flash by like several frames from a film. Days blend into one monotonous memory. The wind comes and goes, the skies rain, the sun shines, and still I find myself fighting the reality of the matter. In the real world there is no buried treasure or happily-ever-after love story. In the end it is no more than a tree. One of thousands—perhaps millions—of its kind, and an insignificant one at that.

Over the years, the beach has come to mean different things to me. As I return year after year, with different people and different circumstances, each perspective seems to sing a few new bars of creation’s invisible song. First it was the simple joys of the waves and sand. The big, cold waters always threatened to knock me off my feet. I would run out to the ocean and scamper back to the high ground over and over again as the swells came in after me. 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 captured my supreme interest. I recall a brief trip out to sea on a sizable sailing boat where a net was let down to drag up all kinds of ocean dwelling life forms. I marveled at the flat fish with two eyes on the same side of their head, the morphing starfish, and the great stingrays. I was only too glad to handle the creatures, especially the pancake sized rays (harmless, I suppose) that fit into my child's hands. On a different trip, I spent hours crawling over a human-deposited rock outcropping in search of crabs. It posed quite the challenge. The green-brown crabs, no bigger than my palm, skittered across the rocks and managed to wedge themselves into crags so thin that even my fearless, prying fingers could not squeeze them out. I eventually learned how to catch these little beasts, until one time a particularly desperate crab sent me running back to my family, screaming at the top of my lungs, a severed pincer clamped on my finger.

Next came boogie boarding and ultimate Frisbee. Back then, boogie boarding required big-time skill—nearly surfing-caliber skill—that I fancied myself to naturally possess. Suddenly, the waves were paramount. Long minutes passed in freezing waist-deep swells 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. Let the wave do the work. Good job, now go do it again. Even ultimate—a miserable sport to play given the wind and noticeable slope of the beach—can function on the coast. Come to think of it, I can’t imagine a better place to toss a Frisbee around.

Today, I still enjoy being teased by the waves, searching for crabs, and throwing Frisbees, but the wonder has grown much greater. Slowly but surely, all the hidden melodies of the beach are beginning to meld together. The endlessly crashing waves—blue-gray under the often cloudy sky—echo softly up the dunes. The giant stained rocks stand defiant against the elements. The thick sand extends to my right and left for miles. The infinite horizon in the distance forever embraces the deep sea. They say the world is shrinking, with jet planes and internet cell-phones, and I supposed in some ways it is. But when I stand out on the wave-swept sands and stare out to sea, I feel small. Maybe, just maybe, the coast has always been the same, and we, with our instant-access world, merely fancy ourselves to be growing.

That tree was small, yet huge, all at the same time. I suspect that most hikers pass it up without a second thought, but for the artist, it shakes the imagination. I've never been able to stop any of those waves: waves which contain an entirely new world of creatures underneath them, waves that refused to submit to my sand barricades. Even on my best day throwing the Frisbee, the wind still holds the final say over the disk’s flight. Who am I, a mere sapling of life, to speak to that old, wrinkled tree?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting your essay, Andrew. It painted a beautiful picture and drew me into the experience. Nicely done.