Departments

The beach

[N. B. There is only one real beach in the world—Long Beach Island—of which all others are only variably distorted reflections.]

The beach is as different from ocean and from land, as land and ocean are different from one another. It is the third state, the middle path. Ocean is faithless, relentless, and indifferent; we can hurt it, but to destroy it we would first have to destroy ourselves. Land is fixed; it is given; it is ground, foreground and background, grounded, grounding; indeed, there may be no words for steadiness which do not in some way evoke the rock-solid trust which, by nature, we must give the land—even when that trust is misplaced, given to earthquake zones, coy volcanoes, or floodplains.

The beach is always between, in kind as in place. It is the sea slowed down, and the land sped up. It is solid enough to sleep on, but not solid enough to build on. It flows, but without tides. Dry, it is liquid-like, cannot be dug out or molded. Wet, it is solid-like, can be built with or sculpted—but when it dries it does not set, it falls apart. Dry, one half-swims walking in it. Wet, it is smooth and hard as pavement. The paradoxes of sand, as a child discovers them on the first day at the beach, beggar the dreams of alchemy.

The air is different. It does not feel like sea air. That is perhaps only because the motions of the air are not answered by a moving deck. On a beach I could never imagine myself on a boat, and on a boat, even in still water, I could never imagine myself on a beach. Nor is it at all like inland air. And the sunlight is different. Even in summer, though medically no less dangerous, it feels harmless—it does not seem to burn. Its warmth goes straight to the bone and stays there.

The mind cannot see what is settled or taken for granted; to see at all, it must see anew; and one is never more aware than when one is between—between day and night, between forest and field, between city and country—between sea and land, where the beach makes a permanent twilight. Or between past and present—when the smooth dark horseshoe crabs, slow and scraping, creep together out of the sea, up from five hundred million years to tell us that we are the aliens on this planet.

The beach can do well to wake you in this way even in the summer, when you must trip over tourists and vacationers; it can do better, when the crowds thin in the cold; best, when the wind is high and the clouds are thick ahead of the storm, when the sea and sky are full of the same gray restlessness, and you share the beach only with those who know better than to notice each other, who share a mutual irrelevance and a common bemusement for the reckless, desperate surfers.