The Ruricolist is now available in print.

The Beach

The beach is as different from ocean and from land, as land and ocean are different from each another. It is the third state, the middle path. Ocean is faithless, relentless, and indifferent; we can hurt it but we cannot destroy it. Land is fixed; it is given; grounded, grounding, foreground and background. There are no names for what we trust which do not in some way resolve to the rock-solid trust we give the land – even when that trust is misplaced, given to earthquake zones, floodplains, or coy volcanoes.

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 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, you half-swim walking in it. Wet, it is smooth and hard as pavement. The paradoxes of sand, as a child discovers them the first day at the beach, exhaust all riddles.

Beach air is different. It does not feel like sea air. Here the motions of the air are not answered by a moving deck. On a beach I could never imagine myself on a boat. On a boat, even in still water, I could never imagine myself on a beach. Nor does it feel 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.

We cannot see what we take for granted; to see at all, we must see anew; and we are never more aware than when we are between – between day and night, between forest and field, between city and country – between sea and land, where the beach makes a permanent twilight, the golden hour of the golden sand. Even between past and present – when the smooth dark horseshoe crabs, leading their slow tails, creep together out of the sea, up from five hundred million years to tell us that on this planet, we are the aliens.

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 as they watch the reckless, desperate surfers ride.