From time to time I write about being on the beach. Mostly I find myself on Wellfleet Town or National Seashore beaches. My experiences there include visits to protected bay beaches with their calm waters and carpets of shells, crab remains, and rounded stones. But I also walk along the ocean beaches which are far more exposed to fierce weather and where the remnants of once-living things are sparse. The ocean shores have the drama of imposing but fragile, slowly disintegrating dunes. I rarely sit on these beaches but rather I walk, observe, and think about what is going on around me. Mainly I store images in my mind to describe at some later date.
Last week I was in a totally different coastal place – in Southern California near San Diego. I was there to see family and, over a number of days, walked with them along the ocean. It was January and the temperature was in the low 70s while in New England it was substantially colder and where few people were likely to be beach-walking. But in California there was a lot of active life. I found myself doing the same thing that I do on the Cape – collecting mental pictures.
First I saw the high sand cliffs which appeared to be in the process of crumbling just like the ones on the Cape. The tops of these west-coast dunes held densely-packed houses, condo buildings, and hotels that were so close to the edge that it was obvious that their time looking out over the Pacific was limited. A lot of work had been done to shore up the dunes using stone and concrete walls. Even with these attempts at preservation destruction was evident. There were ragged edges of collapsed parking lots, long stairways that were closed and posted with dire safety warnings, and ineffective-looking fences to prevent people from climbing.
One difference between California and Cape Cod dunes is that Cape cliffs are comprised of loose sand that can be grabbed and balled-up in a human hand, whereas the California sand is compacted into dense columns that look ready to calve off in big sheets. There are already extensive, ominous vertical slices and deep cave-like cavities.
Evident on both coasts and in great contrast to the observable demise of dunes is vibrant life on the flats, mainly from people and dogs. California beach-dogs ran free in fast-paced, jumping swarms comprised of tiny Chihuahuas, Great Danes and every size in between. In Wellfleet some rules specify that dogs must be leashed producing a much more staid feeling in comparison.
Surfers traditionally sit in the water astride their surf-boards waiting for the next tantalizing wave. East and west coast surfers seem similar in their unfailing awareness of the movement of the water. Their tense eagerness is evident in their taut expectant bodies.
This day in California the air was slightly grey with mist. Two young men were not sitting in anticipation, but running on the sand. Their slim, delicate figures in sleek black wet suits dashed in flawless unison. Each of their steps mirrored the other person’s stride. They both had long black hair which blew out behind them in the winds they created with their own movement. Their surf boards were cradled under an arm and tethered to an ankle as they ran. They looked like a paired-set of elegant birds that were taxiing before take-off. Their eyes were riveted towards the waves as they searched for the ideal place to enter the water. With a tiny nod between them, they turned seaward, splashed in, and began their pursuit of the perfect crest. I lost track of them in the surf, but wondered if they would mount their boards, ride the same wave, and fall with the same precision and symbiosis that they had on land. It all felt magical in the delicate haze.
Bi-coastal beaches share two major characteristics: disintegrating, dangerous sand cliffs and vibrant life at the water’s edge. There is a difference though. In California more buildings are likely to fall down than in Wellfleet simply because there are fewer structures to collapse on that part of the Cape. The National Seashore has been there in an attempted to protect delicate nature. In several hundred years there will still be beaches on both coasts along with dogs and surfers. However, there will be fewer high dunes, and not as many houses or hotels looking over the roiling, unpredictable ocean landscapes.
All this talk of beaches and dunes make me yearn for spring, and taking a walk along the Atlantic. It is both a happy and poignant anticipation. Like the surfers, I will be watching closely, but I will be studying the cliffs – not the water. I will be breathing the wonderful salty air while assessing the over-winter damage on this fragile shore. Once again, I will capture these images and store them away for future reflection. I will report back to you on what I have seen.