Nantucket Essays

Billion Year Beach

• by Robert P. Barsanti •

boysonbeach I was thinking about how strange it is.

My two boys and I have spent much of the summer at Cisco this year.  Freed from the predictable pattern of the pond, they run through the dunes, spray themselves with sun screen and plunge into the rolling surf.  In a moment, they stand up, glance around, and fling themselves into the next crashing wave.

The boys are not strange.  Having been a boy, I can say, with authority, that getting battered, tossed, flipped, and on a few lucky occasions, flung through the water is the height of pleasure.  For the rest of their lives, motorcycles, fast cars, and cheerleaders will only imitate the thrill and pleasure that the boys feel today in the surf.  Nothing soothes the itch of testosterone like a crashing wave.

Nor is the beach strange.  As long as there has been land and water, there have been beaches. A stegosaurus used one as a short cut to get to his favorite fern bar.  Eons after we have left for the stars (one war or another) our Lego pieces will be washing up on them.  Beaches live longer than mountain ranges and continents.

Cisco Beach is just like any of those billion year beaches.  On a typical day this summer, with an off-shore wind, head high waves land a few hundred yards from shore, seethe and froth in over a waist deep sandbar before gathering themselves for a last ditch heave up the beach.  At the edge of the reach of waves, the sand is wet, smooth, and lined by drying eelgrass and kelp.  Beyond that, the unshaded sand is hot and deep until it rises to the firmness of a dune, and then submerges into a grassy plain.

This one particular stretch of sand is at least 60,000 years old, although, in that time, it has retreated two hundred miles.  When the great Wisconsin glacier began to melt, one of the streams that flowed off of it came down a stream-bed that became Hummock Pond and another one that became Reed Pond.  The water returned to the ocean, the glacier retreated to the arctic and the beach began its slow backwards tango with the surf.

In those 60,000 years, the Wampanoag (or whoever came before them) walked it, hunted on it, and cut up dead whales on it.  When the white settlers arrived, we chased the half-witted sheep off of it and did our own bit of shore whaling.  In the dunes near Cisco, a six guys sat all winter in a whale watching station; one guy up on the tower and five guys in a hut, waiting for the word to go plunging into the sea.  A hundred years after them, the fishermen put off from shore in their dories and brought back cod, halibut, or anything else to bite a hook or get caught in a net.  Then came the wreckers and the Coast Guard, both with an eye on the sails passing well off shore.  They all looked over the horizon for food or fortune.

Then came us.  Sixty years of swimsuits, sandy blankets, wet towels, seaweed in the car, and sunburn.  Two, or perhaps three, generations have come out here to the beach to stare at the infinite.  We’re the strange ones.

More than fifty years ago, President Kennedy observed that “All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean… And when we go back to the sea … we are going back from whence we came.” It’s a warm water annihilation at the beach; a welcome home party for all of our fluids.  Like Buddhist monks in bikinis, we lay out before the eternal and listen to the slow roll of time.  We can stare out at the winking horizon and pull whatever strange wisdom we can from its dark, cold depths.

On one of the few cool waveless mornings of the summer, I sat on the beach next to a fifty year old former broker at Lehman Brothers.  His office is empty, his chair has been recycled, and the slow amassing of treasure that was his life work disappeared in a moment of electric fire.  He knew, well, the annhiliation of the sea.

We were both photographing our children on surfboards.  Twenty years from now, according to Friedman, there will be a billion more people on the planet, an ice cap that can fit in my backyard, and cars powered by algae.  Twenty years will bring edge of the ocean two thousand feet inland.  Will those boys sit here and photograph another generation of surfers?

This is the luxury of our age.  Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes were not able to sit at Cisco and ponder our chemical brotherhood with the infinite. The wisdom that settles on us in the salt and sunshine comes to us in our wealth.  Beach days are as rare as orchids, rubies, and bluefin tuna.  Today, we have the hours to sit on a beach and not herd sheep, cut bait, or repel invaders.  Today, we have the cars and boats to get us out here.  Today, we have the money to not only make our stay comfortable, but even to live year round in the roar of the wave.  Out on the beach, you feel as if you are on the shore of the tides of time, separate and eternal.  But it’s a strange moment.

The beach itself is as infinite as paper.  Each tide offers a fresh sheet, while the old one burns in a slow-rolling, salt water fire.  A billion tiny ashes are shoveled out in the current and swept into the cold depths.   The sand sheet where the Wampanoags flensed the whale has been incinerated and scattered among the ashes of the mammoths and the dinosaurs.  The beach that held the wreck of the Marshall has been obliterated, as will the one that holds this afternoon’s sand mansion (five bedrooms, four baths, and a vanishing horizon).  Every beach burns slowly in a holocaust of time and water. We are the sparks.

Articles by Date from 2012