Posted by: floridanature | June 18, 2009

Beach Glass & Beauty & the Transience of Tides

It’s an hour or so after dawn here on the slender spit of ground quartz and shell known as the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I am walking at a good clip with my daughter Beth, headed north on a beach that at this hour is almost deserted.

Beth during beach walk

Beth during beach walk


Beyond the breakers, the gray dorsal of a lone bottlenose dolphin rises from the sea and then sinks back down. A squadron of brown pelicans glides single file just above where the dorsal was, tips of their wings glazing the spindrift of the waves as they go, headed south. We are careful to walk right at the water’s edge, where each incoming wave flattens out into froth before retreating, leaving the tiny bubbling holes of burrowing coquinas and tellins behind.2

Later, swarms of tourists will descend from the McMansions that line the dunes here at Duck and hunch together in chairs, under umbrellas, their white skin turning as red as a steamed blue crab in the summer sun. By night, they’ll crowd the local bars and restaurants, and sometimes, let their kids set off fireworks on the beach, jolting themselves with the rush of sound and flashing light, instead of sitting quietly to absorb the wonder of it all.

But, just for now, I can pretend this is the same beach I first visited with my mom and dad and brother to surf fish years ago—can imagine that the Outer Banks itself is still retro and insular and southern, flavored more by the raw brogue of fishermen and shrimpers than the flat dialect of suburban Washington, D.C.

Our family stayed in one of several “Gregory’s Cottages” then, tromping barefoot through a low slot in the sandy ridge and sea oats with our surf rods in the morning. Some afternoons, we’d trek up to the massive 100-foot high sand dune known as “Jockey’s Ridge”, or climb the steps to the Hatteras Light House. Once, I went fishing out in the Gulf Stream for blue marlin, watching in awe as an animal four or five times my size rose up from the depths to chase our shiny teaser, the reflective sunlight drawing it up to us like some dark and forgotten dread. The mate set the hook and I fought it for a while, not really wanting to land it, grateful when on its third leap it finally threw the hook.footBeach

By evening, in our little cottage we’d cook up the spot and croakers we caught earlier in the day. Sometimes, we’d venture out on the night beach to watch the clumps of bioluminescence glowing on the sand. A few of the fishing piers that stretched out over the ocean had old southern beach amusements, nothing fancy by today’s standards, some pinball and jukes. We didn’t seem to know as much about how the world worked then, and it freed up a lot of space on the hard drive to immerse ourselves in the moment, to rejoice in the little shared joys of a place.

Today, we walk the few miles towards the research pier at Duck, where scientists study the drift of the littoral current, and how geography and climate and human-made contrivances encourage it to deposit sand, or to carry it away. The beach under us is dynamic, as alive as any single person has ever been, and—like the giant dune to the west—prone to shift and to change, as if constantly re-examining its own reason for being. If you are living on a foundation of sand, it helps to have at least a vague idea of where that sand might someday want to go.OuterBanks

Beth and her husband Chuck and her boys Ray and Will live away from this beach, on the other side of HW 12, the asphalt road that funnels tourists to and from this place. There, they are wisely nestled inside a maritime thicket of live oak, persimmon, cedar, myrtle, pines—all of it stunted and shaped by the wind and salt. Most of us have been conditioned to believe that a beachside view is superior to all else and insist on buying or renting a precarious wooden structure atop a dune, just yards from the sea. But those who live here year-round most often do so away from the ocean, preparing for that special moment when the sea stops being a smiley face postcard and, with a nor-easter gale behind it, turns into a raging force of nature.

surfThis dynamic of the sea is repeated along most windward shores—-such as where I live back in Florida. But it is particularly apparent here because the Outer Banks protrudes into the Atlantic like the jaw of a punch drunk fighter, almost as if it is daring the ocean to smack it one. Indeed, the slender spit of quartz that holds Duck and Nags Head and Kitty Hawk transports us humans far beyond the barrier islands of the rest of the eastern coast. Out here, the Gulf Stream—even the continental shelf—is barely 40 miles away. Everything is churned by its dynamic: Broken shells are rounded as neat and smooth as guitar picks; jagged glass is tumbled relentlessly, its colors turned cloudy, its edges muted, safe. A broken beer bottle from years ago becomes desirable, reborn from the surf as “beach glass.”

The world around me is ephemeral, here just for the now. It is like being with a beautiful woman who is simply not the right fit—her beauty is made even more so by the knowledge it will soon end, vanishing as surely as the sand ebbs away from the shore when the new and full moons squeeze the tides ever so tightly. For now, I watch, amused, as a large starling dances along the same foam line we walk, pecking quickly at the bubbling holes for a tasty bivalve. Blackbirds usually go for terrestrial insects and worms. But finding itself on an island far at sea, this one learned to make the best of it, figuring out how to tease the mollusks from their holes in the flat surf sand.Beach_Glass

If there is a good lesson in that, there is also one in the sub-text of the place itself: These slender islands, bracketed by estuary and ocean, are an arena where natural forces collide, day after day. They do so out in the ocean where the south-flowing, cold Labrador Current meets the warmer, north-flowing Gulf Stream. On land, winds from the northeast and the southwest do the same, colliding atop the string of islands and sound and marsh, keeping the big westerly dunes in place, torrents of air pushing waves of sand against the other.

And, the collison of traditon happens, too, the old isolated fishing culture not faring nearly as well when the affluent tourists smack up against it, relic swales of authenticity here and there, but–really—most of it diluted, displaced, caught in a rip of momentum.

And of course, the ideas of my own life collide here as well, ever shifting and dynamic as these monstrous dunes, every bit as shadowed as the cool and stunted maritime thickets of dwarf oaks and myrtles and bayberry. I look once over my shoulder at the line of whitecaps behind us, and follow Beth back up and over the dune. She has become a kind, caring and insightful adult and I’m very proud of her. Above us in the sky, two frontal systems push toward each other as banks of  clouds—just in case I’m too obtuse to know for sure that it’s all about collision and loss, transformation and growth. The only barrier islands that won’t eventually wash away are the ones ringed by bulkheads and steel—but then, they no longer have the magic of the natural pulsing that once made them so.CloudBow

And in the crease between the two cloud banks above, Beth sees a shard of a rainbow, glowing just for the now like beach glass on the sand. And then, I know for sure that the most beautiful notions of all are the ones that are the most transient, the ones that you know will vanish because they must.

And instead of resisting, you smile in great appreciation—and then with a force of resolution and energy and light, you clear your mind and heart, and let it go.

Behind you, a right whale skims just below the surface of the sea a mile offshore. She has decided, just for now, to keep swimming north. She will do so not to mate, but to discover great pods of plankton simmering like chowder in the dark and blue wonderment of the sea.



  1. Wow I love your way of writing. It’s my favorite way to write. Sometimes I can’t grasp it but when it comes to writing about the water it comes naturally. Lake Huron and is where I collet my beach glass. I call it the Secrets of the Water. Each with there own story to tell. Well mostly I wanted to say great article 🙂

  2. Hi Sydney

    Thanks for the nice comments on the beach piece. Secrets of the Water, I like that a lot. Best of luck in continued beach walks…- bill

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