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The edge of the sea

Allen Watkin
/
Wikimedia

In high summer, it seems as if the whole world is at the beach, and I am the only one with my clothes on and my feet dry. This is entirely my own choice, but it creates an irrational feeling of guilt.

On Long Island, we have the ocean all around us, and indeed the whole Island is made of sand. Geologically speaking we are on the beach the whole time. Dig down a foot or two in the back yard, and there's a perfect sandy beach right under the perennial bed. It seems eccentric and curmudgeonly not to be a beach person in these circumstances, but I’m not.

The beaches of my childhood were often chill, sometimes wet, and always English, so they were not an encouraging introduction to the beach habit. Also I have never discovered the secret of getting comfortable on sand. You can’t sit up straight for long because there is nowhere to rest your back, and if you lie down, you discover that the softest sand turns to stone after a few minutes. The only way to be comfortable on a beach is to bring your own furniture. I won’t even mention the effects of the deadly ultraviolet rays, although my dermatologist would be happy to fill in the graphic details.

The beach is a double-edged symbol. In literature it often has a dark meaning. In Neville Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel "On the Beach" and J.G. Ballard’s "The Terminal Beach," it represents the end of everything. [To be “on the beach” is to be washed up, finished.] In H.G. Wells’ classic "The Time Machine" the hero travels thirty million years into the future to arrive at the last moment of time, on a lifeless beach of dark red sand.

Yet this narrow strip of granulated rock along the edge of the ocean has a universal attraction. Seventy-five percent of Americans live within fifty miles of the sea, and most of them choose to take their vacations at the shore. Almost five hundred million people crowd around the rim of the Mediterranean, and so many vacationers come to join them in July and August that you almost expect the continent to tilt down at the southern edge and sink, like Atlantis.

Psychologists have speculated that the close packed crowds on the sand are recreating a lost sense of community, or even reenacting some ancient communion with the ocean itself, which is where we all came from four hundred million years ago. Another attraction may be as simple as being able to take your shoes off, or take practically everything off, and feel the primitive pleasure that comes when your private skin meets the public air.

The beach is also a beginning, or a potential beginning. Whether we are beach people or not, we all love to look at the sea, and perhaps that is what we really want. A lake may be pretty, but it has boundaries. The ocean is boundless. On the lapping edge of the waves, we have the sensation of being on the brink of new worlds and having our troubles literally behind us. The beach is the perfect metaphor of escape because the sea can take us anywhere: to Barbados, Barcelona, Bangkok or Bridgeport. The beach is a place for dreams and infinite fantasy. A vacation in the middle of Kansas just isn’t the same.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.