We all live our lives where the sea meets the land, and it does so every day, twice a day. This meeting is foreordained — it is an encroachment really — and the sea always wins. Always. But the breaching can be gentle, or routine and businesslike, or harsh beyond measure.
One recent morning, with a light wind and a cloudless blue sky, the clear water of the harbor advanced calmly and incrementally, inch by inch, over the damp sand. The tide line is the simplest of features, fairly static and regular even as it moves.
But as my dog and I walked along its advancing margin, I noticed this regularity was breached at one spot where a rivulet broke ranks and charged on its own up the beach. I saw that it had done so before in a slight channel subtly carved into the sand. As Thoreau said of the wind, so the tide: it is “self-registering.”
Strange, the workings of the mind, the senses, the random jolt of wonderment: another day, in another mood, a different mindset, I might have walked right by without a thought. But this day I had to stop and ask why this miniature channel was occurring at exactly this spot and not a foot or so to either side. At first glance there was no discernable difference in the conditions of the beach, nothing to explain why it was happening.
As I walked along the steadily advancing tide line, I found another such forging, and then another. What did these three channels have in common? All were situated where bulkheads imposed upon the beach. At the bases of these bulkheads were troughs, where sand had been eroded, probably by the big full-Moon tides we had just experienced, or possibly from last December’s storm. It looked like these depressions, where the beach slopes down to the bases of the bulkheads, might have somehow attracted the incoming water. The sand was rippled like a washboard. On the other hand, there were other bulkheads on the beach that had no such channels leading up to them.
I was confronted with a simple occurrence that I could not explain. I returned on subsequent days and found the same channels in the same spots.
Finally, I called my friend Mark Adams, who is not only an artist but worked for years, along with Graham Giese, on coastal geology projects. He joined me on the beach at low tide, and I showed him these mystery mini-channels. He shook his head and pondered. He proceeded to explore possible explanations for what we were witnessing. He talked of the fractal complexity of wave energy, of eddies and vortices, and other realities that he could visualize far better than I. He certainly thought that the bulkheads, artificial projections onto a natural habitat, had something to do with what we were seeing, but he could not readily explain the how and why of it. There were so many factors to consider: the configuration of the sea bottom just adjacent to these channels, the way the water might be directed onto the beach, and more.
There is also the possibility that randomness plays a part in all of this: sometimes things just happen for no reason at all. There is randomness in nature all around us: the specific branching pattern of a given tree; the designs of lichens growing (or not growing) upon it; the appearance of mushrooms in the woods or eel grass patches on the flats. But is “randomness” just a word we use when there is so much going on that it is impossible to explain it?
I don’t know. The basics of the Cape landscape can be reduced to wind, wave, and sand: everything else is secondary. You would think this is simplicity itself, and yet after 50 years of living here and thinking about such things, I can still be mystified.
Perhaps this little challenge in the damp sand does not impress you. But next time you are out in the natural world, look around: do you understand all that is going on? Are you content to just let the mystery be?