On the Fourth of July in 2020 the Covid restrictions were lifted and thousands of people rushed to the beach. They have been rushing to the beach ever since. The seashore is a magnet. Seventy-five percent of Americans choose to live within fifty miles of the coast. We are especially lucky on Long Island. Because the island is nothing but a beach, a narrow finger of sand, getting narrower every year. So we are never far from the sea just as we are never far from a pizza place. We scarcely ever see the sea, because so much of the shoreline is fenced off as the private property of the wealthy. But it’s nice to know that the sea is there for those who can afford it, and that the occasional public beach provides some limited access to it.
Our family vacations long ago were taken on the beaches of southern England. They call this area the English Riviera, demonstrating the famous British sense of humor. I remember quite vividly the peculiarly nasty texture of wet sand and our picnics in the car or the bus shelter with the rain pouring down outside. When we did manage to picnic on the beach the food was heavily seasoned with sand and wasps. My sand castles were washed away by the tide or stomped by older children. I was tormented by sinister eels hiding under rocks, stinging jellyfish, freezing waves, sharp stones, clinging, foul-smelling seaweed, folding beach chairs that folded by themselves and trapped your fingers, and boredom.
So I occupied my time by digging deep holes in the sand, hoping that somebody would fall into them in the shadowless blaze of high noon. This was an idea I got from a picture book about prehistoric hunters who persuaded mammoths to fall into their traps. But I never trapped a mammoth or anybody else because there was never any sun at high noon. When I think about having a good time, a beach is not the first place that comes to my mind. I’ve seen more attractive and even warmer beaches since then, but it may take more than one lifetime to shake off those early impressions. You can’t sit or read comfortably on a beach, unless you take your own furniture, and there’s nothing much else to do apart from swimming in cold water of unknown cleanliness.
But mine is a minority point of view, rooted in those traumatic childhood experiences, a kind of PBSD or Post Beach Stress Disorder. Beaches are enormously popular with those grew up in friendlier climates. Now that I am much older, a little wiser, and living in a warmer climate, I understand that my problem with the beach was childish naivité. I stopped going to them at exactly the age when I should have started. Beaches aren’t for kids. They are sandy stage sets for young adults to show off their fresh and beautiful bodies, and to admire the aesthetic qualities of other fresh and beautiful bodies, and to get as close as possible to other fresh and beautiful bodies. Beaches are the ultimate outdoor mating and dating service, and children are the result rather than the cause of all this fun in the sun.
City dwellers have been escaping to the beach since the overheated citizens of ancient Rome discovered Ostia more than two thousand years ago, and modern Italians rushed back to their beaches the moment they were released from quarantine, they couldn’t wait. All through the summer of 2020, 2021, and now 2022, the beaches have been packed with people sunbathing and socializing as if they have never heard of Covid19, or dermatology.
The beach is certainly a great excuse for doing nothing because there is nothing much you can do. Even sitting down is difficult unless you have brought a comfortable chair. It is a big beautiful sandbox where you can take your shoes off, maybe take everything off, and play. It’s the meeting place of water, land, humanity, and sunshine – a liminal space on the edge of the everyday world, where just about anything goes. Poets like Byron, Shelley, and Swinburne have loved and celebrated this liminal space on the edge of the sea.
So the word “beach” for many people conjures up a poetic paradise. Stretches of golden sand against a blue sky and a blue sea are standard images in tourist brochures. These places do exist. I’ve seen and even sat uncomfortably on some of them. But the vast majority of the world’s million kilometers of coastline is not even remotely like that golden image. Coastlines are typically rocky, muddy, strewn with pebbles, garbage and filth, oil pollution and plastic washed up from the sea. A shore is more often a place of danger and death than a playground.
Some authors have portrayed the beach like this, as a symbol of endings and lost causes. On the Beach is the title of a 1957 nuclear war thriller by Neville Shute, in which the beach becomes a metaphor for desolation and loss. The expression “On the beach” means washed up, hopeless, finished. Beachcombers and beach bums are losers, people you wouldn’t want to invite to your wine tasting event even if they wore masks. In J.G.Ballard’s apocalyptic novel, The Terminal Beach, the beach represents the end of everything. In H.G.Wells’s The Time Machine the world ends on a lifeless, darkening beach.
What attracts so many to the beach, I’m sure, is a very different kind of symbolism, unconsciously felt. It’s not about the sand, it’s about the sea – the sight and sound and clarity of the ocean. The sea is our primeval home, and we long to return to it. When our local beaches were reopened a woman interviewed by the local radio station caught it precisely in three words: “This is freedom.” The sea can lead to anything and everything. If I sailed out from Long Island I could get to Tahiti eventually, and become another Gaughin; or maybe to the Greek Islands, and become another Henry Miller, or anywhere, to become anything. From the edge of the sea, we can touch the whole world, or leave it. All our troubles are literally behind us. That is freedom.