One Grain at a Time
Too often, the wider sweep of life brushes away the details which matter. This is not to say, however, that those details cease to exist—it is just that many of us stumble through our days without actively noticing them.
Today, it is snowing, here at the gateway to the Alps. Yesterday, the flakes were small, minute crystals, barely a whisper to them, each latching to a fellow as it landed and forming tiny, hopeful drifts, banding together to form a miniature icescape of their own; gentle unto the earth they fell, seemingly picking a precise spot to land, to merge and form something far grander. This morning, the flakes were larger and unexpected and they already had a foundation upon which to build.
This is also the way of the sandy beach.
At this time of year, many people are considering a winter break somewhere warmer, by the waters, a stretch of sand to laze upon or, if they are in the global south, a summer getaway, close to the moving air of the oceans, cooling.
As someone raised beside the ocean—I almost wrote ‘by the ocean’, which carries a different connotation, yet one which perhaps also fits—I struggled to understand beach holidays. Why go to the coast to sit and bake, sand was the most boring part of this edge of a world, why not find the cliffs, or pattle1 around those worlds contained within tidal pools?
Eventually, I learnt how to appreciate such a beach (these are not the great sandy beaches of the north of Scotland, those are another biome entirely—and they are wild; today’s story, below, is about one such beach.).
There is life and interest here, it just isn’t necessarily as obvious. I have shared hours on a strip of white sand, propped on an elbow beside a vanishing and reappearing rotation of ghost crabs, watching as they move, so very quickly, then pause, vanishing from sight unless you stare very, very carefully. I would study their holes in the sand, waiting for them to emerge. I would inspect their tracks, so tiny, swiftly vanishing if there is even a small breath of wind. Shells beside me suddenly move as hermit crabs pull their homes tight and hurry on their way. I have watched birds on the beach—or those just offshore, diving, fishing. Sometimes, beyond the breakers, dolphins rise, seemingly amused and fascinated by we humans and our forays into their world.
Those humans themselves are also a subject of much interest. People watching is a thing that writers do—we investigate our fellows and then we let our minds fill in the blanks. We make up stories. A favourite thing of mine is to sit in a beachside bar, ostensibly writing, earphones in but no music being piped through. This way, those around me assume I cannot hear, assume I do not care about their conversations, believe I am not listening—camouflage and concealment echoing those crabs a short distance from my bare feet—and I make up stories.
The sand itself holds worlds. Each grain a tale of its own. For many years now, I have carried a hand lens in my pocket, it fits neatly in the small leather coin pouch which also houses a cleaning cloth for glasses. To be able to study everything at even this relatively small level of magnification is to open a door to an infinite corridor filled with other doors, each leading to a new world.
Sometimes, when viewed this way, those grains are rounded and smooth and monotonous, at others they are more angular, each bearing the scars of their travel, a metamorphic journey. Still others, and you can see they are not rock, but minute fragments of shell, or tiny crystals, or shapes which appear entirely alien. All of these form a ballet of moving pieces, mixing and merging and redistributing themselves over the years, laying down beach, raising up dune and, eventually, forming rock of their own, to one day again be broken and worn, back into sand, back into beach.
So it is with the snow, each crystal reforming into a whole, capable of crushing buildings, breaking limbs on trees, carving up hillsides in avalanche, then disappearing into water, into vapour, taken up into the air once more, to find a new particle of dust around which to form and fall another day, another year.
Our world is full of these stories, full of the cycles of life and death and rebirth. There are lessons to be learnt on even the most bland of beaches, if only we look, use a finer brush to uncover further truths, one grain at a time.
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Are you also a people watcher? Do sandy beaches fill you with joy and a sense of relaxation, or something else? Have you ever looked at sand, really closely? Do you carry a hand lens, or other magnifier? Are you a fan of macro photography, all those tiny worlds zooming into view, detail rich and magnificent? Finally, have you ever visited the empty sweeps of sand in the north of Scotland?
How many years had she been watching the sea break here? Each wave a new beginning, or perhaps an ending, depending on who did the telling. The beach was different now, the traces of a past sometimes hidden, sometimes stark and naked, visible to all.
Here, a crumbling concrete pillbox, mostly buried now, the interior covered in a palimpsest of graffiti, some almost as old as the box itself. She remembered it being built, wanting to get closer to look, but the dunes were mined and the war rumbled through her childhood, at times a thing far away, at others, terrifyingly near. These days, otters brought their catch to the shelter, a wren and her descendants had nested in the southern wall since a great storm had torn through and up the sand, waves burrowing, tunnelling, cracking the concrete and tilting the structure, creating openings, possibilities, hope.
There, the space in the dunes where a certain local building firm had cut corners and cost, digging out the sand to mix into concrete foundations. No one had listened to those who protested, no one really cared about the sand and the animals and birds who lived upon it. No one had cared until the bones started turning up at several new builds. Police were called, inquiries made. It is likely, the paper said, that there are now certain homes in the county with Viking dead entombed beneath kitchen and bedroom, an accidental foundational offering of sorts.
The boiler of a ship all that remained of a wreck, others now long hidden, only to sporadically appear after the largest of storms, before the wind blew the sand over their remains once more. Items would appear on the strandline, left each day, sometimes retrieved by sea or man, sometimes not.
Recently, she had found a plastic crate from Mexico, snaked with goose barnacles, a dead seal, eyes deep dark hollows, the great black-backed gulls angry when she came near. They were the largest gulls in the world, and she was wary of them. That seal had washed ashore not far from where she had recovered the skull of a porpoise the winter before, angry with teeth and time. A peppering of nurdles, a horror of bottles, and a tangle of rope and net, long at sea and crumbling. It was many years since she had learned not to tug this, the shards and splinters penetrated the hands all too quickly, a shower of microplastic dropping to the beach and into the foodchain. She did what she could, but these days her hip made bending harder.
Every time she walked here, she remembered those who had walked with her over the years, four-legged company dashing into the waves, excited, rolling in dead thing and fox urine alike. One dog after another, for generations. Now, the care home would not allow her to keep a pet, so she mostly walked alone. Two-legged company—or three, technically, if you followed the riddle of the sphinx—was sporadic, season- and weather-dependant. Most of her friends preferred the comfort of their reclining chairs, crosswords, suduko and the numbing effect of daytime television. She renounced all that.
Along the beach and back. Once a day, at least. For generations. This had to count for something, this had to mean something, she was sure, but she could never quite work out what. She had a constant fear of the day they took away her driving licence. Then the beach would be ripped out of her grasp and tread, and she would fade quickly, like a mermaid removed from the salt.
Today, the beach was hers alone, but for that bully of greater black-backed gulls, a majesty of golden plover, a scurry of dunlins, an amethyst of purple sandpipers, a comfort of velvet scoters out on the water, and a mourn of great northern divers slightly further out. The names she had learnt over the years, the collective nouns she had added herself, for variety and because, even if she shunned that world of crossword and suduko, language mattered—and why should Carl Linnaeus have had all the fun? Despite this, she sometimes called them by their Linnaean classification, just because she could. They would answer to either name and none.
The beach was hers and theirs, alone. For some stubborn reason, she had never fallen in with the birding crowd. She preferred instead to keep her own council when it came to the winged denizens of this half moon of sand and rock and dune. That was not to say she never spoke to them, sometimes they would ask her the right questions, sometimes not, especially those who travelled here from the South to twitch, to catch sight of something not on their list. They were usually friendly, if driven, but sometimes she had witnessed behaviour which made her frown: stress, anger, despair unto the point of rage. People were odd things.
She kept her own records, of course. It would be foolish not to, given how often she was here. No one knew how many notebooks she had—neat, illustrated, here a pressed flower, there a tiny feather—no one but her and her solicitor, who had helped draw up her last will and testament, not that she had ever had a first. She smiled, thinking of this, thinking of how those books would thrill just the right person, one day.
And, perhaps, that day was close. The walk now took far longer than she remembered—except perhaps from when she was a bairn, but in those days walks were never truly linear, more a series of intersecting circles, spirals and random trajectories. She tried to recall what it was like to run here, barefoot on the wet sand.
As she reached the pillbox, she decided she would check the wren’s nest. She had not disturbed it this winter, but it was always interesting to see how it had been remade the spring before, reordered, snug and comfortable. The tiny LED lamp in her pocket would be enough to see into the crack.
Before she did, however, she needed to catch her breath. This happened more and more, sometimes accompanied by a tingling in her shoulder and a sense of strange dread. Which was odd, because she knew she had nothing to fear.
She sat down on an upturned bottle crate, washed ashore and repurposed by the local teenagers keen to smoke and drink somewhere away from prying eyes. A couple of cans of cider stood neatly against the wall, on a shelf levelled from the infill of sand, a fresh smattering of graffiti. Ingrid, apparently, loved John, and if this was destroyed it would remain true.
She knew love, and she knew destruction, both. She wondered if Ingrid still felt that way.
The pain was back in her shoulder and tingling its way along her jaw, the pillbox felt a little darker than it had before. Perhaps it sank deeper into the dunes each year, perhaps clouds had appeared as she had struggled down into this remnant from her past. Either way, she sat for a time, back to the wall, waiting until her breathing slowed again, thinking about the other moments she had sat here or nearby, of surprising the otter and her three kits, of the time there had been a pair of adders flowing together on the roof—courting, as it had been called when she was younger.
She wondered what it was known as for Ingrid and John, then she closed her eyes, to better recall what courting felt like.
Memories span and memories warmed. The wrens’ nest waited.
(This story owes a debt to Sinclair’s Bay, in Caithness, Scotland and also to a whisper—or perhaps a Scottish cousin—of the Grandmother in Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. The former, very deliberately, the latter, I only realised after I made edits. Odd, how that sometimes happens.)
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