J. went to the beach yesterday. This is an account of it.
J. brought his folding bike for extra mobility. The morning was cloudy, cool, and quiet. The boardwalk was populated with the usual denizens—regulars, vacationers in the rented beachfront houses, and random beach goers with dogs, small children, and large coolers.
J. biked to a location some distance from the parking lots and turned onto one of the concrete paths that extend onto the beach for about 100 yards and stop. These have warnings about exiting bikes at their beginnings, so they are there for bikes. They go about 1/4 of the way to the water. It would be folly to extend them all the way to the ocean, but why have them at all? J. dismounted from the bike and rolled it toward the water. He came to a sand berm and had to go around. Indeed, a wheeled bulldozer machine was creating more of them, expending fuel and time forming the sand into new shapes that would certainly revert to their natural tendency in a short time. It was unclear what purpose was served.
The Sand Fort
J. stopped in front of a sand fort that had been constructed the previous day. Twenty yards to the left was a small construction of sticks with a square of red cloth attached. J. did not investigate this ritual construct. It seemed best to leave it alone.
When arriving at the shore, one of the main considerations is whether the tide is coming in, or going out. There are almanacs and charts and tables that will inform this question, but J. did not consult these. He watched as the edge of the surf kept licking at the outer boundary of the fort, which defended some interior structures from dissolution. The contest between the fort and the sea was an unequal one, but as the fort had survived the night, it would seem to be placed at the upper limit of current tides. J. stood his bike up with the kickstand resting on a discarded plastic lid found within the sand fort, laid out his towel, and assembled his hiking chair. It was time for contemplation.
At this moment a wave managed to breach the top of the sand fort. Perhaps the decision to locate was premature. But as it turned out, that was the furthest extent of the tide for that morning.
The main actors in this scene were sea birds. To the right a large gathering of gulls consulted with one another. Other gulls flew back and forth along the shore, making a “churreck-churreck-churreck” call. The sea was largely calm, with breakers crashing right at the shoreline, conditions impossible for surfing of any kind, but farther out, gulls and pelicans swam together in mixed groups, fishing and fighting over any fish that were caught. If fish were caught, other birds flew over to join the group and try their luck.
J. also saw dolphins arching out of the water. This made him wonder, “Do dolphins eat birds?” The floating birds did not seem worried.
While all of this activity was ongoing, a single gull perched on the ramparts of the sand fort to stare at J. Humans always have food, it seemed to be thinking. Perhaps staring at a single human, like playing the same slot machine for a long time, will eventually result in a jackpot.
The Fort in More Detail
Behind the forward wall of the fort the mystery builders had made two round mounds, concave in the center, like wells, or perhaps that might serve as bases for planned towers. These were the structures the wall protected. The leftmost one contained a broken styrofoam cup. The plastic coffee cup lid that now helped the kickstand hold up the bicycle had also been collected from this receptacle. The one on the right, but nearer the center, contained a yellow vegetable, perhaps an artichoke heart. J. did not investigate the vegetable.
Earlier, a crow had picked up the cup, but rejected it as uninteresting. Crows at the beach are out of their domain. They enjoy themselves, but lack their normal swagger. They can’t fish or swim, so they walk about poking at things and enjoying the occasional tidbit of exotic seafood. They are clearly on a family outing.
Mr. Gull Takes the Cup
Mr. Gull by this time had tired of staring at J. and decided more action was in order. He hopped down from the rampart, picked up the cup and began walking around with it. He repeatedly tried to swallow it, but it was too big. He put it down and pecked at it. At one point he had it stuck on his beak. J. was amused, but when Mr. Gull got the cup off his beak, he began punching it into smaller pieces which he ate. At this point, J. intervened. He rose from his chair, advanced on Mr. Gull, and confiscated the cup. Mr. Gull was unsurprised that J. wanted this very valuable cup.
Gulls often think that plastic is food. Crows will eat almost anything but are smart enough to know that plastic is not good for them.
The Inevitable Contemplation of Sand
J. was tired of sitting in the chair so he folded it back up and put it in the backpack. He sat down cross-legged on the towel and began studying the ring-a-ding causality of the sand in front of him. Great slow forces had combined to smash rocks into particles and bring them to this spot. Bits and pieces of creatures were mixed in, a potpourri of quartz, salt, and organic matter. Was this sand entirely different from sand on Mars? Someday, perhaps we will know.
While J. was looking at sand, two ladies came walking down the beach, the only people on this otherwise deserted stretch of shoreline except for some lifeguards who came buzzing by in a pickup truck. The ladies stopped right in front of J. and began having a long conversation. Why, J. thought, did they stop here? They can have the whole beach to themselves. Eventually, they moved on, only to return 30 minutes later and stop in the same spot.
In the interval, a long snake-like line of pelicans, about thirty birds, swept by, a conga line of pelicans, skimming just above the water, sometimes flapping, sometimes gliding. An unexpected and beautiful sight. And then a foot-long fish jumped out of the water, just in front of the sand fort.
An Apple, A Nap, and a Philosophical Question
J. got an apple out of the backpack, a big green and red Fuji. Apples taste better at the beach than at home.
After a short nap, it was time to head home. Mr. Gull will live another day, but tomorrow, he will probably find more plastic to eat. Is it right to intervene in small ways? J. doesn’t know.