There are places on the seacoast of Maine that make you glad to be alive. A field of blueberries. A view over a saltwater bay. Low-lying fog in the morning that dissipates as you drink your coffee. Given the time to look, the peacefulness of the views can saturate your soul. All sense of time and responsibility fade into an endless desire just to be, and perhaps to contemplate. The smell of the sea, the salt tinged with the decay of vegetable growth and former sea creatures, is responsible for the contemplative nature of the coast. It seems to add sincerity to the beauty all around.
Everyone loves the seashore. Fully half the world's population lives near it. However, some are more pleasing than others. The Maine coast is inhospitable, wild, rugged, even mildly frightening. It offers sharp rocks instead of sand. Black flies, horseflies, deerflies and mosquitoes patrol the rocky beaches and utterly infest the swamps and forests nearby. Swimming in the cold water is for the hardy or inebriated. Yet Maine's attraction is equal to the languid beaches of Southeast Asia.
Seashores are neither solid land nor uncertain sea but the line between. The shore is a place to wait, a transition on a journey. The land falls into the sea. The sea claws at the land. While we can be distracted by local color, we eventually peer at the distant horizon and boats between, examine the flotsam by our feet, and walk their length in silence. The features of a particular beach are often irrelevant to the state of mind they put us in. We think to the future and the past, losing our sense of the present.
In a bid to avoid going to war, Odysseus tilled the sand on the beach of Ithaca to convince King Agamemnon he was insane. Agamemnon placed Odysseus' infant son in front of the plow. Outwitted, Odysseus stopped, revealing that he was sane enough to go to war. Afterwards, he spent ten long years trying to get home, prevented by an angry Poseidon. Odysseus visited many islands; but whenever on land that wasn't home, he tried to get back to sea. And when at sea, he sought land. The beach was the beginning of Odysseus' voyage to war. While his journey didn't cost him his life, it cost him 20 years away from his family.
While I've never tried to till a beach, I oddly feel at home on them. I enjoy walking the shore line, between land and sea, on the property of neither. It's the rocks that catch my eye. The textures and features of the larger ones are fascinating. I pick up hundreds of the smaller stones for closer inspection. If they're round and flat, I skip them. If they're less than met the eye, they go back on the beach. And if they're curious, I keep them. And of course they make me think of time.
Each rock began its history somewhere at some time. The one I hold in my hand might have started on a beach, where mud and sand collected in layers over centuries, compressed and pushed slowly down into the earth, thousands of feet down, heat and pressure building, compressing, melting, reshaping it into new rock as other pressures push the old seabed up above the water into a new mountain chain, the topmost parts crumbling away over the millennia, finally this one piece breaks free from the rest to lie on a beach, rolled in the water where I find it, still sharp if recently freed, rounded by waves otherwise.
Nothing much human matters in geologic time. In each rock's history is more time than humanity could ever contemplate. These rocks have all been to hell and back, so to speak, over many millions of years. What they could say, could they speak.
Staring at a stone takes a certain amount of madness. Wanting it to speak requires more, though that's a fair metaphor for the science of geology. But I'm not after rocks that tell me their composition. I'm not sure what I'm after. But I keep picking up stones and thinking about them. Perhaps this impulse is a natural version of a Quaker service, a silent meditation, a waiting for a response from the silence that isn't you.
The intersecting lines suggest a natural Mondrian
Such ponderous thoughts are hard to avoid on the Maine coast, though I'm sure I bring them there. As evening falls, with a gin-and-tonic in hand and a pile of stones on the bench next, it's hard not to feel a happiness that dispels heavy thoughts about time travels and death. But the best antidote is to take the kids to the beach. There you can smile as they pickup every last damn rock, shell and bit of driftwood and run back to you with them for safe keeping. Heck, they're not lost in contemplation. They're just picking up stuff because it looks cool. Maybe there's a lesson here.