Friday, May 10, 2013

Patterns in the Sand

Beaches are wonderful places for walking, running, digging for clams, watching birds or watching surf, listening to the rhythms of nature or perhaps doing absolutely nothing. One of the things I love most about them, though, is that beaches are, in a very real sense, living things. Each visit is met with a new and changing landscape; sometimes the changes are small and insignificant, while others, like those brought on by winter storms, are sweeping and more permanent in nature: wind-driven waves rip through protective dunes and spill onto the flats beyond, or tons of sand are moved offshore leaving rocks and gravel exposed. It can take years for major changes like these to reverse themselves.

Smaller, gentler changes, though, are here reward the careful observer. The breeze plays over the surface of the sand sculpting patterns that are particularly striking in the low-angled light of morning and evening, creating miniature desert or mountain landscapes. Return the next day or even a few hours later, and those landscapes will be altered: ridges lower or higher, textures smoother or coarser, new patterns overlying the old. As the tide changes, the water works in concert with the wind to form a new array of relief figures. The movement of breeze and water shift the small particles of sand and shell, sorting them by size and weight. Waves roll in along the swash zone, compacting the surface. Farther up the beach face lies the wrack zone, where seaweed marks the high tide line. Above this is the berm, the raised area where the sand is generally dry. In summer, this zone provides a vital nesting area for shore birds like sandpipers and plovers; their camouflaged nests are vulnerable to beach walkers, so it's crucial to stay below the tide line when walking.

I seldom visit a beach without a camera, and it's not there just for the birds or the waves or the cloud reflections; these erosion patterns are simply too tempting and to varied to ignore, and I love the way they mimic flames, waves, mountains and canyons -- or sometimes even characters from a Tolkien novel.  The constantly shifting personality of the beach at the seemingly subtle whims of moving air and water means that in nature, as in life, the only real constant is change. There's nothing like a metaphor you can photograph.

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