THE MOST RECENT census, with an ever greater percentage of the population concentrating itself on the continent's two coasts, underscores a peculiar impulse of the American species. Why do so many people prefer to live within easy distance of the ocean?
Summertime offers the great clue, of course, as we brave traffic and cost to make our ways in vast numbers to the beach. Why is that? We can find privacy in the back yard, comfort on the porch, entertainment in the city, the beauties of nature in the inland hills, yet we throng the ribbons of sand, lacking silence and solitude.
Garish umbrellas pollute the view. The obnoxious yelps of other people's children shatter the stillness. Our bathing suits make us vain. The water is too cold to take for long. The undertow intimidates. Back in the chair, the wind rips at the pages of what we read. And always, black flies feast on our sweet ankles. Yet we love it. Why?
Since, as science suggests, life on the earth originates in primeval soup, and since animal forms leaped into being where the sea meets the land, a day at the beach can be an exercise in biological nostalgia, a return to sources, a visit to the prime truth of the human condition. Boundaries of all kinds are the realm of invention, where the clash of what is creates what will be. The ultimate boundary is the one between what Genesis calls ''the deep'' and the dry land that is drawn from it.
The beach is a shrine to the mutations that occur when the floods recede, and its companion phenomena - surf and tidal currents on one side and wrack line, shell bank, sea marsh, and dune on the other - steadily reveal that change is the only thing that never changes.
In taming creation, human beings have withdrawn from it. Civilization, for all its treasures, impedes direct experience, while the beach offers nothing but. The four elements, for example, come naked to the beach. Elsewhere earth, air, fire, and water are paved, conditioned, banked, and channeled, but here they are unfiltered as sand, wind, scorching sun, and the vast sea. Direct experience of the elements provokes a magnificent set of physical sensations, but for the sake of a quite unphysical state of mind.
The interior life, oddly, is the recipient of the greatest benefit of a day of the beach, for the unbreakable link between body and soul is nowhere more apparent than here.
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And so at the beach we find ourselves capable of a rare act of contemplation, as we let thought drift with the restless waves on which our eyes nevertheless find it possible to rest.
Here the existential questions are refreshingly concrete. Why does the flood crest here and not there? What lies beyond the horizon? What did it take to make that pebble round? And isn't the world itself such a pebble? The sands of time, the unbroken rhythm of the tide, the movement of the sun in the sky, exactly matching the movement of shade under our umbrellas.
As the beach settles the cosmos down to its most basic elements, a beach interiority can relieve even the most agitated mind. The waves come in and go out no matter what we think, and so the waves invite surrender and acceptance. The ancient evolution of rock into sand, the annual shifting of the dunes, the seaweed from this morning's tide - the beach marks time in its full measure. We observe those marks and recognize them as marks on ourselves. Time is who we are.
The noise of our fellow beachgoers, those yelps of children, the chaos of umbrellas and blankets, the lack of personal space - the very impositions that drive us nuts, say, on the highway only add to the tranquility here, because at the beach we see ourselves as part of the human family, not lords of it; part of the universe, not masters of it; part of time, not exceptions to it.
Like the sea, we, too, have depths and surfaces. Like the wind, we have our free association. Like the sun, our going up and coming down. Like the countless bits of sand, we, too, are nothing special. Yet, like even one grain, we have an infinite dignity just by virtue of existing on the earth. The elements combine - that is to say, We Are, which the human ear can hear, in its singular, as the transcendent name, the singular in which all that is plural has its one being.
We are the beach made aware of itself. And why shouldn't we love it?
Note to readers: I will be taking August off from this column, returning the day after Labor Day. Peace.