STAYING ZEN : THE ART OF CHILLIN’ OUT AT THE BEACH
“Mother, Mother Ocean, I’ve heard you call.
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall.
You’ve seen it all. You’ve seen it all.
Watch the men who rode you
Switch from sail to steam
In your belly you hold the treasures
Few have ever seen.
Most of ‘em dream, most of ‘em dream”
“If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking.”
~ Zen proverb
Sometimes in our hectic lives even the most ambitious among us desire to turn our backs on the daily pursuit of power and success, to leave the suburban sprawl behind and to embrace the enchanting but unprofitable art of beachcombing. Like our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors who started some of the mounds around St. Andrews Bay, we may choose to begin our intertidal zone scavenger hunt for shells, driftwood or some other part of Poseidon’s treasure on one of Bay County’s many isolated Gulf front beaches [see the BAY COUNTY’S BEST GULF BEACHES box in this article] but even if we don’t get a kick out of having the chance to enjoy Neptune’s blessing by getting something for nothing, a nice stroll on a peaceful beach is a great opportunity to decompress in the salt air, to calm your soul , to “give your head some space” and in the current cultural vernacular, “to stay Zen.”
The word “beachcomber” made its first appearance in print in Herman Melville’s 1847 book OMOO. Melville used the term to describe unemployed sailors who foraged along the beaches of Pacific islands for the remains of shipwrecks. Over the course of the next 166 years, the term has been associated with deserters, free-loaders, bums, drifters and in some cases, the criminal class of wreckers who were known to set up false beacon lights to lure ships onto shoals. Wrecking became such a tradition in the Shetland Islands that Christian preachers there once included this appeal to the Almighty in their prayers, ”Lord, if it be thy holy will to send shipwrecks, do not forget our island.”
Well, times have changed and these days it’s not your Mama’s beachcombing.
Not only do we have “Dr. Beach”, “Dr. Beachcomb” and pricey expeditions that promise “full immersion” within “the beachcombing experience”, we have the annual International Beachcombing Conference, beachcombing autobiographies and self-help beachcombing books that “explore self-being” while bringing a “simplified perspective to beachcombing.” In other words, BEACHCOMBING, INC. (made up of a variety of shamans, neuroconservationists and born-again eco-environmentalists who desperately need copy for their next book or mixed media presentation) is now selling a mixed bag of beachcombing gear and amazing adventures in unadulterated nature.
Beachcombing is really not a tough sell for the corporate beachcomber because it’s hard to argue with the joy beachcombing brings us. A simple walk surrounded by the beautiful backdrop of shifting sand and shimmering surf, accompanied by the sounds of rolling waves and shrieking shorebirds, somehow has the magical ability to transform us, to bring us deep contentment and to return us to memories of our childhood and our families. In fact, there’s a great deal of scientific curiosity concerning exactly why the sea has this ability to suddenly bring us deep contentment. In the midst of the stress of work, smart phones and deadlines, we often find ourselves daydreaming about our beachcomber life and find ourselves revisiting our excursions in our imagination.
On just about any beach on Earth, beachcombing takes you through some really cool nature but Bay County beachcombing has an added bonus that makes it unique to all of North America. These Gulf front beaches are absolutely, astonishingly beautiful. When clear water comes in with the tide, it doesn’t take a trained eye to see the spectacular display of color produced by sunlight upon the exceeding whiteness of the sandy bottom. Any painter of landscapes who can concoct the right combination of pigment and is able to get just some of that beauty down on canvas, deserves to charge a good price for their work.
From the intersection of Highway 98 and Florida Road 386 in Mexico Beach on the east to the Walton County line in Inlet Beach on the west, Bay County is blessed with over 40 miles of cherished Gulf-front beaches. Even though Bay County is only 100 years old, accurate maps of the area have been available for almost 250 years. During this time the sea has pounded and flattened this strand of sand many times and over the years, geographical terms like St. Andrews Island (1766), Crooked Island (1827), Sand Island (1827), Hummock Island (1827) and Hurricane Island (1855) have come and gone. This is not the place for a discussion about wave erosion and marine geology but, suffice it to say, the form and extent of the sandy barrier between the bay and the Gulf have changed over the years; in fact, there are no true barrier islands in Bay County anymore, only peninsulas. Even with all this geographical alteration, high rise condominium construction and urban beach, much of Bay County’s shoreline remains in the same natural state it was when the Spanish found it: a quartz white sandy beach with a few scrubby weeds in the dunes.
It’s hard to believe that beachcombing would become a potentially criminal activity but that’s exactly what we have in our present day. Everyone knows there’s always been rules and regulations at the beach like “no dogs”, “no glass containers” or “walking on sand dunes or sea oats prohibited”, but now we have the threat of “no shell collecting allowed” or barriers that keep people from walking on the beach such as closing walkways that go through the dunes to the beach. The recent events pertaining to the locked beach walkways at Bid-A-Wee are not the first time this conflict between the private and public has occurred on our beaches. Bay County has seen the horrific results that can occur when private property owners become a barrier between the public and the beach. In the summer of 1930, the owner of Long Beach Resort decided a great way to limit access to this treasured and limited public resource was to pistol whip a man the owner claimed was trespassing “on property of the beach “ when the man decided to relax in the sand just west of the resort. While his entire family stood by in shock, the “trespasser” not only was struck against the head repeatedly with a pistol by the Long Beach owner but was also kicked repeatedly in the groin. This assault resulted in permanent brain damage and impotence in the “perpetrator” and he ended up having to be institutionalized in Chattahoochee but not before May 23, 1931, when someone walked up to the owner of Long Beach Resort as he was getting out of his car on Highway 98 near St. Andrews and sent him to an early grave with a load of buckshot in the face.
The bad arrests on Shell Island during the summer of 2006 were amicably resolved but they exposed the erosion of legal principles as old as the common law itself but you know something’s happening to our right to walk on the beach in the United States when an agency like the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources issues a standing prohibition that “denies the removal of any natural artifacts from the public beaches of Hawaii.” Could this type of regulation be in some Bay County beach’s future? For beachcombers, the hunt for shells, driftwood and artifacts is as ingrained within us as our own DNA so we bristle when we are permitted to pick up unoccupied shells but not allowed to take driftwood or sea glass. The marine resource enforcement bureaucrats who come up with all this “look but don’t touch” mumbo jumbo, are afraid we might remove an important clue from some ancient shipwreck blown to shore. So next time you find a gold coin on the beach fronting Spanish Shanty Cove, feel free to photograph it but make sure you leave it in the sand the same way as you found it. Always remember that touching anything on the beach could cause terrible erosion or destroy the natural oceanfront camouflage so important to insects and shorebirds.
Falling in love again with taking a stroll down a lonely beach may be the perfect way for each of us to take control of our cluttered lives. In May of 2013, Cruzan Rum took the “beachcomber lifestyle” as the state of mind and the way of life they want to brand onto their rum. In their television commercial, the viewer finds himself adrift within the towering waves of a stormy sea and hears the announcer say, “You are drowning. You are literally drowning in a figurative sea of busyness. When…wait! Is that?” The viewer suddenly sees an island on the screen and hears a greeting from a voice with a strange accent, ”Welcome! Welcome to the Island of Don’t Hurry where life never moves too fast and Cruzan Rum flows freely. For two hundred and fifty years our pastime has been ‘passing time.’ Join us. Come leave your hurried life behind.”
After introducing you to the National Bird, a rapping parrot who “can fly but chooses not to” and showing a domesticated tortoise hauling a cart of rum on the beach, the announcer gives you a preview of the national sports of “Zero K Runs” and “Sleep Yoga” along with advertisements for “Monkey Massages”. Then the announcer ends the ad with the words, “Slow down and enjoy the Don’t Hurry lifestyle wherever you may find it. When you hurry through life, you just get to the end faster.”
There’s is a tendency to underestimate our experiences walking the beach. How much is “pretty” worth to you? The value to the elderly or infirm of their entire life’s catalogue of beach scene memories has not been accurately calculated but a nice testable hypothesis would be whether pleasant memories at the beach are a great predictor of late-late-late life satisfaction. Stay tuned…