History of (a) Beach
Prose by Tyler Antonio Lynch
Art by Maggie Lu
Don’t ask me the name of the beach.
I won’t tell you.
I don’t want you to know.
I don’t want you to go to this beach.
I don’t want anybody to go to this beach.
A very long time ago, there was no beach at all. The island met the sea on a thin edge of knuckled stone, against which the warm sea would pummel endlessly. Upon the island grew a voracious jungle; the trees shed their leaves directly into the sea. Ocean and island divided hard and instant.
The beach is born far away from the ocean. Dragging erosion from far inland, a river deposits sediment and rock into the sea. The silt and clay wash away, carried by currents, but the rocks remain to be broken down by the tides over thousands of years. The sea floor becomes covered in sand, wracked and tossed in the current. As the waves lap against the island’s stony face, sand is swept with them. You will have to wait a good while on the rocks as the ocean does its work. But over thousands of years, the tide methodically brings in a beach.
Ten thousand trillion particles are washed onto the island, blurring the line between the jungle and the ocean. The sand is composed of quartz, feldspar, and calcium carbonate–this last material the fragmented remnants of coral, sea shells, and plankton. There is quite a lot of this fine, white sand. You could be the very first human to touch it, to let it pour through your fingers, fine as gold dust.
It is almost a perfect beach, you remark. A kilometre of pure white sand, lying like a blanket along the shore. The water, cresting with little waves, is shallow. You could wade a hundred feet out before the ocean reached your knees. The water is pure, free of silt. Little fish colorful as stained glass dart around your feet like sparks. It is blue like polished turquoise, like no other blue ever. Warm, so warm, that even a summer swimming pool will seem cruel.
There are no palm trees laden with green coconuts; instead, the treeline is shrubby and dense, scattering drying leaves on the sand. Overall, it is a small beach. You could walk end to end in ten minutes or so. And on the horizon, there seems a permanent hint of storm. A hint of foreboding.
But you love it instantly. The beach is so pure you think it is a fairy-story, so delicate and beautiful only a child would believe in it. But it exists, and you have seen it. Of course, your beach will have a history.
Every beach has a history, and every beach’s history is the same.
But now, while the earth is still quiet and her evenings still dim, you must leave this island paradise. Leave your beach to the bright fish and urchins, the jellies and curious birds, to be washed endlessly by a frothy tide, regular as the breathing of the Earth.
When you return, you can be sure that your beach will be as you left it. Swathes of sand will be washed into open water by cantankerous typhoons, and swept back to the beach in cloudy droves, replenishing what the storm stole. Nesting birds and glinting fish will patrol her corridors. Coral will grow in the water, like living sculpture. With the noncommittal tide forever creeping back and forth, the beach is forever changing, circular andbut the change is circular, cyclical.
It maintains this peace as the first humans tread footprints into her sand. Ten thousand years later, others have found your beach.They splash through the surf to pull their long, thin boats onto the sand. They spread coarse blankets on the beach and roast a fish or two, laughing and telling stories. The scar of their fire remains the next morning, smoldering, ashy black over the white sand.
The fishermen like the beach. They will be back. The catch is good off the island, and they will return from the mainland to fill their holds with baskets of mirror-grey fish. They tire of spending nights in tents. They build something on the beach, small and modest. A wooden hut to spend the nights in.
As other fishing families find the beach and the good fishing offshore, they will want to erect their own huts too. They will spend a few days on the island now, fishing and gutting and salting their fish on racks. A little patch of jungle is shaved off the beach. There grows a fishing village. In fishing season, a hundred brown, wiry men and boys will make the beach their home. In winter the huts sit empty, brown, and slanted, almost invisible in the jungle.
So far, the only humans who know of your beach are those that fish its waters. Most boats return to the solid shelf of the continent at night, but increasingly there are intrepid souls who tentatively uproot their lives to the little green islands that offset the line of the horizon. A small community lives permanently on your island now. Their children run naked on the warm sand, splashing in the little frothy waves.
Others are coming soon, from distant lands. The sun treats them differently. It bleaches their hair blonder, it fades the tattoos on their arms, it hides their pale skin under a golden tan. These are wild souls. Their cold, evergreen lands could not contain them.
Hippies, sea gypsies, wanderers, draft dodgers. They come bringing soft guitar music and earthy clouds of marijuana smoke.
They will boast to their friends, later, that they were the first souls to come to this beach. And in a way they were. They were the first souls to come for the beach, not for fish or a less crowded island. They set up tents and hammocks and have bonfires and dance naked in the surf, drinking and falling, drunk and high and covered in sand, sleeping under billions of stars.
Then they leave. They return to their snowy countries, putting a brief, mad escapade behind them, screwing back into place the sensible ambitions they cast off in their youth, or else leaving to find new beaches, and temples, and mountainous tribes, amongst whom to live and trek and be aimless and glorious.
They never return to your beach, but they tell their friends.
You return to your beach after the backpackers have spread the word. More backpackers have come, paradoxically trying to escape the crowds yet contributing, person by person, to those crowds themselves.
On the island, a veritable town has arisen: hostels, surfing rentals, diving schools, scuba tours, and local houses. Over a thousand people live on the island, some far-flung from distant countries, still fishing, or else using their boats to ferry the backpackers. With every trip of backpackers (nobody dares to identify themselves as tourists), the bragging rights decrease, the sense of touching wilderness becomes less palpable. Some on the island still know it from the time it was a fishing village, a collection of tents on the beach, to the time the first Westerner or enterprising local built a bunch of huts and a bar and called it a hostel, charging $4 a night.
More hostels came. They set up deckchairs and hammocks and a minibar on the beach, and build a picturesque wooden swing-set just offshore. They put a long wooden dock in so boats can drop off guests straight at the beach. Some cleared local trees to give their residents an ocean view. Some bring in a backhoe to lay concrete foundations in the jungle.
It’s not a secret anymore. You can look this island up online. It’s in Lonely Planet. Your beach has a foreign name like Coconut and Driftwood. But it’s still a blonde beach as gorgeous as any in the world. For the people – not tourists yet, since they wear backpacks and are willing to sleep in hammocks – it’s just as beautiful as it ever was.
Contamination, however, is manifesting itself on the shoreline. After any storm since the birth of the beach, wastes of jellyfish and seaweed would trace the line of the waves on the sand, and assorted flotsam would wash up on the beach.
Those things still wash up. But with them, like an invasion of pathogens in the blood, are strange, alien, hard things of plastic. PVC pipe, barnacle-encrusted foam blocks, water bottles, beer bottles, beer cans, rope, nets, spoons and forks, bits of car tire, bits of mattress, Styrofoam, plastic bags, goggles. They lie half buried in the sand like the remnants of a shipwreck.
Although you can’t see it, the storm is still washing sand off the beach into the currents. But it isn’t being replaced like it used to be. Those rivers that once carried sediment to the sea have been dammed and diverted, built-over and drained. The beach – though you don’t know it – is slowly shrinking.
The backpackers love it. They drink beer on the beach, play Shithead and swim up to their chests at night, waving their arms in the dark water. Bioluminescent plankton fly off them like sparks, green and evanescent.
The wiry local guy who owns the hostel loves the beach. He gives free beer to anyone who collects a bag of trash and deposits it at the hostel. Although he commodifies this bit of sand and water, selling boat rides to scuba spots and stringing hammocks over the water, he wants to protect the beach from worse fates than this.
The word development hangs over his head like a piano strung from a crane. He pays a lease to the local government. He bought the whole beach, and owns the hostel too. It’s his to protect, to preserve in this middle state of wild and civilized, as long as he has a lease.
Their lease, you discover – and the fact hits you like nasty gossip – is only one month long. The government will sell out at a whiff of bigger money. And there are plenty of people whose pockets bulge with bigger money. It’s a prime piece of real estate, your beach.
Will you stay and find out how long the government renews that pathetic one-month lease? How beautiful does a beach have to be for some bureaucrat not to sell it to a Chinese casino? How many boat trips before those backpackers turn into tourists? Before families and businessmen and German couples come down to spend the summer lounging on a deck chair?
Will you stay that long, to see the fate of your beach?
Is it really your beach anymore?
You might come back one day, to see the beach again. It might be gated, exclusive to guests of a beautiful hotel, or casino, or luxury apartment complex. It will almost certainly have had a face lift – truckloads of sand carted in by ferry from some other beach to replace the sand that no longer runs along the conveyor belt of the current.
The people will still enjoy it, to be sure. A beach is a beach. The sand, so white and soft. The water, almost as turquoise as it was, kept almost as clear of plastic bags as it was by uniformed attendants with nets on poles. The scrubby line of trees on its shore will be replanted with coconut palms, which is all a five star resort deserves.
This is the end of your beach’s history. The inevitable path that all beaches take on every fair coastline in the warm belt of the world.
It seems that the life of every wild place ends in luxury.