Want to temporarily banish the fast-paced material world we humans have advertently and inadvertently created for ourselves? Go for a walk on the beach.
February is a fabulous month to explore the sandy shoreline of the Mississippi Coast. The air is crisp and extreme summer heat still a memory.
With fair skin that favors my Irish, not Cajun, genes, I will never be a towel-on-the-beach, summer sun-worshiper. But try to keep me away in the cooler Coast months that pass for winter. That’s when beach-combing is at its best, as I was reminded earlier this month when I set out in search of beach treasures. I didn’t find much, but my eyes, nose, ears and imagination brimmed.
This time of year, especially when tides are low, the waterline is littered with interesting stuff. Natural treasures might include fish skeletons, sea beans, horseshoe crab carcasses, artistic seaweed and grasses, loose and rolling in the waves. There’s also curious man-made garbage that makes you wonder, “Now how did that get here?”
Watch the way the waves kiss the sand, sometimes gently, sometimes with force. In stormy weather, that kiss can be sucking and that’s why on the Coast we have replenished beaches. Some people mistakenly think our gorgeous white sand beaches are man-made. They are in fact man-replenished.
In the throes of early 20th-century development, we altered the water line by building seawalls and roads alongside the water. That ate away the natural beachfront and leveled dunes that replenished sand claimed by storms and wave action.
The first replenishment of beach sand came in the early 1950s and continues to this day.
Too taken for granted
If you’ve done much beach-walking in other states and countries, you will know how exceptional Mississippi’s glistening beach sand is. When dry and clean it is almost white. That’s because the sand is ground quartz that took glaciers and thousands of years to move from ancient mountains to the gulf.
I chuckle whenever I recall a telephone query I received years ago as a reporter who attempts to make local history correct, not just embellished stories.
The grandmother explained that when her out-of-town grandson admired the beach, she told him (as many locals mistakenly do) that “it is the longest man-made beach in the world.”
“So I’d like to tell him where the sand came from,” she said to me. “Was it trucked in from Florida?”
From whence it came
A vision of a massive caravan of dump trucks filled with precious Florida sand popped in my mind and has never left. No, I explained to her, the sand was pumped back from the bottom of the Sound.
Since the mid-20th century, government-sponsored replenishment projects have put back what Mother Nature continually takes away because we altered her natural blueprint in the name of progress. Today’s machine-combed beaches and development of the Coast waterfront messed with Mother Nature’s design for sea grasses and sand dunes. The price we pay for our alterations is beach maintenance.
That’s a great reason to walk the beach every chance you get. Your tax dollars help to maintain it.
We may not have the clearest or bluest water — that’s thwarted by the barrier islands that slow Gulf action — but we have miles and miles of open beaches other communities covet.
Interpreting beach treasures
You never know what interesting things you will find, from sea beans and the occasional shell to Crucifix Fishes, a nickname for the head bone of the hardhead catfish. You’ll find plenty of man-made trash, too, evidence that we too often use the world’s oceans as our garbage cans.
My best man-made beach find came several years after Hurricane Katrina when I discovered a “Barnacle Barbie” rolling in with the tide. She was a Barbie doll, likely washed out of a beachfront house during the 2005 storm and in the water long enough to attract barnacles.
On my latest beach walk, I didn’t find any treasures but the water and sand performed its magic on my psyche.
We can do little about the length of our lives, save perhaps eat healthy and stay active in mind, body and soul. But if we let the sea into our hearts, it can bring width and depth to our lives. As John F. Kennedy observed, “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch, we are going back from whence we came.”
When you have the sea so close by as all who live on the Mississippi Coast do, take advantage of it.
If you can’t walk the sand, at least take a drive to savor the unfettered miles of open beach rarely found anywhere else on developed coastlines.
Pull into a roadside bay to watch the sun set, or the black-and-white tuxedo skimmers take off in flight, or to listen to the call of a gull.
In my favorite words of Herman Melville, “Let me snuff thee up, sea breeze, and whinny in thy spray!”
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. You can reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.