The Improbable Delight of Winter’s Unkempt Beach

by Paul Venesz

“In the summer, it’s the human presence that gives it character; in the winter, it’s the lack thereof.”

Even before moving to the shore year-round, I loved the rare visits to my grandmother’s beach house during the winter. Not only would I have the beach to myself, but it provided an entirely different kind of fun than it did during the summer.

Each time was a different adventure of discovery. I would run barefoot in the cold sand, crunching through the dry reed carpets as far as I was allowed in one direction, then the other, sweatshirt pockets bulging with all the little treasures the ocean had left there for me. 

Long thin lines of green and brown stretched along the beach, outlining the high tide mark. There were “mermaid purses,” black egg sacs of skates, so alien-looking with two long tails on the ends, and the sleek brown carapace of horseshoe crabs. Driftwood rested along those lines, sun-bleached, worn smooth by wind, waves and sand, and dotted with holes from ocean micro-organisms munching on it. 

I always felt a rush of anticipation when catching a glimpse of faded olive green. Most of the time it was just another piece of seaweed or a washed up wrapper, but a good percentage of my army men were scavenged from those long lines of debris.  Rarely, an action figure with all its limbs, good as new aside from some sand in the joints.

You only find the really good shells during the winter. Especially the Knobbed Whelk, unmistakeable with its pointed end flaring out over the opening to the other spiraling spiny side. The state shell of New Jersey, the biggest and most pristine examples were nowhere to be found in the summer, swept up in the rakes dragged behind big municipal front loaders. They made great garden ornaments, and I could listen to the ocean any time I wanted, 100 miles away in the Philadelphia suburbs.

And yes, there was trash in among the natural detritus and salvageable items. Gray cans sand-blasted bare, plastic food packaging, nylon ropes and wild tangles of fishing line were ever-present. But even those served to add some color to the otherwise monotone sand. I know now that ocean pollution is a serious problem, but at the time a section of old fishing net was another good find. It could be a giant spider web for action figures, or a trap to spring on whichever unfortunate peer was playing the bad guy. If nothing else, I had next month’s show-and-tell item taken care of.

One day, and without realizing it I was walking those lines again, absentmindedly looking for army men or shovels. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the uncleaned beach. In the summer, it’s the human presence that gives it character; in the winter, it’s the lack thereof. 

It made me think about how we sweep all this away for the summer season. Of course, if I want to sit and take in the sun in August, an overabundance of dead sea life baking in the heat isn’t going to help. It made me think that maybe we don’t have to be so unceasingly tidy in our lives. What some might call clutter, others call charm. 

I’m obsessive about getting to appointments on time, only to have to sit in the waiting room and watch daytime TV for half an hour before I’m seen. I’ve met a lot of nice people and had some great conversations waiting at bus stops and train stations because I missed the one I was trying to catch.

In life, as with the beach, there’s definitely a time and place for being tidy. A clean kitchen is healthier and easier to work in, and if you’re late to a job interview you might as well turn around and go home. But by cutting out every unnecessary detail and trying to make life adhere to a strict schedule, you never know what you might be missing.

Categories Featured Columns General Stories