I just got back from the beach today. I wrote this after a similar excursion a few years ago:
I have never particularly liked California beaches. Every time I say that I feel weird, I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone else who shared that sentiment. They’re boring. Mile upon mile of sandy sameness, with nothing to do but sit and bake, roll around in the cold, salty water, and so on. It’s fun to look at girls, I suppose, but for good Mormon boys it’s “look but don’t touch.” Better not look too much, either.
The family went down to a beachfront complex in Oceanside for a big reunion shindig this summer. I know, poor baby. I’m not getting any sympathy. I had fun, but family is fun anywhere, and Oregon sure would have been nice. I miss the Oregon coastline. I’ve always liked the names, too. Yachats, Devil’s Churn, Astoria, and so on. Looking at them they aren’t so impressive, but they have an evocative power in my mind. Varied and windswept, not terribly busy, the place is teeming with sea life and abounds with big rocky formations ever weathering the constant assault from the unrelenting sea.
Anyway, down in So-Cal, after I tired of rolling around in the surf (fifteen minutes), I spent much of my time meandering up and down the beaches. It gave me time to think upon the puzzling peculiarities of human behavior.
Why do we build sandcastles? Doesn’t make immediate sense, does it? Busy people, some of whom have sacrificed considerably for a few short hours at the beach, will spend a great deal of their time wrapped up in this endeavor. The effort is sometimes intense, and the castle is usually gone before the beachgoer even heads for home. No sense at all.
Or am I being uncharitable? I cast about for something to compare this phenomenon to. Didn’t van Gogh throw his work into the sea? I think so. He was also nuts.
I have heard of Buddhist monks from a certain sect that create “mandalas,” intricate, ornate, exquisite renditions of traditional designs, made of colored rice or sand, representing some tenant or cosmology of their faith. After several monks spend days and weeks upon end making sure every single grain is properly placed, the whole design is swept up and the oeuvre thrown into the river.
This seems foreign to our Western artistic values of innovation, self-expression, and self-immortalization. Buddhists believe that the drawings elicit a measure of karmic virtue from the universe just by being created, and reinforce that, as one monk I read put it, “we shouldn’t get too attached to things. We’ve got to be able to let things go. Nothing is permanent.”
There is that, and it’s valid enough I suppose, but it’s hard to view a sandcastle as a sort of unofficial celebration of the transitory nature of existence. More likely it’s the opposite. Have you seen the hard-core sandcastle builders? Not the art-eests who build big sandcastles because they’re too poor to buy paint. I’m not talking about little kids, either. I mean the weekend-warrior, tourist-class beach-ape. You know who I’m talking about, the kind who brings a big shovel to the beach and puts more effort into defending his work of art from the elements than actually making it look nice. Who is too lazy to haul water up from the tide zone to build where the thing might have a fighting chance, but will still redouble his efforts at digging, retrenching, and draining when the tide inevitably comes.
Watch them sometime. Theirs is no happy concession to the forces of entropy! Just as it was for the builders of the pyramids, the goal is creating something that will last forever. The material is even the same, once you think about it. Moderners just give a smaller effort with a smaller expectation. Instead of the supreme, monolithic guardian of the ages, they create the plucky little overachiever, doomed to failure but gamely enduring. The more flimsy and fragile the building material, and the more unfortunate the location, the more remarkable it is if it does outlast the forces of nature for a little while.
And should their work still stand when they go home, the creator can cast one final happy glance at their creation, fully believing that if it weren’t for sandcastle-wrecking teenage twits cavorting in the moonlight, the darn thing might just stand forever.
None of this answers the question, why sand? Why in the tidal zone!? I think it is to put the destructive forces of nature on an observable scale. That way the beach-goer gets to really see how well their sand mountain will hold up, and can watch if it fails.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s what I like about the Oregon coast. It has God’s sandcastles. California’s giant rocky beachside fortresses have been knocked flat already, but in Oregon the contest between the chaos of the billowing surge and the stoic order of the stony coastline is ongoing.