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Beach goers enjoy a warm summer afternoon at Woodbine Beach in Toronto, Ontario Friday, July 26, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Beach goers enjoy a warm summer afternoon at Woodbine Beach in Toronto, Ontario Friday, July 26, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Restless waves: Understanding the temporary nature of beaches Add to ...

Recently my seven-year-old daughter and I were exploring the beach near our Toronto home when we made what was – for us – an exciting find. Strewn among the pebbles in a little hollow just beyond the water’s edge was a rich cache of beach glass.Known as “mermaid’s tears” by those with a poetic bent, beach glass is simply broken glass that has been tumbled by the waves until it is rounded and etched. In any other setting, it would be an annoying reminder that people are thoughtless enough to leave their smashed bottles lying around. But beaches don’t care if people are thinking or not.

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Like prospectors hitting the motherlode we stuffed our pockets with beach glass and brought it home. A couple of weeks later, my daughter led my wife back to the same spot to get more, but came up empty. The little hollow was gone and the beach glass too, presumably relocated by the restless waves.

And that is the fundamental truth about beaches. We flock to them every summer, attracted by their timeless, relaxing quality. Yet a beach is anything but timeless. It is a temporary landscape, a heaving battleground always in transition and frequently on the move.

We would be wise not to overlook this reality as we plan for a future in which many beaches, because of climate change, are likely to migrate from their present locations – if not vanish altogether. Admittedly, this is a relatively recent concern. For most of human history, we’ve used beaches mainly as transportation corridors. They gave our prehistoric ancestors easy passage as they migrated around the globe. Later, they served as entry points for invading armies. Wave action notwithstanding, Walmer Beach in Kent looks very much today as it did in 55 B.C., when Julius Caesar came ashore.

Our relationship with beaches began to change in the late 18th century, when Britain’s upper classes discovered France’s Côte d’Azur. By 1801, newspapers were advertising a U.S. seaside resort at Cape May, N.J., notes Duke University geologist Orrin Pilkey and his co-authors in The World’s Beaches. As the Industrial Revolution ramped up, the need to escape “modern life” caught on. My beach neighbourhood began as a vacation spot for Torontonians soon after Confederation.

What’s different about this kind of interaction is that it involves infrastructure – boardwalks, amusement parks, condos and more. And with it comes the implicit assumption that beaches, once parcelled, packaged and sold as a commodity, stay put.

Beaches

I did not grow up a beach person. As a teenager, when it came to the outdoors, I preferred a walk in the woods. I didn’t see the point in lying around on the hot sand with the rest of the crowd. It seemed mindless.

It was my children who opened my mind and made the beach the backdrop for some of our favourite family moments. When you’re two, nothing beats the prospect of an endless sandbox, together with the irresistible but somewhat scary, boundary-crossing sensation that goes with extending a bare toe into the lapping waves. At Old Orchard Beach in Maine, on Cape Cod and in Clearwater, Fla., I watched my children engage with the sand and surf, and soon I was drawn in.

The waves are a big part of it. Each time they gather up and break on the sloping shore, the outcome is a little different. Waves are cyclic but not exactly repeating. They are irregular but not exactly random.

This puts them in a mental sweet spot perfectly tailored to hypnotize the mind. If each wave were exactly like the one before, the predictability would bore us. Waves generated by machines in indoor water parks feel like that. They’re functional but uninspiring. Yet when a phenomenon is too complicated to follow, it becomes perceptual noise. Without the hint of a pattern, the mind moves on.

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