We spent the weekend at Stinson Beach, a little town tucked between the steep western slopes of Mt. Tam and a 3.5-mile-long strip of sandy beach. Until last year, I could count the number of times I’d been to Stinson Beach on one hand. Since January, though, we’ve been there three times.
I’ll be spending even more time there in the future. In December we bought a house at Stinson, jointly with two other families. So our family has use of the house every third week.
It’s all still new enough that we don’t have routines yet. (My uncle and his wife visited on Saturday and kept asking things like, “So is it usually windy in the afternoon?” and I kept giving non-answers: “I have no idea what is ‘usual’ — yet!”)
Both Saturday and Sunday mornings, I walked down to the northern tip of the beach, where it ends at Bolinas Lagoon, about an hour and a half down and back.
The beach was the same both days. I mean, this wasn’t a Yahoo! home page that changes every ten minutes. Same houses. Same ocean to the west. Same mountainside to the east. Same lagoon at the end.
But there were also all these little differences. On Sunday I saw a flock of 13 tiny shorebirds skittering at the edge of the incoming waves like ball bearings, their legs a blur. On Saturday the waves had carved out a kind of basin in one section of the beach, where water calmly pooled between a sand bar and the shore. Both days I found a lot of sand dollars. Other times, I haven’t found a single one.
Now, I grew up in Manhattan and have spent virtually all of my life in urban landscapes. I think a lot about how I – and most Americans – are well versed in the sensory cues of urban industrial life.
We can discriminate among a half-dozen brands of sneakers by their wordless logos. We hear a police siren, or a cell phone ring tone, or a truck backing up with beeps, and we know exactly what it is and how to respond.
Just as our hunter-gatherer ancestors could identify a hundred different kinds of plants, we can identify Oreos and Rice Krispies and Paul Newman dressing and Big Macs with just a split-second glimpse of their packaging. This is the information that we inhale with the air as we grow up; no less than our ancestors’ knowledge of the difference between poisonous berries and nourishing ones, this is the information we need to survive.
By contrast, when I walk down the beach at Stinson, I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe what I see. There were four different kinds of shorebirds on Sunday. I knew that some were willets, from their mid-sized bills and their white-striped wings in flight. But the others – curlews? dowitchers? godwits? sandpipers? I need to fetch the bird book and teach myself the names and signs.
I look forward to having a piece of natural land – the beach, the hillside — that I come to know well. No, I’m not about to go all Annie Dillard or Thoreau. I am bored to tears by most nature writing! But I’d like to notice the daily and seasonal changes in the sand, water, vegetation. I’d like to develop an eye for quiet, small changes. I’d like to learn the names of things in the natural world as well as the industrial, commercial one.
When I used to commute to San Francisco, I took the same walk down College Avenue to BART each day, along a pleasant strip of cafes, boutiques, bookstores and restaurants.
I don’t think walking the beach will get boring, even if I do it every time we visit. But it will require an eye and a vocabulary for those small, quiet changes – changes in how the sand is shaped, the shells washed up, the birds.
On Saturday a young woman rode down the beach on a horse, so fast that she was soon a dot in the distance. Then she turned around and rode back, posting perfectly, so that the horse moved up and down and her torso moved up and down, but her head and shoulders remained still, straight, as if suspended by thin wires, looking ahead into the breeze.