by Rob Pickford
All summer the beach had rung to the sounds of children and witnessed the silent shouts of surfers. This evening a quiet stillness envelopes my walk. The first equinoctial storm has now fled east. Only a hint of breeze drifts a briny scent and what they used to call ozone across the beach. I see a few souls and their dogs scattered along the strand but my interest is in what is left along the shore.
The beach is arranged in lines. Furthest out the waves gather up their remaining strength then slide in intersecting films, before a fringe of white brocade melts into the sand. A hushed flop of waves leaves a sheen of water that paints the sand. It’s not the sea that holds the brush but the insubstan-tial light. Greens of fields, the black of rock, the browns of muddy cliffs shimmer across the wet. Only by my feet does the expected white tinted blue of sky take hold.
The sand’s still wet where the tide reached furthest up the beach. It is flecked with grains of slate and strewn with the dark greens of slippery bladderwrack. The seaweed humped in clusters mirrors ancient crabs that seek the sea. Sand-hoppers dance their urgent attendance. A myriad of holes pockmark the sand where air trapped beneath had been released by the tide. Feathers shine, rinsed clean. Small stones, grey, purple and marroon are set in clasps of sand, indented where the easy flow of water took another path.
It’s only now I see the twist of splintered scattered bones, empty-eyed, adored with ragged oilless feathers. The last evidence of shearwaters, cast along the shore. They lie contorted like fossils in a sandy flag of stone. Looking ahead I start to count the numbers left behind and think of how we play a part in their demise. Is this the price we make them pay for our affair with coal and oil? Of course there have always been storms but with this frequency and intensity? And now that rancid smell, too strong to come from these small birds, catches in my throat. There, up by the cliff, two juvenile Atlantic Grey seals lie half buried in the softer wind blown sand. Their off white coats still shining with a hint of grey, undemanding and unobtrusive now, waiting for the gulls.
Behind them in the low cliff, the slates and sandstones are twisted and splintered out of line by continents that shifted shape. I trace the rollercoaster lines of strata downward until the faults cast the rocks back into the earth. Higher up it looks as though a knife has sliced through them where, some time ago, the sea has planed these rocks flat. There, resting like the vertebrae of a long-gone leviathan, 23 white boulders stretch out along this ancient beach. The sea is rising once again. Biting into the shrapneled boulder clay it reveals the shapes from a long-forgotten time.
Walking back along the beach I see the setting sun pick out my trail of steps, here filled with water, there washed away, transient indents along the boundaries of the shore. I look out across the beach to the islands beyond and think that at first that it is just the sea that moves. However the totality of the landscape was and will always be in flux, each part coiling and uncoiling around the other. We too are part of that and have our say. The deaths along the beach show that ours is not a little say. The deeper rhythms however drive a longer song. Like the sand hoppers we dance with urgency and light up the day. We may dance well or we may not but we perform on a temporary stage.
Rob Pickford’s commitment to wildlife grew from many years walking the hills and coasts of Wales. He is Chair of the Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales and is a student on the MA in Travel and Nature Writing at Bath Spa University.