Beachcombing is my emblem for summer. Each summer, our family migrates back to a small coastal town in Maine where we mess around in boats, pick blueberries, fish for mackerel, lounge bookishly in the hammock by the grandfather elm, and comb the pebbled shore. Life ebbs and flows with the rhythm of tides and daylight, versus the clock or jobs that govern the rest of the year.
It's not perfect: The harbor master may be seen wearing an electronic pager as he regulates sailors tying up at the dock, and even the tentacles of FedEx reach down the peninsula two days a week. "Here too in Arcadia." I overheard one schooner passenger pleading to her husband, as he headed for the grocery store: "Oh, please don't buy a newspaper." We, too, seek blissful ignorance. To construct the illusion of 19th-century living, the world must be kept at bay.
This is the season and the place for gathering news of our interior world. Our beach is a repository for the tides of the bay at the mouth of the mighty Penobscot River. And our harbor is the site of several ship sinkings during military skirmishes in the 17th and 18th centuries, when world powers vied for access to Maine's forested interior.
In our first summers here, we had a romantic notion that the worn china and sanded blue glass we gleaned on the shore had washed out of a British frigate decaying on the harbor bottom. When we learned that it was only the old town dump sunken 100 yards offshore, we felt cheated. All our porcelain was trash, not treasure.
But our collecting has not slowed. The children love these humble vestiges of former times. A shard of blue filigree china remains exotic. "Treasure" is defined by provenance and the current collector. It is not intrinsic.
Summer's intertidal zone collects and gathers us as much as we collect and gather what the tides deposit. My hammock reading yielded this thought: "A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder," writes Edward O. Wilson. "He is like a primitive adult of long ago, an acquisitive early Homo arriving at the shore of Lake Malawi...."
So each summer when we arrive at our deep-water haunt, we begin a new collection to add to the old. We examine the effects of winter storms on our Maine Malawi, and we note the new moorings, new boats, and new boaters. We reconnect with people in town: the watercolor painter, the poet, the retired architect, the merchant-marine engineer. But it is really ourselves with whom we reconnect - picking up where we left off and noticing the significant ways in which we are changed, and in which we are not.
Jars of beach china line our mantel; the new album of summer photos helps to chronicle our combing. Against the consistent background of the cove shore, the foreground shows us holding hands with children who walk in taller and taller shoes. The lad who balked when setting foot in the canoe last year goes on a long paddle around the pond to see the loons; his sister now fishes solo when the mackerel are running. From year to year the changes seem immense, but the snapshots also remind me of the imperceptibleness of summer's nonlinear growth, without a scheduled goal or level of achievement to prod or measure.
Wilson notes, "Adults ... undervalue the mental growth that occurs during daydreaming and aimless wandering."
SEPTEMBER floods in like a full moon or high tide, and we return to our alternate rhythm: metropolitan suburbia. As we drop our young beachcombers off at school, the moment contains complex overlappings of what they were, are, and will be. Languor and aimlessness give way, with melancholy, to organization and structure.
But I always hope the kids will carry with them what they have found by the sea - the daydreams that were the vessels of this summer's collecting - to guide their walk toward June and the next season of beachcombing, of aimless, important wandering. As e.e. cummings wrote:
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea