The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I spent the last several months traveling frequently to southern California. During those visits, I became intoxicated with the Pacific coast. I would try to plan my work days so that I could hit a new beach each week, just in time for sunset with my camera. I fell in love with Corona del Mar, Newport Beach, Rancho Palos Verdes and Laguna Beach.
The southern Pacific coast is dramatic, powerful, and loud. Cliffs drop forty to fifty feet to the beach below. Waves crash into rocks, mist flying high into the air. The water is sapphire blue, and cold. The waves are intense, perfectly formed in long, C-shaped arcs, but no one goes in without a wet suit. I imagine it must be an exhilarating experience to surf the Pacific, but one in which you must be fully present and pay attention. It would probably be very bad news to doze off on your board in the Pacific.
If you want to walk Pacific beaches, in most cases, plan on a short walk, with some amount of work required to get down to the water’s edge. After descending a rocky cliff- or alternatively, at least 500 steps – romantic coves await you, but before too long in your stroll you’ll hit a rock wall. Again, an exhilarating experience, but you better pay attention. A twisted ankle or a lone rattlesnake on the climb down to that cove just might await you as well.
These picturesque places have rich, royal names – Corona (Crown), La Jolla (Jewel), Imperial, Pearl, Crystal. There are flowers everywhere – flowers actually cascade down the walls of the cliffs and live in the very sand of the beaches. Seals and pelicans are frequent visitors. The beauty of the Pacific coast assaults you – it’s so startlingly beautiful it almost screams – “Look at me, have you ever seen anything so damn gorgeous in all your life!?” During my photography jaunts, I was often literally overwhelmed by its beauty, so stunned by the panorama that I couldn’t decide what to shoot. Once I could move again, I found myself shooting so much and so fast, with little regard for composition, afraid it would all disappear if I turned my back.
If oceans were symphonies, the Pacific would be Beethoven’s Fifth, or, maybe his 9th. When Beethoven’s Fifth was introduced, it was called a portal to the immeasurable, evoking such consuming emotions of pain, love and joy …”to burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord!” Wow. The Pacific, like Beethoven, tears your heart apart with its beauty. The Romantic in me swoons.
I came home from those trips feeling like I had just attended a performance of the New York Philharmonic – joyously, deliciously spent, wrung out with beauty, and convinced I had to move to the west coast.
But, alas, I am an east coast girl, and this week I am on vacation, at a beach house on the Atlantic in what many call the “low country”. I am struck by the contrasts between the two oceans, and the different emotions they evoke. The Atlantic Ocean and the Carolina low country are so familiar to me. I have vacationed here every year since I was a small child. My husband and I even lived here for a few carefree years in the 1980’s, before mortgages and children. My children have run these beaches with their best friends since they were small, moving from building sand castles at age 2 to playing beach beer pong at 22.
In the Carolina low country, there is no looking down on the magnificent ocean from high above. Here, you are at sea level, where marsh, swamp, sound, and ocean all run together. The islands are known as “barrier” islands, narrow slashes of sand flung off of the mainland. Life is measured by the tides. The warm humid weather descends on you like a blanket, and by physical necessity everything just moves slowly.
You can walk for miles on the beach, even go for a jog (if you can stand the heat) or just stroll with your head down looking for shells and sand dollars. Sand crabs, seagulls and hermit crabs scuttle around you. The ocean is a muted blue, like a peaceful watercolor. The low waves produce a constant, gentle rumble. The Sound side is softly muted as well, where elegant cranes stand like statues and the chirping of crickets, along with the wind moving through the marsh grass are the only sounds you hear.
The southern Atlantic Ocean in summer is like a tepid bath – no wetsuit required. You can body surf without fear of hypothermia, or you can float for hours on a raft during low tide, soaking up the sun while dozing in and out of consciousness.
Low country places have Indian names like Swannanoa, Waccamaw, Pawley’s Island and Kiawah. You might find an arrowhead on the beach, or drive past a sign commemorating a battle from the American Revolution. In low tide you can walk across some parts of the sound to the next island, or for bigger trips, you can take a ferry, or wait while the draw bridge opens for a sailboat heading up the intercoastal waterway. You don’t go anywhere in a hurry.
If the Pacific is Beethoven to me, the Atlantic coast here in the Carolina low country is Dubussy: Claire de Lune, Ballade or Reverie come to mind. Debussy is known as the first composer of the Modern era. His music obeys its own inner logic, throwing out a lot of the classical conventions. Several of the greatest Jazz composers were heavily influenced by Debussy, including Gershwin, Evans, Monk and Ellington.
This low country coast does not assault your senses like the Pacific; it gently welcomes you like an old, worn rocking chair. The colors, the sounds and the rhythms call softly, but hypnotically for your entry. If you allow yourself to let go, open all your senses, and enter into tide time, it brings you its healing gifts.
Note: I studied classical piano for twelve years. I loved getting reacquainted with my favorite classial composers while writing this post! For a multi-sensory experience, play these while reading. What other composers and works would you use to compare?
Beethoven, 5th Symphony, first movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6K_IuBsRM4
Debussy, Suite Bergamasque, Prelude: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgBBkE7RIvs&feature=related