This post is directly inspired by The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green, and a fan-made site that maps locations of the book along with the reviews of those locations. The book is incredible, as is/was the podcast of its namesake. I personally highly recommend both.
Revere beach is, according to literally every sign and pamphlet I’ve seen of it, America’s first and oldest public beach. It’s also one of the cleanest, which is fairly easy to believe. While I have very little experience when it comes to beaches, public or otherwise, I’ve heard many stories and jibs about broken glass or needles, and (thankfully) I’ve never seen anything close to that here. I usually look out for and pick up any trash I see, and it’s never been more than a handful per visit.
I’m happy to report that Revere Beach being the oldest public beach, while a fact worthy of the moniker “fun”, does not seem to truly matter to the beach itself. There’s no ham-fisted “old world charm”, no monuments or obtrusive plaques to distract or clutter. It’s just a lovely beach, with bars and restaurants with walk up windows to grab a quick bite, and perhaps most importantly to me, a 1/2 mile walk to my house. Just about everything I’m aware of to make for a good beach.
Until I moved to the area a few years ago for work, I’d never never really seen the ocean in a meaningful way. I’d looked at it out the window of a plane, when the whole world looks to be a small, if detailed, diorama a scant 20 feet below. I’d been next to the ocean, on my way to the airport. But I’d never seen the ocean until I stepped up to that beach, and I was caught off-guard how moving it really was.
In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the book discusses the idea of trying to perceive something “infinite”. Because anything truly infinite is essentially incomprehensible, the book posits that a much more effective visual to look at something that is instead simply very large.
The phenomenon of an object shifting in your line of sight as you move and change perspective is known as “parallax”, and the “amount” of shift is a function of distance and size. If something, say a cloud, is sufficiently large or far away, there’s nothing to compare the movement to and it doesn’t seem to move at all, meaning it can seem as though it’s following you or matching your pace.
I say all that to say that when I walked up to the ocean, it did not come forward to meet me. It stayed where it was, as indifferent to my approach as it is to any other kind of influence I may have on it. It stood immobile, yet constantly moving, and waiting for nothing.
The little section of Revere Beach closest to my house is pretty much directly in the middle. To the left (north on a map) there’s an island with a lovely city connected by an thin sand-bar with a bridge atop it a few miles out into the water and a few miles away by land. To the right (south) the beach curves out towards the water, giving the coast a nice crescent shape
What this means is that when you stand at the water, to your right entire beach stretches out before you, and ahead just on the horizon is a shining city on the sea. And then you look around again and it’s just a beach…
Turning away from the ocean and walking about a half mile will take you to Rumney Marsh, a salt water marsh about 3 miles in diameter. I had seen it on the map and knew it would be relatively large, but I didn’t realize until I saw it in person how empty it would be. Dead flat, not a single tree, only one or two observation blinds. You can see clear across the entire marsh from the edge.
For those grow up in an area as dense as east mass, I should explain that, where I’m from, in between all of the cities there’s not-city, whether that be farms or fields or forests or what have you. Large, mostly green areas with very few buildings, let alone people. To get from one city to another, there’d be about half an hour of driving in not-city.
Contrast this with the Boston-Metro area, where everywhere in the 95 loop (where I-95 loops around Boston, which I common use as a de facto “border”) there is essentially no border between cities other than lines on papers in various city halls. There is no not-city, and you can’t get more than a quarter-mile away from some sort of house or building.
Everywhere, that is, except for the marsh.
When there’s so much around you day in and day out, “nothing” can be truly striking.
I should explain that when I say “my house”, I mean my first house in quite some time (almost 4 years) and my first mortgage. This is the first time since moving out of my parents house almost a decade ago that I have not had a landlord. I, like much of my own and later generations, was unsure I’d ever own my own place up until just a few years ago.
Interesting fact: other than paying all of the people who facilitated buying said house (i.e. closing costs) buying a house, in terms of total next worth, is essential a wash. At the same time you go into a truly unimaginable amount of debt, you gain an asset for (hopefully) roughly equal value.
Suffice it to say, it doesn’t really feel like that, but I won’t go into that now, although I do have words about it.
It’s an interesting…we’ll call it “privilege,” having heard so many tales and legends and such of the Ocean as some sort of character or will of its, without having actually grown up around the ocean itself. I imagine it’s like seeing someone watch a classic movie you grew up with for the first time.
Of course, seeing the ocean is one thing and feeling it is another. It’s very pretty, and very serene, and rather peaceful to just sit and look at (at least my little slice is).
Then I walked up to the edge of the water and saw the swell. The entire coastline, moving in an out by yards, faster and further than I could jump in and out of the way. I walked in, and I felt that immense push and pull, and then at some point, all of it sort of faded away and I simply floated.
But of course, it didn’t fade away. Even though the horizon had not moved at all, the coast had left me behind by a fair amount. Now though, the entire ocean was moving back and forth by meters and I was moving by meters a second with it. I was simply so insignificant that I could barely feel it. There was no resistance, no inertia in relation.
Many culture, one might even say most, bestow the Ocean some form of personality or consciousness, or other anthropomorphic features. Sometimes there might be a deity with the ocean as their domain, but just as often the Ocean itself is a character with a capitol ‘O’. If I had to take a guess, I think it’s difficult to conceptualize this complete form of chaos. So completely outside the scope of any one human’s influence, yet so completely capable of wanton destruction with little to no resistance even possible. Whether you’re there or not, the waves will crash the same. You are, as a person, completely unable to change that outcome and therefore completely inconsequential to the process that set that wave in motion.
That concept is probably difficult to grasp by our species as a whole, as it challenges a very core notion that many people have, namely:
- Humans are at “the top”
- Humans are at the top because of our intelligence and because of our stamina.
- Our intelligence enables us to overcome the strength of other species.
Only we most certainly cannot overcome the might of the Ocean, all while it has no intelligence to speak of. It’s real life strange fiction, a precursor to Lovecraft’s cosmic horror.
Of course, we have conquered in some ways. Travel by sea is the backbone of the world wide logistics network and has become, in a sense, mundane.
But “we” is a bit of a misnomer. Were I to walk that scant half mile to my lovely slice of beach and simply keep walking, I would just disappear. Nothing about the ocean would change in a meaningful way, but I would just be gone without a single trace. Not a single fight.
This new house of mine has a window something knowingly big, with a simmering city just out of reach…
It’s quite beautiful, if a little terrifying.