Walking along the beach today, I am thinking of a program we watched on the Science Channel. It proposed a theory that each atom could contain its own universe. An infinitesimal object, a million times smaller than a human hair, might house an entire universe! It staggers and delights the imagination and also proves that everything has its unique importance.
So today on my walk I am concentrating on the small and humble things I see on the beach. Sand, for instance. Nobody thinks about sand unless it is creeping into bathing suits or gritting up sandwiches, for what can be more self-effacing than sand? And yet this is the stuff that Blake immortalized when he wrote about a “universe in a grain of sand” in a poem which pre-dates the atom theory by upward of two centuries. Sand is also the origin of glass—including this little bit of sea-glass that glistens at my feet. And isn’t a speck of sand responsible for irritating the unfortunate oyster into producing a pearl?
Golden stretch of sand
Dances to the call of wind
And sings underfoot.
Lying on the sand are shells washed up by last night’s high tide. The Atlantic cockles are large and perfect, and olives glisten with their subtle sheen. But today I am watching as a hoard of tiny shell-shapes no larger than half my fingernail come rolling in with a wave and then begin to furiously dig down into the sand. These coquinas are humble adventurers of the ocean, riding waves to shore, digging down to hunt for food, and then riding another wave back to the sea. Our grandchildren used to call them ‘Bye-Bye shells’ because they would so swiftly disappear into the sand, and for many summers we gleefully watched for them. Sometimes we would fill a bucket with sand and water and collect an armada of small mariners, then release them back into the water.
These brave sea-farers
Have no fear of great waves…
Like these coquinas, ancient mariners heard the call of the sea. Without benefit of modern technology, maps or knowledge, they sailed their small ships bravely into the unknown. It isn’t about size, I think, as I watch a tiny shell-creature disappear into a hill of sand. It is about determination and moxie.
Now I walk on and watch a formation of determined pelicans as they swoop low across the waves. They glide so easily with the wind, these splendid birds with their oddly shaped beaks and their round, golden eyes. Seemingly fearless, they plunge into the waves in search of dinner, then soar upward to rejoin their flight mates.
Pelicans look so strong and sure—but here on shore are the little sand pipers who teeter on the edge of the ocean waves . They are much smaller than the pelicans and waves frighten them. I watch one bird as it runs forward, pecks furiously in the surf, then dashes wildly back to safety inches ahead of the next breaker. I understand and sympathize with their fear, for often what we want comes cloaked in uncertainty. There might even be hints of danger. Supposing I fail? Supposing nothing works out right? We humans hesitate and often draw back from an opportunity. The sand piper deals with this fear every minute of its waking life… and hangs in there.
Huge wave is coming
Run fast, little sand piper…
It will ebb away!
My walk is almost over, but now I stop as something moves on the sand. Here is a hermit crab that has been washed out of its tide pool. No worries about mortgage payments or the housing market for this fellow—he carries his living quarters with him. As I watch, he inches along the beach, carefully navigating his way toward shallow water.
The shell that houses him is not of his making; the sand crab found it abandoned and took possession. Eventually, when it grows too tight for him, he will find another empty shell and claim squatter’s rights. The hermit crab doesn’t over think this process. He doesn’t agonize about the right neighborhood, or the right job, or whether he will be happy once the choice is made. For hermit crabs life is more elemental, and his main problem is survival. If there is no food nearby or if the shell doesn’t fit, he moves… and gets on with his life.
As I make my way homeward, I think back to the theory about atoms and wonder if it really is remotely possible that worlds exist within them. And I smile to think that someone— perhaps even someone like me— could be plodding along a beach unseen to the naked eye wondering at the wisdom of things small and humble.
This small broken shell
Has sailed through a wild, wide sea
To rest in my hand.