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Powerful medicine

July 1, 1993

Powerful medicine

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

Being landlocked here in the Midwest, hundreds of miles from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans or the Gulf of Mexico, one is apt to forget the power and mystique the sea can have upon us. I was recently reminded of these almost supernatural influences when I spent several weeks vacationing on the Gulf.

Whether we know it or not, the sea draws us to its shore because we are creatures of the land both in origin and habit and are spellbound by the aura of this alien environment. Each time I cross the duneline to enter this unique environment, I wonder how my distant ancestors, who were hardly human by contemporary standards, felt when they first stood on the beach and wondered what was before them and what was beyond the distant skyline.

One of the greatest pleasures of walking the beach, the area shared in common by the ocean and the land, is the effect it has upon us. Even in the company of another, there is a great sense of solitude—not loneliness, but isolation, separating us from the chaos of our daily lives, if only for a brief interlude.

While either walking or resting on a stranded log just beyond the reach of the incoming waves, the rhythm of the sea acts as a relaxing tranquillizer. One feels the tension and cares of life ebb away, as do each of the waves that break on the beach.

In this setting, we are able to focus on the important things in our lives, assigning the trivial and mundane things to their proper place in our psyche. Your mind is washed clean as the sand—as if the chalkboard was erased— and you leave rejuvenated and better prepared to cope with life in the “real” world.

It doesn’t really matter when you visit the shore as each time you go, the experience is unique. The heat of noon on a midsummer day is familiar to all, but other times and other seasons are equally pleasing. A moonlit night or a foggy morning in late autumn may have an even more powerful effect. Then the senses other than sight are accentuated, and we become aware of sounds and odors that were previously masked by our dominant sense of sight. Now we hear the faint cry of the bird we cannot see and the murmur made by the forward tips of waves as they reach their point of greatest penetration and are pulled gently back into the sea.

Our sense of smell is also sharpened when vision is subdued. The sometimes pungent and always distinct aroma of decaying animals and plants reminds us that the sea is frugal and reclaims the vital elements of life that were temporarily loaned to its inhabitants. Animals and plants live, and when they die the indestructible essentials of life are passed on to new life, perpetuating a chain of events that extends backward in time to when life first appeared on this planet.

And one should not avoid the seashore when the weather dictates that it is prudent to remain indoors. A “noreaster,” sometimes with driving rain or sleet and ominous clouds, creates a shore better photographed using black and white film rather than color. The silt-laden surf turns waves dark with debris as they crest with an awesome display of force, creating foam and flying spume as they crash onto the beach with a booming roar.

If you visit the beach on such an occasion, it will be necessary to tap inner reserves of strength. The swirling grains of sand sting the skin as you lean into the teeth of the wind, and the bitter cold always finds a way to penetrate your protective clothing, numbing the body. But, once you have survived this invigorating episode it will be forever ingrained in the computer of your mind. In other times under different circumstances, the memory of your walk on the wind-swept beach will return to renew your zest for life and to revitalize the inner spirit.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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