Thursday March 07, 2013 | 11:35 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

Spending week after week studying beach debris has its upside. It also means really seeing the beauty there. Life's full of background noise. But when you stop, look around, and really see what's in front of you, the natural world is incredible. It’s filled with art & artistry, which too often we take for granted. We forget to see it.

No more so than at the Maine coast.

Catch a sunrise.

Mark the last high tide.


If it's low tide, wander out and admire the ripples in the shallow water. Sound energy is waves. Light energy is waves. Bands of clouds in the sky are waves. Wave energy shows up everywhere - including in the sand at your feet if the conditions are right.


Up at the backshore, if it was a windy night, maybe the dunegrass was bent low, dragging delicate blades back and forth in the soft dry sand, creating its own art.

Or maybe you’re at a rocky shore, exploring the outcrops. All that gorgeous striped metamorphic stone was once bent and bowed under tremendous heat & pressure in ancient days, many miles underground. And there it is, uncovered, for us to visit and play in now.

The rocks of Maine’s shore also hold countless miniature ecosystems. Little tide pools and habitats that are the engine of life in the ocean. Spring sunshine on a piece of “sea lettuce” explodes into vivid green, as periwinkles huddle around.

A ray from the low sun of a winter’s afternoon might just strike a singular piece of rockweed, holding tenaciously to a boulder amid barnacles and gravel.

Even in the heart of winter, you may find a splash of color gracing the shore. Like this tiny scrap of coralline algae, still red and vibrant, not yet bleached to cold bone white.

The beach is always changing. New sand washing in, collecting, over weeks and months. Then a brutal winter storm batters the coast and scoops the sand and gravel away again. The cycle repeats as it has for billions of years.

The beach also changes in a matter of hours. Or minutes.

Look around, and you’ll start to see those little, beautiful heralds of change. A purple rivulet cuts a canyon through brown sands, as seaweed dumped high up decomposes back to the nutrients that will feed the crabs and krill and zooplankton in the tide pools.

With every tide, the canvas is refreshed, and the artwork is renewed. Nature makes another masterpiece, to survive barely 6 hours before it too is gone forever.

Tolkien said every story -- every piece of art -- is a leaf on the tree of tales. When we look, we start to see.

What better way to see the tree of tales, than at the beach?

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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