Laura Barton on living and writing by the sea...
In the early 1950s, the writer and aviator Anne Morrow Lindbergh took a short holiday to Captiva Island, a small, then-fashionable destination off Florida's Gulf Coast, known for its broad shores, and the shells that wash up there from the south and the west.
It was on Captiva that Lindbergh began writing a collection of essays she named Gift From the Sea, drawing on her time on the island and the shells she found on the beach to ruminate on the lives of American women in the mid-20th century. She wrote of youth and age and marriage and love, of technology and the whirr of modern life, of stillness and solitude and creativity.
By the sea, Lindbergh wrote, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense no but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach. Through this new movement, she suggested, the mind might find new, unanticipated thoughts: One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up, on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind; what perfectly rounded stone, what rare shell from the ocean floor. Perhaps a channeled whelk, a moon shell, or even an argonaut.
It is three years since I moved to live by the sea. After 16 years in the city, I wanted my mind to come to life again or at least to move differently. I wanted moon shells and argonauts. I chose a stretch of the English coast loved by Turner, Van Gogh, TS Eliot, famed for its skies, for its sunsets, for its view, on a clear day, of the European mainland.
From my desk I look out to the water, and from here I follow the steady turn of the seasons: the warm sands dotted with holidaymakers, the long days of soft morning surf and evening fires on the beach. Then the slow drift to autumn, the late months bleakening, bright days giving way to brooding. New year brings the hard winter weeks when the waves rear livid and high, and the wind is a wild creature that runs through the streets of this small town, rattling window panes and battering the harbour. Then the strange quiet mornings of waking to find snow on the shore.
My favourite days begin uncertainly when I look out of my window and and think of a line from Robert Hass' poem On the Coast Near Sausalito: I won't say much for the sea/ except that it was, almost,/ the colour of sour milk.
It's the almost' I love about it. The dreamy, unformed feel of these days that start so misty and muddled and mild. How the morning lifts and the warmth spreads, and the sea seems to laugh again at its own trick.
What does it give me to live here? Light and space and sweet, wild air, certainly. But also the perfect unknown of horizon line. My adult life has been largely propelled by a restlessness a desire to move, to travel long distances, to see what might be around this corner and the next. By the sea, I have discovered the peculiarly blissful uncertainty of living somewhere that presents the continual promise of discovery: the edge of the land, the obscure depths of the water. It is a kind of openness that frees me, that lets my imagination catch fire.
Many writers, artists and musicians have found similar promise in living by the water, and since moving here I have thought of them often of how Walt Whitman once described his poetry as something like the ocean: Its verses are the liquid, billowy waves, he wrote, ever rising and falling, perhaps sunny and smooth, perhaps wild with storm, always moving, always alike in their nature as rolling waves, but hardly any two exactly alike in size or measure (metre), never having the sense of something finished and fixed, always suggesting something beyond.
I have thought of Turner, who praised these same skies as the loveliest in all Europe and painted these same seas in abstractions of light and colour and movement.
And of how William Hazlitt dismissed those paintings as Pictures of nothing and the very like... with little understanding of how much power and possibility nothing can hold.
But on my strange misty mornings, looking out towards some vague horizon, I have thought most often of Bjork's Anchor Song a song I would listen to as a teenager, landlocked, miles from the coast, relishing its lugubrious rhythms and the pull of its lyrics drifting, playing, turning over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach:
I live by the ocean
And during the night
I dive into it
Down to the bottom Underneath all currents And drop my anchor
As this is where I'm staying This is my home.
Words by Laura Barton