The beach today
Guest author artist Christina Riley records her lockdown experience by sharing 'little sources of wonder' from her daily coastal walks
"I photograph things I want to look at a little longer." - Gunnie Moberg
We’re incredibly lucky in Scotland that no matter where we are in the country, the coast is never that far away. As an artist I’m inspired by the sea — through photography, drawing and plant pressings I try to put water onto paper, attempting to make the intangible tangible.
Anyone who’s seen the setting sun tuck itself into Scotland’s west coast at night knows the colour palette of land, sky and sea can change several times in a matter of seconds and truthfully, a still image will never do it justice (nor even would a moving one). Nothing can rouse as much wonder as standing at the shoreline looking out across the water, while the increasingly strange world gently washes away behind you. But, as Eliza Brightwen says in More About Wild Nature, futile as the task may be it is always worth trying to describe a beautiful scene to another who wasn’t there to see it: “... if only for the increased power of appreciation of all succeeding sunsets which will be the sure result of even the feeblest attempt at word painting.”
Water never moves the same way twice, sunlight turns its surface into diamonds and the boundary between land and sea is constantly played with by the tide, turning it into a mysterious, unfixed place. And the colours! Lichen lighting rocks on fire and all the remarkable things the tide brings — shells and pebbles besprinkle the sand like birthday cake. A casual stroll along the coast might simply present dunes, sand and water in that order, but look down and the ground begins to unravel into an entire universe scattered beneath your feet. Lifetime upon lifetime washes up on top of each other in tiny fragments; it’s impossible to look at it all in just one, but one is all we have.
When it became clear that we’d have to go into lockdown, I was scared. Even just a few consecutive days indoors sinks my head into a fog, aching not with pain but like two unyielding palms cupped around my brain, as if trying to deflate it through a pinprick puncture. I become irritable and anxieties begin to slip into place really quite quickly, one common manifestation for me being debilitating hypochondria. During a global pandemic I knew I had to keep two steps ahead of that rearing its horrifying head again. I had to get as much fresh air and Vitamin D, even if filtered through clouds, as I could possibly soak up. So from my incredibly fortunate position with the sea on my doorstep, I took myself on a short, government sanctioned beach walk.
I love beachcombing, so I’ve learned. The world is small and still at sand level, with my entire vision taken up by tiny grains. Ducking beneath the wind the air becomes quiet like a heavy curtain has dropped around me, and all of a sudden the world has flipped inside out and I’m in this bubble where everything is new and calling for attention. In those initial beach walks I picked up a few pebbles and shells that caught my eye and once home, sat them all together on a piece of white paper, creating a snapshot of what the beach looked like that day. I posted the photo on Twitter and Instagram, as you do.
As a way of holding myself accountable for getting outside every day I decided to make these beach snapshots a daily ritual, each photograph a diary entry for what the beach looked like that day. I found therapeutic pleasure in forming the collections — fixating on the small, focusing on shapes and colours that fit together like puzzle pieces, contemplating what to add and what to take away, testing what angle best shows a pebble’s texture or a shell’s colour. Not to mention the excitement of finding the rarer curiosities — painted ceramic door handles, horse teeth and unidentified bones, mermaid’s purses (four so far) and a Pall Mall clay pipe.
"The tedium makes her ecstatic. She calls it the science paradox. It’s the most brain crushing work a person can do, yet it can spring the mind enough to see what else but the mind is really out there." - The Overstory, Richard Powers
I’m amazed on a daily basis with how different the same small beach can look. Each afternoon showcases its own colour theme and has me wondering if it’s the beach or my mind determining the palette. One day when a low sun glides horizontally across the sand, beach glass flashes like lighthouses along the shore. The next day it’s all pebbles, earthy browns and reds and white shells turned a vivid orange by rusty water streaming from pipes in the dunes. Certain artefacts that stand out like a sore thumb — the right colour, but not quite the right shape, to be a venus or cockle shell — are fragments of ceramic pots. I’ve now reached a point where I hold my breath to flip them over, revealing the colour of whatever’s painted on the other side (or sigh at an empty canvas). The treasures are endless — every night I go to sleep and the tide comes in, gathers up the day’s display and in the morning presents a new one.
I wouldn’t say that it’s any more crucial now than before to appreciate our vital coasts and waters; I think whatever was important to us before is illuminated that much brighter in these uncertain days when we face the real possibility of losing what we thought would be there forever. There are a lot of people who during this pandemic don’t have the luxury of free time, who might want nothing more than one moment to just walk on the beach, and it isn’t my place to tell anyone that they should be using this time to go beachcombing or ask themselves if they’re thinking about the sea enough. Right now, above all, our health is the most important thing. That might include fresh air and a walk along the beach, or it might not.
In The Living Mountain Nan Shepherd says: "So back one climbs, to the sources". Right now this is our health, communication, community and kindness. My beach collections have sparked conversations online with people across the world — Paris, Orkney, New Delhi and Oregon, Aberdeenshire, Berlin, Swansea and Benbecula — and I look forward to these as much as the walks. Some people share their own beach finds or help with identifying mystery items, one day I was pointed in the direction of Shark Trust UK to record my mermaid purses in their citizen scientist egg case hunt! (Which reminds me that I have two more to let them know about.)
We’re all doing what we can to help, which for most of us is to do nothing at all. Stay home, take care of ourselves and our loved ones in whatever ways we safely can and, wherever possible, find little sources of wonder. I find mine on the beach and am, as always, more grateful for the coast than I’ll ever be able to communicate to it, for giving me what I need before I knew I needed it.
- Find out more about Christina Riley's projects The Beach Today and The Nature Library.
- The John Muir Trust is part of a small partnership of organisations showcasing Scotland's lochs, waterways, islands and coastlines as places to feel good, be healthy, be curious, be inspired and be creative. Find out more about Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 .