I will think no more of the sea ...
(Sea Song, 1913, Katherine Mansfield)
“We should go to the beach today,” says Clare over breakfast.
He crunches his toast and wrinkles his nose. “Long way to drive, just to go to the seaside.” What is this invisible, unspoken English forty-minute radius, that rules anything further a major outing? Clare changes tack and reminds him about an agricultural museum that he wants to visit. She doesn’t mention that it’s ten minutes from the coast; it would be so easy to carry on.
He brushes the crumbs from his hands and fobs her off like she’s a pestering toddler.
“Seaside? Let’s see ... see what the weather does.”
Seaside? No, not your cities by the sea, she thinks. The empty beach of her childhood—or as close as they can get to it from twelve thousand miles. No cafes, no music, no other people. Only oceans and land, rocky and exposed. That’s what she means.
He’s landlocked Dales and she’s sea-drenched Island. Growing up on the other side—some might say the bottom—of the world, she had the biggest, the best, the most beautiful beach. She knows this because Ninety Mile Beach was on all the calendars; Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē, the long beach of the great chief Tōhē.
Every summer they’d make their exodus, the car scented with coconuts and pineapples from their suntan lotion, not that they knew much about Hawaii. The twists and turns of the Scenic Drive as familiar as the backs of their hands; their destination, simply The Beach.
Planted on the searing vinyl back seat, snaking down the dusty gravel road that took forever. Are we there yet? Are we ... then their stomachs would flip as the car flicked around a hairpin bend and they’d glimpse the shining, brooding Tasman.
Bickering replaced by squeals of delight, they’d emerge from the dense, shadowed rainforest into the glare of the open backshore.
In the early mornings, the beach belonged to them, their footprints would be the first sometimes the only ones—to mark the shore for the whole day. Elegant arum lilies grew in clumps like creamy aliens emerging from the hot black sand. Rustling spinifex grass and long narrow leaves of golden pīngao would whip their legs as they charged the dunes; reaching the ridge, their calves aching, their lungs would fill with sharp iodine wafting from the kelp-strewn shore.
Resting, they’d take in the one hundred and eighty degree view, exposed beauty on a scale that no camera can capture. Drifts of sand would haze the air, sweeping the purple-black dunes into a huge glinting canvas, wrinkled with wind-etched patterns. A long white strip of lather would frame the seething water that battered the jagged black rocks. Squinting at the horizon, seeing nothing, knowing that the same ocean currents that churned the thundering surf and beat back this coastline will wash against Australia’s shores, the continent two thousand kilometres away.
Brushing the sand from their faces, they’d listen to the waves swelling, crashing and collapsing, shifting the sand in and out. The boisterous wind would gust across the beach, pummelling them with gritty blasts. This place where the early settlers had to chain their houses, the place that is always wild, always moving.
Watching the heaving surf, they’d learn about rips, cliffs, estuaries and rock pools. Sunglasses perched on zinc-white noses, they’d mould the sparkling ebony sand into sea-monsters with pipi-shell eyes and sea-grape teeth, finished off with driftwood arms and shaggy bull-kelp hair.
Grazed from bodysurfing the relentless waves, they’d be sea-stung, charged and free. Lured by the siren song of gulls and gannets, they’d roam through the sweet lupin air, jet black pods cracking and popping in the heat like corn. Wind, sea, sun, the shells, the veined pebbles—the sand in their togs, the salt crust on their faces—all theirs. With a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning, angry Tāwhirimātea would send slicing rain, bouncing off the flax, pocking the sand and breaking the humidity.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, the welcome downpour would end. They’d laugh at each other—hair wild with wind and salt and rain. Scratching their itching scalps, their nails would fill with black sand.
Smoke from their driftwood fire would drift into the dimming sky; a sack of sweet, juicy mussels fresh off the rocks and smoky snapper caught from the shore, their dinner. A pounding surf lullaby would play on the black silica sand, sea-music so near that they could close their eyes and see the smashing waves jangling the pebbles dumped on the shore. Anointed by brine and salt-sticky, they’d sleep on the back seat, all the way home.
Clare knows that he’s seen those calendars from home—almost always featuring that stubby lighthouse, planted on the tip of the Cape like a concrete elephant’s foot. She’d take him to that headland, if he’d go. Up the Far North Road, the only one that stretches along the final length of Te-Ika-a-Māui, Māui’s North Island fish.
Slowed by corrugations, they’d press on, juddering over ruts, swerving potholes. Stones pinging, they’d pray that Saint Avis-Hertz would protect the paintwork since their rental insurance would exclude gravel roads.
Huge golden dunes would rise around them like desert scenes from an old Sunday school book. When they’d run out of State Highway, they’d pull up in a cloud of blue dust, beside the iconic golden fingers of the AA sign, pointing to everywhere else in the world. Watching the Pacific strain to meet Tasman, they’d know that the seam was really the ocean waves breaking on shallow water.
She would take him to the headland, the beginning and the end, the place where all Māori spirits travel to descend to the underworld and return to the land of their ancestors. No barriers, no fences, no gates, only the wind straight off the ocean, slapping the cabbage tree leaves and rustling the pointed flax leaves; that would persuade him.
The stick-in-the-mud could change; they could edge down the cliff-side, through a sea of flax seed pods that waved like black pennants and follow the winding goat track, walk down to where the wind-sheared tea trees contort into balletic poses and cling to the eroding cliff. Just off the track, beside a rock, they’d make a fern frond offering. Then they’d find shelter from the wind and lower themselves carefully, a gnarled root their anchor. The herring gulls, buffeted by the winds and drifting over the clashing seas, would send their requiem cries carrying back on the breeze.
Legs outstretched, they’d prop their backs against the sloping earth, a smooth grey rock for their pillow, and gaze out to the Three Kings, watching the islands haze to mauve in the afternoon light. Faces tilted to the sun, pleased they’d set off early, feeling good to be alone. Knowing the journey was worth the effort.
They’d take in the tapestry of colour that they’d overlooked: dark green flax-spiked hills, scrubby olive mānuka, the shades of the native trees. Shaggy cabbage tree chaperones would point to the bluest sky, stretching from earth that came from Gondwanaland. The breeze would drift around them, washing them clean. It would be wild but serene. For the first time in months, they’d feel peaceful.
By the time they’d reached the sun-warmed car, a skin of dried salt would crust their faces and they’d brush off their clothes and throw beach towels onto the scorching seats to save their legs from burning.
Back down the narrow gravel spine of the peninsula they’d drive, the oily ink-blue ocean glinting and winking on either side, unsure if they were looking at the opening scene or the ending.
Clare watches the late news with the sound muted. Waves of information from around the world wash over her.
She’s about to switch off when she sees the man on a beach, standing right on the wrack line. He’s big, grizzled, dark-bearded. Shaggy and slightly ursine, like an environmentalist should be. Dwarfed by a jagged chain of snow-capped mountains in the background, he’s surrounded by random piles of plastic. She turns up the volume and catches him saying that rugged Montague Island—just off Alaska—is uninhabited. He jokes that the local bears might argue about that.
She stares at the junk that’s invaded the beach and wonders if it’s some artist’s ugly avant-garde installation to grab media attention—some protest piece about pollution.
Then the headline streams across the screen. FUKUSHIMA.
This is just the beginning, says the man, a marine conservation expert called Jim.
They’d calculated all the winds and currents, tides and times—but the tsunami trash season is early and they’re still trying to understand what’s coming ashore from half a world away.
The other day a whole house washed up.
Jim says that the island was shaken from the sea floor, added to by centuries of quakes. Now souvenirs of nature’s latest destruction lie strewn all over the beach, netted in lurid strands of plastic—electric blue—fluorescent yellow—neon orange—obscene against the black bedrock shore.
In the pristine wilderness, tsunami-battered wood and planks rest against Styrofoam boulders. Coils of rope are snaking along the shoreline. Jim says the tsunami swept more than five million tons of stuff out to sea; the heaviest junk sank to the ocean floor, leaving one and a half million tons of lighter debris to catch a ride on the currents.
Slowly but surely, Pacific winds and tides are dragging more and more wreckage across the ocean; millions of tons of plastic—some caught up, floating and drifting in the northern Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The rest of the junk is coming to Jim, travelling at around twenty miles a day to Montague Island. All rough estimates. What’s a million tons or so between friends?
He picks through the maze, worrying about all the toxins and invasive species that are hitching a lift on the rubbish, threatening native breeds and destroying their habitats. In a cruel twist, birds and mammals could mistake the polystyrene beads for eggs or morsels of food, eat them—and then die.
He says that the bluefin tuna are already migrating across the Pacific, turning up in California marked with cesium-134 that they’ve absorbed in Japan’s contaminated waters—a radioactive fingerprint lasting years.
This is the largest ever accidental release of radionuclides into the oceans and the scientists are uncertain what to make of it. How much radioactivity was released? They don’t know. How much is still leaking from Fukushima’s nuclear power plant? Jim tried to find out but the scientists aren’t sure. Maybe the levels of contamination that are affecting seafood and sediments will change over time. Or maybe it’ll continue for decades.
As arguments rage about funding the clean-up, the tides keep on coming and going. Down the mainland coast, whole chunks of towns are landing on their beaches. The other day, a complete seventy foot floating dock was efficiently delivered.
Now a television crew has tracked down the owner in Japan and she’s so delighted that she cries on camera, claiming it’s her omen to rebuild her seafood restaurant.
Jim says the sea has shepherded the junk into an island twice the size of Texas.
Clare switches off the television. Thirteen hours non-stop, that’s how long it took them to drive across the Lone Star State. About as far as John O’Groats to Land’s End, except that Jim’s talking about end-to-end junk.
She likes the idea of doing something—maybe volunteering for the clean-up—but he wouldn’t want to go. In the end, she finds Jim on the web and makes a donation, even though she doesn’t know him and they’ve never been to Alaska.
It’s something. It’s nothing.
Getting ready for bed, Clare wishes that she’d never watched the news but she knows that even if she hadn’t seen Jim or heard his story, all that junk would still be drifting towards the island, towards his beach.
She turns off the bedside lamp and he asks what she’s been watching.
News, she says.
He makes a snoring sound. Same old rubbish?
Same old rubbish, she echoes.
Clare tries to think no more of the sea but she comes from a city of two harbours, seeded on a field of volcanoes, raised up in subtropical rainforests.
Tomorrow, she’ll persuade him to come and see the sea. She’ll even settle for his tamed seaside.