When my wife and I went back to the beach on Dauphin Island this year I wondered about the large piece of driftwood. It was there last year, and the year before too, and may have even been there several years ago, when we first went to that particular beach. Calling it “driftwood” may even be a misnomer; it came up to my waist and if it had been a solid piece of wood, rather than the coiled and twisted roots of a large tree, I wouldn’t have been able to put my arms around it. In fact I wasn’t able to put my arms around it. I sort of stuck them through it and I’m pretty sure I heard the barnacles laughing at me. It had a distinctive shape, too. When I mentioned it my wife knew exactly what I was talking about: “The one that looks like a swan.” And from one angle it did look like a swan, the neck arching out into open sea and wings stretched out behind. In the earlier years its patch of beach had been vacant but last year a “Sold” sign went up in the spot behind it and there were outlines of planned construction. I’d walked by that driftwood cluster several times. It had become almost like an old friend. It was as familiar to me as the house on the beach we’ve rented three years in a row now. Every time we arrive there’s a certain routine. There’s the giant metal seahorse hanging on the wall, there’s the plastic mug with the chip in it, is that my deodorant I left here last year? And there’s that driftwood swan. It reminded me of my grandfather, not because it was old and gnarled and gray and had a sense of humor, but because of the fallen tree I saw at my grandparents’ house. They lived at the top of a steep hill that sloped all the way down to a creek. By the creek a massive old tree had fallen over and its underside, roots spreading out in all directions, faced their house. My grandfather told me it looked like a monster. And it did. At certain times, when the light was just right, it looked like it had eyes and a big snarling mouth. Or maybe it was about to let go with a sneeze than would knock down everything within a six mile radius. You’d think telling an imaginative and easily freaked out kid like me that there was a monster in the backyard would be a bad idea but I was amazingly cool with it. The giant amoeboid shaped intrigued me, and even though it was still as the light shifted around it I imagined it moved. Every time we went to my grandparents’ house I had to go and look at “the monster”.
Last year I knew we’d return to find the driftwood swan changed, maybe even gone, and I was fine with that. All right, I wasn’t completely fine with it, but I accepted it. Beaches always make me think about the ephemerality of all things. The sand, the waves, the wind, the light—all these are in constant change. Last year a group of Portuguese man o’wars washed up on the beach and while you’d think a cluster of stinging cnidarians could ruin a vacation they were cool and said, “Dude, we’re just gonna chill here until we can catch the next wave.” And within hours of the tide coming in most of them were gone. The rest were gone by the next day. There was a time when the driftwood swan hadn’t been there and I would have to accept there would be a time when it was gone. Besides it was too big to fit in the back of our car. I’d tried to move it and it wouldn’t budge. I’m pretty sure I heard the barnacles laughing at me too. I took some pictures and said farewell.
So I’d made my peace with the end of the driftwood swan, although I also kind of hoped the new property owners would like the look of it and leave it. And when we got to the house this year I could see its dark outline against the sand. It was still there. At least I thought so until I took a walk in that direction. It had been cut. They hadn’t cut it to the ground but they’d sheared off big chunks of it, completely changing the shape. The whole thing had been wavy, irregular, but now it had flat surfaces where metal had cut through. It made me angry. It seemed like they’d looked at it and decided it didn’t belong but rather than try to move it in the peak of pique they’d just cut it, their way of showing that wood who was boss.
“Maybe they did try to move it and it broke,” my wife said. She’s sharp so she’s always got a point. I thought how hard it can be to move anything that’s embedded in sand, and I have no idea how far down it goes. Maybe it had broken leaving sharp wooden prongs. Maybe the property owners have kids and didn’t want to take a chance on their offspring, or anyone else, being gashed.
And then I thought maybe they’d saved the broken pieces, or maybe they’d just cut pieces off because they liked the look of it. Maybe that wood, seasoned with salt and sun, was on a shelf, or maybe even somewhere far away, on a fireplace mantel, or on display in an ocean gift shop where it will make people think about the beach, where it may even make them think about the ephemerality of all things even as it sits there for a very long time.