“It’s going backwards!” he cries in confusion. “It’s going backwards!” I try to walk him a wee bit closer but he’s not having it. I suggest we run towards it as goes out then run away from it as it comes in again but he’s not convinced. I’m surprised by his reticence as I thought he’d be keen to go for a wee paddle. Usually he loves water of all kinds – puddles, ponds, baths, burns – and generally delights in making as much of a splash as he can. Admittedly, the sea is a very different prospect to these more contained bodies of water but it’s not as if he hasn’t been to the coast before. Just a few days ago we were on the pebble beach at Ardmair and he was completely unperturbed, merrily pitching pebbles into the sea and eagerly trying to clamber over the last seaweed-covered stones to get closer. We had to hold him back to stop him going in. I’d have thought the sea here would, if anything, be less daunting. Compared to the open sweep of Ardmair, this beach – just north of Achmelvich – is sheltered, enclosed on each side by long rocky headlands with the distant horizon safely contained between them, and the water is clear as glass.
It’s not the water itself that’s unnerving him though – it’s the motion. When we were at Ardmair it was low tide and the sea sat slack and quiet on the stones. There was a bit of a breeze and the water rippled briskly as it received our ineptly skimmed pebbles but there were no real waves. The waves today are small – wavelets really, rolling gently over the pale shell sand at our feet – but there’s an energy to them, and their pronounced back-and-forth movement is evidently unsettling him. We try to explain it to him to put him at ease, telling him how the wind makes the waves and pushes them onto the shore, and about the tide itself and its approach and retreat, but at two-and-a-half he isn’t interested in the abstract. He’s absorbed utterly by what’s in front of him: this line of liquid mysteriously drawing away from him then all of a sudden returning. “It’s going white!” he exclaims as one wave rushes closer and spreads out at our feet in a wide lacy froth.
He clearly doesn’t want to go in so I pick him up and hold him on my hip and reassure him that we’ll just watch. And as we do, standing here quietly together, it strikes me more than ever how much this motion of the sea is like breathing. It seems animated, washing forward in exhalation then sucking back in, its rhythm measured yet capricious, like a great creature breathing. Maybe that’s what he feels too. Or maybe he has no idea of it at all and is simply sensibly wary of something whose nature and action he cannot fathom. I watch him watching, innocent and intent, and it strikes me too how moved I am to be here with him, on this sand in front of this water, witnessing him have this primary and elemental encounter.
I’ve always felt the seashore to be powerful. “A place of revelation,” for the Irish poets of old*; a place of alteration. No matter how familiar the shore has become to me over the years, it’s the one place I can always be freshened, the one place I am reliably renewed. But seeing him meet the sea like this with his young spirit and young eyes stirs something else in me, movements that I too cannot fathom but which rouse in me a profound tenderness… for him? for water? for this endless turning over? I don’t know. And anyway, that’s an abstraction again and this beach is anything but that. It’s “sand!” It’s “waves!” It’s froth and awe – and fun.
I give him a mischievous giggle and, still holding him, run in.
* From the Imacallam in dá Thuarad (Colloquy of the Two Sages, twelfth century Irish manuscript)
Vestey beach, Achmelvich, Assynt, Scotland
19th May 2021