The Sassy Sandpiper: Home to the Beach
By M.R. Wilson, TB Reporter
Like poet John Masefield, “I must go down to the seas again.”
I was really little the first time I got sand between my toes and salt water up my nose.
The Gulf of Mexico at Pass-A-Grille Beach captured my five-year-old heart. Back then, the Don Cesar Hotel loomed pink on the horizon. Little intruded on stretches of fine sand punctuated by pine needles and — if trodden upon — uniquely painful dried pine fruits. They looked like Bucky Balls with spurs.
I remember those Australian pines dearly, towering above us, the gulf breeze whispering through their graceful branches. In 1962 a hard freeze killed them all. I was devastated. Nowadays, the flowering trees, not true pines at all, are listed as an invasive species. Humbug! (Don’t you find it a bit ironic that trees imported here to do a job, like draining swamplands, outgrew their usefulness and consequently were deemed pests? Oh, I know. There are legitimate reasons for putting this tree on Florida’s Least Wanted list. Humbug!)
I held my little brother’s hand to keep the waves from knocking him down. We scooped up coquinas in every shade of the rainbow. I brought one home as a pet, kept it in gulf water and sand on the kitchen windowsill until the poor creature expired. The idea of coquina soup horrified me. It would take millions of them! I’d watch in rapt fascination as they burrowed into the wet sand with each retreating wave. After death, their tiny bivalve shells often remained joined, reminding me of butterflies.
We gathered treasure including scallops, turkey wings and angel wings, olive shells, clams, cat’s paws, an occasional starfish and prized sand dollars, conchs, whelks, keyhole limpets, augers (“screw shells”) giant heart cockles, and Atlantic slipper shells we called “babies’ boats.”
Fast forward, reluctantly, to the 21st Century.
All those vast open gulfscapes are commercial property now, crammed with hotels and motels and shops and restaurants and all manner of things supposed to make us feel like we’re living in paradise.
I recently visited Madeira Beach, where a stretch of blue and yellow chaises for rent greeted me. The sand was virtually devoid of life save a few hardy Black-eyed-Susan lookalikes, and a winding vine with fuchsia flowers similar to morning glories. A brisk westerly whipped up foamy breakers over a sparse offering of shells, and clumps of dead seaweed. Seabirds cried plaintively—very few gulls, no pelicans. The smaller ones dominated: sanderlings, sandpipers, willets, Wilson’s plovers. Two gorgeous and very tame snowy egrets eyed the surf hopefully, craning their necks for the best view. Magnificent great blue herons nudged close to fishermen’s bait buckets.
The Gulf herself always draws me back, no matter what “progress” hurls up next on her shores. I sense profound kinship, shared origins. Amidst inexorable change, I can go home and always feel welcome.
M.R. Wilson is Tampa Bay Reporter’s regularly featured columnist.
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